There are changes in my life…

It’s Monday morning and my resolution to meet the #saskedchat blogging challenge this summer slipped by. Meditating on the topic, I perused my three common journals covering the last twenty years. I fell into the practice during a year of grad studies in the mid 90’s and much of my understanding of change comes from that period. Much of my thinking on change at that time focused on the barriers to innovation as I learned to shift in two ways: first, from instruction and assessment of content to skills and attitudes; and second, breaking free of quantitative assessments in favour of qualitative ones. Twenty-five years on, public education seems to still be engaged in this shift.

My meditations on change still seem to be informed by the forty year old work of Stenhouse (1976). He categorized seven barriers: climate, resource gaps, skills, materials, communication, culture, and facility (Which I defined as all those resources of power, authority, and influence called on to bring about change. Not sure what I was thinking.) I still relate to this as I work through personal and systemic changes in assessment and evaluation. I’m also conscious of the internal resistances to change that are often less obvious than the external ones.

There is a personally influential scene in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). Bethune has ended his journey in China working with the Communist Red Army in its war with Imperial Japan. Seemingly secure in his radical politics and social views, a crisis in his MASH unit forces him to be critically reflective about his own assumptions. He had a practically trained Chinese colleague who he refused to accept as an equal, because the man had no formal credentials. Realizing his error, Bethune publicly criticizes himself to his team. He confesses to them that while he has been fighting the fascists, he has failed to fight the fascist within. The phrase has always stuck with me. I suppose it also left me with a healthier respect for the efficacy of lived experience.

Stenhouse pointed out that our identity as teachers constrains innovation. We identify ourselves as learned and skilled in teaching. This is an important source of our self respect. Innovations deskill us and leave us with a burden of incompetence. The emotional impacts of change are not made easier by the reality that the changes we are reflecting on are extreme problems. We feel uncertainty about the source of the problem, the solution to the problem, and indeed, our ultimate goal. All change is caught up in the question, what is the purpose of public education? An inclusive answer becomes so broad that we defeat ourselves. Goals compete, we end up prioritizing, and securing post-secondary education trumps everything else. It is difficult to accept personally directed and paced growth as a goal for education. Bethune’s inner fascist seeking credentials again.

In the last few years I seem to have overcome my personal barrier to communicating with parents informally. Social media has provided me with the missing tools. Last year I messaged through multiple platforms: simple texts, Facebook, Remind, Seesaw, and ClassDojo. Beyond the obvious scheduling updates, I have been sharing moments of learning and the daily lived experience of students as individuals. It’s an uneven process. Some families are less accessible than others. For me it seems a revolution in assessment, but I’m aware that the term reports with their grades (call them what you will) still overshadow. What goes home three times each year in quantitative summary remains more significant than the qualitative story I’m trying to convey daily. Outcomes and indicators are fully entrenched in my elementary classroom, but qualitative assessment is very much a work in progress.

To return to Stenhouse’s observation that innovation deskills us as teachers. It’s important to remember that we continually deskill our students in the classroom. Despite our intention to prepare learners for each new step, to let their learning be an evolution, we generally keep them unballanced. You think you have mastered math? Not so! You are still ignorant, here is something new for you! We try to develop growth mindsets. Fortunately, I think we can agree young children are hardwired with growth mindsets. Unfortunately, we discourage that as they age by emphasizing failure as catastrophic. We are all champions, here’s your participation ribbon to prove it. However, these champions here get first place ribbons… please acknowledge their achievement.  I digress. The point I intended to end with was our need as teachers to counter the discouraging barrier of deskilling with our own growth mindsets. I think we can find a way through all the other barriers to change too.

That may sound more optimistic than it should. I remarked that change is part of the extreme problem of educating young people. Public education is only one part of that. My social networks are full of catch phrases. Game changing is a popular one. Take a common game you know and think of the ways you could change it. Some are trivial, others significant. I read recently that if you want to really change a game, change the goal. The primary objective of most games is to win. What is your inner fascist whispering as you confront, or contemplate change?

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August 1980 to June 2016, then on

Some figures are easy to calculate, others become muddy or I cannot keep them in mind – sometimes that’s a good sign. I stepped into my first classroom at Government Secondary School Kagoro, Kaduna State, Nigeria August 1980, freshly graduated from the University of Regina. Yesterday I closed my classroom door at Sunningdale School, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. Let’s say then I’ve been in the classroom for thirty five years. 

I’m a person of privilege in many ways, not the least of which, I am male. It made it easier for me to stay in the classroom for so many years. Over this span of time, I experienced only one year of unemployment between my time in Nigeria and first contract in Saskatchewan. I substituted as much as I could in Regina, Saskatchewan as I anxiously applied for contracts. I substituted, and taught on the University of Regina campus years later as I did grad studies. Otherwise, I’ve been full time in Saskatchewan classrooms. It’s been a privilege.

I’m not done, and I seem to have trouble keeping my retirement in mind. There are some linear measures. One is June 30, 2019 when I could take full pension (more example of privilege, but earned too). Another is October 27, 2021 when I turn 65. These are arbitrary dates, socially and personally meaningful. I try to keep them in mind. It is the cycles I am more mindful of. Tuesday I said goodbye to my class, and for the next two days my mind was consumed with planning for next year. That sort of engagement drives retirement out of my mind.

This Canada Day morning (149 years, my adopted country for as long as I’ve been a teacher!) I’m caught somewhere early in summer decompression. The professional motor probably needs to idle a while, but I am still energized by that two days of intense focus on my next class. It is hard to break away. It is not quite yet conceivable that I will ever set this work aside for more than a break. Okay, I do have my moments of anticipation, you can imagine them, I’m sure. While I have my linear calendar, truth is, I’m waiting for the signal that the cycles are complete.

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I’m Still the Master of My Domain

I renewed my domain name for another three years. That involved rectifying a mistake I made the first time. I’ve switched from to the more common Appart from updating business cards, I don’t think the change will cause any ripples.

People are not beating a path to my professional blog and neither am I. It has been hard to keep it up. I am an active teacher still, so I think I need an active presence on line. My domain forwards to this blog for the next three years. After that, I will be considering early retirement. If I do leave the profession, then my WordPress blog, hosted by my school division will cease. I will have to reassess my online presence.

It soothes the ego a little to temporarily control my name on the net. I’m the Canadian Alan Stange who took possession of the domain. All the other Alan Stange’s must improvise. GMail let me have alan.stange too. I guess we are not that common out there.

Maintaining a personal domain seems less important to me as I stop pimping myself among the educational community. I have little interest in job searches, consultancy opportunities, or building an online following. Most of my ideas are shared shorthand on social networks like Twitter or GooglePlus. I need the blog still, because occasionally those brief ideas need elaboration. I think we all need to find space to do that.

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Edmodo for Authentic Writing

I’m sold on social networking as a vehicle for students to publish the best of their writing. It is one of my principal sources assessment data now. I catch them at their most eloquent, when they are engaged, and independent. Personal voice shines through.

Zain is ten and he demonstrates his proficiency in paragraphing to me in this casual post to Edmodo. He includes the beginnings of descriptive detail using effective word choice. I only caught one spelling error. He would have composed this on a personal device with spell check. I’d like to see him add this to his digital portfolio on Seesaw and past a picture of it into his commonplace journal in his desk.

Zain’s post is what I would consider effective, meaningful homework. Reading and writing independently are far more important than daily worksheets sent home, or random spelling lists to memorize, and then quickly forget. This example of Zain’s is not unique from my class this year. Quite a few students have shared great examples of writing with us.

One other reason I promote Edmodo is parents engagement. Parents can follow their child’s writing through a parent account, or simply look over their shoulder. There are many ways to share writing, but this is probably my favourite at the moment.

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Motivation is an Extreme Problem

I agree with John Spencer, motivation is differentiated. We are often overwhelmed by movements searching for the magic bullet that will solve one educational problem or another. It is important to keep our understanding of the varied types of problems confronting us throughout life. Some are simple, others complex, and too many extreme. I have not heard reference to this catagorization in some time. I hope it is still active in educational thinking. It certainly does not seem to resonate in the public’s mind during political discourse. Responding to problems as simple is perceived as demonstrating strength. Responding to problems as complex it thought a mark of thoughtfulness. Confessing that a problem is in fact extreme makes one feel incompetent or ineffectual. 

As John Spencer points out, there is no way to parse out a simple motivator for learning, we don’t know all the factors in motivation. We don’t know all the correct responses to the unmotivated. We function by relying on generalizations, yet we must keep in our minds that each person represents a unique extreme problem. I have 21 children to motivate, so I am challenged to arrive at 21 subtly, or dramatically different responses. This is why we persist in saying that a personal relationship between teacher, student, and their family is critical to learning.

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Sometimes the Bear Eats You, Work Flow Fail

I finally had that heart attack I’ve been promising my colleagues since my sick days began to accumulate. “I’m saving them till then, cough, cough.” In a whisper. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone, barring the accounting department in personnel, appreciated my decision. It was a mild attack, so I still find it humorous. Four days in the hospital shattered my well thought out workflow.

No point in meditating on the life changes of having a heart attack, nor the necessary adjustments to my self concept. I’m still working through that anyway.

One of my frustrations this week was the limitations of my iPad. Naturally, it kept me entertained over the long period. Its lack of flexibility failed me when I tried multitasking Google Documents for sub planning. On a desktop, I can open a browser and shift text from my unit plans to my week plan efficiently. My iPad mini does not have that capacity, though I didn’t try to operate through a browser. I would have to open a file, capture text, close the file to open the next, repeatedly.

My commitment to planning in depth for my subs was pretty limited, understandably. It was definitely a moment for a laptop. I took a look at this advertisement for an IPad Pro,  looks slick, sort of a ripoff of the Surface isn’t it? My suspicion is that it still shares the limitation of my old iPad mini. Perhaps it’s browsing capacity is better. How does the Surface handle multiple windows? Is it basically a Windows 10 laptop that might let me log into my school’s network remotely?

The other thing I missed was access to my network files. I know many teachers lack that service in their districts, but it is a powerful part of my work flow here. I’m suspecting a Surface would handle the remote logins and Microsoft Office tasks I still require.

It was a transitory problem. I’m back home now with access to my HP desktop. Mobile computing isn’t really a priority. I probably should not be window shopping for new technology anyway.

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Why creativity and Genius Hour are important

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Canadian Heritage Fair

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Citizenship in the Digital Age


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Commonplace Books

Behold, the power of the commonplace book, a system with deep historical roots. As author Steven Johnson says:
Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.
The practice remains the perfect way to harness the colossal amount of digital content we see. And technology has provided us with flexible frameworks capable of helping us capture, curate, and retain information. As Ryan Holliday notes, commonplace has plenty of utility in our modern life:
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Taking Note: What Commonplace Books Can Teach Us about Our Past Posted by Taylor Pipes on 26 Feb 2016

Periodically, I’ve attempted to use a “journal” to track my thoughts. It began with a journal in my late teens. I abandoned that in embarrassment, even destroying it. For ten years I used my day planner as a common book, writing and drawing in it. In grad school I kept a dedicated common book. It was very satisfying and as this article suggests, it organized my thinking. Since the advent of my digital life, common books have been in disarray. My writing was fragmented across too many applications.
Finally, I am bringing order to this. I feel the lure of a print journal still, but it can’t compete with the convenience of a phone or iPad. My efforts have gravitated to Evernote finally. This article  Common books seems to be my first introduction to a very old term. I use Evernote to compile links, quotes, resources, and personal ideas now. It is not my only digital tool. It is the most personal. Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, and this blog are more about sharing ideas.

Student exercise books, which I have been referring to as “learning journals” are evolving slowly into common books. After reading this article, I think I will adopt the name.

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