Ok to walk

I started out my teaching career at a run. I wanted to change the world, I wanted my students to change the world. I had just spent a few years learning about “best practice” (more on that later) and I was ready to roll. I grew frustrated with coworkers and school leaders who kept telling me to slow down, kept voicing concern that I was trying to push others too fast, that people “need to crawl before they walk and walk before they run” and that I should just accept that. I did not want to accept that so I powered on alone and felt like my students where doing fine at my pace with my teaching style. I still look back on my early conversations and feedback that I scoffed at that I was just going “too fast”. In retrospect I see the advice and when applied to the world of education I can’t help but agree. I was going too fast. I think about the gym, too fast causes injury, unexpected change causes injury. We do things slowly, new lifts, new weights, gradual change and yet at times we expect education to change over night.

This year I have approached things differently. Scaffolded more, taken time for the feedback that matters, from my students. We have made gradual changes that require small adjustments along the way. Change is measured not immediate.

In Education we see a lot of calls for change. It is either “we need to focus on inquiry and voice and choice because kids hate the current system” or “we need to go back to the basics because kids are not learning anything”. Over the years I have learned that the single most damaging thing to a classroom, to instruction or to a school culture is extremes. Very few people in the grand scheme lie in the extremes. I think the same can be said for our students. A small portion need the full freedom of inquiry or project based learning to fully realize their potential. Others do need that traditional structure. The bulk lie somewhere in-between. When we only teach to the edges, when we allow our own preferences to guide our practice, instead of looking at the individual needs of our students, we might be missing out on success for the majority of them.

Choice is a term thrown around a lot. As I reflect on projects I have done in the past, with all these different options I have given myself a pat on the back because “WOW look at all the choice I have offered” or in book clubs and the piles of titles I have available. So much choice. But what I am leaving out it seems at times is the traditional and the transition from set parameters to open exploration. I think about those videos of the Beagles that have been in a lab and never touched grass. When freed the handlers open up their kennels but at first the dogs won’t step out, they tentatively measure the risk. They slowly step out and still slowly explore these new surroundings.

I think teaching needs to be a bit more focused on that piece of the journey. Less on the dramatic change and more on the progress. I was talking to Julie (my awesome New Principal of her elementary wife) today who said to focus on positive steps forward rather than the time it is taking. It was a moment to reflect, going too fast, trying to run before we walk.

Not all of our students are ready for dramatic changes to how things are taught. If we power through and drag them along the way we are doing the opposite of our intentions.

Some are not ready to run. It is ok to walk. Best practices are always developed from learning and building on previous “best practices” Innovation takes time to accomplish but also time to get use to. Balance is key and respecting the journey of all learners should be our focus.

Trying New Things is Hard

Quick Podcast version

Twitter is filled with amazing educators. I often get the start of a great idea from something shared by others. For example TQE, an addition to my classroom toolbox was shared with me through Twitter. I discovered my educational North Star Mary Howard through Twitter, I find Podcasts, articles, resources and other like-minded educators on Twitter that I get to learn from, that I can be and am inspired by. One common topic this year is the idea of PBL and Inquiry learning. I have a tougher group in one of my classes. A lot of kids who dislike LA, they dislike reading virtually anything, they hate writing …makes it tough. So after consulting with my students I had this idea for #ProjectSpeak. They can speak on any topic they deem is important and will be completing different learning tasks to measure the LA outcomes we covered this year.

Everything started out great, there was excitement, topics were suggested and explored and tweaked and research began. Mini lessons on writing paragraphs and essays, tutorials on how to use padlet and watching TED talks for inspiration all scheduled in to this inquiry driven project. The problem is there are still students that HATE Language Arts. They tell me they think I am the best LA teacher they have had but they still don’t like LA (not sure if that is a compliment or not) . If I was one of those people that give up at the first sign of resistance I would abandon #ProjectSpeak, give in to the request from this small group to just go back to worksheets and quizzes, assigned topics (they hated those too but they didn’t challenge them) but instead we are going to look at ways to adjust, to alter and to return back to the scaffolding and building.

Twitter is a great place to learn but it doesn’t always present the whole story. We see articles shared about how education needs to change and often step by step guides to do it, but we don’t see the attempts. We have people that proclaim all kids need is a supportive teacher and they will succeed but they never address the mountain of inequalities that bring about that need for support. Social media is a great place to learn, one lesson I have learned is the real work comes from doing the work. I could easily tweet out my success stories, pictures and posts that only reflect the ideal learning environment but in reality the learning comes in the mess. It comes in the struggle, it comes in the reflection and reaction. It is really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything will be better if we just do what an article says, what a book says, what an expert says but in reality teaching is so much more following steps, one ingredient is always changing and that is our kids.

I am learning as we work through #ProjectSpeak that even the most exciting of projects, driven by student choice and voice might activate every learners potential but it doesn’t mean they will like it. I have learned it is a lot easier to celebrate victories than talk about setbacks, I have learned that until you are doing the work sharing advice on “how to” will fall flat with those that are. Teaching is about our students, when they become the focus our practice changes if we are open to change.

Earlier this year I listened to Atomic Habits by James Clear at the gym. One point that really stuck out was, “If Nothing Changes, Nothings Going to Change.” Some times change is quick but in education it never is. Change in practice takes time, change in how students see education takes time. It is worth it, no question, but I am realizing that change doesn’t come over night. No matter how much I wish it would or the amount of articles I retweet.

Time to get back to work. Jut for fun here are some pictures haha

What are we doing?

I have asked myself this question a lot lately. As I sit and listen to my students talk about the struggles they have in school be it with tests, homework or even assignments that they can’t understand. As they question what it is we are learning or the rules and expectations they are meant to follow It brings me to the question, “What are we doing?”

Currently in education we have people arguing for less inquiry and exploration, and more rigid lessons. Against independent reading and for drills and workbooks. People arguing the merits of standardized testing and ignoring the benefits of a classroom full of rich discussion around text and again I ask, “What are we doing?”

My students told me in January they were not having a great year, they were excited to have me as their teacher at the start of the year but circumstances led to me not teaching them as much as I would have liked. We had a chance to reboot and so we started with asking them what I could do to fix it. What did I need to do to help them be more enthusiastic readers and writers. We watched the Prince EA video “What is school for?” After we finished a student said, “I agree with this, I am in 4H and I learn so much more there about what is important to me than I ever learn in school.” That comment struck me hard. I have always thought the things we do are engaging and fun and they learn, the students agreed I tried but it was nothing they really cared about. Some books were great, some writing was engaging but in the end it was just another task to work through. That didn’t fit what I wanted their experience to be. So we talked about how to fix it. Project Speak came from it. Students talking about, writing about and researching things that agitate them, things that drive them to want to know more and share it with the world.

The interesting thing as we are starting this journey is the number of topics that students are talking about that have to do with things school related they are unhappy with. Homework, Testing and Teaching have come up a few different times. I have written about this before but the idea that our students have to keep saying, “My time should be mine outside school.” Or “Tests are hard for me, I have a hard time focusing on them” and then today “Teachers need to let us speak, show our creativity and celebrate our accomplishments” If our students think these are things we are not doing I need to ask again, “What are we doing?”

If we are too proud to admit our students know themselves and how they learn better than we know them we need to take some time to reflect. Our job as a student reminded me today is to teach, support and guide. If our students are confident enough to tell us, brave enough to correct us then we need to honour them with work that is worthy of them. We need to keep asking the question “What are we doing?” and be ready to follow up with why.

Purposeful work, worthy of our students, building them as learners. That should be the goal.


So today I started the day a little frazzled but had decided already that I wanted to talk to the kids about how stories reflect real life. I am listening to Where the Crawdads Sing while I work out in the morning and Internment in the evenings at home and we have been talking about them and how they can serve as commentary on different topics in society. For my students I turned to a handful of picture books to explore this topic further.

We started with the discussion around Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass doors from Rudine Sims Bishop. It was interesting to see my students work through the analogy. I thought it would be harder to understand but they got the Mirrors and Doors part immediately. For the windows they just couldn’t see it because, “if you had a sliding glass door why do you need a window?” haha

We moved on from there and discussed topics of the world that picture books might address and looked at titles like Those Shoes, Last Stop on Market Street, Love, The Promise, Adrian Simcox does not have a horse, The Invisible Boy and a few others. Students read them in small groups and discussed what they were thinking. Today the connections were pretty surface level but the conversations were happening. The scene in Love with the boy under the table always sparks a conversation about why that scene is needed. The representation of multiple elements and struggles that we see in The Invisible Boy were expanded as a student pointed out an issue I had not considered.

Later in the day this same class had a few options, continue working on the picture book reflections or work on some poetry exploration. The class split half and half and it was enjoyable being able to read amazing poetry (I am totally getting them all to love the work of Rudy Francisco) and discuss elements of picture books. Throughout our rather chill period the kids and I discussed how the year is flying by and the topic of a final exam popped up. It was crazy how quickly the chill joyful attitude was sucked from the room as the kids started focusing on the tests that were still months away. The anxiety that spiked and the questions that broke away from the creative side and became more grade obsessed.

A day of joyful literacy work where conversations create more conversations came to a screeching halt because of one word. Test.

As we reimagine what education looks like, especially in the face of those who say the traditional ways are best, we need to make sure the most important voice is that of our students. Are our intentional and unintentional actions promoting learning and growing? Or are we shutting the door on that process for the mechanical process of testing?

I will choose a million conversation about learning over a test on it.

Setting the bar

Today we were watching a TED talk with a young girl that proclaimed that students will work to our expectations as teachers. If we set the bar low they will meet us there, and if we set it high they will strive to clear it. We need to have faith in our students and believe it.

Kylene Beers talked at NCTE about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and “you don’t need to be a reader to be a thinker.” I feel too often teachers set expectations based on a skill or a measured ability instead of getting to know their students, instead of challenging them despite what the test said.

I think this is one of the reasons I love doing a whole class novel as primarily a read aloud. I love the opportunity to take on a bit of the lifting (the reading) to allow my students a chance to really think about the text, how it makes the feel, what it makes them think and how it might change them.

Reading Refugee I knew some of my students might have been hung up on names, the why of the events and so much more if I had left them to read in isolation. Through reading I opened up so many opportunities for those same students who would have struggled to thrive. The expectation that they could provide meaningful conversation never faltered. I knew all my students could participate at the level I expected, sometimes they needed a little boost a scaffolding of how we approach a deeper dive but once they jumped in they could swim. I trust them and they trust me and they know I expect their best. That won’t look the same for everyone but the expectation for them to bring their “A” game is there and I think my students knowing my faith in their awesome brings it out more.

We can look at students that struggle and just let them sink deeper into that quicksand or we can pay attention, walk around the quicksand and find another route to success. Providing our students a chance to show they are amazing in areas that we might miss if we look at learning as a single track is one of the most important parts of our job. Confidence builds success and when kids get a chance to participate in conversations, that in the past they have been only an audience member, the exponential growth is incredible.

It is all about expectations. Our students deserve to be held to the highest and then helped to get there.

With all kids in mind

This last week as we started #projectspeak in my 8th grade LA class I have spent a lot of time thinking about student voice and choice, who is being represented in the books we choose, the discussions we have and work we do. We currently face in Alberta an election where one party suggests we need a more rigid curriculum focused on skills and “the basics” and moving away from guided inquiry work. To say I disagree with this thinking would be an understatement but it is not because I don’t think the basics are valuable or because I think kids for the most part have mastered these skills, they haven’t. I disagree because if we really want to help students learn we need to look at each INDIVIDUAL student. We need to understand how they learn, moving to a rigid curriculum that makes no room for that inquiry, that exploration, is bound to isolate students that don’t learn the “regular way”, this path will only lead to greater extremes in student success. Those who are more traditional learners will thrive and those who are not will be forced to conform or left behind. Conforming is the opposite of education.

As I was at the gym today I started thinking beyond this, instruction is not the only way we isolate our students. We also do it in what we place our focus on, who we choose to give the spotlight and who we leave out in the cold. Last year my eyes were opened to this thinking when a student, who is not an athlete, wrote in his journal about how much he hates being in a school that doesn’t see him. At the time I was reading a short story about a Basketball player and thought, “Yup this is going to engaged the kids because…Basketball” The false narrative in my small community that I had bought into is that because we are so sports centred that it must be engaging for all. Man was I wrong. When you think about school sports there is only a small percentage of the student body that excels at a certain sport. In a student body of 200 kids only 20 make the basketball teams, 10 percent, and yet if we were to ask around the kids not in sports would say, “[athletes]” get 90% of the attention. We can just look to a sports event, say a Volleyball game or Basketball game, the people that come to attend those events outnumber the Band Concerts and Play by a relatively large margin. At least in the eyes of the students in those activities.

After this conversation around my student’s written response last year I committed to getting to know as many of my students by their interests as much as their academic abilities. I learned about Manga and Anime, I went to judge 4-H speeches, students talked to me about their novels they are writing with their friends and their parkour adventures (those scared me). But the difference that my students felt, as my interest in them as awesome unique people, was measurable. This year as I ate some lunch with past students one said, “Mr.Gilson we loved your class the most but it was more because we know you care about us, like actually care, and try to get to know us more.”

Small simple things make the biggest difference. Our decisions as a school, the intentional creation of a culture that sees ALL students needs to be just that INTENTIONAL. We need to celebrate the kids who have started a garage band as much as the kids that make the basketball team, we need to know about the artist that has created their own comic book universe as much as starting point guard.

A schools success depends on the success of all students and as I sit and reflect on the future I wonder about how I can dedicate more time to getting to know those students I still don’t. The number shrinks every day as I pause between classes to visit with a sibling of a student that I have yet to meet or stopping by the foods lab to sneak some goods (my favourite). These simple actions have introduced me to more of the student body and built those connection, shining a spotlight on the corners of the school that don’t always get it.

It is easy to say ALL KIDS MATTER but if our focus doesn’t show it they are only words typed in all caps.

The Light Jar and Lessons learned

I have been reading Lisa Thompson’s The Light Jar over the last couple weeks. I love Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy so much I bought a bunch of copies in the hopes that students will read it in book clubs. I loved The Goldfish Boy because while it was an extraordinary story but part of the characters struggles where rooted in realism. A boy who develops OCD and germaphobic behaviours and can’t leave his room without significant struggles. A child goes missing and he is determined to solve the mystery. Thompson doesn’t rely on magic she simply relies on a character overcoming a real and significant struggle with the help of friends and family.

In The Light Jar Thompson focuses on Nate, a boy who is rushed away in the night as his mother attempts to escape her abusive boyfriend Gary (not since Voldemort have I disliked a character more). I would hate to spoil anything but I will say the plan does not go off without a hitch and Nate is faced with the reality of caring for himself in a remote cabin. Nate deals with a fear of the dark that evil Gary continued to contribute to in a rather evil design that continues to impact Nate. Some new found friends help Nate along the way and much like the Goldfish boy this tough topic is handled masterfully by Thompson as it become a piece of the story but not the whole story.

When I think about literature lately I can’t help but notice the increase in stories that are set in a real and relatable world with problems that provide an opportunity for students to see themselves. If it is problems with mental health, illness, family struggles, poverty, bullying, abuse, sexual assault these stories provide students with mirrors, windows and sliding doors in a way that I don’t think many educators consider.

We work to build libraries that are are diverse but I think forget about diversity of experience being equally important. If it is stories like The Light Jar that weaves a mystery into a survivors tale of emotional and psychological abuse, The Benefits of Being an Octopus looking at Poverty, Or Obsessed which has my students completely engrossed in the struggles of a teenager falling deeper and deeper into her obsessive compulsive behaviours.

Some might argue that these books are too tough, the topics are ones that we should not be focusing on but these things are happening in our students lives and these books teach our students going through them that there can be a light at the end, that the struggles can get better, that they can over come the dragon. As teachers we can’t keep these books and experiences from out students because we are worried they are too tough, the books might be the message and help they need.

Darn it

So I have been playing around the last 24 hours with a post idea and in my best procrastinating stance I have decided that rather than marking (I have a ton to do) or planning (lots of that too) I am just going to get this post done.

A few months back I submitted to present at Nerd Camp Michigan. It happens in the summer and I thought it would be a good way for me to over come the fear I have of public speaking. Well last week friends and contacts all over the internet were sharing their excited messages about being accepted to present, I checked my inbox and aside from some mailing list emails I have never bothered unsubscribing to there was nothing. It was a little disappointing but at the same time a relief because I proposed presenting on something that I have yet to try. A journey my grade 8 class is going to go on to discover the power of inquiry learning in a literacy world. We will see what happens.

Then just yesterday on top of discovering that there will be some major changes at the school that I am needing to take a surprising amount of time to process and stop stressing about (not a change guy) I received an email that another attempt to present at a conference on a topic I find interesting was denied. The Nerd Camp experience repeated itself as countless friends posted about how excited they were about their topics being selected. Some along the lines of what I was hoping to share on and some on topics that I was shocked are even being suggested. But here we are, disappointed and wondering what about the ideas I presented were not interesting enough to the selection committees. I took a moment thought Darn it and then focused on what learning could be done. I read a wonderful message from Kylene Beers and other messages from friends all around and felt lifted up.

I can’t help but connect this to the classroom, to teaching in general. Sometimes things don’t go our way. There is a million reasons why this could happen and should we always focus on finding the needle in the haystack or should be celebrate the opportunities to learn and grow. A bad lesson does not mean we look to blame it on all these outside factors we can’t control, it means we reflect on what we can. Our students need to be clear on this as well. We can only control a tiny number of possible outcomes so why do we focus so much on the ones we really can’t? I think part of it is intended to make us feel better but I felt way better yesterday after hearing words of support than I did in the initial moments expressing frustration and blame.

It is a lesson we can live by, it is ok to start in a mindset of “darn it” but take those moments quickly and shift to a mindset of “What can I learn?” Opening our minds to that thinking and then taking those steps will always get us a lot farther along than being stuck in a rut.

Speaking of forward steps, feeling a little motivation so off to get some work done. Looking forward to booking my NCTE trip early and planning to see all my amazing friends to cheer them on. šŸ™‚

Dear Virtuoso Educators

I know my friend Mary Howard does not like the term expert so Virtuoso it is. In this day and age where access is quite literally at the tips of our fingers and we are able to reach out and interact with the educators that previous generations could only learn from in books gives us the opportunity to be incredibly professionally blessed. To those educators, I want to say thank you for making yourselves so available, for continually providing tools to better classroom instruction and help our students.

Last week I noticed multiple posts where teachers were asking of different experts advice that could have very easily been answered with google or consulting the author/teachers book. I started to ask around and heard stories of receiving emails asking for assistance that are pages long, that they take the time to read and discover that they are asking for something that is clearly laid out in a book or blog post that people just don’t bother to read because they feel it is ok to just ask for the answer.

Following different Virtuoso teachers ( haha) on twitter we see their travel schedules, the conferences, the workshops, the airport delays, the time prepping for a keynote and the time they also take for themselves. I worry that because of Social media teachers have started to ignore the fact that even the Virtuoso teachers need that time for themselves.

When we think about our own teaching lives how thrilled are we to dive into the emails on a Saturday or Sunday or at 9pm on a Friday night after a long week? How excited are we to walk someone through something that they could have very easily googled? Now times that by potentially hundreds or thousands of requests.

In the last few days I have noticed on Facebook alone teachers asking for full lessons and resources from experts that I won’t name because it could be any of them. These requests followed posts that indicated being tired after a great day of learning with other teachers and yet people still asked for more. My friend Mary has resorted to posting closed signs on her Twitter and Facebook when she is on holidays to try a slow the constant flow of requests for research, opinions and feedback. These signs do nothing because people just say “she can’t mean me” or “she will just read this later” It does mean you and she won’t read it later, she will stop what she is doing to read it and find the answer because she is awesome and wants to support teachers even if it takes away from her own time to rejuvenate.

I am so grateful for all the amazing teachers that I have to learn from and I have asked them questions before as well, this isn’t about not asking for help but I do think we as teachers are becoming almost helpless to solve these problems ourselves and at the same time putting too much on the experts that have so graciously opened their Social media accounts to us, who share their wisdom in these tweets and posts to give us small pieces of brilliance to work with because we can’t be at all the conferences and speaking engagements. I think we have to remember the time they are putting in and respect them enough to realize that they don’t owe us responses. That they have lives of their own and perhaps we need to consult some journal articles, read great books and find answers on our own.

Kind of like we expect our students to do.

Sitting in Silence

I am very often loud. I am a rather high energy individual and teacher. I have fun, I get excited about ideas and I go off track… a lot. Today was not an exception. We were discussing the poem Complainers by Rudy Francisco and different lines that were sticking out. Earlier as the poem finished a student clapped, students that normally don’t share started talking about the lines, the power of this poem, of these words was evident. And then it happened. As I sat there taking a moment in the silence appreciating the pause in conversation the idea for their final project of the year just came to me. This post isn’t about that project so I will share that another day. Today we talk about silence.

This morning I was listening to Tom Newkirk talking with teens about their writing on Heinemann’s podcast. A comment from a student stuck out to me, “My best ideas come when I am just sitting alone or bored” There is some kind of clarity found in the silence.

My students start every class with silent individual choice reading time. Don’t worry the occasional chuckle or excited share with a classmate is more than acceptable, even encourage, but for the most part we are silent, we take in those moments where the words just grab us.

I walked into my room at lunch today, the lights in the room were turned down and kids were spread out around the room silently reading, I asked them what they were doing, some replied reading book club selections but one just ignored me and kept reading. I asked, “started Grenade?” and all that was received back was an “ummhmm” and back we all went to the silence.

I finished Randy Ribay’s After the Shot Drops tonight. I am a slow reader and have been savouring this one. I just finished helping coach basketball this year and thought what a great title to finish up the season with. I want to read it again. I love the characters, I have become a big fan of these books written in the perspectives of different characters and I think it is so important to expose my students to books that show the whole world not just theirs. The basketball elements of this story will draw them in. The characters will keep them.

Words have the power to inspire us, to captivate us and to help us sit in the silence and just appreciate them.