Sunday, November 29, 2009

Note to Shaun

When Shaun stomped in through the Learning Centre doors over two years ago, the first thing I noticed about him was his hair. It was a blue Mohawk carefully gelled into a series of 6 nearly foot-long spikes. He wore DM's that bucked up his calves and his jean jacket was embellished with hand-drawn gang and drug symbols. Everything about Shaun’s demeanor said: “I'm dangerous; you don't want to take me on.” But we did and thanks to the great work of a crew of teachers who could see through the outer armour to the funny and creative person inside, Shaun began trust school again and gradually let his guard down. This time last year he was the school’s Santa at the annual Christmas dinner. Now he's one course away from graduating and going to college in January. What's left? Math.

Shaun sees himself as terrible in math and like a little kid faced with a plate of food on which there’s one thing that he hates to eat -- he's left it to the very last. Now he's angrily pushing it around the plate, hoping that I (his math teacher) will let him get away without having to finish it. We've had a positive working relationship until now, but it's rapidly souring. Shaun has enrolled in a college program that starts in January, and every day the pressure to do what seems impossible -- finish math -- increases.

The lessons of my cognition course (of which this is the last week) say to recruit a student’s emotions into the service of learning, but Shaun's emotional triggers are so overwhelming that just sitting in math class floods him with feelings that he's stupid for even thinking he could do this and that the only smart response is to run. To Shaun’s credit, his goal of graduating is so strong that he hasn’t given up, but there’s so little time left before his new college program starts in January that the pressure on us both is becoming unbearable.

The only way I’m going to be able help Shaun if I can get him to turn this last educational threat into a personal challenge. He’s sealed off any connection to former math learning by deciding that his previous success in the last math course was a fluke. If I can use a little neuroscience to help him understand what's going on, I might be able to finally help this wonderful young man conquer this last and worst monster. It’s with that in mind that I’m writing this letter to Shaun. [Note: Shaun is an accomplished actor; hence the ‘thespian’ references.]

Dear Shaun:

I’ve been thinking hard about you and your math. In fact I’ve been taking a course about the brain and how it learns, and everything that I've learned says that the old skills that have been haunting you for so long can be mastered if: (a) you understand a little about what you're up against, (b) you stop trying to overcome your anxiety with deafening music because it’s blocking all the learning at the same time, and (c) I can create learning activities that will draw on all your strengths as an actor.

Your mum says that these problems in math go way back to about grade 2 or 3 when you had 2 inflexible teachers in a row. Since then you think you’ve had year after year of bad experiences in math. You probably even think that there’s some missing or malfunctioning region in your brain without which a guy can’t do math. But, Shaun, I had a look at all your old report cards yesterday. Your success in math has been uneven, but not nonexistent. It took a big dive in grade 6, but that’s not unusual. Many students I work with report that their serious problems in math go back to about grade 5 or 6 because that’s when kids generally begin to give up. What’s different about you is not that you’re feeling anxiety, but the way it’s been amplified to a brain-numbing level. The brain scientists say that 2 things will throw your brain offline: stress and trying to multitask. The nerve cells in your brain don’t fire properly if you’re under stress. The brain regions that need to function together like a symphony orchestra to turn experiences into learning can’t do that if you’re inputting competing messages at the same time.

There’s no black hole of math in your brain, Shaun. The process of learning math is handled by a collection of brain regions all acting together like a troupe of actors. They have to work as a collective under the leadership of a director who believes they can create a living experience out of lines in a script and props on a stage. Although the brain doesn’t find it easy to learn math, there are many natural talents it does have which can help -- the ability to find patterns, make predictions, and learn from experience, to estimate, problem solve, and think creatively -- these are all innate strengths that make math learning possible -- yes, Shaun, even for you. Finally you can grow your own brain -- not make it larger -- but create new neural pathways inside it which is how memories are stored.

We Learning Centre teachers did you a disservice, Shaun, by not insisting that you do your Math 11 right after you finished Math 10. All the neural pathways that developed and strengthened as you did that course are way harder to access now because we let so much time pass. The skills and memories you gained in Math 10 were real; they resided in real brain networks that we could have seen lighting inside your brain up if we’d hooked you up to a brain imaging MRI machine. The fact that we neglected them for so long is making your learning harder now than it needed to be, and for that I’m sorry. But it’s still possible to reactivate old neural networks and to grow new ones whenever you need them. In fact, every time you learn a new script, Shaun, that’s exactly what your brain is doing. If you can reframe the task of learning math that way and think of it as a script for a play you finally have to learn well enough so you can perform for a few weeks in order to get to closing night -- graduation -- then I can help you reach that goal.

I’m going to shift the metaphor for a moment, Shaun. I’m envisioning you now as the captain of naval ship in an old WWII movie. As I see it, you’re letting your emotions steer your boat when they should be the navigation system. They should be guiding you through the mine field of choices about which methods do and don't work when you're tackling a question, but all they're doing is shouting from the bridge: “Danger! Warning!” You're body is rightly responding by wanting to run away. It’s under the control of an ancient part of your brain that will always act to protect you when faced by a threat. The problem is that the warning system isn't serving you well any longer. It’s still running the old math/threat software, even though math is now your ticket to graduating and going on to college. Your ancient brain is now preventing you from doing what you need to do to get something you really want. The good news is that the modern part of your brain still wants to make meaning out of math for you, Shaun, but the conscious you must reclaim the role of steersman (if you’re thinking about the boat image) or director (if the play comparison is the one you like better) because you can’t trust your instincts to guide you safely to your goal.

I sometimes ask why certain students end up with me in math and it usually comes down to a life lesson that they need to come to grips with before they can let the old image of themselves as a “poor students” go and claim their new lives after high school. I think, Shaun, that your K-12 education will not be truly complete until you find a way to manage your emotions by deliberately morphing threats into challenges when the learning gets tough. Interestingly, the body experiences the same physical responses either way, but you can train your brain not to always leap from those physical cues to the conclusion that you’re in danger. I’m guessing that you have many of the same body responses when you’re on stage, but you don't try to escape or take nights off during the run. You probably even say that heightened emotions give you a mental sharpness that's helpful ……. and that's where we need to go with this math challenge.

There are 3 executive functions in your brain that are going to enable you to make this Shaun-directed transformation of seeing math as a challenge like you see being in a play as a challenge. The first is called “inhibitory control.” It helps us make better choices in difficult circumstances. The second is “working memory.” You use this one when you learn a big script and hold all of it in your mind. The last one is known as “cognitive flexibility. This is how we switch our point of view or how we’re thinking about something.

So, over the next few weeks, Shaun, we're going start steering your brain to think of your time in math class like being in rehearsal. It will be as if you’ve decided to accept a script that you turned down over and over before because it didn't have any value for you. Now they've upped the offer so you've decided to take it on. You’re going to have to bring all of those 3 high level, modern brain functions -- inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility -- to bear on the work of learning this script -- i.e on shifting math out of the threat category into the “can do” range.

Shaun, math will probably never be your favourite thing, but your anxiety about it should not govern your choices about what you will not do for the rest of your life. You have a long and wonderful future ahead. You don’t want this old clunky, junky program to always deter you from making certain career choices or from helping your own son with his homework when he comes home unhappy and upset because the got stumped by a math question. You want to be the dad who tells the story about how he finally made peace with math and in doing so learned once and for all that he was capable of facing life’s most difficult challenges and coming away unscathed.

We have some work ahead of us, Shaun. Let's get started.

Your teacher,


Monday, November 23, 2009

LOL -- Learning Online at the K12 Webased Conference

I'm planning my 2010 conference agenda this week and realised there's a great online event still to go in 2009, and that's K12 Online. I've joined the network in Ning. I've signed up on the "Frappr" map (can you find me?), posted a badge (see above), and provided a link to the list of archived pre-conference events (LAN parties that show parts of presentations from years past).

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K12 is all about forging connections without having to leave home. It's all about leveraging the power of internet tools to help educators learn from each other and figure out how to move their work with online tools and resources forward. This blurb from their website says it all.

As you can see, this thing is huge! I love the way it's spread over several months giving you time to try out one new tool or approach before you go to a session on another. As well, you can dialogue directly with presenters and other audience members over time to get help as you try to put these ideas into action.

The sample session I'm showing below is called "Kicking it up a Notch: Games in Education." Hosted by Dean Shareski (who hails from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan), this presentation by Sylvia Martinez makes a compelling case for using games as a motivational tool in classes. I particularly like what she had to say about simple games -- not specifically subject related -- being interesting ways of getting students to think about concepts. Using games that don't have specific subject connections takes more work on our part, but especially in math they become a metaphor that gives students the task of making a connection that will be memorable to them and leave a lasting 'neural imprint.'

This year's conference strands include:
  • Getting Started: using e-books, building a website, increasing interactivity
  • Leading the Change: deeper discussion on leadership and empowerment
  • A look at other people's classroom initiatives
  • Kicking It Up a Notch: enhancing instruction with more engaging instructional activities
If you're a first timer, there's a wiki just for you that covers everything from how to navigate through the K12 Online conference environment to how to obtain professional development credit for hours in attendance. They've thoughtfully provided a map (show below) in the wiki page to help with time zone conversions.

The one thing I'd add is that a USB mike and headset are really helpful. Sometimes when people connect to sessions using their computer sound system and then try to talk, there can be a lot of feedback or echoing. If you're going to attend more than one session and think you might want to dialogue online, this piece of equipment is worth the purchase price.

TTFN from the Pacific time zone. I hope to see you at the conference.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using my whole brain to think about Daniel Pink

Psssst ... I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, is very popular with Wilkes Instructional Media (IM) course writers. If you want to do a little advance reading in order to get the flavour of IM courses, this book is a great place to start. In order to write it, Pink went on a tour of his own brain. Mashing together a lawyer's analytical approach with a story teller's talent to both teach and entertain, Pink created a slim volume that packs a huge punch. It conveys a simple but compelling message for our times: using all of your brain is better than using just just half (i.e the left side) of it.

Pink writes of the importance of strengthening the right sides or our brains by developing six new "senses" in order to meet the challenges of transitioning from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age:
  • design -- the ability to shape our environment (both things and experiences) to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives (p. 69)
  • story -- "sharpening our understanding of one thing by showing in the context of something else" (p. 103)
  • symphony -- big picture thinking -- seeing the forest as more than just a collection of trees
  • empathy -- feeling what another feels ('walk a mile in another person's shoes' thinking)
  • play -- "a move away from sober seriousness as [the primary] measure of ability" (p. 186) -- aka: fun
  • meaning -- "The search for meaning is a drive that exists in all of us -- and a combination of external circumstances and internal will can bring it to the surface." (p. 217)

As I reread some of the passages in Pink's book this morning, I found myself wondering what had spurred his journey from law school graduate to famous author and speaker. A little 'googling' led me to the answer.

Pink's transition came from the same desire that motivates many educators to get up and go to school each day: the desire to make a difference. Disheartened by the limited scope of a life dedicated to the legal profession to help him do that, he gravitated to politics first as a policy maker and eventually as a speech writer. Eventually a new interest in the "outside world" -- in people doing things in new ways and the role technology plays in that -- superseded his passion for politics. Believing this was going to "matter more in people's lives," he made the decision to to "go out on his own" and start writing both for himself and for a broader audience.

Pink has learned the fine art of acting on his passions, of pursuing his interests, of paying attention to what intrigues him, of nurturing his curiosity, and of moving his life forward towards a heartfelt larger purpose. In the Educators' Discussion Guide found at his website, he challenges educators to do the same.

Wilkes courses typically require students to discuss a key question in a forum (due Tuesday with responses to 2 other student's posts no later than Friday) and to also write a longer piece -- either a blog or a paper.

In good Wilkes fashion, here's your discussion question: (#15 from the Pink's Guide with a bit of my own tagged on for good measure):

As you watch William McDonough's TEDtalk video below, look for examples of each of Pink's six right-brained senses.

What R-directed skills do you use in your work? Which of the six senses is a priority for teachers to develop? Why? Which of these six are your students learning by watching you every day? How?
Your longer assignment for the week (due Friday at midnight) is to show how you could change an existing assignment or project in your teaching area to better foster the development of these six senses in your students. [P.S. Use both sides or your own brain as you create this project, and have some fun with it!]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cognition and Technology (501): making a start with Voicethread

[Image from: eHow: How to Learn the Theory of Psychology (Eraxion istock photo#7549747)]

I love this course!!!!! It's fascinating. The only extra I'd ask for is an "Ask an Expert" drop box where students from all sections could ask questions and all the profs and the course writer would help with answers, links, suggestions, possibly even follow-up questions. I'm finding that a little knowledge of brain function can lead me to jump to big conclusions that are probably not well supported with facts. Nevertheless, I'm taking the advise of Eric Jensen in A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education and am not letting fears about the limits of my knowledge stop me from making some guesses and working on new strategies to use with my students:
"Brain-based education suggests that we not wait 20 years until each of these correlations is proven beyond any possible doubt. Many theories might never be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It's possible that the sheer quantity of school, home, and genetic factors will render any generalizable principle impossible to prove as 100% accurate. As educators, we must live in the world of "likely" and "unlikely" as opposed to the world of 'certainty'."
There are 2 Voicethreads (VT) required for this course and so I thought I'd do one for those of you who are not familiar with this resource. At the moment it's a work in progress because there will be additional links added to the various slides to connect you with help documents and other resources if you have problems (as I did).

As you'll see in the first slide, the technology threatened to let me down about half way through the process and as ever in this master's program, what initially threatened to be a 'ship-sinking storm' turned out inspire a series of important reflections about the emotional elements of learning. Later today these remarks will become the core of my first VT assignment for 501 -- due tonight!! (Question for my wished-for "expert": I wonder whether procrastination is a left- or a right-brained function?)

So here's my VT Starter Kit; I've left the comment function in this VT wide open if you have comments, observations, or reflections you'd like to add. Because of the limited page width in this blog, it's kind of hard to see. The caption on the cartoon says: "It's the latest innovation in office safety. When your computer crashes, an air bag is activated so you won't bang your head in frustration." Here is a link that will take you to the regular sized version of my presentation: Enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Remembrance Day (Canada), Veterans' Day (US), and Thanksgiving

[Image Source: Matt 21/07/97 at]

We are approaching November 11 which is Remembrance Day (in Canada) and Veterans' Day (in the US). In my school the ceremony is conducted with a solemnity that honours our nations' Armed Forces personnel (past and present) and that gives students of all cultures an opportunity to remember their own peoples' struggles for freedom and peace. But we also try to anchor the meaning of peace in our students' hearts by choosing a theme that will be more personal to them. We believe in the importance of living the values of peace and thanksgiving every day, so this year have adopted the theme of 'compassion' -- people helping people.

If you're looking for an interesting global project for your students, I suggest PowerPoint for Peace sponsored by the people at Authorstream. Inspired by the AIDS Memorial quilts, this project invites people to add one slide to the presentation.

Here are the instructions:

Create a single standard size PowerPoint slide of 500 KB or smaller that represents your idea for a positive contribution to the world.
  • Do not criticize anyone, anything, etc. Critical, negative slides will not be approved.
  • Use Creative Commons and public domain media. Pictures, sounds, video, etc. must be embedded in the presentation. Linked items will not be converted and uploaded to the site.
  • Animations may be used, but all may not convert accurately.
  • Slides must contain the names of individual, group, or company.
  • Save the slide as a PPT file (Don't have PowerPoint? Impress is free at
  • Go to and log on. Registration is free.
  • Upload your slide and test it to see how it looks. Delete and upload the file as many times as needed.
  • When you're satisfied with your slide, go to and upload your slide.
  • Slides are reviewed and approved on Fridays. Slides can be deleted and re-uploaded until approval. Once approved slides cannot be deleted.

The people at TED have an inspirational project underway. This first is called the Charter for Compassion which was the idea of the first winner of the TEDPrize -- Karen Armstrong.

The Charter which embodies the ideas, words, and spirit of collaborators from all over the world is a "cry for return to the central principle" of the Golden Rule. It requires that we use "empathy ... to put ourselves in others' shoes." When I scrolled through the list of participants and their projects, I was struck by the lack of entries from schools. My school's November ceremony ties in with this theme and so I will be adding our name to the list. Perhaps we can invite our students to read the document: Reflections on Compassion and add their own reflections to the Charter website or join the Facebook group, the Flickr Group, or the YouTube Channel and post a contribution.

Finally here's a video project done with cell phones that we should be able to get kids to try. It's mostly images of words, but assembled this way, they communicate a powerful message about empathy and compassion.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A day with Steve Hargadon

Wow! I've just spent a day with over 25 talented and deeply thoughtful BC educators in a Classroom 2.0 Live unconference led by Steve Hargadon. We started with introductions that took almost an hour but the themes and topics that people wanted to talk about emerged as people talked about where they live, what they teach, the challenges they face, and their level of expertise with what many of those of us have come to think of as common tools and resources.

As we each spoke, Steve sat at the front jotting ideas and themes down of a scrap of paper. He has a general shape of the day he builds in his CR2.0 wiki with the collaboration of the local contacts for each of these events. Before we took our first break he/we ammended that and then we plunged into a series of how to's and deeper discussions about teaching and learning in the 21st century. What emerged for me as the discussion progressed is the role that many in the room believe we has as a connective generation of teachers. We seem to feel we're the group that stands between the treasured values of the past ...

... and the exciting possibilities of the future.

Steve's overall goal for the day was to mirror the Classroom 2.0 experience for the people in the room. I think our was to find a collection of like-minded educators here in BC and begin to share what we've learned and developed with people who are close by instead of far off in the US or other parts of the world.

I have to say I was amazed at the imaginative initiatives being undertaken in schools less than an hour or two from where I live:
  • Brian whose Coquitlam school has decided to adopt an "open school" policy regarding students' use of personal devices for learning
  • Jan whose classroom blog is like a hub for all her students' individual blogs and whose class blogroll is a collection of the blogs of other classes in Canada and the world to which her students respond
  • Blair who has begun a Moodle to provide his grade 8 math students with access to resources 24/7
  • Bryan who has started a master Delicious list (organised by subject) for his entire district (all teachers can forward their bookmarks to him and contribute to a district tag cloud that is available to them vie the district website)
  • the district principle from outside the Lower Mainland who'd wanted to take back ideas to the teachers in his area and help them launch new projects.
  • several experienced teachers old enough to be thinking about retirement, but who had postponed it because they are so excited by all the new things they were trying and they can't leave just yet!
Steve did achieve his goal -- we were indeed a microcosm of the 25,000 strong Classroom 2.0, and we are looking forward to continuing our dialogue online and in person. But we also found that even in this world of wide reaching and nearly instant communication, there is something special achieved by being together in the same room where we can overhear each others' conversations, fluidly move from group to group, bounce ideas around the group as a whole, and catch the infectious energy that is often hard to sustain when it's just you and your computer alone in a room reaching out and wondering if anyone out there's listening. Steve may feel that all of this can be accomplished just as well from a distance, but I'm still not sure.

I do know that it was a wonderful day. By the end of the day we had reaffirmed for ourselves that as a profession educators are moving away from being conveyors of information towards becoming community organisers and that we have tremendous power as leaders and role models to influence the deeper uses to which our students will put the tools they take to so naturally and information they can find so quickly. Web 2.0 is giving us a chance to claim a wonderful vocation for ourselves as teachers -- that of leaders, creators of educational experiences the students will remember even as adults, and the enlargers of minds.

As Jan said -- the power is in the connection, and it certainly was on Saturday in Room 3300.

Friday, October 16, 2009


This week I've been reading Will Richardson, watching Larry Lessig (video below), and thinking about the events a couple of weeks back in Honduras. This has lead to a brain mash-up that is finally expressing itself as a question: what are fences for -- to keep trespassers out or to keep the occupants in?

Physical fences make us feel secure. By delineating mine from yours, safe from unsafe, and friendly from unfriendly they help us know who we are, where we belong, and what we own. When I lived in the Yukon, for example, the territory north of the 60th parallel was referred to as 'inside'. The unfortunates who did not live north of 60 were 'from outside'. The line was invisible, but to those of us who lived Inside and knew the fence was there, the divide was great. We insiders shared a way of life and a fellowship that made us a tribe. That fence gave us a way of defining ourselves by proclaiming our isolation from everyone else.

Intellectual fences on the other hand are less trusted. Who does not recoil at the thought of the Honduran military shutting down broadcasters with accusations of spreading dissent? The curtailing of people's basic freedoms of speech, thought, and choice is an affront to those of us who enjoy a free society. Yet the new government feels justified in shutting down activities and voices that "attack peace and public order."

So then how are we to react to the growing prohibitions on internet use and access in public schools? Are they protective or coercive?

In his article Don't, Don't, Don't vs. Do, Do, Do (2009) in Weblogg-ed, Will Richardson reflects about the ways in which many school districts are trying to protect their students and presumably themselves by compiling extensive "Acceptable Use" technology policy manuals that enumerate for staff, students, and parents "the many transgressions" that will not be tolerated and handing them out on Day One.

There are three problematic implications associated with this kind of intellectual prohibition that come to mind. First it gives parents a false sense of security by suggesting that it's possible to build a fence that is big enough and so impenetrable as to keep their children safe. As well, it starts from the premise that cutting off all access (to social networks for example) by all people to prevent a few from going to the 'wrong parts of town' is justified.

[Image Source: No Chaser, 07/26/2009]

Finally, these manuals seem to alleviate school leaders from having to take responsibility for keeping children safe and also make it easy to blame the kids if they get into trouble.

Lessig's take on these kinds of prohibitions is even more sinister. In his view, the use of laws and regulations to erect a fence between young people and what they consider to be full and natural participation in the democratized read/write web is to rob them of their freedom to collaborate, to speak, and even to be. Extreme protectionism on one side of the fence engenders extreme 'law breaking' by young people. "You can't kill the instinct that technology produces, says Lessig,"you can only criminalize it. You can't make our kids passive again; you can only make them pirates ... who live life against the law."

Richardson muses that it would be much more enticing to students to receive a list of "Admirable Uses" instead of the standard 'Don'ts'. This approach would engage their sense of wonder and get them considering 'the possible' from their first moment back in school. I'd also say that if we don't want schools to become places that put the lie to the value of education, we have to stop extending the promise of openness and inquiry to students with one hand and taking it away with the other.

[Image Source: s.l.o.w.p.o.k.e in Flickr. 05/03/2008]
So how do we make a start? We take a realistic look at what is possible under the current conditions and start "Do use the network to" lists of our own. To the items on Will Richardson's list, I'd add for students:
  • Do use the network to find what you have in common with people who at first do not seem like you.
  • Do use the network in a way that is respectful of other people, their ideas, and their work.
  • Do use the network to get meaningful feedback that can help you to do better.
  • Do use the network to engage in conversations with people who will challenge your ideas.

  • Do use the network to share your reflections about your learning.
and for teachers:

    Young people's way of making sense of the world and expressing themselves may be changing with new technology, but they experience the same emotions and have the same dreams that we do. They are not as far from our reach as some 'new education' thinkers would have us believe.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Math Teachers

Why are secondary math teachers so reluctant to try Web 2.0 tools?

First I think this results from the perception that Math is qualitatively different from other subjects. In some ways learning math has more in common with the skills development aspects of PE or some of the practical arts and trades-based classes than with other content area courses. Web 2.0 tools which enhance learning through creative self-expression, presenting to a real audience, or sharing ideas may seem to have no place in math class. To the skeptical teacher these can seem like add-ons that take valuable time away from instruction and guided practice rather than having the power to enhance math learning in a completely new way.

Also, good website can be hard to find (to paraphrase an old song). Online games that reinforce skills or websites that provide instruction often don't match the content a teacher wants students to practise or the steps by which a skill has been taught in class. The questions may not be sufficiently varied or at the right level. Finally, because math teachers have not traditionally made a lot of use of computers with students in their classrooms, they may have limited access which is not particularly conducive to trying new initiatives.

Finding a starting Web 2.0 tool for secondary math teachers involves leading them to a comfortable starting point.

(To scroll down again, click anywhere on the right.)


Start too far along the continuum of tool or use or comfort level, and math teachers (or beginners from other departments) feel overwhelmed. It all seems just a little too "wild and wooly." It's important to remember that no tool feels intuitive or user-friendly to the person who feels out of his/her depth. The potential for increasing student achievement or engaging in interesting professional growth must far exceed the barriers. There can seem to be just too many alligators lurking beneath the surface of the swamp to justify jumping in.

[Image adapted from: I.H.S. Consulting Group @]

I'm beginning a new collaboration with a young woman tackling the new Math 8 curriculum here in BC. She is conscientiously trying to incorporate new constructivist approaches as directed by the district helping teacher, to meet her school's goal of increasing literacy, and to collaborate with her department by organising in school-wide math events. We had talked about the new program and some possible starting points, but when I appeared at her door and starting throwing ideas around, I could see her wilt under the weight of what seemed yet another add-on that was going to compound her needs rather than help her meet the ones she already had.

We started looking at what she felt to be a set of unique problems associated with math teaching, but it turned out that she didn't need better 'math tools' as such. After about an hour of chatting back and forth we settled on three that are by now pretty familiar to people in this course: PowerPoint, ToonDoo, and Voicethread. She'll be able to use them to deliver instruction as well as give them to students to use. These tools will also help her address the problem-solving and literacy building initiatives by involving students in using words to processes, giving each other feedback about solutions, incorporating some creative reinforcement of learning, and publishing their work for others to see. Students who learn these in math will also be able to use them in other courses and may for once be able to say that they learned something in math that helped them in their real lives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Math by the Numbers

[Image Source: popeye the sailorman cartoon @]

Mp3 Free

Popeye was “strong to the finich” because he ate his spinach. Math is kind of like the spinach of school subjects -- most students do it because it’s good for them, not because it’s inherently enjoyable or meaningful. Out of school long enough to understand the challenges that lie ahead, parents know how many doors close when students are not successful in academic math classes. They want their kids to tough it out. However, teens are often more familiar with -- the frustration that results from poor understanding, disconnection from the content, and lack of skills mastery. Many just want to get out’.

Given many students' difficulty learning math and its importance in securing their futures, math class should be a natural place for trying new strategies, tools, and ideas to enhance learning. But math teachers are often the last in schools to try 21st century tools and strategies. Although math should be about problem-solving and communication, it can devolve into repetition and memorization of skills or solving of story problems that seem to students to have little to do with the real world. For them, what's learned in math class, stays in math class.

Math teachers all agree that more we get students doing math, the more math they'll learn. However, what secondary math teachers often don't realize is that many of these new technologies will give them ways to actually accomplish that -- by getting students talking about and doing more math. The value of Web 2.0 tools lies in their ability to help math teachers:

• ensure old skills gaps are filled and new skills are well understood and well learned,
• build math reading comprehension skills so that students are not baffled by the way language is used in math questions,
• engage students in communication and collaborative problem-solving so they have to ‘speak’ math,
• encourage higher order thinking skills by making intriguing connections between math and the world outside the math classroom,
• provide students practice using tools they will need for study and work after high school, and
• connect with other math teachers who are also trying these new approaches.

If we secondary math teachers can turn the part of the day students spend in our classes into a part of the day students look forward to, the time, effort, and deep thought that will be required of us to find, learn, and create compelling uses of Web 2.0 tools and resources will reward us with gold.

Math Candy: I thought this was very cool!

Why do math teachers prefer to 'paint by the numbers'? Any thoughts?


Next Post? Math 2.0 tools and strategies.

Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot + Back to the Future = New Sue

In my early years of teaching, about every three or four years, I would engage in a summer of renewal of myself as a teacher. After a year during which my shortcomings seemed more often to be leading my interactions with students, I would feel I'd lost perspective and that I wasn't satisfied I was giving the kids my best so I would buy books and read for answers.

During one of those summers about ten years ago, two of the books I read were by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot: The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Courage (1983) and Beyond Bias: Perspective in Classrooms (1978). Before there were mashups or digital story telling, Lightfoot melded old-fashioned story telling with a sociologist's curiosity to find out what makes people and their relationships and the institutions they inhabit tick. She came up with a process sometimes referred to as "human archeology." Start with questions that she was wondering about, she'd find people who were interested in engaging in conversations and then spend a lot of time listening and helping them reveal their stories.

To write her "Portraits," Lightfoot immersed herself deeply in the lives of the people in six different US secondary schools. Before edublogs, Classroom 2.0, and threaded discussions, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot gave a voice to school people and students, to parents and community members in a way that opened the heart of each school to her readers. By becoming part of each school's landscape, she was able to "bust through" the bricks and mortar and the widely held stereotypes of the time and told stories of people struggling to do their best -- some succeeding and others not so much -- but all caring about education and trying to do better.

My copies of Lightfoot's books are in now a box somewhere downstairs, but there is one message that I very clearly recall. Whether it was spoken by a teacher who was interviewed or part of a conclusion drawn by Lightfoot herself, I'm no longer sure -- but it had to do with not taking the stuff that kids do and say personally. Whenever I have lost my way with students, it's almost always because I have forgotten that important bit of guidance.

By the time they arrive at my school, my students have become masterful at finding and pressing all the hot buttons the adults in their lives carry. When I forget that this testing behaviour is their way of trying to assert a little control in a world that threatens to ignore or even drown them -- when I lose the ability to think inside the moment and just react -- that's when I get lost.

At my most vulnerable moments during challenging encounters it's terribly important to maintain enough perspective see that, when acting out, students are actually letting their guard down. They are making themselves themselves vulnerable by inadvertently giving me a glimpse of their deeper selves. When I simply react from a place of feeling misunderstood, overtaxed, unappreciated, or unacceptably challenged, I blow an opportunity to reach out and create a meeting of minds that will lead to greater mutual understanding. I miss a true teachable moment (for them) and a 'learnable' moment (for me).

This transitional year (as I wrote last week) is for me about reflection and regaining a sense of grace. It's about reconnecting with my students, but it's also about taking risks in this old/new role as a student to be a little like my students and ask challenging questions. It's about pushing my personal and professional learning to the limits. It's also about using the feelings I experience from being back in the student role after twenty0 years to better understand my students.

Lightfoot's newest book is entitled The Third Chapter: the Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. Once again she's apparently telling my story. I can't wait to read the book and find out how I'm doing! Ironically my own "new adventure" is taking me back to earlier roles. (Image is linked.)

My own new risks involve actually trying on behaviours and attitudes I didn't have the confidence to express when I was younger. For the "burn out" Lightfoot speaks of in the video interview below came from an exhaustion of spirit brought on by a life of speaking old scripts that had never really worked for me because they were constructed out of my guesses about the way others wanted me to be. For my whole life I've been trying out behaviours on others and constructing myself out of their reactions. If at fifty-seven, I can't finally just put what I think and feel and believe and want and wonder out there and leave the reacting to others, I never will. Time could be getting short.

Some people after fifty yearn to live out their childhood dreams by buying expensive motorcycles or jumping out of airplanes. They feel "the thrill is gone," and they want it back. Others after a lifetime of meeting other people's needs express a deep need to find out who they really are and may even leave their homes and families to do that. I know that in my case, this finding of my new self can only be accomplished if I redefine myself as a teacher and as a student first. Once that is done, I will be able to close that door knowing that I've given it all I had and taken from it all that I need in order to finally not have to relive the old cycles and relearn the old lessons.

P.S. 2 wishes -- First, I wish I could find the earlier interview that Bill Moyers speaks of in the clip so that we could hear what Lightfoot had to say about schools back in 1983, and second, I wish she had the time to go back to those 6 schools and update her portraits in light of the changes in American education since then. Here's the clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. If you want more there is a video of her speaking to a group of colleagues at:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughts from Differentiating Instruction (503)

I am currently on a half time leave from my job. Over the past 2 years my life's work has become very hard to do well, so I've decided to make time to hit my personal and professional reset button and figure out how to go forward.

In the book Success is the Quality of Your Journey, Alene Morris is quoted as saying that "self-knowledge is for the purpose of contributing," However, I'm beginning to believe that, at least when it comes to teaching, it is contributing that is for the purpose of self-knowledge. I have always felt that teaching is the most self-reflective profession there is. The best and worst of you is reflected back in your students' eyes immediately, but lately I have not been happy with what I've been seeing there.

As usual, my challenges in the current Wilkes course have led to a realization that I think is an important part of this redefinition of myself as an educator. I thought when I began this degree program that I wanted was make what I was already doing better. I thought when I started my leave, that what I wanted was to find my way back to the teacher I was. What I am learning from both is that what I really want is to move forward to the teacher I can become -- whoever she turns out to be. So this week I've been thinking deeply about differentiation and the need to listen to my students.

The video clip that follows shows a former student of mine named Christine. If you've been following this blog, you'll have seen it before in a post about my application to Google Academy (not successful) and my struggle to figure out how to upload a video to YouTube (finally successful). I use this clip during professional development workshops to illustrate how the creative use of new tools has given me a powerful means to meet individual students' needs and help them overcome serious barriers to success.

Christine had failed senior science twice before coming to the Learning Centre, but even though our program is individualised and she was taking an easier course, she was once again struggling. I kept trying to reassure her that she could do the work, but this was the last course that had to be completed before she graduated, time was getting short, and she was becoming more and more frozen. She had even begun to hyperventilate and experience panic attacks.

Christine is now working and happy in her new life after high school, but her plea for teachers to listen to our students still haunts me sometimes. Students want to do well but also carry a lot of fears. They don't want to draw attention to themselves. They don't want to risk drawing the ire of the teacher or taunts of their peers. They don't want to appear lacking in skill or understanding. As a result, by trying to do what they think the teacher wants, they miss out on getting their own needs met.

I regret that over 35 years of teaching I've missed many opportunities to find ways to help students overcome their fears and doubts. I left them trapped in the isolation of silence because I didn't tune in to their cues. When they were off task and behaving 'badly', too often I responded to the behaviour rather than stop and ask myself if it was a symptom of a learning deficit or long term frustration. Were they not learning because they were unmotivated or were they unmotivated because they weren't learning?

Now, I try to counsel the students in my classes on the importance of being good consumers of education. I ask if they'd ever let a salesperson in a store persuade them to buy a garment that was not the right size. (They laugh at the thought.) Wouldn't they'd ask ask the clerk to keep looking until he/she had found them what they need? (They nod.) I go on to say that not getting their needs met in a class is the same thing and that they must speak up in the same way to make sure their teacher is doing her job for them -- meeting their needs and ensuring they end up understanding a skill or concept even if it takes many questions and requires a lot of time.

I haven't always been very good at anticipating the assumptions students are making about learning priorities and acceptable responses. Now, with Christine's words ringing in my ears whenever I make up a new activity or write a new unit study, I do my best to see it through Christine's eyes. I ask myself if she would experience my lesson as a way to achieve breakthroughs and "walk around the circle" or whether it would trap her inside, hold her down, and make her hyperventilate again.

And so Christine, I have two things to say to you: first, I'm so sorry it took me so long to find a way to make education work for you, and also, I've taken up your words to heart. I'm doing my best each day to remember that I'm not teaching skills, content, and subjects -- I'm teaching people, and that I'm in the business of helping my students come to value learning as an act of empowerment -- one that should help them too feel free.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Indaba: the website for musical collaboration

For students, teachers and others who are musical, I've found a great new website to share with you: Indaba Music.

Indaba Music is described as "an international community of musicians, music professionals, and fans exploring the creative possibilities of making music with people in different places. It makes finding other people, and working on recording, mixing, or mastering projects easier."

So what can you do there?

Right now there are: 6 contests including one to come up with a podcast theme for Indaba and another to create a mix for Stephen Colbert. 4 artists in residence will work with website members. There are numerous musicians and bands looking for people to collaborate on their projects and many special interest groups to join. (I even find an event going on next weekend very close to where I live here in Vancouver, BC.) There is a library of CC music clips to work with so you need not worry about copyright infringement. This website has even been endorsed by Discovery!

As they say on the Indaba web page: "It starts with an idea >> people come together >> they record and mix online >> a song is created." The free version has some limitations: you can only have one temporary session going at a time. For the Pro ($5 per month), you get 3 sessions that don't seem to have limits and their top rate is $25 per month for unlimited sessions. It might be possible to work out a deal for educators, but I haven't yet tried to negotiate that.

How could you use this in school?
  • Come up with a theme and open a session for your class: math rap, song of science, create an original composition,remix a collection of CC music found online for a project theme song. They can collaborate with each other online.
  • Start a group for teachers or music educators.
  • Invite an artist to do a webinar for your class.
  • Remix your school's song.
  • Have the students make a how-to video for using some of their tools an post it online.
  • Open a session for students all over your city or country to create a song for a special event. Post a notice on Classroom 2.0 that you're looking for partners.
  • Collaborate internationally to create an Earth Day song. To find out how to broadcast it to the world, get in touch with the people at the Earth Day Network or Earth Day Interactive.
Please add your ideas to the mix by leaving a comment below! OR even better, get back to me with links to your class creations. I'd love to share them online.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blogger Unblocked

I going to start this post with an admission: for about a month I've had an unusual and unexpected bout of 'blogger's block'.

[Image Source: Cartoon by Dave Walker.
Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons ]

Until today, I wasn't able to pinpoint why or what had changed, but I think I may have the answer. In August as part of a Wilkes assignment, I spent an afternoon moving most of my blog and newsletter email subscriptions over to an RSS feed. Instead of clicking back and forth between my email and each blogging site, I now use a a feed reader (mine is Google Reader) which bundles them up for me and delivers them to one location. Each day, abstracts of the day's new articles appear in a list making it really easy to scan for the choicest tidbits.

"What a wonderful discovery!!!" I thought as I transferred everything over and unsubscribed from email delivery. In theory this switch to RSS should have made it much faster for me to get through all the day's articles and kept the number of unread emails in my inbox from creeping up towards 2000! But it didn't work out quite the way I had envisioned. What actually happened was that using RSS just made it easier to ignore the subscription influx altogether. The end result seems to have been that as I stopped reading, my own dependable flow of ideas just gradually shut off.

I have come to the conclusion that in order to grow ideas my brain requires regular nourishment from other sources. I guess I'm not the original thinker I believed myself to be. It seems that I'm more of a remixer and masher-up of stuff I take in from all sorts of sources: from my experiences at school and conversations with other grad students, from what I read and the technical challenges I face when things don't work. Of all of those, the reading seems to be the most powerful component.

Perhaps my subconscious seizes on new information delivered to my brain through reading and turns it into lightning fast links between previous experiences which then register in my conscious mind as inspiration and new ideas.


I know that a synapse fires in the brain when the threshold has been reached (so everything is ready) and the right chemicals have been delivered. Are ideas just complex brain signals that need the right combination of readiness and new inputs to set them in motion?

If that is the case we have an absolute responsibility to foster the upwelling of ideas in our students by creating for them a learning environment that is rich with experiences and challenges and nourished by plenty of reading and conversation. We have to sensitize them to the way it feels when ideas come and help them learn to give their brains time out from the sensory overload of constant entertainment and chit-chat that can flood the neural pathways and block the birth of insight.

Here we are at the beginning of a new school year. It's easy to for me to let ideas get buried beneath the weight of old habits and new pressures, so I have to keep reading -- yes -- but I also have to make time to turn at least one idea per term into a new experience for my students. Otherwise even the greatest ideas will evaporate, and I might as well retire.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Helpful words from Wordle -- Improving Site Safety

I picked up an item about Wordle from Jane Hart's E-Learning Pick of the Day. For those of you not yet familiar with this Web 2.0 tool, the description from their website says :
"Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends."
I did the one above about my feelings and thoughts about going back to school. There are all sorts of websites that can give you ideas for uses of Wordle in your classroom:

This last presentation from Tom Barrett (found in a blog called Clif's Notes) is my favourite because it's a collaborative effort in Google Docs. You can write Tom and contribute a slide if you have an idea to share.

It was this item in Jane's blog about actions Jonathon Feinberg (Wordle's creator) has taken in response to one teacher's concern about coming across inappropriate word clouds on this website that prompted me to write this post. Feinberg has recently ensured educators and parents that the Wordle front page will never feature such images or links and has made it possible for administrators to "configure a school's site-blocking software to keep Wordle safe for classroom use." His instructions (which can be found in the FAQ) are as follows:

"Simply have your networking administrator block the following base URLs1:


and your users will not see anything that's not safe for classrooms. You’ll still be able to save your work, bookmark your individual Wordle creations, print them out, and share the URLs of saved Wordles with each other and with families.Please let me know whether this works out for you in your school or other institution."

If you have a moment, click his name (above) to go to his blog and leave a comment. I know how many of you especially in the US struggle with prohibitive blocking by your districts and I think this guy has shown some real leadership in responding to all of our needs for safer sites for kids.