The chains that bind us

A student told me the story of training baby elephants the other day
The chain attached early
Just strong enough to hold them
Just strong enough they start to doubt their own
Potential

As the elephant grows up the chains stay the same
The elephant stops trying to break free
Stops testing the system because it learns it is 
stuck

I can't help but think about the parallels in learning 
The limits we place on students early
You can't read those books
You just don't have a math mind
That is not an exciting idea
This doesn't look like it took much time
Kids have heard it all
Heck I have heard it all

These chains attached early
limiting the movement later

The "you can't" becomes
"I can't"

I am not sure how we break the chains
The elephants are set free
but what does freedom look like in
school?

Lately I am flooded by social media memories from when Covid first disrupted our lives. It brings me back to all that talk that we needed to “change the system”. We had new voices in equity movements suddenly championing the cause ( many of the newly concerned abandoned this goal when their immediate needs were met) and we had those who had been and still are carrying on the work of change saying the system itself needed to be redesigned and/or abolished because the current system was built to promote inequity.

Those early days I poured myself into looking at how I, in my little isolated town, could chip away at a system that I know causes so much harm. Assessment practices, testing culture, pedagogy that is nestled in the traits of white supremacy it is all so present and looking wide it was so overwhelming. But just like these dang meals that I am eating right now on a training plan (WAY TOO MUCH FOOD) I can address these challenges a bite at a time.

I started with assessment. Asking how I could honour my students more by letting them focus more on growth and less on grades. It has been a process and there have been a lot of tweaks but generally the kids are happier, the results are better and that little chain link has weakened just a bit. I have tried to look more at my teaching, how I can be more impactful and effective. Talking less, working more. Covid has put some barricades in the way with trying to keep distanced but we are making it work. Students are getting more feedback and we are finding out their strengths and incorporating those more.

I think largely the greatest freedom granting move I have made is giving kids time to explore ideas. Explore who they are as readers, writers and well… people. There is a degree of growth going on that I really was not prepared for. I had dreamed about it but so often dreams don’t come true.

I have this one big idea. I have this interesting group of kids that make up multiple grades and tiers of instruction. We call our class the Patchwork. To end the year I wanted to build kind of multi-genre, multi-modal experience. When I talked about people said, “Don’t you think you are putting the bar too high? Are you sure those kids can do it?” The funny thing was that moment felt like a chain was put on the Patchworks, on all of us.

In a PD once Kylene Beers mentioned the term “soft bigotry of low expectations” I hadn’t heard it before. Thinking back to it now these are the chains that limit our movement. The freedom we can give to our kids is believing they will work to reach the bars we raise high for them. As long as we are not chaining them down that is.

Finding Inspiration

I have talked about my dreams so much that I feel lately like they will only ever be dreams. It is funny how I can go from this high of seeing plans come together, students laughing while they plan stories, complimenting each other over the powerful lines in the poetry they are crafting, to this low in the matter a few minutes. I imagine a lot of it is how the changes we have had to insist on because of Covid have changed how I teach. I am certain some of those high and lows come from the disparity between how I thought I was seen to how it seems I am. This week though, I would say the win column is marked more than the losses. Four Days in a row of good lessons, engaged students, cool moments, laughter and learning.

When I think about what fuels my dreams without question I know it is my students. Because I see them. I see them learning. I see them growing. Some I have taught every year for the last 4 years. Some I taught in 8th and now 3 years later they are these creative almost adults that are playing with words, devouring books and seeking me out in hallways because they think they have finished their poem. This is the reason I dream of better schools that serve all students. This is why I dream about helping kids find their potential because it is infinite if they believe it or not.

Lately we have been working on poetry I ask them every day to take time to write, to think, to share. We have been finding writing partners to bounce ideas off of. We are having so much fun. One day they will be on a stage, when Covid finally leaves enough for us to breathe without masks and share our voices to a full theatre. They will share their gifts because they inspire me.

Time Machine

Mr.Gilson can you help me build a time machine?
The question comes from the student still learning his words
At first I laughed
 explained that we might have to work on a smaller task
Then he said it
I want to see my Dad
If we build a time machine maybe I can see my Dad
A simple 
Powerful
Truth
What would you do with a time machine?
I would visit with my Grandpa more
He was the best story teller 
I would have worked harder in school
wasted less time
Some things we can't get back 
but what if we live today knowing there are no time machines?
What will you do?
Who will you see?
What happens when we live knowing there is no rewind?

When I think about the opportunities that I have let pass me by I certainly regret some of them but that reflection is helping me to take advantage of now. I appreciate how these little life lessons are coming from the excellence of the students I have the privilege to teach.

Happy Friday. Find a safe space and take a deep breath. Recharge.

Teaching is an Art

I spent today doing some planning, looking at the next few months, where we need to get, the work I hope to do with the kids and taking in their feedback and what they would like to do and came up with some ideas. I have loved that, in Alberta, we have had a curriculum that leaves us a lot of room to be responsive to our students needs. While it is super old and needing an update we can still do so many cool things. That is looking like it is in jeopardy as we are set to take steps back to the stone age of education. So while I can explore language and how we represent ideas I decided I wanted to explore some new things.

Spoken Word Poetry Competition

While i have students in 11th grade exploring topics that interest them I have had students writing and performing songs, podcasts and creating picture books. I have others researching and creating reports around types of truck engines, blogging about successful people and finally one student creating a poetry anthology. When that student was asked why she wanted to do this project she responded, “Teachers haven’t let me write poetry since you taught me in grade 8”. Now I am certain that is only sort of true but she continued, “It is just essay after essay so we are ready for the next test.” Yup… that checks out. So I asked a few other classes and they reported similar things. In a separate moment I was coming off the L of two separate interviews and feeling pretty worthless (that feeling has not left but that is for another blog post) when I sat down to read a students poem, see this student has a hard time with reading and writing but he has discovered poetry books and is reading them all. He asked if he could do his written responses as poetry because he he just “gets it”. As I read his draft I got to a moment where he wrote about how he could finally see himself as a writer and I cried. The power in that moment and that I got to be a part of it was just overwhelming with all the other things going on. SO in that moment I started asking who would be interested in a spoken word poetry competition a smash of some form. Hands in all classes shot up, kids in other classes heard about it and started asking if they could join or if I would read their work. It is a work in progress but it is coming.

Exploring Multimodal Projects

I am a new learner in this area but I have students wanting to explore their creative side more and more so we are jumping in. Multimodal work looks at the different “modes” in which we can employ to represent our thinking. Modes include Linguistic, Visual, Aural, Spacial and I think Gestural (still learning) not all modes are represented in every project but what I love is that it gives students a chance to explore, outside of the traditional box. I was on the instagram the other day and came across this fun idea

It looked like such a fun opportunity to explore multimodal work and gave me a fun idea. So this week we are going to explore multimodal work

Then we are going to use these tools to design our own magazine covers explaining our choices to our peers as part of the assignment. I just finished The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson and I made my own Magazine Cover as an example

With the looming shadow of regressive change on the horizon I want to make sure I take the time while I can to honour my students with work worthy of their brilliance. There is more to come. Fiction writing, making mini movies around genre, Project Speak 3 and a multigenre exploration in writing and representation to round out the year.

Teaching is an art just as much as the beautiful work our students create is. We owe them so much more than a curriculum that takes steps back. We owe them so much more than a curriculum that expects 8 year olds to discuss the silk road before they even understand their own country and communities. Our students, our kids are all excellent in their own ways and should be honoured with the work we do.

I hope I do that for my students.

Knowing Ok is enough

Write about what you know about
This is the advice we get from Sarah Kay
I use to think I knew about a lot
Now
I am not so sure

I thought I knew what I wanted
I thought I knew what I would be doing 
I thought I knew the plan

I
Was
Wrong

I do know a few things though
I know I am a Teacher
at least for now
I know that inside the walls of Room 157 Magic Happens
I know that I get to work with the most amazing writers and thinkers
I know that should be enough 

Most of the time it is

But what about those dreams?

Playing around with poems is fun. It has also been a really helpful exercise in reflection. Easter break is coming to a close and we head back to work Monday. I have had a relaxing week where I have focused on success more than failure. The other day we were with our financial planner and I was pumped because my investments made more than Julie’s this year. Our advisor said, “Brent needs this win” maybe she knew the events of the last weeks maybe she didn’t but Julie and I laughed about it later because I do need some wins. I also need to keep my eyes open for the good stuff because there is a lot.

This week I spent time relaxing and marking and playing around with a few ideas. We started looking at poetry, primarily spoken work just before the break. I had a few students really express excitement and passion for this work and so I decided that we would play with it a bit longer and culminate with a little poetry competition. Opening it up to the school and here we go. After that we are looking at multimodal work, developing culminating projects and just trying out new things.

I forget sometimes what I love so much about teaching.

The break has given me a chance to breathe. I still don’t know what is next for me. But I do know for right now I am ok.

Ok is enough.

Broken

Around two years ago I 
broke
Once confident and whole
A shattered reflection was all I saw
You are great but
You are impressive but
Your are so valued but
Never enough

The compliments come but
I don't hear them
I don't feel them
thanks but

I spent this year gluing things back together 
Celebrating Excellence 
Distractions from my doubt
We glued the mirror back together 
Piece 
by 
Piece 
They showed me maybe
 I was 
alright.
I took a risk 
Time
Thinking 
Stress
Decisions
This time I didn't break
Cracks are there
maybe
bigger
But this time I see the way out
The vase can only fall so many times from the shaky shelf before
we 
find 
a 
new 
shelf

The last few years have been really hard. I love my work and what I do but that little nagging voice, you are not enough, is always there. So I learn and try new things. I look at ways to celebrate my students so that hopefully they don’t feel this. This… never enough.

Lately I have been finding myself stumble upon reading that asks us as teachers to recognize the unique awesome that each of our students possess, their excellence. This last week I had another interview, in it I talked about how important this work is to me. The why has always been the success of my students. Now it is more than that. I don’t just want them to have success, I want them to thrive, to find their excellence and utilize it to lift where and when it is needed.

Two days ago I read a students work and for the first time tears came to my eyes. Their writing was a simple poem. Not the assigned task but one they thought they could be successful at. As I read the student reflected on why they treasure poetry, their struggles with writing, how poems just made sense, let them “be good at something”. I don’t know for a certainty why it hit me so hard. Maybe it was that connection of not ever feeling good at something, or that I recognized that for a moment I had helped, that in that moment the “you are a fraud” voice in my head crept away to the shadows as this students excellence shined bright.

I sat at my desk and wiped away a couple of tears and the student looked back at me and smiled.

The voice is not gone. The “how are you doing?” questions will continue to come and I will continue to say “Oh great” knowing I am not but maybe tomorrow I will be.

One step at a time.

We are not Superheroes

Franklin Richards Dreamed up a whole Universe
To keep his family 
safe
The Scarlet Witch Change the world with
Three
Simple
Words
Superpowers give them the power 
Power to live their dreams 
To shift reality 
To pull those strings of fate
Sometimes just a gentle tug
Others an unravelling 

Teachers have dreams
Dreams for our students
Dreams for our school 
Dreams for ourselves

But we don't have Super powers
I can't snap my fingers and
*snap*
Away goes their anxiety 
*snap*
Away goes their fears and doubts
*snap*
Away goes the bullying and the hardships

We wish we could 
or at least
I
 wish 
I could

Instead we can be there
we can talk
we can lift

But who is there for us?

Teachers are not Superheroes 
Don't let the Merchants of Nonsense Fool You
With their quick fixes and slick smiles
Teachers are people 
People who want the best for their kids
Our gifts don't lie in fantastic powers
but we do have our own four words

How
Can
I
Help?

Dreams are funny
So often they are
just 
out 
of
reach

But we keep reaching
Keep Trying 
Sitting right on the edge 
Today I wonder if I am reaching too far
If the dream is too big
If only I had powers.

We are working on spoken word poetry in the next few weeks. So giving it a little try.

Franklin and The Scarlet Witch

This way or that?

From The North Star by Peter Reynolds

Every year I start by reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my class. I deeply love this story and the lessons within. I have a signed copy with a note from Peter Reynolds, it was a gift from a friend I made online. I cherish it. The story serves as a lesson in finding our own path. A child walks along a path following both signs and the advice of others. Along the way there are bumps, detours and increasingly difficult terrain to manage. As the boy travels further he seems to lose his way. Unsure of the next steps, unsure of the advice of others. Unsure. The boy looks for his own path, he looks to the stars and is guided to a new way, his way.

I have been thinking about this story, my favourite, for a few days now. After my interview last week and the subsequent messages from countless well-wishers (I really do appreciate that kindness) I started to wonder if I had indeed followed the wrong signs, taken the wrong advice. Perhaps I had followed the speedy rabbit who was not really paying attention to the signs saying WRONG WAY. Perhaps I was paying too much attention to the voices like the crow saying, “Keep Going” or even the frogs with only their perspective. I don’t know, but I became unsure of what my next steps will be. I have been deep in the thick of the forest and it is time to look up at the stars.

I have been writing about my gratitude more lately. Trying to think positivity into existence to counter all the uncertainty, all of the negative that is out there. Some days it works, other days it doesn’t. What has been helpful though is that reflection time. So today, after what was a long and truthfully uncomfortable at times week, I am sitting here, in the woods, but looking for the stars.

I have no idea where I am going, I have no idea where I will be. But I am looking up, I am looking for the guide to the right path. The path I am supposed to take. We all come to forks in the road or heck sometimes we come to whole utensil drawers but part of the journey is thinking about the choices and then taken that step.

I don’t know the next step, I have hit the bumps this year for sure, I have ran into some detours. There are great people sending their encouragement to keep going forward and others giving me permission to sit, pause, breathe and decide. Figure it out. I appreciate both types of folks lifting me up in their own way.

The journey is long and I might be unsure of where to go next but I am looking up. The path will come and I just need to be sure of the decision.

Part of the fun.

So while I am dreaming

Lately I have found myself dreaming of a lot of things. I imagine it is the impact of WandaVision in my life. This notion of being able to alter reality with a thought. I am not a believer in the teacher= superhero nonsense, this year especially I am just too tired but I think that is where dreaming has come in so wonderfully handy. We can dream about what we don’t yet have and maybe, we can bring some of those dreams forward, alter reality.

Our school is hiring a new Principal tomorrow. Lately I have been dreaming about the school I could one day lead. The potential. The ability to bring change, alter reality, even by a little bit.

I dream about how I might help bring the beliefs of my classroom to the school. Seeing my students for their excellence as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad says and I have put on my wall and cite often. Giving them the chance to grow, to find their genius that is just under the surface ready to celebrated. To create a school community where our excellence adorns the walls in words. What about a school where parents come in and know what we value because it can’t be missed? What about a school that every student is seen, celebrated and knows that we have their back? What about a school where our practice as teachers honours our unique learners? What about a school where teachers are excited about the discomfort that learning new, improved pedagogy always brings at first, like lifting new weight in the gym? How do we create that school?

I think we start by accepting that we are not there yet. I think we start by looking at what we can do better. We start with the community. How do we build a community from so many different pieces and make it one? The thought of advisory classes came to mind. Building groups of grade 7-12 students to work together and learn together for moments of every day. I think there is such potential for greatness, mentorship and friendships being formed all while building a whole school community. As we work to build those connections more excellence will be noticed. More genius discovered. Community from a collection of pieces.

Community is only part of the puzzle, an important one but not the whole puzzle. I dream about schools where learning and celebrating that learning comes in the form of student driven inquiry and effective instruction that sparks that curiosity and drive to explore. I dream of classes of students seeing issues and taking what they have learned in class and applying that learning to try and solve those issues. The last few weeks as my students look at isolation and identity they have looked at possible solutions for food insecurity. Their science teacher has them researching issues around agriculture and trying to propose solutions. We are not abandoning “skills” instruction we are just weaving it in to real life problems and chances to show our learning to solve them. Students are practicing real life reading, researching and writing. What if we were doing that across the school? What if every student had the chance to take that spark of curiosity and ignite a fire of inquiry work that demonstrates the skills stated in the curriculum in an authentic way? What if the kids who loved tests could take them and those who displayed their excellence in other ways could choose that?

This would, of course, take learning on our part as teachers but what is our job if not to facilitate our students genius to shine? This week I have had multiple students visit with me about their struggles with testing. Completely unsolicited. Stopped by to say hi to them not knowing they were studying and their stress was visible. “Mr. Gilson I do so well in class, tests don’t show what I know but they are my grade” I dream of a school where we are working for that student’s excellence to shine through even if that means as teachers we need to reflect, grow and change our practices away from those that dim our students’ shine.

I am not going to stop dreaming about what could be. It is too important. A school that works to honour the excellence of all of our students, celebrating their genius and the unique and important role they play in our school community. A community of learners, students, teachers and administration. All working to be the best we can be for each other. That is the dream and one day it is going to be a reality. One day.

Going Point-Less: A Reflection

Last spring as my teaching world sort of collapsed around Covid, kids were sent home to participate in somewhat optional online learning (we won’t get into all those details) and we were forced to look at a grade generated by an average of scores rather than a true reflection of learning covered I pondered what I could possibly do better to address student learning and assessment. About this same time I was able to listen to a Podcast where Dr. Sarah Zerwin talked about her assessment approach in her book Point-less.

This was the answer I was looking for, I got the book and dove in reading and planning. I looked at my curriculum and the things I needed to cover and created learning goals that could encompass all of those objectives. I looked at how I might assess those learning goals, what classroom activities would be able to address multiple things for not only efficiency but also to make sure we had multiple touch points. I was excited and as the school year started back up again and I introduced the concept to the kids they too seemed excited, “You mean we get a say in our grade?” or “We get to decide what we focus on?” were common responses. Students selected their main goals, those they needed to reflect on more intently and I worried about the rest. This has been a journey and as I reflect at an end of a semester I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the good the not so good and the things I plan to change.

The Good

In talking to my students I asked them to reflect on this process and overwhelmingly I received comments about they felt less stressed when they saw a lot of feedback versus a low grade. They appreciated the feedback as it helped them improve. They were not worried about a grade they just felt we were focused on getting better and they all did. The grade conferences really helped them understand how they were doing. I was pleased to hear this as it was my biggest concern but it wasn’t all roses.

The Not So Good

One theme that came up was misunderstanding. Some felt that if they completed the feedback it should immediately mean they should have 100%. So I will need to be clearer on that front. Another student reflected that it would help to know what to tell their parents when asked “How are you doing?” because parents are still looking for a grade. I am thinking I might send a letter home helping parents to craft those questions so the response is more around how they are growing versus how they are doing.

Change is Coming

The biggest piece that I received from my kids today is they didn’t always think they had feedback that reported progress enough. What they meant was a grade. Because of report cards I have to have a grade at different points in the year. So the workaround is a reflective conversation where a grade is determined together. I had a few of my students who are moving on in the second semester share that a grade drove them to work harder and lacking that grade made it frustrating. I am taking that in and reflecting on how I might adjust. More feedback, more specific? Sharing a number more frequently? I worry that defeats the purpose.

Where next?

So we grow and adjust. With my 8s we are are moving closer to round 2 of grade conferences. I am taking the words of my 10’s today and adjusting what that meeting looks like. More feedback is a quick change that we can make. Monthly meetings versus quarterly, these are things we will work with and adjust. What I know is students grew significantly from the start of the year to the end. Not just in their writing but in their ability to discuss their learning. In their ability to look at the messages in texts and share their thinking. I have loved not giving them a number on each assignment. I have loved seeing them grow. There are always bumps in a journey and as we see them we work to address them. Tomorrow that work begins.