A Maker

The rise of the Maker has been one of the most exciting educational trends of the past few years. A Maker is an individual who communicates, collaborates, tinkers, fixes, breaks, rebuilds, and constructs projects for the world around him or her. A Maker, re-cast into a classroom, has a name that we all love: a learner.

Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens

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Teaching is Like No Other

Our classrooms are almost entirely dismantled during the summer break.

Our classrooms are almost entirely dismantled during the summer break.

I just stopped in to the school to pick up a few items I needed for planning. I tried to anticipate the documents and resources I would need, but inexplicably forgot my tentative class list for September. History shows the names will not change much, so it is fairly reliable. One of my tasks is to create usernames and accounts on various sites we use in our learning. The list missed getting stuffed into the black bag I lugged home June 27th. As I wandered the disrupted hallways I reflected a bit on being a teacher. We are often compared to other professions (and jobs), particularly when we negotiate contracts. Sometimes the comparisons seem to fit, often our protests to the contrary are met with incomprehension or derision. It is hard to quantify our working conditions, all the more because we are an idiosyncratic bunch.

Comparisons between teachers are tricky. This makes glib suggestions like merit pay problematic. We all work in different ways. Throughout the year, I notice colleagues arriving and departing earlier and later than myself. As I come in to the school or leave, someone is usually coaching a practice in the gym. Occasionally it is me in the gym or library. Habitually, three of my grade team members are settling into long preparation and marking sessions as I leave for the day. Some teachers carry crippling loads of exercise books home to mark in the evenings, while I walk out with my iPad. We all have our own work flow.

It would have surprised me to bump into a colleague this morning. At this point, like-minded colleagues are slipping in and out to grab something at odd moments. I have colleagues, perhaps the ones carting marking home on the weekends, who think me insane to putter at my desk organizing the next year six weeks before school begins. I will be back for a few days to reconstruct my classroom – likely as soon as I discover they have finished cleaning it. Others will show up the morning they are required to return. I have no way of quantifying our preparation for the new year. Each, in our own way, will have done the job. This must drive bean counters up the wall.

I have no idea how long I am going to work on preparing fifth grade curriculum this summer. I could keep a record, but what would be the point? I probably plan, organize, network, research, and create just for  my own peace of mind. The time preparing sets my mind at ease so that when my family is free, or my mind turns to other activities, I am ready. Alles ist in Ordnung, my German heritage whispers. I’ve got to tell you, the state of my classroom right now is driving me crazy. I wonder if they need help waxing?



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Independence Day

Bill of Rights

July 1st was Canada Day, while the celebrations here and in the United States are much the same, the events were quite different… yet not entirely so. They were both expressions of democratic action.  In both countries, independence was achieved through responsibly elected legislative bodies. The principal of responsible government lay at the core of both movements.

This is the moment when I reflect on my own American heritage. Born to American expatriates in Asia, I only lived briefly in the United States – seven years. I took Canadian citizenship at the age of twenty-two, I believe. I have never seriously regretted that decision. Citizenship is commitment to the polity. I liked Canada’s Just Society and Saskatchewan’s social democratic government in the late 1970′s and I wanted to be part of that.

Being an expatriate (even a little one), affords you the opportunity to take a more critical look at your nation. There are different filters at play. I was reminded of that this morning when I read an article warning us that our North American perspective on events in the Ukraine  are almost completely slanted toward Kiev. There is little balance to reporting from there. The struggle for each responsible citizen is to be informed. I had seven years to reflect on Canadian and American culture before I made my decision. It involved a lot of letting go.

Expatriates might question their nations when faced with challenging perspectives in the countries they inhabit, but we are also a stubborn lot. I resisted observing rituals like singing God Save the Queen as a school boy in Hong Kong. The HMS Ark Royal (R09) was a shabby old scow contrasted to the might of the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV/CVA-31) to my eight-year-old self when I visited both. I was a proud American. 

Canada made the decision rather easy. Like the United States, it reflects Britain’s Parliamentary tradition and history of law. Honestly, all I had to do was come to terms with being a subject of the Crown and no longer being labeled American. Over time, I have learned there are many paths to democracy. As an adult, I recognized that patriotism should not be automatic, it is earned by the collective action of a nation. God does not grace a nation, nor does it have a manifest destiny. We have to build the nation we want to be proud of.

The United States following independence was not the nation that exists today. American’s created that. First the Constitution, then the Bill of Rights, followed by so much more. Nations evolve (and unfortunately devolve) over time.  The United States is a good country to claim as an origin, and I am thankful is is my neighbour.

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What is the point?


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Virtual Field Trips for Canadian Studies

I had a great line up of field trips for my fourth graders. They study Saskatchewan, and we are well located here in Moose Jaw. Next year I am teaching fifth grade. I need to think nationally now. Visit RCMP Heritage Centre perhaps… Or stop in at the PA penitentiary?

It hit me that there might be virtual tours now, so I’m excited to see there is one for the Canadian Parliament building. I am going to enjoy using that one.

There is this site of virtual exhibits. I wonder if there are any national museums with street views. Tell me if you have some ideas to share.

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Service Recognition


Tonight I attended our school division’s service recognition celebration. There were:

thirty-six fifth year staff,
forty-one tenth year staff,
twenty-eight reached their fifteenth,
twenty-seven on their twentieth, and
twenty-four finishing twenty-five years.

Twelve of us reached early retirement eligibility this year. Four staff celebrated thirty-five years and continue on. Thirty-four staff are retiring. Included in that number are five teachers who were part of my early days in my first Saskatchewan school division. Two others have been valued members of my current school team. It will be a different place without them.

I have thought about the demographics, and I am encouraged by it. There does not seem to be that much attrition. The retiring staff range over a span of five or so years. So perhaps their number accounts for the smaller number continuing to work.

It is too early for me to wax lyrical or get introspective about my career. I am still very much into learning. Never-the-less, I have reached a milestone this year.

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Fourth Grade Rocks and Minerals

I set up three stations this morning. In the first one, students attempted to match rock and mineral samples to a key of the three types of rock. In the second station they had to unscramble the landform pieces and plan a short journey from one physical feature to another. The final station involved creating simple and deep-thinking questions based on the boards. The displays were created by last year’s fourth grade class.

The old geology kits are really old. I might guess the model, framed samples and three boxes of rocks date to the sixties or seventies. Elements have been lost and that is a frustration. I need a geologist from the university to stop by and identify everything for me. My Geology 100 class is lost in time. The rocks fascinate my students. The contour map model confuses them. They are unfamiliar with the landforms and don’t quite see the scale.




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Helping Students Listen With Intent

Listening with intent:
Listening with intent, or listening with active attention to meeting, is at the heart of purposeful talk. “Hearing is a sound; listening is a thought.” (Michael Opitz and Matthew Zbaracki 2004) listening with intent involves letting the idea of being heard into our brain, and actually engaging with it. We form, reverse, and strengthen our own thinking as we wait our turn to share, and do so with such deliberateness that, while we may hear others speaking, we don’t truly listen to their message. (Page 42) When somebody starts speaking, hands must go down. Students need to “park” their thinking, and focus on the idea of being shared. Some forget their thoughts, but the process of listening with the intent is more important. Over time, students become stronger at holding their thoughts. (Page 42)
Teachers should stop repeating and refining what students say in class. This habit discourages students from listening to each other. Another problem with this is that conversation moves between student and teacher back-and-forth. Conversation needs to move between student and student. Students need to ask for their own clarification and not rely upon the teacher. [my emphasis]
“To truly want to listen to each other, children must also value each other intellectually. Pointing out individual students contributions helps to build an identity of intelligence.” ( page 43) along with valuing each other’s thinking, the teacher should summarize the conversation and point out how each person helped create a collaborative meaning.
Getting lines of thinking alive:
Students need to stay focused on the thread of an idea. They just can’t support the pursuit of an idea in depth. Nichols suggests a talk chart. What are you doing as a listener, thinker and talker?(page 43):
  • Agreeing
  • disagreeing
  • adding onto an idea
  • clarifying meaning return

I have been reading M. Nichols book for the last month. Reading is our school goal and reflecting on student discussion connects with me. Step into my fourth grade classroom and the dominance of the rectangle of desks (the circle, so to speak)  signals my interest in using discussion for connected learning. Much of what Nichols has been saying should not be new to me, yet I find I have abandoned some good practices I learned over the years. Reading her ideas recalls them.

I am embarrassed to  admit that I have fallen into the mistake of habitually repeating and refining my student’s thoughts. After reading this chapter, I consciously restrained my impulse and practiced her suggestions for opening lines of thinking. The impact on my class discussions these last few days was noticeable. At this point, many students struggle to follow the conversation. It was an exercise in patience for me too. Never-the-less during our first serious attempt at listening and responding, I was able to see the shift to collective construction. Students built on each other’s ideas.

I was very much at the center of the discussion though. I realize that discussion is not a well established routine in my classroom. We are a room of talkers, not listeners.

“Allowing children to simply share their own thinking without any accountability to each other’s thinking or purpose will not enable construction of meaning to new levels.” (page 41) 

We need to consistently refocus and remind children of our purpose for talk. Gradually we can eliminate random comments that hijack conversation. I need to practice this as much as the students.

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Redoes are the Real World


I often hear my colleagues argue that report cards should indicate how long mastery took, or how many attempts were necessary. I’m tired of arguing with them. Every enterprise from medicine to carpentry strives for success on the first attempt, but achieving this is an illusion. My wife and I have been watching House reruns on Netflix. I was struck by the show’s formula. Each case is a mystery with misunderstandings and failed diagnoses. Dramatic license aside, this is exactly the way it would be.

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Minecraft’s Value

All video games are not created equal.

I wouldn’t recommend we encourage youth to play just any game. I doubt transferable skills are learned by repeatedly flapping a bird into a drainage tube. The best educational interventions are those that meet youth where they are and use the energy associated with that space to encourage learning.

So where are the youth? Minecraft.

Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the United States with over 100 million registered users. It’s not as flashy as typical video games—the graphics are lo-fi and 8-bit. At first glance, the game play seems incredibly simple: In creative mode, the goal is to build structures in an open 3D environment.

In this way, Minecraft is different than other video games because the object is to construct, not to tear down. It’s a video game, but it can also be classified as a building toy.

Will Richardson

Beyond Screen Time

My students are consumed with the game too.

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