Visual Arts and a Lasting Impression

Once again, using arts-based methods to enrich student learning has left a lasting impression.

52973366_7176dfba1b_zThis year, I have a student (let’s say it’s a girl and I’ll call her Bree – not the actual name of course), as I do every year, who needs a individual education plan with modified objectives to fit the child and ensure success with learning. This year, as I do every year, I’m working really hard to try to ‘learn’ each of my students so that I can do my best to teach them for the next 8 1/2 months. And this year, as I do every year, I do my best to ignore all the labels and pre-packaged notes that come along with kids until I formulate my own thoughts on who each child is as a person, as someone’s precious son or daughter, as a human being like me.

Today my students learned all about using dry media to create tonal development so that 2D shapes on paper look like more realistic 3D objects. This lesson was to prepare them to create still life pieces a couple of weeks from now using locally grown squash and vegetables. We talked about light direction, about the importance of shape to convey an object, about how blending light, medium and dark tones can make a simple shape ‘pop’ out of the page and trick one’s eye. Students practiced blending using stomps, art pencils and kneaded erasers. They once again showed how engaging art is. My favourite student comment of the day was “Who knew that drawing a circle and colouring it in could be so much fun!?”

At the beginning of the lesson, I did a demonstration and was reviewing the assignment. I asked one last time if there were any comments or questions. Several hands went up, including Bree’s.

Now I’m still ‘learning’ Bree. I do make time to talk with Bree regularly, and I’m working hard to create a trusting relationship so that Bree and I can have a good year of learning together. It’s sometimes difficult to understand Bree although she does seem to enjoy contributing to class discussions and lessons. Often the contributions, while clearly sensible to her, seem to be connected by the slightest of threads and it takes a bit of work to figure out the overall relevance and how her thought processes work.

After Bree raised her hand and shared her thoughts, I was thrilled to see that Bree’s comments showed a complete understanding of the concepts of light direction, tonal development and the value scale. She totally ‘got it’, better, I think, than most of the class. And she knew it, too. There was some confidence there, which isn’t always the case with her when she’s sharing her ideas and thoughts out loud.

I was even more thrilled when, at the end of the lesson, Bree showed me her completed artwork. It was great. Really great. Like fully-meeting-expectations-with-a-little-added-personal-artistic-flair great. And again, she knew it. She brought it up and showed me. This is a kid who struggles to initiate conversations. But once again, confidence and happiness and pride at a job well done was conveyed in a kid who doesn’t always have the opportunity to experience and/or show that in school.  As happy as it made me to see her that way, I’m guessing she felt even better than I did from the whole thing.

So once again, I was reminded about how important the visual arts can be to empowering a child. I brought home a lasting impression that this learning experience was powerful for that child in multiple ways. Not only did she create a great piece of artwork that she was proud to take home and share with her family, she shared her understanding of the related concepts orally in front of the entire class. I can’t stop thinking about how much I learned about her through this today and I’m still wondering how this experience will change her as a learner in my class.

Art isn’t just about the drawing. It isn’t just about the shading or the shape or the fancy pencils that blend and smudge. Art is about confidence and empowerment and an opportunity to speak up and share your ideas with others. It’s about a different way of thinking that allows the openness needed for all kids to find their space firmly within it’s wide open boundaries. It’s a vital component to a child’s overall cognitive, social, and emotional development. It’s a way of teaching and learning that kids love. It has the potential to create a powerful lasting impression.

Photo by moostive accessed October 24th, 2013 from Flickr.

Remembering, Honouring, Healing: Truth & Reconciliation Education Day

Today is Truth and Reconciliation Education Day in British Columbia. I’ve been watching the tweets all week to see people sharing photos and experiences from the events. Today is a special day in the week of events because today is the day that thousands of students from around British Columbia, including many from my school district and community, gather at the PNE exhibition grounds for a day tailored to them. For those who don’t know what this is all about, the Truth and Conciliation Commission of Canada website is a good place to start.

I would have loved to have gone. As a person with Aboriginal heritage, I would have been honoured to go. And yet, as a person with a direct family history of residential school experience, I could not bring myself to go. I’ve written next to nothing in this space, or anywhere online, about my great-grandmother’s (Nanny) experiences in residential school. There is only one post that even talks about Nanny. There are many reasons for this.

The strongest thing holding me back from sharing her story online is that she didn’t want anyone to know that she had gone to residential school and she didn’t want anyone to know that she was Aboriginal. She was a perfect example of the desire to assimilate indigenous peoples into the colonial vision of what Canada’s people should be. She died with her Aboriginal heritage her secret and it was only through my aunt’s curiosity that my family learned of our Métis and Cree family in Manitoba years after Nanny’s death.

So while the week’s events that center around a formal attempt to heal and educate about Canada’s residential school history are of direct importance to me, I could never bring myself to go. Is that shame still lingering in my blood? Or is it respect for Nanny’s wish of privacy that holds me back?

While I am not there physically, I am certainly there in spirit. I’ve been following as much as possible online and reflecting on how I can honour and remember and help with the healing in my own way. I have both a personal and professional approach to this, and while, thanks to my Masters research I feel at peace with the personal, I feel the need to do more professionally.

In the past I’ve included Aboriginal and indigenous themes in my classroom in a variety of ways. I’ve made sure we had novels on residential schools in the ECC online literature circles. I’ve connected my students to others learning about Aboriginal heritage in an inter-district moodle project. I’ve planned out and taught lessons on indigenous artforms from around the world. I’ve happily headed off to the St’at’imc room when invited to sing and dance with my students. Every time I’ve brought this topic into my classroom, I’ve thought it was important and every time, in all grades, I’ve inwardly steeled myself for resistance. And most times there has been resistance of some sort, from a quiet rejection of the novel because of the topic to all out emotional outbursts from high school students about ‘why do we have to learn about this stuff in art anyway’?

This year I’m going to try something different. I’m going to honour and remember my traditional indigenous heritage and take a completely child-centered approach. I’m going to ask the kids. What do they want to learn about Aboriginal topics this year? What units would they like me to integrate Aboriginal and indigenous content within? How would they like to honour the people that have lived in the place on which the school is built for thousands of years within our classroom this year? How would they like to learn about all the different family backgrounds that walk into the room with students and adults each day?

The longer I teach, the more this approach seems to be embedded within what I do. And the more it seems to lead to powerful learning and engaged students. On this day of Truth and Reconciliation that honours the kids, I’m giving my word to remember, honour and heal by starting with honouring the kids first.

 

Sometimes you have to stop teaching to learn the lesson

Today I felt like telling a story. This story has waited a long time to be told, almost 20 years to be honest.

It’s shaped who I am as an educator and stays close to my heart even now.

The day started as most Tuesdays started for me at the time. I woke up early, caught the bus, and arrived at Charles Dickens Elementary, an inner city school in Vancouver, to do my weekly volunteer work. I was learning how to be a teacher and I needed volunteer experience in a classroom to gain entry into SFU’s very competitive PDP program.

I loved Charles Dickens Elementary. The old brick school was demolished a few years ago and was rebuilt to modern standards. If I could, however, teleport that old brick school with those teachers through space and time, I would work there forever and make sure my children went there too. The school was led by a nationally recognized, award-winning principal and the librarian had been my grade three teacher. She was kind enough to bring me in, introduce me around and arrange the volunteering schedule for me. But that’s another story to tell.

Back to the Tuesday morning. This particular morning I was to spend time in the grade 2/3 classroom. As I arrived I noticed that Blaire (not his real name), the teacher, was busy speaking with a family I hadn’t seen before. The family, I soon learned, were refugees to Canada who had recently arrived from a war-torn country in Africa. This was their second day in Vancouver, the first day for their children to attend school.

Soon after the day started, Blaire asked me to work with the little refugee boy registered into grade three. To this day I cannot remember his name but I can picture his face like I saw him yesterday. He was fairly tall for a boy of that age, stocky and strong. His skin was a rich, dark brown and his eyes looked sad and overwhelmed, yet curious. He had thick, curly, springy-looking hair. 

I immediately asked Blaire what he wanted me to do as I had not been in this situation before. Blaire told me to see if I could figure out anything about the boy, if he could read, talk, draw, count, etc. so, with that broad, yet helpful, direction, I asked the little boy, with both words and gestures, to accompany me to a circular table at the back of the classroom.

I soon figured out the boy could not speak any English. He would point to himself and say his name when I pointed to myself and said my name. He couldn’t read English, couldn’t count from what I could tell, didn’t seem too interested in books and didn’t draw when I put paper and pencil in front of him. As it was math time for the rest of the class, I soon pulled out some math manipulatives, cards, dice, counters, etc., and decided to teach him to play a math game.

I knew a few different dice games and spent the next twenty minutes trying, and failing, to teach him a math game using the dice. I kept reminding myself that this was his first day in school in Canada and that I needed to show patience and kindness. It was extremely frustrating to me and seemed futile. He didn’t seem to understand anything I was doing but still sat there looking at me and trying, sort of, to play along, even though I could tell he had no idea what I was doing. I wonder now what he thought that day – what he thought about me, what he thought about what I was doing, what he thought about his first day at school.

I admit that after twenty minutes I was discouraged and a part of me gave up. I stopped trying to teach him and instead just rolled the dice around with him.

In was then that I learned my lesson.

After about five minutes of rolling dice around, I noticed a change in his behaviour. I’d noticed earlier that he did a certain movement with the dice and some counters, but I had misinterpreted that as him not understanding the game I had been trying to teach him. He did that certain movement again, and this time I also noticed that his body posture had changed and he looked right at me. He seemed to have a purpose, to be trying to show me something.

I stopped trying to be a teacher and started being a student.

The boy was trying, had been trying for quite some time I realized after reflecting on the whole thing, to teach me a game using dice and counters. It didn’t take long for me to begin to understand what he was trying to teach me. After that, he, being a great teacher, taught me how to play a very simple game, something young children would play, I’m guessing, in his home country in Africa. There were no words, no shared language between us, but suddenly, after nearly an hour together, we were having fun and playing together. At one point I was rewarded with a huge smile that reached all the way to his eyes – I’ve never forgotten that.

Even though we couldn’t talk to each other, he somehow managed to teach me a game. With no words, he managed to teach me. Just think about that from a teaching point of view for a minute. But, and this is the important part, he wasn’t able to teach me until I stopped trying to teach him. As soon as I stopped, as soon as I paid attention to him, he taught me.

Sometimes you have to stop teaching to learn the lesson.

I’ve never forgotten that little guy and that lesson that day. It speaks to me and my teaching philosophy still. Children have so much to teach us, if only they have the chance. If we stop trying to get through that lesson, or finish the unit before the end of the month, if we stop all of that and just pay attention to our brilliant students, they do, I believe, have a lot to teach us.

 

Imagery: Portrait “Untitled“ by Michiel Van Balen from Flickr.com, photo of the old Charles Dickens school taken by Rom@nce and accessed from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/9961621 July 25, 2012.

 

Relaxed and grounded in a state of being uncomfortable

        As I near the end of a summer filled with thoughts of overarching themes in the education system, as I ‘cook’ my thoughts and my learning from the culmination of my graduate coursework, and as I continue to read and engage online with virtual colleagues who constantly motivate and inspire me, I noticed a shift in my mental mindset this week as I planned and prepared for the start of the school year.
        At times I feel relaxed. Maybe it’s because I’m teaching the same grade for the 2nd year in a row. That’s a favourite because I’m finished with the hectic pace of teaching something for the first time (I’ve been a first year teacher five years of my fifteen year career) but while the situation is familiar, it’s also relatively new because it’s only the second year so the inherent excitement of novelty is still attached.
        Other times I feel very grounded. I do feel a certain, new confidence in myself as an educator. The Masters degree allowed me to find a solid theoretical and methodological basis for not only who I am as an educator, but also why I teach the way I do. I am more sure of what’s important to me and my ever-evolving pedagogy. I feel my ‘peeps’ with me, bolstering, offering support, adding to my life’s work.
        And then, at times, I feel unsettled, uncomfortable. As I plan, I notice that I am engaging in the planning process in an entirely new way. After fifteen years of teaching, I’m doing things radically different;  if that’s not transformative learning then I don’t know what is.
        What’s different? I’m faster. I’m able to use social media to ask experts questions and get almost immediate answers. I’m able to find excellent, relevant resources quickly. I know myself better so I’m able to sift through and discard the irrelevant with much more certainty.
        But it’s more than that. I think in a different way. I have a heightened awareness of the different layers of thinking in everything I do whether I’m talking with a colleague or planning a math unit. I have a clearer sense of what I think to be important and I am aware that the kids needs are much more in my mind as I go.
        It’s exciting and a little unsettling at the same time. I am excited about the start of the year. I can’t wait to see the students next week. I know my passion to work with children and help them along in life is an strong as ever. The tricky part is, as I wrote in an earlier post, that after my MEd learning I need to learn how to walk differently as I move through my classroom, my school, my home, my community. That’s the part I’m still adjusting to. And it’s uncomfortable. But that’s okay. That uncomfortable feeling only means I’m still learning and that is a state of being uncomfortable that I’m pretty sure I can handle.

Imagery: iEllen by boeke from Flickr.com

Learning to walk as a master

Last month I completed my Masters in Education in Educational Practice from Simon Fraser  University. This was a graduate field program, meaning that it was designed for working  teachers to complete while continuing to work full time. It involved teacher inquiry into our  practice using qualitative research methods. It was easily the most transformative learning  experience of my life and I feel as if I’m walking through the world differently these days.

What did I learn? I’ve been cooking my thoughts, as Dr. Kelly, our prof, would say, to try to  make sense of the year’s learning. It took me ten days to relax and come down from the  intensity of the thesis submission and final comprehensive presentation. Once I relaxed, I  realized how exhausted I am, both physically and mentally. Aside from the sleep deprivation,  which I can remedy by returning to a normal bedtime, it’s a good exhaustion. It’s similiar to the wonderful feeling I enjoy after a long run when my body feels physically worked and tired, but the better for it. And what was it, exactly, that exhausted my mind? What’s actually still cooking in my thoughts?

I have moments of insight. Moments where there is pure clarity as to what I learned and how the MEd experience changed me. And then there are days of feeling lost and scattered and confused about how to synthesize and articulate even one piece of my learning. Is it even possible to communicate one entire year of intense study? Some days I think I need to just wait and, with time, clarity will arrive. Other days I think that to condense all that learning into so few words is impossible and unrealistic and will never happen, regardless of how much time passes.

I decided on a few profound learnings that I can, with certainty, share at this point:

1. I learned to attend, to be wide awake (see Maxine Greene). Not what I expected at all. I expected to learn ‘something’, not a way of being in the world. I hope to share this with others.

2. I learned that, in my humble opinion, to be literate in Canada today, to be literate in the world today, must include the ability to read and communicate with, and through, images. It’s not enough anymore to simply see literacy as reading and writing; overall literacy must include visuals as one of the forms of communication. I finally achieved an understanding of what this ‘visual literacy’ means and learned the beginnings of how to include it into my practice. See works by Elliot Eisner and David Jakes.

3. I learned that my own notion of citizenship has a local, national, global and digital component. Creating global citizens is a popular topic in education these days, especially in the blogosphere, but to me, that’s only one piece. It’s not sensible to have empathy for those in dire situations on the other side of the planet and yet turn a blind eye on those in dire need in your own community. And the complicated beast that became (digital) citizenship in my thesis is a topic I have yet to tame, although I enjoy the constant and challenging attempt to do so and I now, more than ever before, absolutely see this as a vital component to everyone’s education, not just, but especially, children’s.

4. I learned that deep caring for children, all children, sits as the base of my pedagogy. It always has, but I wasn’t aware of how and why until I wrote my thesis. Motherhood is a part of the deep caring, but not all of it. I care deeply for the well-being, the happiness and the future of all children, mine first, of course, but all other’s children a close second. The theme of care, always present before, but now with the added weight of notions like making decisions based on the 7th generation to come and scholars such as Nel Noddings to bolster and add support, is even more prevalent in who I am as an educator.

5. Finally, thankfully, I learned that I found a place of contentment. This is, of course, more of a mental state than a physical place. I often struggle to be content in life. I have high expectations for myself and those around me. I detest boredom and usually create a constant, positive push to improve and move forward in my life. With the ending of the Masters year, however, I realized I need to stop pushing for awhile and just be. And, thankfully, I’m content with that.

And so, all this learning has left quite an impact on me personally and professionally. I will walk through the world in a different way, truly transformed by the learning experiences of this past year. I know that next month, I will walk into my school and my classroom differently. I’ll walk into that classroom determined to advocate for the arts, an approach, a method that children love and that is important for their education. I’ll walk into that classroom knowing that the reality of shared experience extends beyond the classrooms walls and into an intangible environment entered into through technology and that extension is changing, has already changed how we learn, engage with one another, and live our lives. I’ll walk into that classroom sensitive not only to the influence that my family’s complicated heritage has offered, now offers, to my practice, but also keenly aware that each of my students also bring known and unknown family history to their learning and our classroom environment. Finally, I know that I will walk differently as a mother with a new perspective on how to raise my children.

More to come…

 

Imagery: Waking creativity by jenn.davis and Jurassic Park by mallitch, both from Flickr.com and used under Creative Commons licensing.

 

(Digital) Citizenship

Less than two weeks ago, I was excited that eight months of teacher research was solidifying into the central idea of learning relationships. While I originally focused my MEd on student/teacher rapport through a video camera, there is much more going on in the Elementary Connected Classrooms to focus simply on the teacher/student relationship. There are peer-to-peer relationships, the collaborative relationships between the three teachers involved, and then all the crossovers between the almost 70 students and 3 teachers interacting in different ways (not just through the camera) each week. I decided that the term ‘learning relationships’ better described the complicated web of interpersonal connections in our unique setting and changed my terminology to reflect that deeper understanding.

I was, however, only temporarily satisfied with ‘learning relationships’ as the hub of my research. It just seemed too simple and not quite right. Now, after further reflections on my experiences at the Digital Learning Spring Conference and another weekend at SFU with a brilliant professor, I finally think (I hope!) I’ve found the main themes that connect all other ideas at the center of my learning.

At this point, deep caring for children – all children – sits as the base of my pedagogy. It always has. Motherhood is a part of that, but not all of it. I care deeply for the well-being and the happiness and the future of all children, mine first, of course, but other’s children are a close second. I love working with kids and absolutely fight for the best education they can possibly get because, in my opinion, not offering what they deserve in the classroom every day is a disservice to them.
digital citizenship

In my opinion, if we, as educators, truly care about children, we need to honour the learning environment that today’s children are growing up in. If we are guiding them to become good citizens, we need to incorporate digital citizenship into their learning. Each child, family, and community will vary as to the extent to which new technologies have become a part of daily life, hence the idea of honoring each individual’s learning environment. Thanks to some simple online dialogue with David Truss, I’ve decided that (digital) citizenship is the other main theme that binds all my research strands. Citizenship is still the main idea, but with the lesser theme of digital connected to it.

A vital component of (digital) citizenship is how to create and maintain healthy learning relationships. I worry about those, for example, who don’t understand social media because it is the way of the world in a very real sense. We need more educators to become experts in how to use new technologies, if for no other reason than to be good role models and guide the kids; the kids who will use those technologies anyway, regardless of whether or not they’ve received guidance to help keep them productive and safe. Even more important, we need educators who don’t get caught up in the technology, but who become (digital) citizens themselves and then gain a greater understanding of the larger, more meaningful themes, such as learning relationships, within that new technologically-rich context.

Imagery by I am I.A.M. from Flickr.com and altered as allowed per CC license using FotoFlexer’s SuperPixelate.

A Chance Meeting

Yesterday a student changed the way I think.

Allow me to explain. I was being a dutiful sports-mom and was a sideline official at my child’s sporting event. One of my duties was to ensure that the score sheet was correct. As I was verifying the visiting teams’ roster, I was surprised to notice a familiar name: Hubert Smith.

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Hubert is a part of the Connected Classrooms project. He lives in a different community geographically distant from my home and both communities are in the same school district. Furthermore, both Hubert’s class and my class are a part of the Connected Classrooms project so, everyday when the classes connect using the latest video conferencing and desktop sharing software to teach and learn collaboratively across the district, Hubert sees me as one of his teachers. Some days I’m teaching his class a lesson through a video camera, other days I’m a supporting teacher guiding my students through the other teacher’s lesson activities.

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Also, Hubert is reading the novel I am teaching in our Online Literature Circles. Every week I post a deep thinking question to our Connected Classrooms Moodle site and Hubert, along with all the other students reading the novel, posts a response to the forum. We’ve had some good discussions online and Hubert even took the initiative to post a music video relevant to our novel. He and I have built some student/teacher rapport within the Connected Classrooms environment. I have never met Hubert face to face but, as one of his teachers, he has been learning from me for over three months now. This is something I’m sure distance education teachers are used to, but not me.

After the sporting event mentioned above,  when it was finally time to leave and go home, I looked up and saw a boy walking out of the changing rooms with his mother. The way he looked at me, I instantly knew that it was Hubert. He smiled, tentatively, then, after I smiled tentatively back, his face transformed into a full, happy smile of recognition and he waved. He mother came walking over and introduced herself, starting our conversation by explaining that Hubert had said I was his teacher.

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It was the coolest and oddest experience I have had in a long time as a teacher. Here, before me, was a student of mine that I have been teaching for over three months. We know one another as student and teacher and have interacted as such in a variety of ways but always through a virtual connection.

I am still amazes at how powerful the actual face to face meeting was. It was so nice to put a face to the name and be able to chat with him in person. We talked about the game and his team, we talked about school and we parted saying ‘see you next week’. Meeting his mother was wonderful, too.  I love meeting students’ parents for many reasons and she was so warm and seemed genuinely happy to meet me.

The chance meeting with Hubert, and the power of the experience, was timely. I’m currently finishing my research proposal for the Masters course and I’ve struggled to find the exact words with which to frame my inquiry. My inquiry is centered around arts-based methods and advocating for visual arts. I also feel a need to research indigenous worldviews to more fully understand hidden perspectives that I bring into the classroom each day. And, somewhere, I was hoping that those two topics would intersect and enlighten me with their connection.

I have constantly thought that those two topics are enough and should be the focus for my research but the unique learning environment that is the Connected Classrooms keeps creeping into my inquiry. I have purposefully tried to leave the context of teaching through new technologies out of the inquiry for simplicity’s sake.

But the reality of it is that, everyday, when I turn on that video conferencing equipment or login to the Connected Classrooms Moodle site, I am teaching in a radically different way than I have ever taught before. I can’t remove that from my inquiry. The way that my pedagogy is shifting as a result of the Connected Classrooms is profound and effects everything about my teaching practice, including the research for my Masters Degree. While I would like to leave the complexities of teaching with these new technologies out of my research, I can’t, and I shouldn’t.

Hubert reminded me that the context of the Connected Classrooms is effecting who I am as an educator, how I teach and what I believe about teaching and learning. He reminded me that the students are at the center of my inquiry and that I have entered into a teaching position which fundamentally changes the connection between student and teacher. And while I’m fascinated with the arts and intrigued by indigenous methods, I can’t ignore the environment in which I’ll be exploring those ideas.

Which takes me to a whole new level of thinking in this inquiry process…can I connect all three? I thought I’d tried, but really I was just asking separate questions that didn’t connect. Now I wonder, can I make meaning and create knowledge about using arts-based methods while gaining understanding of inherent  indigenous paradigms in a technology-rich learning environment that is innovative to the point of fundamentally transforming teaching and learning?

The more I write, the more I think, the more questions I have…all thanks to Hubert.

Hubert is a pseudonym to protect the student’s actual identity.
Soccer game by RaeA from Flickr.com, Hands 2 by A Taridona and Camera equipment by me.

Posted in Connected Classroom, MEd, pedagogy. Tags: , . 1 Comment »

MEd Layers in a Dream

I had a dream last night…vivid, involved, realistic. The first thing I remembered from the dream was that I was very self-aware and I was thinking. The time was a few days in the future, the upcoming weekend to be exact, and I was down at the coast for my Masters coursework. I was not at SFU (where I actually do go for my studies), but in a house. I had my binder of articles, my notes, my bag, even my lunch. Everyone in the cohort, including the professor, Dr. Kelly, was there. It was a usual weekend of study…except for the house.

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The house that we were in was old and cozy. The rooms were large and opened one onto another. There was a large living room full of seating. I had a spot on one of the couches because, as in real life, I’d been one of the first to arrive for class that day. Even the couch I was sitting on was in the exact same place I usually sit in the room at SFU – I like to situate myself along the back wall facing the prof at the bottom of the ‘U’ shaped table arrangement.

The dream progressed through a normal day of Masters study. I sat on the couch, with my binder in my lap, discussing articles with the group and the people sitting near me. We broke for lunch and I wandered outside with others to sit and eat on the large patio at the rear of the house. The afternoon involved a creative, arts-based activity in the kitchen involving melting wax (haven’t figured  that one out yet) and I distinctly recall admiring beautiful owl sculptures that decorated a few of the rooms in the house.1336922714_4606f83fc6

I’ve been peeling away the layers of this dream all day and, as I’m obsessed with it for the day, it’s my musing for the week.

The first layer of interest was that I dreamed about the Masters in the first place. With the life-consuming report card deadline fast approaching, I’ve had little time to devote to MEd studies in the last week. Out of necessity, I’ve had to spend that extra time on assessment and evaluation tasks. I wondered at first if dreaming about the MEd was an indication that my mind needed to spend more time on my studies.

The second layer, too much for my half-awake brain to immediately sort out, was the house. Why the house? Why was it so vivid and so central in my dream? Once I started to wake up, I realized that the house in my dreams was symbolic of Prospect School (now called Prospect Center) from an assigned reading I finished a few days ago.

The reading is from a book entitled “From Another Angle: Children’s Strengths and School Standards: The Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review of the Child” which tells about an amazing school in Bennington, Vermont. The original Prospect School opened in 1965.  The teachers at Prospect created their own philosophy of education which included an emphasis on process and inquiry. Also, these educators were, in my mind, dedicated teacher researchers. They designed comprehensive descriptive processes through which to study not only the students and their learning, but also the educational practices taking place within the school.

When I finished the reading I was inspired and impressed by the educational environment that was Prospect School (the school closed in the early 1990s). I hadn’t had a chance to do any writing, or even thinking, on the reading. I think that my mind wasn’t ready to let go of the ideas in the reading, and a detailed, wonderful dream in which I was actually experiencing a meshed SFU/Prospect School was the result.

As I seem to rethink and question everything these days, I started thinking about the dream itself. Why was I even spending the time to make the connections above? It was, after all, only a dream…or was it…

That’s when I came to the last layer. The last layer resonates at a much deeper level and deserves explanation.

In order to better situate myself as a teacher researcher and more fully understand the paradigmatic assumptions through which I view and act within the world, I started to research those who currently influence, and have influenced, my thinking. One of the greatest influences in shaping who I am today was my great-grandmother, or, as we called her, Nanny.

62125068_3340ca4409Nanny’s mother was Metis and her maternal grandmother was Cree. She exemplified the combination of old wives’ tales from her Scottish fur trader father and the common sense based on living in connection with the natural world which, I’m guessing, she received from her Metis and Cree maternal roots. I speculate not only because Nanny passed away peacefully years ago (at the fine age of exactly 99 1/2 years old), but also because my family knows precious little of Nanny’s Metis origins. She was sent away, along with the other three eldest siblings in the family, to ‘boarding school’ (a.k.a. residential school) and never spoke of her aboriginal ties. What we do know about our large Metis family in northern and central Manitoba we have learned since Nanny’s passing. In order to learn more about myself as a teacher researcher, I felt the need to learn about First Nations epistemologies and worldviews, especially those of the Metis and the Cree.

One of the more compelling articles I have read so far is a personal narrative by Patricia Steinhauer entitled “Situating myself in research“.  The author wrote the article during her Masters coursework and discusses her ‘rubs’ connected to low achievement among students in the reserve system. She returned to graduate coursework with hopes of finding some solutions to these issues and, in particular, mentions a course in Indigenous research methods.

As an aside, I’ve been trying to find the answer to a seemingly simple question – what was ‘research’ called before the birth of the word ‘research’ in the 16th century? – since reading Denzin and Lincoln‘s introduction to The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, so the Steinhauer reading definitely caught my interest.

Steinhauer tells about the tasks assigned as part of the Indigenous research methods course:

Here we had several tasks. The first required each of us to select a living object somewhere on campus and to spend an hour with it. The second task was to spend half an hour each evening watching the moon. The final task was to make notes of our dreams.

Herein lies the final layer of my musing. My mother used to, and taught me to as well, record my dreams upon waking. Dreams were important to Nanny, too, and it was commonly believed that she would dream things before they happened. She rarely spoke of such things, but there are enough family stories to make a believer of almost anyone. Although I have no actual evidence, I think that the importance of dreams as a way of making sense of the world was a part of Nanny’s Metis and Cree heritage. ‘Boarding school’ couldn’t erase her worldview, it could only erase her acknowledgment of it.

As a result of my hidden Metis and Cree influences, I believe that dream analysis is a deeply ingrained part of my overall worldview. It’s part of how I make sense of the world, and, in this case, helps me to fully process readings for my Masters degree. I feel comfortable, and somewhat validated, with this new knowledge and thankful that the Masters coursework has helped me to understand this layer hidden for so long inside the core of who I am.

Imagery from Flickr: the swansea door by Grant MacDonald, the Great Horned Owl by Henry McLin, and Apaches in Italy?!? II by maxgiani.

Student Ownership at the Art Show Set-up

If you want to create a powerful learning experience, put on an art show. More importantly, let the students put on an art show.

I am the sole art/photography teacher in a small, rural high school. Almost 2/3 of students in the school take an art or photography course every year. Timetabling challenges mean that all my classes are multi-age and multi-course. It’s a little crazy, but it works. Student learning is hands-on and project based and, to borrow the term from a book I’m reading, student-centric by choice and necessity.

The serious art students take Studio Arts courses with a specific focus, for example, drawing and painting. To these devoted art students, I assign the organization, planning, installation, and promotion of the annual spring art show. This event is held in a central community location and is a celebration of all that occurs in the art room throughout the entire school year.

Today, a crew of 9 of us set up for this year’s show. I don’t know if it’s the blogging, or the mental space I’m in, or all the reading I’ve been doing lately, but this year I was much more aware of the students’ learning related to the art show set up. It’s obviously a rich learning experience, but today I was trying to figure out how and exactly what it was they were learning.

These students have been selecting their peers’ work for the show for the last eight months. They spent the last few weeks tagging, framing, and wrapping art work. They spent the day asking questions of each other and discussing possible solutions to the countless problems they had to deal with while arranging and installing the artwork. They worked harder in ‘school’ today than they probably have all year. There were no right answers, no easy solutions, no meaningless tasks.

While observing and listening, the one thing that I kept thinking about was student ownership. The students today were owning their learning. The were absolutely engaged and very much in charge. They were proud of themselves and their accomplishments and they are excited about the show tomorrow night.

The more I thought about ownership, the more I wanted to understand what happened today. I see ownership as learners owning their learning. What does that mean? To ‘own’ something, in this context, is to take responsibility for the learning, which, if we define ‘responsibility’, leads to an even wider meaning. To be responsible for something is to be accountable for it, to have earned or been given authority in relation to it, and to be seen as reliable in relation to the task you’ve been given.

The students today were given, and accepted, the huge responsibility of putting on an event showcasing young artistic talent to their family, their peers and the larger community. They will be held accountable for their learning by essentially everyone who attends the show (hundreds of family, friends, peers, etc) as the night is basically one big critique of feedback on their year-long project. That aspect of the show is always nerve-wracking for me, I can’t imagine how they must feel at their younger age.

They earned the authority to take charge of their learning and I handed over as much power as possible during the set up today. I wanted them in charge. I wanted them making the decisions. I backed off more during the set up this year than in any years previously and I enjoyed watching the students take over. It’s interesting to see how they accept that leadership role. In all the chaos, all the confusion, all the panicked moments, they did a great job. They are so smart; it never ceases to amaze me how clever and practical and insightful students can be. They impressed me with their work ethic and their motivation to get the job done and do it to the best of their abilities. They chose to stay late too, not leaving until the job was complete.

By having the students responsible for the set up, I was trusting in their reliability. For a student to realize that their teacher trusts and relies on him/her enough to hand over the set up of such an important, culminating event must be a powerful realization. I hope, in all the craziness of the day, that they did realize I trusted them to do a great job. I know they realized how much I was relying on them. I could see that they were feeling the pressure and I’m sure it helped to motivate them throughout such an exhausting day.

Ownership, responsibility, accountability, authority, reliability, trust. That’s a powerful learning experience. And the show hasn’t even started yet…

Imagery by Erik B on Flickr.com.

 

My First and Greatest Teacher – My Mom

I’ve been saving this one for today.

Many educators write about their role models – those amazing people who we aspire to be. I’ve read many posts by teachers who want to acknowledge and pay tribute to those wonderful people they respect and admire. There is always at least one person that inspired us to follow the career path that leads into the classroom.

For me, that person was my mother.

I loved school when I was little.  I was a quiet, shy, little girl and I found everything about school very easy. I thrived with kind and caring teachers. I remember sitting at my desk looking out the window at the rainy day beyond with a feeling of safety and contentment.

I also learned at home, as all children do, but my experience was different from most. My mother returned to finish her teaching degree when I was seven. My younger brother and I became her ‘guinea pigs’ as she tried various teaching strategies, etc. on us before trying them with her students. I remember sitting at the kitchen table doing art projects, science experiments and various other activities with her.

Mom earned her degree, chose a grade two position in a small town and we moved there the summer before I entered grade four. Unfortunately, my school experiences during the next two years were almost the exact opposite of what I had previously enjoyed. I was the ‘city slicker’ and excluded by my classmates from the start. The only happy memories from school at that time are focussed on academic successes.

Many years ago, as a student teacher, I completed an assignment based on my memories of school. The purpose of the assignment was to make connections between early learning experiences and the emerging belief system we were developing as new teachers. At that time, research reminded me that the learning methods widely used when I was a child involved sitting, reading quietly at a desk, and learning by writing answers to questions in a text or workbook and rote learning.

I remember thinking that that didn’t sound like the kind of classroom that would create a love of learning! It certainly wasn’t what I had envisioned for my future students! Where did my concept of what a classroom should be like come from? 

I love active learning and getting my students involved. I am passionate about helping them discover new interests. I was confused about my success as a child in what I now perceived to be a stale learning environment which didn’t resemble my beliefs at all. Perhaps I had been successful largely because I was well behaved, a strong reader and an independent learner? At the time, I was also perplexed by the fact that although I strongly disliked school after moving, my love of learning continued throughout my intermediate years and beyond. It did not seem to make much sense. 

It was at that point that I realized my love of learning and my teaching style came from my mother.

Through that assignment years ago, I came to the important realization that my most cherished memories of learning were when I learned with my mother. I have many happy memories collecting shells at the beach, finger painting at the kitchen table and hours spent reading with and to my mom. I also realized that my varied interests, from science experiments, to a love of literature and a passion for art were the result of her influence. She had always taken an interest in my likes and dislikes. With gentle and caring encouragement, she helped me to follow my dreams, however varied they were, and no matter how often they changed.

I love learning in general and in a variety of ways and in a variety of subject areas thanks to my mom:  my first and greatest teacher.  She was the reason I wanted to become a teacher and she, as a mother and as a teacher, shaped my beliefs about teaching and learning. Her equivalent of a value statement, which was always at the front of her daybook, is incorporated into my teaching philosophy. She continued as my mentor throughout teacher training and during those first few years at the start of my teaching career. Her support was priceless.

My teaching remains completely student-centered and I still prefer active, hands-on learning largely because of her. I have a strong personal background and an intense passion for a variety of subjects because of her. Now I gently encourage my students to pursue their interests and discover passion in life, as she did with me. If I can be half the teacher she was, I’ll consider myself a success.

My mother was an educator for 22 years and was a master of her craft. As good as she was at teaching (and she was excellent), she was a better mom. She died six years ago, a slow, painful death from a horrible disease. I miss her so much, and in so many ways, sometimes grieving as a daughter, other times wishing I could consult with my teacher-mentor/mom. Her immediate effect on my teaching and my life is gone, but her influence is firmly woven into my teaching, my learning, my everything.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. This one was for you.