Examining lives and works, seeking to understand the relationship between the writer and the words keeps me busy.
Spending hours with the work of Willam Shakespeare as an English teacher and debating its merits with students, reminded me that all writers are bound by humanity. Beyond the limits of time and culture, we share the experience of being human.
Shakespeare achieved mastery of his craft and mastery of what it means to be human. The universal, timeless nature of his plays are a testament to a man who wrote the truth without specific details about himself.
Shakespeare needed to be astutely aware of himself, those around him, and human nature. A great observer, he effectively translated his insights of humanity into diverse stories, writing what he learned.
The best writers are learners first.
It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.
“Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.
“What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”
“We should make a play,” a girl suggests.
Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”
The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.
“How would we begin?” I ask.
The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.
“We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.
“And we could have jobs—”
“—I could do costumes!”
“I want to be a witch!”
“Everyone can do something backstage too.”
“We can turn our portable into a theatre—”
“What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”
“—and I can bring in a cauldron.”
“Jo can make a head for the end!”
I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.
“So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.
I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”
A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”
Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.
Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.
To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.
For the love of sunflowers
This morning I am reading about sunflowers. It’s on my bucket list to grow them in my yard. I’ve read the best time to plant the seeds is in the spring, two weeks before the last frost. Maybe a reminder on my calendar would help?
This is a great time of year because I can find sunflowers everywhere. On Labour Day weekend I was driving through the Warkworth area with a friend when we noticed a farm having a sale. The sign read something like “Neat old creative things.” The lawn was a collection of antiques and paintings on repurposed wood–all of the paintings were sunflowers. The fields surrounding the farm were also scattered with sunflowers. Such an inspiring setting! I could have explored all day.
In my home, I have something with a sunflower on it in nearly every room. The kitchen is painted sunflower yellow. A sunflower wreath hangs on my door. One day I’ll wake up and like the lady who doesn’t realize she’s acquired so many cats, I’ll notice that the sunflowers are everywhere. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Or maybe I’ll be living inside a sunflower. Can you imagine? A circular, spiral home with rooms placed like seeds.
(Okay…I know. Imagining a sunflower home may be going too far? I googled “sunflower architecture” and found this amazing house in Spain designed to optimize the views and the light. Wow. If I win the lottery I want one of these!)
Inspired to paint
This winter I want to learn more about sunflowers. I want to be ready in the spring so I don’t miss the opportunity to plant them. I’d also like to be more like the man in Warkworth and paint sunflowers, lots of sunflowers, sunflowers for everyone. My first step will be to learn how to draw a sunflower. Any tips?
From standing in a field of sunflowers in Tuscany to gazing on their complexity through Van Gogh’s art in Amsterdam and Paris to driving past sunflowers every day on my way to work, I’ve been lucky to find sunflowers in many places.
Cheery, complex, beautiful sunflowers.
Which flower has found its way into your imagination?
The mathematical poetry of sunflowers
Leonardo Pisano Bigollo was a prominent Mathematician in the Middle Ages who was born in Italy and educated in North Africa.
He was known by his nickname, Fibonacci, a name made famous for a sequence of numbers that demonstrates spiral patterns in nature, including those in shells, pineapples, pine cones, and sunflowers.
The head of a sunflower has many spirals moving to the right and to the left, clockwise and counterclockwise, with seeds growing in logarithmic shapes that get wider as they move away from the centre. If you count the spirals in each direction of a sunflower you will find they often add up to numbers in the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…).
The Fibonacci pattern is simple, each number is the combination of the two numbers before: 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, and so on. Each new seed appears in relationship to the one prior. A sunflower could have thirty-four spirals clockwise and twenty-one spirals counterclockwise; or maybe fifty-five spirals clockwise and eighty-nine spirals counterclockwise. The number of spirals changes as the sunflower grows.
On trusting my GPS…
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area my GPS navigation device surprises me, transforming a simple road trip into an epic journey.
I begin with the destination, an address for a remote retreat-house. After three tries the GPS reveals a route and I select “Start Guidance,” trusting that the system will choose the best route, relieved that I can focus on singing to the radio and not on watching for the road signs. I let the GPS do the thinking for me.
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area I trust my navigation system–and I get lost.
One summer, the GPS leads me down a one-way dirt trail. Rather than question the route, I trust the path will end shortly, miss the signs along the way, and end up on an old deserted railway trail, too remote for cellphone service.
Joy in the woods…
The woods are dynamic, peaceful, alluring, eerie. I splash through puddles the size of dinosaurs’ footprints on suffocated, narrow, washed-out roads lined with towering leafy green trees on one side and sprawling marshes on the other. It’s impossible to turn the car around. I can either go forward or backward. When I pass a number of old rusted abandoned cars, with flat tires and busted windows, wedged between trees or half-sunken in the marsh, I finally wonder if I made a wrong turn. Then I notice a crooked yellow sign: “Use at Own Risk.”
I am lost in the bush in my car for nearly three hours. It feels like time stands still, like I’ve slipped through a wormhole into an alternate universe.
Part of me is scared to be stuck, to be unsure of how I got here or how to get out of the woods. Part of me enjoys the experience of being lost in such a beautiful, still place—a place between my home and my destination. Thankfully I trust that the universe will eventually conspire to help me find my way, that an idea of how to turn my car around on this narrow trail will come to me when it needs to. I stop the car, put down the windows, turn off the engine, and sit on the old Kingston & Pembroke Rail Trail, drinking water and eating carrot sticks.
Why does this isolation feel both comforting and worrisome?
Like I’ve arrived at the place Shel Silverstein calls “where the sidewalk ends?”
I sit alone in the void and feel peaceful, connected, vulnerable, brave, and curious.
Then I start to ask questions. I wonder how it will play out if I get a flat tire? Will I walk back to the main road? Will I sleep in my car waiting for help? Will I cry? Can I die on this road?
When will I start to feel really scared? Why do I trust that it will all work out, that I will find my way, that this is just a temporary detour? I wonder if it’s normal to be feeling so at peace, to want to stay in-between, sitting in a void. I wonder if it’s normal to start writing this scenario in my head as I’m experiencing it, visualizing the lines of text, placement of punctuation, use of metaphor. Is this a weird writer thing to do?
I resist leaving this eerie comfortable place, but finally choose to drive forward. I reach a small clearing and with some careful manoeuvring I’m able to turn the car around and retrace my path back to the road where I made the first wrong turn.
Relieved to be on a main highway, tired from my reflection in the woods, I trust the GPS again. It consistently reroutes me to dirt trails and unconventional roads. After another couple of hours, I realize I will have to find my own way.
I stop the car, pull out the bag of maps from the trunk, determine my location, and begin to retrace the route to Highway 7 from some back roads near the town of Ompah. I regain control.
Sometimes life is symbolic
Then I see the first wild turkey on the side of the road. A few kilometres later I see another. Then another. Turkeys saunter out of the bushes like feathery, waddling breadcrumbs leading me to my destination for the next hour and a half. As I giggle about the sight of so many wild turkeys after the day I’ve had, and I think about the significance of turkeys as birds of thanksgiving, I drive through a town called Brightside. It’s a true story.
Learning can feel like being lost. Whenever I learn there is a point in the process where I feel misplaced, where I need to find my way through trial and error or asking for help or trusting wild turkeys.
Deep learning is rarely a simple road trip.
How do you know that you are learning something deeply?
One of the many things I love about my job is that learning is at the heart of the work. Every day I am invited to learn from people, experiences, research, and curriculum subject areas.
Here are ten things I learned during the 2016/17 School Year:
#1: There is poetry in Math. I was inspired to keep a wall of my Math learning after taking a Mathematics Leadership course in partnership with Trent University with Dr. Cathy Bruce.
#2: The Zones of Self-Regulation are for everyone. Our whole school learned about the zones and defined what the “Green Zone” looked like for us. We celebrated at the end of the year with a t-shirt for everyone. Designed by a Grade 5 student.
#3: When we focus on improving Special Education processes all students win. It’s important to have clear roles and goals.
#4: Peace is not what is happening around you. Peace is what is happening within you. Self-care is vital.
#5: Sometimes you just need cake. Celebrate with staff whenever you can. And with students too! My favourite PA Day this year started with cake.
#6: Streamlining routines and processes helps the brain focus its best energy on the complexities of problem solving. We focused on Special Education, school day transitions and recess. Click here to watch our video about Recess Routines.
#7: In a small school, all staff are leaders. My staff continuously inspired me with the vision, spirit, and pride for our school.
#8: Paying attention to the little details can have a big impact.
#9: Ask for help. There are helpful people out there.
#10: When the staff truly work as a team, that’s when the magic happens.
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:
Today I taught my first primary lesson. My background and experience is as a high school teacher and administrator. Now that I’m in my second year as an elementary principal I wanted to get into classes more, to become more familiar with curriculum in the various grades and subjects, and to explore different research-based teaching strategies.
In mid-September I invited classes to choose any subject for me to come in and teach one lesson. My stomach did flip flops at the thought of teaching grades and subjects that were new to me–and in front of my staff. But this was important to me. In exchange for the lesson I asked that the class and the teacher give me feedback on my teaching.
The first class to request a lesson was Grade 2/3. They wanted music.
The students know I am a singer (at our first assembly last year I sang Katy Perry’s “Firework” for them). I was thrilled to begin this journey with a subject I felt confident in so I could focus on teaching strategies.
To begin my work I reviewed our school board resources on assessment, including creating learning goals and success criteria. Then I reviewed the Music curriculum for Grade 2 and 3. The biggest challenge was to think about how to plan a stand-alone lesson with learning and assessment for a 50-minute period.
My learning focuses were creating a high level of student engagement, using learning goals and success criteria to design the lesson, and using a 3-part lesson.
After checking in with the teacher about what they’ve already learned in Music I decided to focus the lesson on singing the blues.
When I arrived I gave the teacher a copy of my lesson plan (as though it was my turn for a performance appraisal).
We are learning how to use music to bring people together and express emotion.
- I can use my feelings to generate ideas for a blues song.
- I can describe three characteristics of blues music.
I also wanted students to begin playing with composition and apply elements of music when singing but thought it would be best to share two with the students since it was only one period.
- Included links to three strands:
- Creating and Performing
- Reflecting, Responding, Analyzing
- Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts
- Dynamics and expressive controls.
- Form (phrase, simple verse, and chorus).
- Sing in unison.
- Apply elements of music when singing.
- Create simple compositions for a specific purpose and familiar audience.
- The Blues Lesson Powerpoint slides (Email me if you want to PPT presentation. The file was too big to post here).
- Scroll through five items on the Smartboard: Harmonica, guitar, fedora, sunglasses, blue
- What do these items have in common?
- What type of music do they represent?
- What do you know about the blues?
The students liked trying to solve this puzzle. I scrolled through the items slowly. Most students guessed “rock and roll.” After we discovered the lesson would be about the Blues, only one student said she had heard them before “playing in the square in town.”
- What are the blues?
- Sing “Bring it on Home to Me” to the class as an example. Talk about the voice as an instrument. Sing the same lyrics in a couple different styles (opera, country, rock). Talk about how the blues use a belly voice or chest voice. Invite class to activate their belly voices by doing a simple warm-up, holding their stomach and saying “ho ho ho” like Santa Claus. Remind them that when they sing the blues they need to feel it in their tummies.
- Blues songs tell stories about life experiences, particularly about love and hard times.
- Blues songs use pianos, drums, guitars (rhythm and bass).
- Blues songs use repetition, improvisation, strong belly voice, and they express emotion.
Students sat straight up and their eyes popped out when I sang. It was fun to see them react this way. I used a big, deep voice. It wasn’t a classroom sing-song voice but a full blues belting voice. They enjoyed doing the warm-up and feeling their bellies move when they used their voices. One student said, “The blues sound like a lullaby.”
- What’s hard about being a kid?
- Brainstorm together
- Aim for details
- These ideas will be used to improvise verses for our blues song
My chart paper skills are definitely lacking. The students had so many ideas I couldn’t keep up with them. I think they could have gone all day sharing what’s hard about being a kid. (The stick figure in the center is supposed to be a kid).
- The Colborne Blues
- The Colborne Blues: I wrote a little song using the background track in the YouTube video below. I taught this chorus to the students and then improvised verses based on the ideas the students had given me. Then the students took turns improvising lyrics. (Sing starts at about 17 seconds.)
The students picked the tune up really quickly. All students sang or hummed along.
After singing through this together a few times I taught them how to use their voices to create a blues background track. Students then split into partners with person A singing the background beat and person B singing the Blues, either the song we learned or one they made up. Then we invited the pairs to sing their song to the class.
Here is a sample (featuring a couple students):
We needed more time! This was a good introduction but a week would have really helped them develop their vocal and improvisation skills. Mostly I wanted to see how open they were to experimenting with voice–next steps with this lesson would be giving them feedback to improve vocal quality and to have them spend time writing the blues before singing.
- We reviewed the learning goal and success criteria, discussing our learning so far. What impressed me most was how the students spoke about their learning–they are becoming more confident with this language.
- Then students watched The “Time-Out Blues” and answered these two questions:
- What is this song about?
- What makes this a blues song?
At the end of the lesson I asked the students for feedback. They asked me to come back–and I will. Next time I plan to bring a musician with me so they can hear some blues instruments. The teacher reminded me I need to leave more “think time” before calling on students, building in ways for them to brainstorm and practice independently. She’s right–I just saw all the eager hands and jumped into responses.
I’m looking forward to my next lesson. I’m not sure what it will be. A number of classes are struggling to reach consensus. The students are debating over Music or Healthy Active Living. One class said I could choose the subject (but three other students chanted “Gym” in the background.) I’m surprised they’re not trying to make things harder on me by picking subjects that are challenging.
I’ve learned so much from this about primary teaching and learning. This experience reinforced the idea for me of assessment over time and the importance of time for going deeply into a topic. It also took a lot of time to utilize learning goals, success criteria, and the 3-part lesson but all three were essential in grounding the lesson in learning, in being intentional about our limited time together.