This paper contains excerpts summarizing my arts-informed Master’s thesis, autoethnographic reflections in the form of lyric, collage, and personal narrative exploring an inner, emotional journey to regaining strength and rediscovering passion after a period of teacher burn-out.
The Jar as Metaphor: The Heart of My Learning
The role of the Canadian educator has expanded to supporting the whole student. From fear of violence in schools to increased awareness of mental health issues to data-driven school improvement plans, educators in Canada face many stresses. It has become common for educators to experience “burn-out,” to become cynical, or to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to be more than an expert in a given field. Today in education we are often supporting students in navigating the human experience.
To build resiliency, educators need to come out of isolation and build communities of trust. We need to be able to acknowledge and express our inner landscapes: the thoughts and feelings beneath the surface of responding to every day routines, events, and duties. For me, metaphor became a way of accessing and expressing what I learned in my early years of teaching.
For this inquiry, jars symbolized the collected stories and emotions of my inner life as a young teacher. By preserving memory and capturing experience in metaphorical jars, I discovered that a teacher can hold a moment up to the light for a closer look through the jar’s transparent walls.
Jars can be used for preserving or collecting or storing or capturing. We purchase things in jars. We give things away in jars. From holding delicacies to treasures to waste to hardware, glass jars have lingered in homes and garages and schools and workplaces since the mid-1800s.
Jars provide form. Jars give shape to their contents. Jars organize. Jars have their limitations too. They can be restrictive and confined, separating and compartmentalizing. Each jar has a limited capacity. Jars are fragile, chipping or shattering when dropped. Glass walls are transparent, leaving the contents vulnerable and visible.
Looking through Glass Walls: The Value of Self-Reflection
Self-understanding is integral to being a resilient educator. To me, education is about social change; it is about tending to community and supporting social justice. We are human first, then educators. Education is broader than the subject, it can connect to the common humanity in learners. We engage in inquiry together, to share diverse perspectives, to become partners in the discovery. A teacher can also be a facilitator, creating opportunities for critical engagement and dialectical thinking. Teachers are more than subject-matter experts. I feel it is the duty as an educator to go beyond the prescribed curriculum, to help build community, to be sure that students learn the names of other students in our class, to provide opportunities for students to celebrate individuality as well as to celebrate that which unifies us as people.
Being an educator can be a monumental vocation when you “begin with the world.” Resiliency is essential.
Teaching in a Bell Jar: My Story
Teacher burn-out does not happen overnight. It is gradual, accumulative. My teacher burn-out was not a direct result of the events of September 11, 2001 but the events hung low like a heavy smoke blanket in my consciousness.
In the days after September 11, I stood at the front of the class unable to answer the students’ questions about the events. I was twenty-six years old. I remember the school had made some announcements about sending prayers to the families of the deceased and the fire fighters who worked diligently to rescue people trapped in the debris. Staff occasionally talked about bits they had heard on the news over lunch. Friends and family exchanged sad comments akin to the mechanical small talk at a funeral. After a week passed, few people talked about the events.
But students in my class had questions. Students talked about relatives in New York. Students wanted to know more about the buildings, the terrorists, the reasons why the events had taken place. Students looked to me, their teacher, for answers. I did not know how to articulate my fear and pain and frustration. I did not know how to support the students. I did not know where to find support for myself.
The first five years of being an educator include many lessons. New teachers prepare unit plans and respond to student behavior while balancing co-curricular activities. New teachers experience, reflect, and change every day. Although learning is integral to the culture of a classroom teacher at all stages of his or her career, the first five years of teaching are paramount. New teachers learn through experience about pedagogy, curriculum, people, workplace politics, and self. Learning occurs in at least two circles: the outer circle of the self as teacher and the inner circle of the self as person. Like a Venn diagram the circles overlap.
While a new teacher learns how to engage students and how to master curriculum in his or her outer circle, what is happening in his or her inner circle? How does he or she change through the process of learning?
As I burned-out, my inner landscape was in trouble. On the outside I looked like a competent teacher. I responded to classroom events following school protocol. I moved through the curriculum while balancing the diverse needs of students. I supported coworkers who were having a bad day or a bad week. I found time to direct the school play and orchestrate the tech set-up for assemblies. I managed student behavior in a Drama room with no desks. Most of the time I was content. Some days I would say to my colleagues at lunch “I love my job.”
Pride and shame prevented me from reaching out as a young teacher. I did not want to appear incompetent or incapable or unsatisfactory. I pretended to know how to respond. When I was asked how things were going in my class I replied “fine.” If witnessing a fight in the cafeteria while on duty bothered me, I kept quiet. I showed up to work and I smiled. I tried to focus on the positive things like the talent of the students in my classes or the small kindnesses I watched staff exchange each day.
The more I repressed my feelings the harder it became to smile. It felt like I was taking in all the pain and sadness my students shared about their relationships, academic pressure, conflicts, and addictions. As more students reached out for help a little more air was pumped out of the bell jar. I did not know how to help the students nor how to protect myself from their pain. My empathetic nature internalized their sadness.
To be resilient I needed to learn how to manage emotion. As the air was being pumped out of my bell jar I did not know that I was the one who was holding the vacuum.
Filling the Jar: Life and Research Intersect
David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle includes experiencing, reflecting, theorizing, and applying. Like many other educators, I experienced burn-out so I used my experience to explore the research. Through the healing process I reflected on what made me feel defeated in an attempt to make meaning out of the experience. Then I consulted doctors, counsellors, friends, and books to extend my understanding of burn-out. Finally, I created and implemented a plan for change. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle provides a framework for demonstrating how I learned to turn defeatism into resilience.
Mary Catherine Bateson described learning as a spiral. Placing this idea alongside Kolb’s learning theory I can see how similar cycles and spirals can be. Kolb’s theory spiralled through my relationships, career decisions, and self- awareness. Cole and Knowles explained the experiential learning cycle/spiral: “Experience or practice provides the basis for reflection and analysis, which in turn informs future action.” Throughout my career, learning to be resilient will spiral through large and small events.
The spiral started somewhere in the middle of my every day, going up, down, this way or that way. It seemed a light moved through the spiral itself like a dancing ball in a tube to show me where I have been, where I was in the present, and where I needed to go. The spiral had warm and cool spots, clear and foggy spots. What surprised me most was that everything connected in the spiral; everything was a part of everything else. Even in Kolb’s learning cycle all of the learning is informed by prior learning, everything connected.
Marilyn Taylor’s model of the learning cycle suggests that learners begin with a disorientation phase or destabilizing experience. When I began my career I enjoyed teaching. I became disoriented when teaching became difficult and I lacked the inner strength to cope. Subsequently, I reached my saturation point and burned out. After I started asking for help and beginning the healing process, I had arrived at the Reorientation phase of Taylor’s cycle.
Learning is change. Change is difficult. Learning how to overcome burn-out and develop resiliency was hard and slow. It took three years to move from realizing I needed help to regaining my zest for work and my confidence in responding to conflict.
When I examined old journals I was surprised to discover two entries from 2004 that identified the problem and a solution. My writing revealed my growing apathy for teaching a “subject,” my sensitivity to personal relations at work, my draining energy from perceived monotony and poor self-care. It also listed my needs for teamwork, later mornings, a life outside of work, enthusiastic mentors, creative projects, and a deliberate approach to self-care.
As Taylor’s cycle suggests I recognized that “the learner is where the learning happens and the learner’s own views and judgments are centrally involved.” To move into the next phase I needed to better understand how my perspective of the teaching environment became distorted, gain insight on how the pattern played out in my life, and apply the new perspective.
If we layer Taylor’s more emotional cycle over Kolb’s experiential learning cycle it is clear that learning was happening on many levels. As Taylor’s cycle indicates I had the experience of burning out. For two years I reflected on what upset the balance in my life and began to ask questions about how I could develop inner strength. I began to make meaning and conceptualize what was happening. To shift my perspective I needed a catalyst.
When I learned how to trust my community of friends, family, and colleagues, my engagement in teaching could feel reborn. Both Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and Taylor’s learning cycle fit naturally with learning that occurred before I knew of their cycles. Learning processes were at work in my life even when I was not aware.
The Fairy Tale: Life as a New Teacher
Once upon a time a teacher gets a first job. He has always wanted to be a teacher. She is thrilled. He works hard. She loves her work. He says yes to supervise dances, attend parent nights, coach basketball, moderate the Eco Club, and run the school’s recycling program. Life is good.
One day she gets tired but she does not take time to rest. He adds more supervising and coaching and moderating to his schedule. She thinks about her students when she is at work and when she is at home. His life becomes his work. Then she burns out. He feels defeated. She prays for strength. He starts to resent the time he spends at school. She responds in cranky tones when students ask for help. He carries the weight of his work on his back and does not even stop to use his health benefits for a massage.
She finds a pamphlet in her mailbox at work about the employee assistance program. He talks about how tired he is and how hard it is to say no. She wishes she worked at the bank. Now he also moderates the school’s breakfast program. Her work and life are out of balance. With the help of his friends, his family, and his bulldog named Lucy he makes changes. The changes are small at first.
She goes for walks every morning. He goes to bed earlier so he can read his favourite Canadian authors like Joseph Boyden and Yann Martel and Alice Munro. She takes a break from coaching. He declines hosting the department party. She needs space, just for a year. He needs to get the house ready for when his baby is born. She joins recreational volley-ball in the evenings. He learns how to landscape. She has movie night with the girls. He has Saturday morning coffee with the guys.
Then, like magic, she likes teaching Creative Writing again. He laughs with the students every day. She wakes up before the alarm clock. He looks forward to marking because he is curious to know if the students are learning. She is proud to be a teacher. He applies for a job as department head. And the students and teacher lived happily ever after….
The story does not end here. Our lives do not follow a three act structure. The end of burn-out does not guarantee everlasting happiness and peace and passion. Likewise, every story is as unique as each individual teacher. After a teacher experiences burn-out she may choose to make changes. If the teacher is a reflective practitioner, he may use the experience as a learning opportunity. Healing after burn- out can take weeks or months or years.
But a teacher can choose to burn-in. Burning-in is about finding a mind, body, ground, sky connection. It is about listening to an inner voice, living in the present, being aware of intention, and finding passion in work. It is about dreaming and creating and listening and giving and feeling. Through burning-in I gained a deeper understanding of self, affirmed my calling as an educator, and developed resiliency to cope when the work became challenging again.
Defining “Burn-In:” We Have Choices
Writing allows me to take a moment and put it in a jar. Then I hold the jar up to the light and examine it, see how it can be changed when different elements are added or taken away.
To burn-in is to look inside oneself for wisdom, for direction, for strength. To burn-in is to connect to the fire in one’s belly that motivates and inspires. Engaged in a continuous cycle of praxis, reflection and action, our inner worlds change.
Toward the end of the summer of 2004 I had developed an action plan that included regular self check-ins, attention to self-care, a better work-life balance. But it also listed healthy ways to express and cope with emotion, how to safeguard myself from the negative energy of others, how to resist over-committing to demands on my time, how to transition when a dread of returning to work settled in on a Sunday night, and finally how to remain connected to my preferred, balanced, seemingly in control self.
Metaphor and Inquiry: How Metaphor Helped Me Make Meaning Out of Experience
Sunshine in a Jar is a symbol to represent the inner life. It is an ideal state of being. It represents creativity and spirit and passion and resiliency and interconnectedness and love. This metaphor served as the entry point to the inquiry. I had many questions. How does Sunshine in a Jar connect to my identity and perspective? How does the metaphor connect to and reveal my inner life? Could metaphor be used as a tool for gaining a greater understanding of self? What is the value of a personal metaphor? What are the stories or events in my life that demonstrate the significance of Sunshine in a Jar?
The use of arts-informed inquiry opened up and represented my inner life in ways that surprised me. It gave me access to memory and emotion. As the work evolved, a definition of Sunshine in a Jar surfaced as a symbol of resilience and passion. I wondered how I could use my story of developing resiliency and rediscovering a love of teaching after a period of burn-out to support other young teachers. I wondered if by sharing my journey, by articulating inner learning, I could share possibilities with other teachers experiencing burn-out. Arts-informed inquiry could accomplish two things: represent the inner life of an educator and appeal to a wide audience.
When I think of Sunshine in a Jar I think about light, creativity, enthusiasm, insight, vocation, and love. The image embodies my understanding of resiliency. The glass jar is the form, the container that permits me to capture things or ideas that seem impossible, and to carry them wherever I choose. The glass jar can also preserve brightness and strength. I can take the lid off whenever I want to let life, people or feeling into the jar or out of the jar. It is a personal metaphor, its meaning can change as I change.
Many teachers experience burn-out. Many teachers have developed resiliency as a result. The importance of the inquiry was not just about telling a story of burn-out and resiliency. Rather, it was an opportunity to learn how to articulate the experience in order to share it with other teachers, to represent story from the inside-out.
Who are Resilient Teachers?
- Have a sense of self-efficacy and ignite a sense of efficacy in others.
- Acknowledge the inner life and draws on inner strength in times of difficulty to perspective can change, life can change.
- Feel comfortable with not knowing all the answers.
- Are prepared and flexible.
- Understand that they cannot always be in control.
- Put their trust in others, including students, colleagues, administrators, and their personal circles of influence.
- Trust their intuition.
- May be afraid, but they do not let fear prevent them from doing what needs to be done.
- Show up, they open the door even though the writing on the wall does not match their expectations.
- Understand the rewards of being still, of careful observation, and of curiosity.
- Try to live in the moment. The past does not define the future. Rather, the past and future inform the present.
- Seek learning opportunities in large and small events.
- Understand that inner strength develops within community. Teaching and learning can be limited in isolation and can be enriched by solitude.
- Take risks.
- Listen to their inner voices.
- Are reflective practitioners.
- Recognize moments of insight.
- Make decisions rooted in purpose, passion, and integrity.
- Respond to the world around them.
- Understand interconnectedness, cause and effect, and the greater good.
- Choose to turn adversity into opportunity.
Like a child who enters the backyard on a beautiful day with an empty jar and a curious mind, this inquiry welcomed surprise. Above all, to be resilient educators need to have open minds. What does your jar look like? What do you keep inside? Open the jar.
- Myles Horton inspires me: “Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But the best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will all say we have done it ourselves” (Horton & Freire, 1990, pp. 247-248).
- Boal and Freire inspire me to facilitate for the purpose of connecting learners to the world, to each other: “For Freire, humans can lift themselves to a higher level of consciousness and become subjects to the extent of their interventions in society, their reflection on this intervention, and their commitment to this engagement in society” (Elias & Meriam, 2005, p. 154).
- To be thoroughly, humanly ‘with the world’ means that people would have developed a critical perception and would have taken collectively their environmental, social, political, and economic destiny into their own hands. To begin that struggle is to begin with the world” (Mojab, Winter 2011).
- “Most of [first year teachers] describe their first year of teaching as positive, reporting the experience as excellent (32 per cent) or good (47 per cent) and their professional satisfaction as excellent (28 per cent) or good (40 per cent). Similar numbers report that their confidence level is excellent (29 per cent) or good (45 per cent). Almost half (48 per cent) give an unsatisfactory rating to their job security. And yet, almost four out of five (78 per cent) say they are optimistic for their professional future” (McIntyre, 2011).
- “Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications” (Bateson, 1994, p. 30).
- (Cole & Knowles, 2008, p. 94)
- “If the change is experienced as disconfirming, that is, one that disconfirms one’s self-system or personal model of reality, then the individual is thrown into a disorientation phase in which confusion, anxiety, and tension increase and the learner experiences a crisis of self-confidence” (MacKeracher, 2004, p. 64).
- (MacKeracher, 2004, p. 67)
- “Most of our life we’re put in a cage, where we sing the same song day in and day out. But life is not about being caged, life is about flying” (Heward & Bacon, 2006, p. 132).
- “Resilience, defined as the capacity to continue to ‘bounce back,’ to recover strengths or spirit quickly and efficiently in the face of adversity, is closely allied to a strong sense of vocation, self-efficacy and motivation to teach which are fundamental to a concern for promoting achievement in all aspects of students’ lives” (Gu & Day, 2007, p. 1302).
Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.
Castro, A. J., Kelly, J., & Shih, M. (2010). Resilience Strategies for New Teachers in HighNNeeds Areas. Teaching and Teacher Educa;on, 622N629.
Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2001). Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research. Lanham, MA: AltaMira Press.
Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2008). ArtsNInformed Research. In J. G. Knowles, & A. L. Cole, Handbook of the Arts in Qualita;ve Research (pp. 55N70). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage PublicaXons.
Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2008). Researching Teaching: Exploring Teacher Development through Reflexive Inquiry. Halifax, Nova ScoXa: Backalong Books.
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Teaching and Teacher Educa;on, 1302N1316. Heward, L., & Bacon, J. U. (2006). The Spark: Igni;ng the Crea;ve Fire that Lives Within Us
All. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada. Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking: Conversa;ons on Educa;on
and Social Change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Leithwood, K., & Riehl, C. (2003). What We Know About Successful School Leadership.
Opening the Jar/Outram 20
Philadelphia, PA: Laboratory for Student Success, Temple University. MacKeracher, D. (2004). Making Sense of Adult Learning (Second Edi;on). Toronto, Ontario:
University of Toronto Press Incorporated.
McIntyre, F. (2011, March). Transi;on to Teaching 2010. Retrieved May 23, 2011, from Professionally Speaking: The Magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers: hep:// professionallyspeaking.oct.ca/march_2011/features/T2T.aspx
Mezirow, J. a. (2000). Learning as Transforma;on: Cri;cal Perspec;ves on a Theory in Progress (Josse Bass Higher and Adult Educa;on). San Francisco, CA: JosseyNBass.
Mojab, S. (Winter 2011). Adult EducaXon Without Borders. In S. Mojab, Introduc;on to Adult Educa;on Winter Session Course Pack. Toronto, Ontario: Department of Adult EducaXon and Community Development & Counselling Psychology, OISE, University of Toronto.
Nagel, G. (1994). The Tao of Teaching. New York, NY: Primus.
Outram, Jessica (2011). Opening the Jar: Autoethnographic Reflec;ons on Teaching and Developing Resiliency. MA thesis. Toronto, Ontario: Department of Adult EducaXon and Counselling Psychology, OISE, University of Toronto. Web. University of Toronto Research Repository.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco, Ca: John Wiley & Sons.
Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right[Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
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Public Agenda. (2007). A Mission of the Heart: What Does It Take to Transform a School? New York, NY: Wallace FoundaXon.
Thorpe, K., & Chenier, L. (2011). Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces: Perspec;ves of Canadian Workers and Front[Line Managers. Oeawa, Ontario: The Conference Board of Canada.
We have been having a blast this year learning like an astronaut. In the fall, I launched a program designed to engage the whole school in exploring 21st Century learning skills. We called it “Learning like an Astronaut.” For one school year we are trying to answer this question: “If we were going to learn like an astronaut, what would we need to do?”
My goals for creating this program were:
- To inspire students to see themselves as learners
- To create a sense of belonging and excitement about learning
- To increase student engagement
- To explore how inquiry works and how feedback works
The First Challenge:
Our first challenge we learned about the importance of becoming healthy and strong. Classes created amazing fitness tests. Classes earn points by meeting the criteria for the challenge. The criteria is set by and assessed by a student team with representatives from each class.
We delivered feedback in two ways: immediate video feedback and later written feedback. After observing each class the students responsible for feedback spoke as I recorded them using my iPhone. Before the end of the school day, I emailed the teacher the video. All the videos were also posted in a Google Drive. Teachers all have access to the drive and many classes went in and watched the feedback videos created for other classes too.
The students in the Space Crew deliver the feedback for all the challenges. They determine the success criteria and the number of points. They decided it should be the same for all the challenges. At the end of each challenge, I facilitate the Space Crew and scribe for them–the feedback is all theirs!!
Here is the feedback from the first challenge: Feedback for all Classes from Challenge #1
The Second Challenge
In the second challenge we explored a subject “fit for an astronaut.” Students could choose something to learn about in Math, Science, or Technology. They needed to become an expert in the topic and share their learning with another class. This was a hard one!
Students in the Grade 1/2 class all wrote books about the moon and shared them with kindergarten students. Students in Grade 2/3 researched space facts in their literacy centres, collected all their facts and turned them into an educational live tv show for the Grade 1/2 class. Students in Grade 7/8 studied aerodynamics and shared their learning with Grade 4. And the kindergarten students learned some space songs and sang them for the Grade 1/2 class.
It was interesting to see the curiosity building among students. They asked questions about what students in other classes were learning. This is about the time I started walking in on impromptu learning conversations among students during non-instructional times.
In January we invited the Peterborough Planetarium to visit. We were amazed by the high level of student engagement. Students recognized planets and were able to ask very specific questions. We didn’t prepare them for the visit (outside of the monthly challenges). The expert was also amazed by the level of thought in the student questions. Since we have been focusing on the skills we were surprised by how much students had learned about space.
Here are some of the skills we are focusing on: We are learning to…
When students spend prolonged time in the office they have the option of choosing a book from my basket. I added two big books about space. They always pick the space books. Students from K-8 flip through the books or look at the big map of the solar system on my office wall. One week I added a paper and pen, asking students who chose the space books to write down some questions about space.
Then I typed up their questions and randomly posted them all around the school.
I didn’t tell anyone. Just posted the questions one day. I didn’t even tell the staff.
As students noticed the questions, they started trying to answer them. While waiting in line for French class they debated why the sun shines so brightly. One student went around with a clipboard, recording all the questions and then looking at other walls around the school for answers. Then he would smile brightly, find his teacher, find me, and say, “I got it!”
Some students went in groups, moving from question to question. One teacher said to me, “Looks like the students are doing a scavenger hunt.” She didn’t realize I had put up the questions and the students were doing this “work,” this learning all on their own. This was another big shift in this project. It now truly belonged to the students.
Here is the document with their questions: What shape is Earth?
The Third Challenge
This has been by far the most engaging challenge sparking a lot of school and community learning conversations.
Your Third Mission Handout
We had full school participation in this one! Here are just a few of the robots:
And check out this video of the robot designed by the Grade 5/6 class!!
We are officially hooked on space! Our first challenge in our Learning Like an Astronaut project was to design a fitness test. We had full participation–every class delivered amazing entries with all students participating.
Classes had a month to learn about fitness and design a training program. The results were out of this world!
- Kindergarten read a book about space and then danced their way to fitness, showing their knowledge through movement.
- Grade 1/2 rewrote the words to the Hokey Pokey and included all sorts of strength, cardio, and agility exercises.
- Grade 2/3 created an actual training program with some tough elements, showing good form, stamina, and creativity. They even had students dressed as trainers leading the program and announcing how each exercise could prepare you for space.
- Grade 4 used this as a top secret mission putting together an outdoor obstacle course. They photographed the students completing the tasks, added written explanations of the exercises (by the students), and put it altogether in a fancy multimedia presentation. Whoa.
- Grade 5/6 (winners of this challenge) used every inch of the gym to put together stations that were named after space phenomena and the students were definitely sweating with this intense workout.
- Grade 7/8 used their tech skills to edit a video with flashing laser beams and “Eye of the Tiger.” It was very eye-catching and showed good team spirit.
Our Process for Reviewing Entries
We had a Specialized Space Crew of six students from various classes responsible for judging the entries. The students were referred by their teachers.The students created the success criteria.
Four of the six classes invited us to watch their fitness test. Two classes submitted their evidence electronically. After watching each entry our student group recorded their first impressions and shared positive feedback in a video. Before the next day, I sent the video to the class to view on their Smartboard within 24 hours. We felt it was important that the feedback was immediate.
During the fitness tests I took photos and videos so we would have documentation of the entries. All the files were placed in Google Drive so staff and students could spy on other classes and review all the entries. A number of classes spent some time on Friday reviewing the entries. It surprised me that students were most interested in listening to the feedback videos. The idea is that classes can learn from each other by assessing different approaches to the challenge.
Today the Specialized Space Crew spent two hours reviewing the evidence and videos, making notes and assigning points to each class.
I scribed their thoughts but all the points and feedback were direct student voice (not mine). Here are the class feedback sheets: Feedback for all Classes from Challenge #1
We had two classes tied in the points. To decide the one winner of this challenge, we asked the judges from those classes to step out of the room and the remaining judges discussed the two entries until they reached consensus on the winner. The winning class receives pizza so the stakes were high.
It was clear from the entries that students learned the value of being healthy and strong.
Our Next Challenge
The ink on the winner’s certificate hadn’t even dried and students were asking for the next challenge. We have a high level of student engagement for this project.
Here is the second challenge to be launched in the morning:
The Grade 5/6 class requested a music lesson but the teacher wanted to challenge me a bit more and push me out of my comfort zone. So last week I taught my first science lesson! The assigned topic: biodiversity.
This was a good challenge indeed. I struggled with staying focused, wanting to map out a whole unit. Science is awesome! Since the students were in the early part of the unit, the focus needed to be on classifying and organizing species. My preparations kept leading me to ecology and the impact of biodiversity on our planet. I only had 50 minutes of teaching/learning time with the students so I needed to be intentional with my laser beam learning focus. I learned before students can truly understand impact, they needed to understand the scope of what’s out there. The teacher graciously answered my many, many questions as I prepared this lesson.
- To continue with using a 3-part lesson, learning goals, and success criteria.
- To include opportunities for feedback.
- To design and implement an open task that provided multiple entry points, cooperative learning, opportunities for inquiry, and opportunities for students to share their thinking.
- To have a high level of student engagement.
- To ensure the Grade 5s (who are studying the body could still participate without prior knowledge of biodiversity).
The Lesson: Come to Australia
Using power point slides I introduced the lesson. A few years ago I went on a school trip to Australia (it’s true). When we think of Australia we often think of soft, cuddly koalas. How is wildlife different in Australia than in Canada?
Here is a quick overview of the power point slides: Come to Australia
When we first arrived in Australia, our tour guide shared this song with us:
First the class listened to the song. Then I gave each student lyrics to the song. We sang it together three times.
Students loved this song! Their energy shifted and their minds totally opened to whatever the next hour would bring. The song caught them by surprise, appealed to their sense of humour, and gave them insight into a new perspective on Australia. (At the end of the lesson, the students begged to sing it again and again and again. Throughout the day, students were singing this song to me as they passed me in the halls).
Learning Goal: We are learning to sort and classify species from Australia.
- I can organize species into vertebrate classes.
- I can describe species using details that help to distinguish them.
- I can predict behaviours of species based on their appearances.
On our trip we visited Blue Mountains and hiked through a rainforest. We went to Bondi Beach and walked in the waves. We went to an aquarium and wildlife parks. I have hundreds of pictures of wildlife from the trip–but now I’ve forgotten the names of what I photographed!
I need the help of zoologists. What do zoologists do? They ask OGY questions (zoolOGY)–Oh gee why? And they look deeply. They look into the species rather than at the species.
In groups, students were given an envelope with 30 pictures of wildlife from Australia and a large sheet of paper. They needed to sort and organize the pictures, beginning with “Oh gee why” questions to spark discussion and then looking deeply into the pictures for clues as to where they should be placed.
Use a classification system of your choice to sort the pictures:
- Physical appearance
- Structural characteristics
- Class within the animal kingdom
- Scary factor
Checklist–Does your classification system…
- Group species in a way that makes sense?
- Use labels that show characteristics?
- Show what you know about wildlife?
Big challenge (if you want it): Create groupings where the wildlife can only belong to one of the groups (no overlap in characteristics).
The class went to work immediately, pulling the photos out of the envelope and laying them out across the desk. They had more questions than answers and could not name most of the wildlife in the pictures. One group decided to sort the pictures based on “cuteness” but were surprised to find that they could not reach consensus on defining “cute.” Some groups tried to use predator and prey as their headings, developing hypothesis’ as to which animals would be in each category based on appearance. Groups with Grade 6 students who have already been introduced to biodiversity organized the pictures using the class system (what they could remember of it after two introductory lessons). While students worked there were a range of discussions from debating kangaroos to questioning the differences between reptiles and amphibians. One student mentally departed from his group to map out a more complicated system. As you can see from their work, there are many interesting choices here and opportunities for students to share their thinking and justify their choices. The student work also shows where more learning is needed.
After the students were finished with their systems they did a gallery walk, moving around the room looking at how the others had organized the photos. Then we had a discussion using these questions as prompts:
- What was similar and/or different in how other groups organized the photos?
- What questions do you have now? What will we need to investigate next?
- What did you like best about a system another group designed? What did you like best about the system you designed?
We went around the room one group at a time. Students offered reflections on what they had learned and what they liked best about the system they designed. I also offered feedback to each group based on our learning goal and success criteria.
To finish this lesson we watched another short video clip (before singing the song a few more times!)
While the students worked on the task it was challenging to ask probing questions, assess the progress of the group, and the progress of the individual all at once and then retaining this in my head. I didn’t develop a formal tracking system to use while the students worked. Ideally, I would have a clipboard with a list of look-fors to monitor individual students. I walked away from the lesson/task knowing how groups performed and how some individuals worked, but I would not be able to account for assessing each student’s learning without some monitoring system in place. Relying on my mind/memory to collect and synthesize the information would not be enough.
If I were to do this lesson again, I would create “assessment for learning” tools for making notes on groups and individuals.
The student feedback was excellent. Here are some of their comments on the lesson:
- “For your first science lesson, that was really good.”
- “Always put something at the end that makes students happy. Then we are happy when the learning is done.”
- “I give it a million out of one.”
- “You are a good teacher because you travel. When you travel you learn a lot.”
And the teacher hoped to extend the lesson the next day based on her observations of student learning and next steps.
In the summer, as I drove back and forth to the cottage, I listened to Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and it inspired me. Hadfield’s passion for learning is just the sort of learning energy I wished my students could find. From planning to become an astronaut to preparing for a mission to recovering after a mission, Hadfield’s book is filled with lessons we all need.
Astronauts need to be able to excel as individuals and as part of a team. Not only are astronauts super cool and fascinating, but they are artists, athletes, and scientists. They have developed mastery in many areas by learning with intention.
“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person.” Chris Hadfield
I wondered how I could use the ideas in Chris Hadfield’s book to inspire my school community, engage students, and build some learning spirit.
What would it be like if we all learned like astronauts?
So I developed a year long whole school mission. Our goal is to discover two things:
- What can life in space teach us about life on earth?
- If we were going to learn like an astronaut, what would we need to do?
To accomplish our mission we have three main monthly experiences:
- Monthly class challenges embedded with K-8 curriculum.
- Monthly space days with intramural activities to encourage healthy active living, teamwork, and leadership.
- Bulletin board in the centre of our school to document evidence of our learning and progress toward our goal.
To launch the program, I met with two classes at a time in the library. When they entered the library a live view of earth from the International Space Station was projected on the screen to be used as a provocation for student thinking.
None of our students had ever seen this before.
Once they were all seated, I asked the students questions.
What do you think this is? How do you know it’s earth? Who is recording this? What is that?
Most of the students could identify that it was a view of earth. None of the students identified the International Space Station, most suggesting instead that it was a satellite where television comes from. One student in each group talked about how the earth moved around the sun. Generally, students showed a limited understanding of space with the same few simple ideas repeating with each group: it’s dark, there’s no gravity, and there are planets.
After I put up the bulletin board, one of our staff asked why the moon wasn’t a planet. A parent asked if the students learned any of the physics behind the big bang theory. A student asked why the astronaut had a helmet and a pack on his back. Curiosity about space started to grow instantly.
At the presentation with the classes I outlined the two ways students would explore our mission: monthly class challenges and monthly space days.
The Classroom Challenges
I decided to roll out each challenge one month at a time. Each month will focus on developing a different skill so we can all learn more like astronauts.
- October: Prepare your body.
- November: Prepare your mind.
- December: Practice problem solving.
- January: Work as a team.
- February: Practice in the simulator.
- March: Figure out how things work.
- April: Explore technology.
- May: See things from another perspective.
- June: Find a real astronaut.
To launch our first challenge in October, I created a video to play in their classroom on the Smart-board (and made an avatar!!):
Why is it important for astronauts to prepare their bodies for space by becoming fit and strong?
Design a fitness test for astronauts and show evidence that your class has passed the test.
Classes will have until the end of the month to complete this challenge. We have a team of students to judge the entries with me. We will meet together this week to identify success criteria for this mission and post it in our hallway. For each challenge, points will be given for:
- Creativity and Imagination
- Connection to Our Mission
- Percentage of the Class Participating
Email me if you’d like a copy of the year at a glance so you can begin this project at your school–I didn’t want to post it here yet because the other missions are still top secret at my school.
Teacher Resources: Design a fitness test for astronauts
Some sites with great resources for educators:
We are part of a Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools pilot project and healthy active living is a priority for our staff. We have set up monthly Space Days which are basically whole school K-8 intramural cooperative sports for 100 minutes. We want to use these days to build school spirit, cooperation skills, physical fitness, and well-being.
There are clear connections with three of the Active Healthy Living strands: Living Skills, Active Living, and Healthy Living. Through our Space Days students will develop interpersonal skills (communication and social skills), critical and creative thinking skills, participation in a wide variety of activities, physical fitness, safety, and making connections that relate to personal safety.
Our first Space Day was a huge success. Students were divided into teams (each named after a planet and assigned a colour). From big ball volleyball to a challenging obstacle course to x-ball, there were six activities to engage teams.
Documenting Our Learning
As we learn about space and life in space our learning will go up on this board so we can continue to learn and make connections:
Thank-you Col. Chris Hadfield for inspiring this project!!
1) Begin with a question
Why does the moss cover parts of the tree trunk? Inquiry is as simple as a single question. When we see the world through questions we welcome learning into our lives. It is easy to say that children are naturally curious, but why are some children more curious than others? Why do some six year olds ask about moss on the tree and others didn’t even notice the tree?
Inquiry begins with a question, yes–but where do questions come from?
Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” In the Information Age questions are more important than ever. How often do you ask questions? What impact do your questions have on what you need to know or what you do next?
Someone once told me about a book called Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. Are questions really so powerful?
This week I’ve been thinking about how we can create the conditions for curiosity:
- Attention and focus: Like the girl in the picture, questions are often found when we pay attention to details. I try to look for questions with more enthusiasm than I look for answers.
- Engagement: Writers often say “write what you know.” But I prefer the twist that says, “write what you’re interested in then go out and know it.” Where there is engagement, there are questions!
- Practice: Ask questions every day. It can be a mind flip to ask questions and it takes time to be able to develop good ones. I find I need to ask a dozen (or more) questions to get to one really good one.
Before I can ask a question I need to pay attention, I need to be engaged and interested, and I need to know what a good question looks like.
2) Ask more questions over time
My friend Tom shared with me a project he used with children to spark curiosity about trees. First he made some kits with magnifying glasses, tape measures, paper/pencil, etc. Then students selected a tree to track for the year, noting their questions and observations as the seasons passed.
He said the questions started with the obvious ones like what kind of tree is this? How big is it? How would I describe it? Then the students went deeper to ask what insects live in this tree? Which birds visit this tree? Why is my tree different from my classmate’s tree?
What started as a simple task turned into an inquiry into trees, developing the children’s appreciation for biology and an understanding of learning.
Tom calls it “OGY”–the last three letters in so many of the sciences. He says it like this: “oh gee why?”
I love this. When children express an interest in something I can ask “oh gee, why?”
Sally says, “There is a squirrel in that tree.”
“Oh, gee. Why?” I’d ask. That one simple question has the potential to spark a multitude of questions. It’s a simple question we can use to spark curiosity in ourselves and in others.
I’ve found that the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Things change for me over time and my questions always get better.
Years ago I started with the question, “why is my blog named Sunshine in a Jar?” The search turned into my Master’s thesis and now my life’s work. As our understanding changes, so do our questions.
3) Share your questions with others
Last week we had an amazing conference for principals and vice principals in our school board. Alan November, author of Who Owns the Learning, challenged us to think about how we are using technology in schools. Here are some key messages from his talk:
- “Global relationships may be the most powerful use of technology.”
- “What’s the most important skill of a learner in the age of the Internet? Teach students how to ask the most interesting questions.”
- “The real revolution is not technology: it’s information. What information do we need?”
The Internet is redefining our circle of influence. A number of years ago I began some research into my family tree. I wondered why my grandfather lived on an island in Georgian Bay in a lighthouse. Why does someone become a lighthouse keeper? Why were my relatives keepers for so many years?
Using my available resources, including family members and online databases, I searched for a year. Then I shared my questions and my findings with family. It turns out some of them had the same questions too. However, the best news was that someone had the French language skills I lacked to interpret documents that puzzled me. We found a fascinating ancestor named Ezekiel Solomon, the first Jewish man to live in Michigan, a fur trader who was a rival to the Northwest Trading Company and Hudson’s Bay prior to his capture by Pontiac (although he survived, his wealth did not).
I shared my questions again…and the questions that followed the first, turning it into a blog post. Now I was able to reach outside of my family and immediate circle to connect with ancestors across North America. At least once a month I receive emails or comments from people trying to learn more about Ezekiel Solomon. We share our findings and our questions. Last week I learned that his story is being turned into curriculum for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and students will be invited to visit my site to explore the comments from Ezekiel’s ancestors. What began as a post about my questions and learning has now expanded into a record of what others have learned, of how strangers are connected.
Like November stated, technology enabled me to develop relationships from learners seeking similar information, pursuing similar questions. The technology supported the sharing of information and generated new information through all the comments. This really excites me!!
And by sharing my questions, I opened the door for others to add questions, sparking curiosity in me for things I hadn’t thought about.
Sharing enriches learning.
4) Connect your questions with other questions
Make connections. I’ve watched a lot of great television and movies this summer. In nearly every crime story there is a scene where the detective lays out all the evidence, all the questions spread in front of him/her, and uses the display to generate more questions through the art of making connections.
I like to capture the questions, get them down on the page, or on cards, grabbing what facts I can and adding them to the mix. And then play like the detectives do, formulating hypotheses, the “what if” questions and “theory of action” statements.
5) Use the arts
One of my favourite quotes is from Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” The arts provide natural links to curiosity. The arts show a way to ask and explore questions from multiple perspectives. We began this post looking at inquiry through the eyes of a scientist, but artists are very similar. Artists require attention, engagement, practice, and “oh gee whys” too.
Innovation. Creation. Question. Each word ends in “ion,” a suffix related to action. I like to use the arts as an approach to inquiry because it is an active way to pursue an idea. Otherwise the idea floats around in my head without much progress.
I am so excited about the buzz in education about inquiry. If you are struggling to tap into your “natural curiosity” then bring in the arts. The arts will open inquiry up–it works every time for me.
This is a watercolour painting I made when I first started thinking about the phrase “sunshine in a jar.”
Then I explored it again using collage a few years later:
And then again a few years after that (note how the ideas are changing as I change). By this example, the jar isn’t even part of the creation as I discovered the important part is what is inside the jar:
6) Use a formal process
One of my learning goals this year is to develop my skills in facilitating group inquiries, or as we call them in Ontario education, Collaborative Inquiry. Last year I participated in an Intensive Literacy Project, a collaborative inquiry (CI) that involved three tiers of learning: student, teacher, and principal. It was among the most impactful professional learning of my career.
Jenni Donohoo put together a fabulous book called Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide for School Improvement. This year I hope to work through the ideas in her book with the hope of engaging my staff in purposeful learning.
She outlines the process with four key stages:
- Framing the problem
- Collecting evidence
- Analyzing evidence
- Documenting, Sharing, and Celebrating
7) Document your findings
How we end a cycle is as important as how we begin it. Documentation is part of consolidating our learning. When I took singing lessons as a teen, after I had learned a song, my singing teacher tapped me on the head and said: “Now put that into your personal computer up there.” But singing was never about what was going on in my head–when I had truly learned the song it was less about technical precision and more about embodiment. To remember a song, I didn’t focus on the words or the notes even. I reflected on how the song felt in my body, where the notes moved and vibrated, how I had connected to the story of the song to my story. I documented the experience of the song through feeling, an intentional recall of the sensations of singing/experiencing the song.
Documentation is so much more than a report. It’s a way to let the learning set into your body the way a song does. Even as I write this post, documenting my thinking about inquiry, I can feel my thinking changing. Not a lot. But my thinking is simultaneously gaining confidence and asking new questions sparked from the experience of writing.
I love, love, love pedagogical documentation. The phrasing can be alienating but the idea is simple: document learning in order to learn from the documentation.
Our Grade One class last year learned all about responsibility through reading various texts. The teacher tracked the student thinking related to the theme on the wall (see pic below). Then the students visited the wall to reflect on their thinking/learning as the term progressed, adding insights as they developed. In the end the students made a video showing their learning about responsibility to share with the Kindergarten class. The documentation wasn’t just about noting what the Grade Ones were learning, but it was about using their voice and ideas as the spark for more learning–for this class and another class. Beautiful!!
I have always loved questions.
My earliest memory of using questions in my teaching was about fifteen years ago. Grade 11 high school English. We studied Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Using a piece of blank 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, I wrote in black sharpie the names of themes around the edges of the page, leaving the centre blank. Friendship, good, evil, life, death, nature, survival, rules, and so on.
I set a timer for twenty minutes. Students filled the white space with questions about all the themes listed around the border. They filled their page with questions, only questions.
The next step was to review their questions and highlight three that were burning, that fascinated them most. I collected the sheets. I typed up the three questions from each page into a master list. The next day I distributed the master list and students prioritized the list of questions from most difficult to easiest, or most pressing to least. This list of questions became the focus of our study of Lord of the Flies. Sometimes the students used the questions as writing prompts in their daily journals.
We selected one question a day to work on together as a class. Big questions like: what is the meaning of life? We brainstormed on the chalkboard in crazy mind maps developing theories and tried to link them to the story. Sometimes one question lasted several days. As I used this approach in later years we often ended up going really deeply into one or two questions for the whole book.
As a young teacher I realized my high school students in university prep courses could write well. All the technical features were there. I had very little feedback to give them on paragraph structure and word choice. Where the students fell short was in critical thinking. They were parroting back our conversations from class in their essays, often sharing my ideas. It shouldn’t be about my ideas. It should be about the student’s learning. A senior student’s writing may not have had spelling errors but when I went back to check it for meaning, it was dull.
I wanted innovative students who knew how to question, make connections, challenge each other’s thinking. I wanted my students to be creative and critical thinkers.
All students can generate questions.
When I taught Drama I experimented with question improv games. Students created scenes on the fly but could only use questions when communicating verbally. Questions are inclusive, levelling the playing-field for students. If everyone asks questions all the time then no one feels shy contributing.
When I first started teaching I thought it was my job to assess and evaluate the students’ answers. I’ve learned that the questions are far more important.
In an age where anyone can access information, critical and creative thinking skills are vital: essential skills for 21st century learners. From kindergarten to Grade 12, all students can learn through questions.
Now when I visit classes I’m inspired by the use of inquiry. Kindergarten students are encouraged to wonder. Grade One and Two teachers are sometimes using an emergent lesson design that follows students’ interests and questions. Teachers are creating the conditions for intentional interactions.
A number of the teachers at my school are curious about the impact of inquiry on student achievement. I can see it’s igniting the teachers’ love of learning and bringing teachers together in new ways to collaborate on how to help students generate and explore their questions.
As a school leader I want to use questions more too.
Our staff learning sessions are organized by using questions as agenda items. I try to include a couple questions on the weekly memo. Last week the question for student well-being was: how can we support our students in learning how to develop and maintain friendships?
Questions promote reflection and encourage collaboration. Questions celebrate diversity, inviting multiple perspectives. How are you using questions as a teacher? As a leader? As a learner?
From technology to psychology, questions are revolutionary. Maybe the answer to “what is the meaning of life?” isn’t in the words at all, but in the question mark itself. We are all searching.
A teacher in my school shared this video yesterday. Questions inspire. So, how can we ask more questions in 2015?