Category: Uncategorized


A Day Unlike No Other

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Stampede Park – facing south – June 21 @ 7:30 PM

Today I was to be study day at school.  I was supposed wake up with my alarm, shower, and head to work.

Last night I started to watch the news and around 11:30PM the news caster announced that CBE and CCSD school were to be closed Friday.  I had to grab my remote and rewind my live TV……did I hear her correctly?  I quickly got a text from a colleague and very soon our emergency phone out tree was activated.

Every teacher hopes and prays for that ‘snow’ day…..the one where you get that call, and get to stay all nice and warm in your pyjamas  stay in bed and drink coffee.  Today was not that day.  Sure there was no school, but it wasn’t because of a huge snow fall, its because the City of Calgary declared a local state of emergency.

Last night and early this morning I began tweeting using the schools account to get the message to people to stay home.  I wasn’t able post on the website as this can only be done on an internal computer.  Our district started posting updates on their twitter and facebook accounts as the situation was changing quickly.  Twitter and facebook quickly became the ‘go-to’ places for information as our own servers (e-mail and websites) could be shut down at a moments notice as they are in the downtown core and could be subject to a power outage.  One valuable lesson I learned today was how powerful social media is in emergency situations (maybe some thesis and research here???)

The images of the majestic Bow and Elbow rivers overflowing their banks leave you awestruck.

Every 30 minutes on the televsion (something you wouldn’t see outside of Alberta) were the loud beeping interruptions of the Emergency Alert System….you know..the one they would test on American television when we were little.  Seeing it for real gave a very somber and serious tone to the message.  The alerts hit close to home.  Communities outside of Calgary were affected first…then those closest to the water…then some a little higher…then a little more higher ground.

As the alerts came in, I started to see tweets and facebook messages from friends, and businesses that I frequent; posts like this from the Bavarian Inn, one of my most favourite restaurants in the region:

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The Bavarian Inn’s facebook update – June 21, 2013

The city is an awkward place to be right now.  Looking out on my verandah I see clear blue skies – it seems like any other regular evening (other than its a bit cool). However, there is a uneasiness in the air.  Most people are home, but the streets are quiet.  You can see military helicopters flying over the city, and I’ve also seen STARS air ambulance flying in from the south (the High River area is seriously affected).  Everywhere you go you hear stories – they are heartbreaking….

….people have flooded homes and have no ideas when they can return.

….the minimal items people chose to take with them at a moments notice.

….friends who live only a 15 minute walk away (but down in the valley) being woken up at 12:15AM by police knocking on their door and telling them they had to evacuate.

….ranchers and farmers who had to cut their fences and let their entire herd of horses free so that the animals could use their natural instincts and save themselves.

You also hear great stories of heroism in this fine city.

…..I know several people who work for emergency services – working 14.5 hour shifts to make sure things keep running.

….my dog’s day-care (and training services) have opened their doors 24-7 and taking in pets displaced by the floods.

…..restaurants are donating to the emergency shelters in town.  Many of them just say “Tell us what you need, and you have free food”.

The rain has stopped but the river is still overflowing its banks.  The next couple of days will be critical.  After that, the clean up will begin…..I’m sure that the generosity, courage, and resilience of this city (and province) will shine through….even though losses have been deep.

For those of you who know me personally I am well.  I have power, water, gas, and internet.  The city (and services) have done an excellent job keeping the flood-free areas up and running. I am safe, high, dry and comfortable.

Below are a few photos I took today.  All photos were taken on Friday, June 21st around 7:30 PM.

J.T.

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Calgary Stampede grandstand and racetrack.

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The Stampede grounds, Saddledome, and DT Calgary.

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Just outside the ‘Olympic Way’ gates to Stampede Park.

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The ‘Olympic Way’ entry to the Calgary Stampede.

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Looking NE following the Elbow river into Inglewood.

Long live the Lab!

Old-Computer

Do you remember the typing lab? I know I do.  Typing labs were built in every school and were around for decades.  In the blink of an eye the typewriters were gone, quickly replaced by computers.  Well, its been another couple of decades and it looks like computer labs are about to follow the same fate – they are quickly being replaced by mobile laptop labs.

I love the idea of the wireless technology.  The potential for collaboration and creativity when devices are brought right into the classroom is impressive.

If you have been following my blog you know that I really try and see both sides – sometimes, I’ve even been known to fight for the underdog, and in this case, its the computer lab.

Yes – the trusted old lab is facing extinction.  Its true!  All of our new schools that have been build in the past few years have been built without computer labs – schools are being equipped with fancy, new mobile computer labs (laptop carts) that can move around and offer all that wonderful potential into the classroom.

But hold on one second!  Under the flashy new hardware are underlying problems and issues.

In the days of shrinking budgets and financial accountability, I ask you to consider some of the following issues with mobile labs.

1) Portable technology is more expensive.  All you have to do is look at the flyers that arrive in the daily paper.  A laptop can cost up to 50% more than a traditional desktops.  They are also expensive to maintain.  Although a laptop may come with a 2 or 3 year warranty, the battery warranty is often only 1 year. After 2 years laptop batteries struggle to hold their charge, and often stop holding a charge all together.  It then becomes the responsibility of the school to fork over $80-$100 per machine to replace them.  In a school that receives 120 student laptops. That’s $12,000 (which is roughly 20-25% of a school’s entire budget for a year).

2) Portable technology is not as sturdy as a desktop computer.  A laptop’s greatest strength – its portability –  is also its greatest weakness.  Its is prone to being bumped, scratched, dropped, etc.  The hard casings of desktop computers help to shied their components.  I would say that a traditional desktop may have a lifespan twice that of a laptop.

3) Access and Energy.  I don’t know what the situation is like at your school but our computer lab is booked solid every single day. Classes are in and out and the computers are doing their job from 8:30 to 3:00 – students even come and use them before and after school and during lunch.  Laptops are not built for this duration of use. Even a brand new battery will not last an entire day without being charged, that means you loose 50% of your technology efficiency right off the top. The way the carts are set up, it is cumbersome and difficulty to detach a power cable and move it around with the laptop.

So where should we go? What I propose is a healthy blend of technology.  There is value in computer technology – in all its forms.  Personally, there are times I prefer to work on a desktop.  I like the keypad and larger keyboard.  I like having a larger monitor, especially when I have to do graphic design work.

What do you think? Has the lab met its end?  I don’t think so but we do need to evolve with the times and blending stationary and portable technology will be a key to a successful school experience for our students.

JT.

Well – here I am. One year into my Master’s degree in Educational Technology and Design.  What a difference one year can make!  I’m 3/4 of the way through my program with only two half-classes to finish this upcoming year.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The problem now is What If I Don’t Want this Tunnel to End?

I’ve always been a task oriented person.  That was my learning style, and that’s how I tackled life.  I was seeing my program as a ‘checklist’ of sorts —- ETAD 802……check! ETAD 804…….check?  and so on.  The courses were a means to an end – a walk across the stage, a hand-shake, a couple of photos and a nice piece of paper to hang on my wall.

My whole paradigm of my own learning shifted recently on a trip up to Emma Lake.

In a nutshell, the University of Saskatchewan has a campus up in Northern Saskatchewan (just south of Prince Albert National Park).  This campus was originally used by Arts and Ecology. Today many different programs go up to the campus for various course work.  There were 11 students who went up to the camp (2 of which I never met because they had to leave before I arrived).  My fellow students were all at different points in their program – one classmate had even finished her program in the spring, but was there for some video editing experience. When I head that she was coming?  My initial thoughts were…..”If you’re done?  Why would you come back? There’s no credit……You already have a degree……..Aren’t you tired and need a break??”.

As the time went on (and after many conversations) I realized two things – that my own time in the program will soon be ‘over’ and that the program is more than a degree – its a community – a family of learners.  There were several questions about what happens when you’ve finished the program.  Are you ‘out of the circle’….’over and done with?’

During one of our deep conversations over some coffee (and a beautiful view of the lake) we realized that we cannot simply rely on professors to keep us in the loop. Throughout our program they gave us the tools and capacity (and leadership) to carry the torch.  It’s up to us to work together to continue our learning community.  A few of us are hoping to start a podcast, and a few may hold twitter chats to stay current and connected.  I’m also planning on returning to Emma Lake next summer – as a graduate – to work on some projects and connect with my friends and colleagues – and just maybe – this ‘tunnel’ will go on a little longer.

J.T.

The Baby and the Bathwater

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

There is a movement out there that I find a bit scary.  The movement is towards doing away with textbooks.  I’m not talking about the switch from print to digital textbooks, but that textbooks, in all forms,  should be done away with.

I find this notion of doing away with the textbook misguided and is pitting teachers against themselves.

What I’m worried about is this: throwing away the textbook is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Do I agree with textbook companies making a bazillion dollars?  No.  Do I agree that one should teach solely from the textbook?  No.  However I have seen the reality – we all have.  Someone at your school (usually the new hire) is asked to pick up a math class – and that person is a language arts specialists.  It’s happened more than once and it’s the reality of our profession.

To expect this new or struggling teacher to design their program around inquiry based learning is shortsighted.  This person will be lucky to survive the year.  A GOOD teacher is someone who will learn as they progress through their career and try new approaches and refine their teaching.  These people will know themselves and the students they teach the best.

To all those of you who would do away with textbooks, I ask you this: Have you been a part of the process of developing a textbook?  I have.

I was an advisor and reviewer for Pearson’s Math Makes Sense series (7-9).  Long story short, I was asked to move beyond reading and responding to chapters and to be a participant in the organization and design of the final resource.  I was not a writer, but I was someone who gave my opinion and helped guide the process from a teacher’s perspective.  What I learned about the development of a textbook is the sheer amount of time, expertise, knowledge and debate that goes into the resource.  I recall one Saturday where the team debated the order of chapters for 5 hours.  The team members were representatives from government, administrators, universities, curriculum specialists, mathematicians, consultants, editors, instructional and graphic designers, and fellow advisors and reviewers Every inch of the book was scrutinized; field tested, and followed the basic principles of good instructional design.

The point I’m making is this; these resources are invaluable to some teachers – to most teachers.  To believe that the best practice is to move away from textbooks to inquiry based learning is simply unrealistic.

The reality is that (and I’ll eat my words should this change) we as teachers are charged with the task of meeting our curricular outcomes.  No matter how theoretical one may be, if we do not meet the outcomes we are not doing our job.  The curriculum allows us as teachers to meet these outcomes in a variety of ways.

If we follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning, we will quickly realize that an inquiry-based approach a will work well for some students, and not for others.  We must accept the fact that this is OK.  Just as inquiry based learning may work well for some, a strict, structured content-based delivery will work very well for others.  To further confuse the issue, students are constantly changing and growing. Throughout their school careers they will float on the continuum between problem/inquiry based and traditional content based learning.  As teachers, we must be flexible and willing to adapt our teaching strategies for our students, and not to paint ourselves in a corner and at the end of the day have nothing to show for it.

I commend those who try new things and are pushing the envelope with teaching and learning.  I believe that the worst thing that can happen to our profession is to stop having these debates. As we struggle, debate, and argue we  grow our profession.

J.T.

A whole new way of Social Networking

(My lineage)

So I’ve done something that has taken social networking to the next level.

How would you feel about being ‘friended’ by someone you have lots in common with, but is a complete stranger? You’ve never met this person, but you are connected to them.

I’m talking about social networking based on your genes and DNA.

If you follow me on twitter, you can probably recall that I sent off a sample of my saliva to have my DNA analyzed.  I sent it to a company called 23 And Me (www.23andme.com).  They were first featured on Oprah a few years back and more recently on Anderson (Anderson Cooper’s new daytime talk show).  They product is rooted in science.  Here’s how it works.

You sign-up for an account and  pay them money.

They send you a kit.

You spit into the kit, shake it, seal it, and send it off to their lab in California.

4-6 weeks later you get an analysis of your genome.

The results are completely on-line.  You recieve an e-mail saying that your results are ready and to log in to find out.  The findings are grouped into 2 distinct areas each with their own sub-groups.

1. Health (Disease Risks, Drug Interactions, Health Labs, to name a few).

2. Ancestry (Maternal and Paternal lineage, and golbal ancestry).

I knew that I would find out this information (as I had done my due diligance and research before signing up), what happened next was a surprise to me.  When I logged in (one day after I had received the e-mail) I already had a request in my account to make a new connection…..with a 5th cousin!  (It turns out that there are 247 other people on 23 and Me with whom I am related to (mostly 3rd to 6th cousins)).  This brings social networking to a whole new level.

I’ve never met this person…nor have I ever heard of this person.  Is there more of an obligation to accept this friend request and start sharing my DNA information with him?  They always say “You can’t pick your family!”.  It turns out that we’re 5th cousins…which means we share Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandparents.  Whoa!  I’ve probably passed by people in the mall that I could be closer related to.  What about privacy? Just because we’re ‘family’ do I open up and share everything?

How long will it be before either 23 and Me expands their social networking to be more like facebook, or what if facebook decides that 23 and Me would make a good purchase?  Social Networking has already made it easy for us to share the details of our lives.  They’ve also made us comfortable with it.  I know that personally I’ve become more ‘comfortable’ and feel ‘safer’ on the internet.  How long will it be until even more of us is shared with friends…family….strangers?

J.T.

Image Source: http://bit.ly/nuXYmA

I’ve been back at school for about two weeks now.  It’s been great to get back in the building.  It’s where I belong and it’s what I love to do.  Writing blog entries and starting my master’s degree in Educational Technology and Design have really opened my mind to thinking about things in different ways and from different angles.  It’s meant a whole new way of approaching and solving problems.

One idea that has stuck with me from my summer course was “What exactly is technology and how do we use it?”.  Let me clarify.  One chat that happened over twitter and in our course discussion thread was that hair colour is a technology.  If we look at technology as being cables, cords, wires and processors, then hair colour does not fit.  If we use a broader definition that technology is a solution to a problem, then hair colour is technology.

So that brings me to this morning when a colleague asked me to go look through a PowerPoint presentation that he was working on to present to his class.  The topic was The Legislative and Judicial Branches of the Canadian Government (Social Studies 9).  His classroom is very well outfitted.  He has a tablet laptop, projector, sound system and a mounted SMART board.  He began by apologizing to me for not using SMART Notebook software.  The apology came because in my school I have been working with staff on improving their SMART board skills.  I told him that he didn’t need to apologize.  From my reading/thinking/processing over the summer, one of the tuths that I’ve come to believe is that technology is most useful when it can meet a need.  But it’s not only meeting a need thats important, but  meeting a need in an efficient and useful manner.

This teacher has interactivity in the classroom.  His students are engaged in conversation, group work, group research, and collaborative learning.  PowerPoint has gotten a bad rap for being a ‘boring’ means of presentation.  There are many other tools one could use (SMART Notebook and Prezi come to mind). However,  is it the teacher or the technology that is going to drive this lesson?  His slides had humour, great infographics, and fantastic images.  There was very little text, which means that it was not PowerPoint that was going to drive the lesson, but a real-life teacher.

I’ve come to a conclusion that using technology for the sake of using technology is not always best practice.  Don’t we have times where reaching for a pad and pen is quicker than opening an application on a laptop to make a reminder or jot a phone number?  Does fancier/flashier software make for a better lesson or teacher?  Aren’t there times when using a whiteboard marker to solve an equation is easier than starting up a computer and using an interactive white board?  What about phoning parents vs e-mail?  Are there times when a phone conversation is more useful than getting into a misunderstood e-mail battle?

In a confusing manner, this blog entry seems to be ‘anti-technology’, but that is far from the truth.  I love technology – I use it all the time in teaching and in my personal life.  I love exploring new web tools and applications and seeing how they can be used to improve the status-quo.  My point is this.  Technology for technology’s sake is not always best practice.  It’s important that we choose the right tool for the right job and make sure that we use our ‘human’ talents and efficiencies in harmony with technology.

J.T.

Removing the Barriers

In June 2010 Alberta Education released the document Action on Inclusion.  This was a metamorphosis of ‘Setting the Direction’ which was taking a look at special needs education in the province.  What the department found was that good teaching practice is good teaching practice.  If there is a modification, technology, or assistance that can be given to one student, can that not be best practice for all students?

The document identifies that some students will need long term support, but also that some students may only need short term support.  To help us through understanding Action on Inclusion, Kathy Howery from the University of Alberta came and gave a presentation to both the Elementary and Junior High AISI cohorts.   She is an inspiring person and is passionate about Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Kathy said that many of the technologies we use today, were born out of assistive technologies.  Think about predictive text on our mobile devices.  Predictive text was initially born as an assistive technology and has become common place.  What about sidewalk ramps?  They were initially created as an access for wheel chairs but have gone much further.  People with baby carriages, wagons, small children on bikes, etc use them.  Think about closed-captioning on television.  Initially created for the hearing impaired, closed captioning has become used at gyms, and probably has saved many marriages with televisions in the bedroom.  Spell check is again something that was created for the margins, but has been adopted by the mainstream.  She also makes the argument that some of these tools have become so commonplace, that to remove them would seem unnatural like removing someone’s eyeglasses.

UDL is based on research (www.cast.org) and is based on three principles.

1)   The ‘What’ of Learning – Present information in different ways – Multiple means of representation

2)   The ‘How’ of Learning – Differentiate the ways students express what they know

3)   The ‘Why’ of Learning – Provide multiple means of engagement.

In her presentation Kathy used an example of a novel study for high school English.  I believe the novel was Huckleberry Finn.

So we have the traditional model of Teacher Assigns Novel –> Students Read Novel –>Students synthesize Novel (Formal Assessment).

UDL would take a different spin on this.  Depending on the individual’s need, ‘reading’ the novel could be: listening to an audio book on an iPod, using a ‘coles notes’ version, watching the movie, reading a synopsis on Wikipedia, or using 60secondrecap just to name a few.  Then students may choose a different way to show their work. They could do a voicethread, make a video,  a dramatization,  a photostory, a concept map, a dance, a traditional report or even a blog!

What UDL recognizes is that we as teachers need to take a proactive and inclusive approach to the diverse student population that is before us.  We cannot continue to teach to that elusive ‘middle ground’ one-size-fits all student, because they do not exist.  We need to create pathways and remove barriers to student learning.  Students need choice, options and flexibility in their schooling.

A real obstacle facing UDL (and Action on Inclusion) is curriculum, more specifically the current Program of Studies.  The current POS has a narrow focus and constructs barriers.  As a result of Action on Inclusion, the province of Alberta has embarked on the next phase, Action on Curriculum.  AOC is seeking to completely re-think curriculum and its delivery in Alberta.   Action on Curriculum has the power to completely transform our current model and what we think about ‘school’.  Click this link and watch the short video.  I found it inspiring and forward thinking – we may just do what’s best for kids yet!

Digital Agendas

Image source: http://bit.ly/o9Xbsq

This fall marks the beginning of the end of our paper agendas for Junior High Students in our district.  Our current agendas are probably similar to what others have: a student handbook at the beginning covering school policies, the September to June Calendars for students to write in,  and a reference section at the back with math formulae, periodic table,  the map of Canada, etc.

In September a limited number of agendas will be available for purchase at the main office – they will not be handed out to every student on the first day of school.  The limited agendas will not include the section of school policies and procedures. The section on school policies and procedures will now be published to our school website and D2L homepage.   In 2012-2013 no paper agendas will be ordered.  Click here to link to my district’s press release.

How is this going to work?  D2L has the ability to take events from different courses and populate those items in a single  homepage calendar for each student.  For example, if I make an event for a math project, I can put it in the course calendar, and it will be pushed down to the individual calendar of the students who are enrolled in the course. D2L has a homepage widget called ‘Events’ which will organize what is coming up ‘Today’, ‘Tomorrow’, and ‘This week’.  This event box is front and centre when students log on to D2L.  The user’s individual calendar is a hybrid of course events pushed down from instructors and user-generated events.

Moving to digital agendas has some positives and some areas of concern.

Positives

1)   Digital agendas are never lost.  Lost agendas have been a real problem. D2L offers a “one stop shop” for events, content, and grades.

2)   Digital agendas are easily accessible D2L offers a traditional computer log-in as well as a mobile portal.  Students can access their calendar on their mobile devices and personal (or school) computers.

3)   Calendar events can be directly linked to course content.  For example, if a student has a science exam on Wednesday, that event can be linked to multiple sources of content – study sheets, youtube videos, practice questions, etc

4)   Parents will have consistent access.  No longer will it be the scenario of “Show me your agenda”, but parents have the ability to log-into their child’s account and track their child’s events.

Concerns

1)  With whom does responsibility lie?  With traditional agendas it is up to the student to record their appointments thus the majority of the responsibility lies with the student.  With digital agendas it is the instructor who will add events to the calendar.  Does this take away responsibility for student time management? Can it become a shared responsibility? How do we teach and model time management?

2)   Teachers must consistently use the calendar and events tools.  This relates to the above point.  Does a teacher creating the event take away from the student’s responsibility for his or her own learning?  That is a concern for my staff. Also, what if a teacher is not “pulling their weight”?  What expectations are placed on teachers to input their events?

3)   Digitala agendas cannot be used as a behavioral tool.  In the past paper agendas were used for parent communication, hall passes, bathroom monitoring, etc.  We will have to explore new ways of managing students as well as using our LMS for parent communication.

4)   Parents must be informed and guided through the transition.  Between school administration,  my AISI cohort, and myself a P.R. campaign will take place to inform and help parents transition to the digital agenda.

Have you been using digital agendas in your school?   I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

J.T.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Three years ago I was digging through some dusty old photo albums at my Grandparent’s house. These old albums were windows to yesteryear…seeing my dad as a boy, and seeing my grandparents other than ‘old’.  One photo that struck me was of a beautiful mid-twenties Chinese woman.  She had medium length thick black hair, fair features and was dressed in a black dress with pearl earrings and necklace.  I had no idea who this was so I asked some questions.  It turns out it was my Bak-hoo (Great-grandmother), who at the time was still alive and approaching her 100th birthday.

This past February she passed away at 100 years of age.  What an incredible life!  Can you imagine what you would have seen in 100 years?  Death always takes us to a place of reflection and introspection.  Being two generations removed, and a language barrier, I never really got to know her.  Everything I do know was passed down from my grandparents or my dad.  I knew that she had courage, spunk, and sass.  I knew that she risked everything to leave mainland China to make a better life for her family; of which I am a part of.  However, I really never got to know HER. (Here is one of the few digital items left behind of my Great-grandparents (Chu)).

I caught a TED Talk by Adam Ostrow.  The topic was “After Your Final Status Update”. His talk is what inspired me to write this post.  Living in the media age, are we going to live in a shroud of mystery? I don’t think so.  A complete life profile will take shape by collating our digital ‘bread crumbs’.  Our lives will not be a series of facts passed down through stories, but a rich history and chronology of our time on Earth.  Our posts/tweets/updates are our voice; they are more than factual.  They include our tone, our position, and our emotions.

I can only imagine what Chu Yek-Seen would have tweeted 70 years ago. What would I be able to piece together today from her life if social media had been around?

This has significant implications for our life today and digital citizenship.

1)   What we do and say today will be around long after we’re gone.  Social media is creating a digital time capsules of our lives.  Every time we create a new profile for a website, tweet, blog, or post we are donating one more artifact to our digital archive.

2)   Digital personae are created before we arrive.  Parents are posting pictures of sonograms, names, and details of their children before they arrive.  I’ve even known someone who created a facebook page for their unborn child (they did an excellent job by the way).

3)   Last Will and Testament.  More than our estate each of us should think about how we want our digital persona to live on after we have gone.  In saying this, we may not have a choice in the matter.  All we can control will be how we would like our SM sites to be ‘shut down’.  The who/what/where/when of who will do it.  Do you we leave a final ‘blog’, ‘tweet’, or ‘status update’ from the great beyond?  Complete digital representations of us will most likely be created by software from a synthesis of our digital artifacts.  Will we speak beyond the grave?  Will our avatars live beyond us?

When we teach and model Digital Citizenship to our students, it is important that they understand both the positive and negative aspects of the digital content they create.  I’m not saying that we need to discuss death and mortality with students, but it is important that they realize, good or bad, what they’re saying and doing on-line is creating an archive of their lives.  A colleague of mine has a poster up in his classroom that says “Your grandma just saw the picture you posted on-line”.  I’d like to do a flip and say, “Your grand-kids are going to see that picture you posted on line.”

J.T.

Letting Go of the Reins

In my last post I wrote about Dan Pink and mentioned his three key points of engagement: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  I want take a closer look at Autonomy.

Are we ready to let go of the reins?

For many teachers there is a correlation between control over students’ learning and classroom management.  There are fears that if students are left to their own choices that mayhem will ensue.  Who amongst us hasn’t had that back-to-school dream of the class that just won’t listen? I know I have, many times.

How do we foster constructivist learning within the confines of modern curriculum?

I want to share with you my reflection on my Independent Music Project.

This assignment came about as me trying to fill that time in June in the post-festival and post-concert season.  I decided to do an independent music project.  In a nutshell, I told students that they were in charge.  They needed to seek out a musical selection they liked and perform it solo or in a small group.  They were also able to choose to do their performance on an instrument of their choosing; it did not have to be their band instrument.   The sole stipulation was that whatever they chose, it had to be appropriate to a school setting (no foul language).

This assignment had a high degree of engagement.  One student chose not to do the assignment but the majority dove right in.  What was interesting to me was how much more the students got out of this assignment than I thought they would.

I had students choose to arrange their own music which included transposition, theory, and music notation – all 3 of which we only scratch the surface in class.  However,  because there was a need for these skills, they had to teach themselves and seek out the information.  Some students decided to compose their own music.  This was exciting for me!  Composition is difficult (or maybe just difficult for me and I’ve been viewing composition through my own lens).  I also had students seek out their own music – through the internet or through music stores – either way, they had to filter through a vast repertoire of music to find the right level for them to play as well as something that they would enjoy playing.  Students who decided to perform as a group also learned valuable time management and organizational skills – It’s hard to get a group of 5 people together.  Half of the performances were memorized and memory was not a requirement of the assignment.  All students had to learn to deal with performance anxiety which as musicians is something we all learn to deal with.

I was inspired by the vast array of talent that these students had that I had never seen.  I usually only see the students in one dimension – on their band instrument.  Who knew that the back row flute player had such a beautiful voice?  That my lead trumpet player could play Metallica on the drums? That my saxophone player could play classical piano and was about to take her RCM exam?

I also found their sense of community and support for each other amazing.  There was little to no teasing happening, huge applause and support (even if there was a breakdown – breakdowns are inevitable) and an intense curiosity of “What are they going to do?  What’s coming next?”.  Their shared experience of the project brought them to a true place of empathetic support for each other.

I had been scared to let go of the reins, but when I did two things happened:

First, the class did not break into mayhem. Second, there was engaged learning happening that I was removed from.  Next steps are to see if I can find similar ways/methods/assignments to bring this to my other courses (most specifically my math class).  If you have thoughts or ideas, I love to hear them!

J.T.

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