“I got this one”

What are the variables that play into student truancy?  I’m thinking about this because a colleague on twitter recently posted the following question:

Our classes need to be engaging but can School Admin support teachers with a program designed to encourage attendance? yes / no ..examples ?

via @sadone

I was confused at first and asked for clarification.

@sadone do u mean can admin design the program or support the teacher who designs the program?

via @shannoninottawa

And the response that got me thinking about the causes of truancy:

@shannoninottawa admin design a program to support student attendance

via @sadone

So, why do kids skip school?  I suppose that it depends on a number of things and the causes could be myriad, including the following:

  • Kids skip school when they have mental health and/or substance abuse issues that prevent them from functioning in a typical way.
  • Kids skip school when they are dealing with heavy issues at home, such as parents with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
  • Kids skip school when they encounter bullying there.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t experience success.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t see how it is relevant to their lives – both current and future.
  • Kids skip school when they don’t connect with an adult in the building who cares whether or not they are there.

I am sure that a quick scan of the research would provide several more causes for student truancy, but my point is that there are a number of possible reasons, each with its’ own logical antidote, but with one bottom line.  No incentive, no amount of coercion and no individual “program” will address the causes of truancy.  Appropriate academic and student success programming and partnerships with outside agencies can address mental health and substance abuse issues, bullying, lack of success and lack of engagement.  And all of those pieces must be put into place by a team, which definitely includes the administration.  However, the absolute bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is the connection with an adult in the building who is going to pledge to be “in the kid’s corner” regardless of how bumpy the road becomes.  No one individual in the school can design a discrete program to remedy truancy.  The causes are unique in their combination, manifestation and effect.  Before anything can happen to fix the situation though, one caring adult needs to say, “I got this one”.  I guess the question becomes:  Who will that be?  Who is in the best position to get to know the kid — to find out why he or she isn’t attending and to dig deep to make it better?  Regardless of who it is, this much I know:  It is as unique and individual a solution as the kiddo who isn’t walking through the door.

image “I wanna hold your hand” cc by franeau

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Rethinking the Metaphors

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

— Michaelangelo

I recently experienced a moment of serendipity.  I was in typical mid-February reflection mode trying to refocus and appreciate gains made thus far, but feeling a tad frustrated and far too caught up in the busy-ness that can sneak up and swallow entire days.

In previous years when staff members have come to me to express frustration and looking for positives to recharge their efforts with challenging students, I have often recounted the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  It isn’t that I have spent much time studying the bible, but this story has always appealed to me as a metaphor for perseverance and the reward that comes with fighting the good fight.  You will have to pardon any flaws in my interpretation of the story, but it goes essentially like this:  Jacob struggles with an angel throughout an entire night and in the morning, the angel realizes Jacob’s strength and bestows upon him a blessing.  It always seemed a very appropriate metaphor for the work that teachers do when they persevere with students who present serious challenges within the classroom.  The message is, “stick with it.  Don’t give up.  The rewards will come.”  I think for the teacher the metaphor held some value.  I know that it got me through a few difficult stretches.

But the metaphor wasn’t working for me this time.  It occured to me, for the first time, that the focus was too heavily on the reward promised for “sticking to it.”  Also, the emphasis on the combative nature of the struggle wasn’t sitting well with me – it isn’t a productive or creative endeavour.  I started to feel that the struggle was self-perpetuating.  What I mean is that if I see it as a struggle, it is bound to be so.

I was looking for another way to imagine what it was that we do when we dig in and work tirelessly to make things better for students.  The task is arduous to be sure, but it is constructive and creative, asking us to rethink old perceptions and create space for new possibilities to find ground.  I was reminded of a famous quote by Michelangelo, explaining how he created his masterpiece “David”.  Picking up a project unfinished or cast off by previous artists, Michelangelo states that, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  Now, is this not exactly what we do when we see the potential and promise in each student and work to create the conditions within which students thrive?

Here is where the serendipity comes in.   At about the same time, I was approached to lead the planning of an event to take place this spring that would be based on Appreciative Inquiry and an Open Space Technology format.  In my typical fashion, I agreed without having a clue about either concept.  I knew that I could figure it out and, more importantly, bring together a dynamic group of people who could make it happen.  I started with the book “Appreciative Inquiry:  A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity” by Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry.  Within the opening chapter, Barrett and Fry use the example of Michelangelo creating David to illustrate the premise of the Appreciative Inquiry appraoch.

Appreciative Inquiry

While wrapping my head around the concept of appreciative inquiry — starting with discovering and valuing what is truly great about what we are doing, I have found a fresh perspective to bring into everything I do.  The timing, coming at the end of February, couldn’t be more welcome.  I have put the Michelangelo quote above the door of my office at school so that I pass underneath it every time I go out into the school.  It serves as a reminder to me to see what is great first, and to look for ways to tap into what is great in order to make things better.  It also reminds me that starting from a position of empathy is key when building the relationships that sustain us and make the school work.  In two weeks we head off for a week of March Break holidays and I cannot wait for the time to relax and quiet my mind a little.  Until then, I will enjoy this new perspective and the process of seeing the angel in the marble every single day.

image “Michelangelo’s David” cc by  J. Mark  Bertrand on flickr

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Report Card Day

Today reports went home for my Grade 8 students, so I thought it was appropriate to ask for some feedback from them on how I have done this past term.  I base my questions on the Onario College of Teachers’ Ethics and Standards of Practice.  The point is really formative – to help me set some goals for the coming term.  My students know that I value their insight.  I am committed to having them assume some responsibility for their learning, so soliciting their input was an easy decision.

I used a google form to create a short feedback survey that included several rating scale questions, as well as a “stop, start, continue” section.  I called it Mrs. Smith’s Report Card and gave students several minutes in our weekly computer lab time to complete the survey.  Over lunch I reviewed the results.  For the most part, I was not surprised by the responses – I have worked hard to get to know my students this term – but there were some exceptions that caught me a bit off guard and really made me think.  Of course, those responses are the most valuable, aren’t they?

Responses Worth Considering

Below are a few of the constructive comments that surfaced and made me reflect on how I might adjust my teaching to better meet the needs of my students:

Set Specific Due Dates:  I have stayed away from setting concrete due dates this past term, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, anything that I will evaluate must be completed during class time.  I do not believe in sending home assignments and projects to be finished for homework and then evaluated.  Also, I want every student to take the time they require to do a good job on any given assignment or project.  I don’t like to see students rushing to meet a deadline, thus producing less than stellar work.  I would rather students know that they may take as much time as needed in order to finish something.  Once most students have submitted an assignment, I offer time at recess to complete.  I am rethinking the whole “no due date” line not in terms of my philosophy, but rather to recognize that some students appreciate a deadline and like to know when an assignment is expected.  It could be that this helps them stay organized.

Give More Feedback:  This is one that I have to admit I have not been as good at as I would have liked.  I am firmly committed to the importance of timely and informative feedback as part of the teaching/learning/assessment cycle, but I think that I need to make a greater effort next term to provide feedback in the form of notes, conferences and comments on student blogs.

Give More Options:  Again, I thought I was doing this, but a couple of students felt that I was not offering a wide enough variety of assignments.  I admit that I require my students to write quite a bit – daily, in fact.  Reflecting on the Multiple Intelliegences surveys my students and I completed at the beginning of the term, I realize that I did not do enough to explore their areas of comfort and strength.  I will have to spend some time over the next little while thinking about and learning about other ways for students to present their learning. 

Less Technology / More Technology:  There was a very interesting and fairly even split in my students when it came to our use of technology.  Several felt that we use it too much and would prefer less.  An equal number of others felt that there was just the right amount of technology or that we could even increase the amount of tech. in the classroom.  This one really made me think.  I am quite happy with the amount of technology that we use to facilitate our learning.  I am very committed to using technology and exposing my students to the wide variety of tools available to enhance our collaborative group projects, as well as our individual inquiry.  I think that what I might need to do here is alter my approach by offering better support for students using technology that is new to them or that they might find intimidating.  I think I might have overestimated some of my students’ comfort levels with regards to the technology.

I was very happy to see that almost all of my students gave me a high rating on my level of caring – for their emotional well-being and for their academic progress.  That was a very deliberate goal for me over the past term and I feel that, through a lot of hard work and a ton of reflection, I succeeded.

A Renewed Committment to the Learner

Recently, I have been reflecting on the importance of Digital Literacy Skills.  I believe more than ever that if we don’t model and scaffold for our students the appropriate and responsible use of technology, including social media and collaboration tools, we are putting them at risk.  To use the often-cited analogy, I would much rather jump in the deep end with my students and teach them how to swim than lock the gate and pretend the pool doesn’t exist.  When the gate is up, it offers a false sense of security.  Without the skills to navigate the water, students are at serious risk because, let’s face it, they can all hop the fence.

If the web is the pool, I think it is my responsibility to ensure that my students know the dangers and risks, as well as how to stay afloat and how to protect themselves.  When it begins to appear as though they will spend a great deal of their adult lives navigating those waters, will I be able to say that I did my job if they don’t know how to swim?  If I believe that the locked gate is going to keep them safe, am I not in fact putting them at great risk for diminished meaningful literacy skills?

– image “car side mirror reflection” cc by just a name thingy

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– image “pool is locked” cc by redjar

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Teachable Moment 2.0

This morning I had a few minutes to catch my Twitter feed via tweetdeck and noticed that my colleague in London, ON – Danika – had shared her students’ personal essays on their class blog.  I took a few minutes to listen to the students’ voice recordings of their essays and realized that they were a perfect pairing for my own students’ memoirs – a work in progress in our classroom at the moment.

Students in my class have been working on their memoirs in our writer’s workshop over the past week and we are focusing on developing word choice (expectation 2.3 writing – regularly use vivid and/or figurative language and innovative expressions in their writing) and voice (expectation 2.2 writing – establish a distinctive voice in their own writing).

After making a few quick adjustments to my afternoon lesson plans, I was able to set aside a little chunk of time for my students to listen to the personal essays and discuss them.  I facilitated the conversation to focus on content, organization, word choice and voice.  The discussion was rich and I believe that hearing the examples written by Danika’s students provided my students with excellent models of personal memoir writing.

After my students took a few minutes to ‘rapid write’ their reflections on the essays, we posted our comments to their class blog – a networked learning teachable moment!

– image “Cat-5 Network Cable” cc by Darren Hester

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“kids do well if they can”

Summer vacation officially begins in just over a week and I have to admit I’ve already started initial preparations.  The first ‘cottage mix’ is ready to go (heavy on the chill out tunes of Ron Sexsmith, Hayden, Jim Bryson, Brett Dennen, etc…) and my summer reading list is coming together, thanks to suggestions from friends and colleagues.  Actually, the title of this post is taken from a book recommended to me by the social worker attached to our school.  In fact, when I got my hands on a copy, I couldn’t wait for summer to crack it open and have a look.  And, as it turns out, it struck a chord with me and pulled me in.

Lost at School

Lost at School:  Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene, PhD, addresses an issue that has been on my mind for quite some time.   Working with an incredible group of educators over the past few years I have seen and experienced the rewards of finding the keys to supporting struggling students who begin to meet with success.  I have also worked closely with staff who grapple earnestly with how to support students for whom the keys to success seem lost.  We meet around student work, share observations, offer support to one another, try different approaches, and then repeat yet sometimes we are left feeling confused and stuck.  As difficult as these moments are, I am always awed and inspired by the relentless determination of my colleagues.  I figure if you’ve shed tears of frustration, as well as tears of joy for your students, you are truly a teacher who believes in your students.

Greene suggests that when we work with students whose behaviour is challenging, we are too often working from a misguided philosophy of kids.  According to Greene, this flawed philosophy starts with the assumption that “kids would do better if they wanted to”(10).  Instead of viewing the problem as a lack of motivation to be remedied with the right incentive program, Greene suggests shifting perspectives:
Bt contrast, the “kids who do well if they can” philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well.  If he’s not doing well, he must be lacking the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges in an adaptive way.  What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid?  First, assume he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough.  Then, figure out what thinking skills he’s lacking so you know what thinking skills to teach.“(11)
Greene suggests, and I agree, that reframing behaviour challenges as a lack of thinking skills give us a more positive starting point.  Just as we might determine what reading skills are lacking with a student who struggles academically in order to teach and model those skills, we ought to ascertain what thinking skills are lacking in students whose behaviour interferes with their learning.
diagnoses aren’t especially useful
Greene goes on to explore several common behaviour issues that surface in the classroom, including difficulty with transitions, difficulty managing emotions, and difficulty empathizing with others.
His focus is on exploring the specific skills the student needs to develop, rather than determining a diagnosis to explain the challenging behaviour.  Greene’s focus on what the student needs resonates well with my own philosophy.  We meet student needs, regardless of official diagnosis or determination.  It seems to me that in the past the tendency to pathologize the challenges our students face allowed us to distance ourselves from an ethical responsibility and commitment to those students.  Greene discusses the pitfall of seeking a diagnosis, rather than looking for skills that are lacking:
… diagnoses don’t give us any information about the cognitive skills a kid may be lacking.  In other words, “bipolar disorder” provides no information about the specific skills a kid is lacking.  Nor does “fetal alcohol syndrome” or “lead poisoned” or “brain injured” or “Asperger’s disorder” or “ADHD” or “oppositional defiant disorder” or “antisocial” or “sociopath”.  All too often adults get caught up in the quest for the right diagnosis, assuming that a diagnosis will help them to know what to do next.  The reality is that diagnoses aren’t especially useful for understanding kids with behavioral challenges or for helping adults know what to do next.”(15)
This is what drew me in to this book.  I like the shift of focus from seeking a diagnosis to participating in a collaborative inquiry into what specific skills were needed.  I think this gives us a more productive and compassionate lens through which to view students with challenging behaviours.  It affirms my belief that a committed team of concerned adults is the best support for these students.  I’m looking forward to making my way through the rest of the book and sharing my reflections.  As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences too!

“Turnaround Leadership”

Turnaround LeadershipFor our PQP2 book talk, my group read and led discussion around Michael Fullan‘s Turnaround Leadership.  Rather than prepare paper handouts, we decided to post our notes here.  We prepared guiding questions for each chapter and did a graffiti activity where candidates in groups of three visited each question and added their thoughts.  Below are the notes – feel free to jump into the conversation by adding a comment!

Chapter 1: The Real Reform Agenda

The guiding question for discussion of Chapter 1 is:

Michael Fullan discusses two gaps in our society that need to be “filled”:  Academic Achievement and Social Inequality.  As a system leader, where does our focus need to be?

 – By focusing on social equity you help to create a safe environment where students may thrive, both academically and socially.

– Maslowe’s “Needs” need to be met first

– Both depend on the other. 

– Student success initiatives must filter to elementary students as well.

Chapter 2: Turning Schools Around

 The guiding question for chapter 2 revolves around the following quote:

Accountability, collaboration and Initiatives are the framework for capacity-building.

Why do you think these three cornerstones are Key?




Chapter 3: Change

In chapter three, Fullan quotes Howard Gardner discussing how to motivate someone to change:

The purpose of a mind-changing encounter is not to articulate your own point of view, but rather to engage the psyche of the other person.(37)

Take a moment to reflect upon a time when you have had a mind-changing encounter that changed your beliefs and practices.  What was it that engaged you and allowed you to see things in a new way?  What compelled you to change?

– “It’s like exchanging ideas to draw each other in to their side of the ‘bridge'”.

– Shared vision and goals in order to engage all parties.

– You don’t learn new ideas/have mind-changing encounters unless you be quiet and listen.

– “A-ha” moments – think of Piovesan’s “shift” – starting at their side of the bridge.

The second guiding question for chapter 3 is:

Why do you think that Fullan believes that successful change occurs when we see a deeper shift from “my” to “our”?

– shared responsibility

– Fullan is a ‘big idea’ person with lots of optimism

– ownership, collaboration, empowerment of staff – PLC

– there is no “I” in team

– It takes a village …

Chapter 4: Turning a Whole System Around

In chapter four, Fullan talks about the importance of networking with other schools in your district:

Instead of local autonomy, we need clusters of schools engaged in lateral capacity building, incorporating state and local agendas.(96)

As a principal or vice-principal, what activities would you envision your school involved with in order for this to take place?

 – family of schools arrangement

– subject councils

– shared agenda/networking with others on PA days

– baby steps – make sure you build capacity within the school

– networks (i.e. math, intermediate)

– observe at other schools

– at high school – matching subject teachers use technology



Turnaround Leadership – book cover

reason, conclusion – emotion, action – cc Will Lion/Flickr.com

“a crowd of decision-makers” – my PLN

Map of Shannoninottawa\'s Twitter friends

The image to the right is a visualization of those people in my Twitter network with whom I have the most exchanges.  I like the image because it shows the interconnectedness of my personal learning network (PLN) – there are lots of conversations taking place all the time.  My network is diverse and includes people with whom I work regularly, people with whom I have shared interests (education, technology, literacies), people I have met at conferences, and people I have met through others in my network.  My network is both local and global, including people with whom I live (my hubby) and work, people throughout Canada and the United States, and people across the globe in Asia and Australia.  Although we are connected by our shared interests, there are enough diverse views on those interests to make the network productive and challenging, as well as supportive and efficient.

why network?

In 2004, James Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, an examination of the idea that a large group of people is collectively smarter than a small group or an individual.  Surowiecki talks about how a large and diverse group provides you with information you might not have anticipated:

In other words, experts don’t know when they don’t know something.  That’s why it’s worthwhile to cast a wider net, and why relying on a crowd of decision makers improves (though it doesn’t guarantee) your chances of reaching a good decision.  Relying on a crowd rather than an individual improves your chances of finding information that you didn’t know was out there. (278)

One of the greatest challenges facing Principals and Vice Principals who must assume the role of instructional leader is staying at the leading edge in terms of instructional practices, curriculum revisions and new tools and materials for the classroom.  It isn’t reasonable to expect to fit time in to delve deeply into all of the ‘new’.  Having a strong network both within your school, within your board, and even beyond gives you the advantage of having a large group of people to provide insight, information and feedback in all of these areas.  I think it is the collective wisdom that we gain by being part of a learning network that makes it not only worthwhile, but crucial.

getting things done

If you believe that we still have a long way to go before we can say that we are providing the very best education for every single student in our system, then being part of a connected, challenging and supportive network becomes an imperative.  In Tribes author Seth Godin discusses the powerful potential of a connected group of people to effect change:

A movement is thrilling.  It’s the work of many people, all connected, all seeking something better.  The new highly leveraged tools of the Net make it easier than ever to create a movement, to make things happen, to get things done. (5)

Connecting with those whose passion and purpose resonate well with your own provides the opportunity to bring about changes, regardless of how seemingly small, that draw us closer to the realization of something bigger and better – in our case a system wherein all students can attain high levels of achievement.  

Godin explains what occurs as the conversational net is cast wider:

The movement happens when people talk to one another, when ideas spread within the community, and most of all, when peer support leads people to do what they always knew was the right thing. (23)

Doing the right thing.  That is at the heart of it, but it is often difficult and draining.  Having the courage, as well as the know-how, and bolstered by a strong PLN of passionately committed people, to do the right thing by each and every student might be the very raison d’etre for networking.



map of shannoninottawa’s friends 

“spreading the seeds of change”

On June 2nd, 80 elementary teachers from across the Ottawa Carleton District School Board will have the opportunity to participate in a workshop exploring dance as a medium through which children can interpret their experiences of the world.  The revised (2009) Ontario Arts Curriculum separates dance into its own strand and explains the philosophical underpinnings of the dance strand:

Dance is expressive movement with purpose and form. All dance communication is transmitted through movement – that is, through the body movements and gestures of the dancer. A dancer is, therefore, both the performer and the instrument through which dance is expressed. It is not recommended that students at the elementary level be given instruction in formal dance techniques (e.g., ballet, Graham, Límon techniques).   Instead, students will develop their own movement vocabularies that they will use to create dance pieces that communicate their feelings, ideas, and understandings.  This approach to dance, as outlined in this curriculum, is based on dance pedagogies (e.g., Laban), and focuses on the use of movement and the elements of dance instead of rote repetition of dance steps. (16)

The OCDSB dance workshop is facilitated by Hannah Beatch, founding director of the Dandelion Dance Company here in Ottawa.  Hannah combines her classical dance training through the Royal Winnipeg and Alberta Ballet Schools with her academic background in social work to bring a truly unique approach to working with youth through dance.  The Dandelion Dance Company is a group of young women, ages 13 – 18 who develop the ideas and then choreograph the pieces.  The company’s mission reflects an inclusive philosophy:

Our commitment is to the creation of dance theatre pieces that reflect social issues relevant to the current company members. We are a fully inclusive company that is not only open to persons with different backgrounds and abilities, but we acknowledge the gifts and enrichment that evolves when persons with various backgrounds and abilities work together.

The dance company is committed to ‘spreading the seeds of change through movement’ and I think that these young women are leading the way.  I had the opportunity to witness the company performing for our intermediate students last spring and it had a profound effect on my life.

the little ballerina that could

The Dandelion Dance Company performance changed things for me and for my daughter who is ‘in her element’, to use Sir Ken Robinson‘s phrase, when she dances.  Born with a rare genetic disorder, her body isn’t long and lean like the ballerina ideal in a tutu.  To find ballet slippers to fit her feet required costly alterations to the ‘off-the-shelf’ slippers.  We tried out a few different dance schools and a couple of programs run by the city of Ottawa, but in the end, she struggled to remember which step went where in the routines.  Always a positive and happy little one, she enjoyed herself, but we didn’t feel that those dance programs allowed her love of dance to shine through.

When I learned that Hannah was also the director of Tournesol Dance, a creative movement and modern dance school for girls, I knew that we had found the place where my daughter’s love for dance would be nurtured and where her talents would be celebrated.  Finally.

This is why I am thrilled that 80 of my colleagues will have the opportunity to learn with Hannah on June 2nd.  Changing the way that we think about dance and the arts could provide us with an occasion to shift our perspectives on creativity and communication.  Rather than seeing dance as a set routine of ordered steps to be executed to the beat, see dance as a way of making sense of the world.  Rather than seeing the arts as separate from other literacies, see them as integral parts of the ‘literacies’ whole.  The revised curriculum addresses the arts as inquiry and interpretation: 

The arts are a way of knowing that provides ways of perceiving, interpreting, organizing, and questioning various aspects of our world through exploration and experimentation.  Artistic expression involves clarifying and restructuring personal ideas and experiences.  The arts enable individuals and groups to create ideas and images that reflect, communicate, and change their views of the world.(6)

If we think deeply and differently about this, the impact on our teaching practices could be quite profound.


Dandelion Seed cc Bird Eye/flickr

ballerina that could – thedreamygiraffe on etsy.com

collaborative creativity classrooms

Last week I participated in a leadership conference hosted by my district and put together by an amazing group of people.  The speakers were great – a highlight for me was hearing from Flora MacDonald and learning about the power of one individual to make a significant change in the Taliban-ravaged rural communities of Afghanistan.  She is a “tipping point” individual with an incredible impact for change and it was an honour to listen to her speak.  For now I’m saving my deeper reflections on Flora MacDonald for another post.  Here I want to flesh out some of the thoughts I had as I listened to a speaker on the second day of the conference.

the story meeting

The second day of the conference began with small focus groups listening to speakers who were invited to share their thoughts on creativity and leadership.  The first speaker to work with my group was Laurence Wall, news producer for CBC Ottawa.  He began by telling us about the powerful and creative news stories that his colleague Rita Celli, who now hosts Ontario Today, crafted and delivered while covering the courts in Ottawa.  What set Celli’s stories apart was her incredible ability to capture the compelling angle while infusing her story with creative elements most often associated with a narrative voice in fiction writing.  Listening to Wall describe Celli’s work in this way got me thinking about the importance we are currently placing on non-fiction writing in school.  Asking students to develop their storytelling skills while finding the compelling narrative and connection across content areas such as science, geography and history would provide powerful and meaningful learning opportunities.

Wall went on to explain that the members of his news team came together for a story meeting to share two ideas for stories based on events that were happening in and around Ottawa.  Someone might begin by talking about an idea they have for a story and from there other members of the team would jump in with suggestions for a different perspective on the story or an idea about how to tell the story – what to include, how it plays out in different neighbourhoods, etc….  As ideas are bounced around, the original idea for a story morphs into what we as listeners end up experiencing – a well-crafted and engaging piece of journalism.  The process described is one of collaboration as creativity.  I could picture an almost jazz-like environment where ideas are passed around, added to and improved throughout the discussion.

the end of broccoli learning?

The idea of the story meeting really captured my imagination as a teacher.  I started to think about what it might look like to emulate this type of process across the curriculum in the classroom.  What if there were small groups – production teams – who worked together to grapple with the real story around some of the big ideas of, for example, the science curriculum?  Imagine groups of 5 or 6 students asked to find the compelling story connecting big ideas from the curriculum to issues occurring in and around their neighbourhoods.  What if students developed the ideas for their writing through a collaborative process similar to the story meeting?

Wall talked about the difference between news and gossip and how journalists at CBC select the stories with which they are going to work.  He drew a distinction between news stories that are engaging and compelling and news that you feel you need to consume because it is good for you to know – what his wife calls “broccoli journalism”.  When we ask students to memorize and regurgitate facts and figures, are we condemning them to broccoli learning?  Are the tasks with which we ask students to engage and demonstrate their learning really preparing them to participate in workplaces that increasingly demand highly developed skills in the participatory milieu of collaborative creativity and inquiry?  If we are still asking students to research and write 5 paragraph essays in isolation from their peers, then the answer is no.  If, instead, we ask them to pre-write by working through a story meeting with their peers, then write and publish a blog post and respond to comments as well as adding comments to their peers’ posts, then I think we are moving in the right direction.  If we ask them to work with peers to create and publish a digital story, I think we are closer.  Thoughts?

the teachable moments of Susan Boyle

 by Bert KommerijOver the past weeks Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent video has gone viral – with millions of viewers (and exponentially growing) watching her sing “I Dreamed a Dream” and blow the judges and audience away with her vocal abilities.  Dozens of blog posts have ruminated on the previously unknown Scottish sensation.  Something about Boyle has captured the global heart.  Following Boyle’s performance, Judge Amanda Holden expresses the sentiment of the (ever growing) crowd that watched:

I am so thrilled because I know that everybody was against you.  I honestly think that we were all being very cynical and I think that’s the biggest wake-up call ever.  I just want to say that it was a complete privilege listening to that.


And it was.  I have to admit, I’ve watched the video several times and get a bit teary everytime.  I love listening to Boyle and, apparently, so does the world.  It seems we share in her moment, assuming the collective surprise, then guilt, then jubilation at Boyle’s performance.

the semantic mash-up

While I was trying to figure out what it was about Boyle’s story that drew me in, I was reminded of the dedication by the late Kingston, ON poet Brownwen Wallace in her slim collection of poems Keep That Candle Burning Bright.  Wallace dedicates the book of poems to EmmyLou Harris, and in particular to the song “Burn That Candle”:

A song that reminds me of the kid who wanted to be a singer, who was me.  Who couldn’t believe it when the choir teacher said (the Sunday School choir, where they had to take everybody), when she said, How be you just mouth the words, dear, and put me inthe back row as if it was no big deal.

These poems are for then and for now, too.  All those times when I just can’t help it and a song bursts through and the people around me contort to poses from the Spanish Inquisition screaming Stop! Please stop! – so I don’t even sing in the shower anymore, out of respect for the water’s perfect pitch, how it sings out onto the tiles.

They are homely like that and corny and cliched. 

And necessary, yes, as my love for that kid who still embarrasses me, angers, hurts,  the kid who fails

The kid who fails.  That is what gets me.  When I tear up listening to Boyle, the connection I make is to that kid who fails.  In some weird semantic mash up, Boyle, in her underdog that makes it story references the kid who doesn’t make it.  She reminds us of our own unrealized dreams.  And this, for me, is teachable moment #1.  It is a wake-up call for me, as a teacher, to remind myself that I am surrounded by a roomful of dreams.  It is critical that I encourage my students to pursue those dreams and to ignore those voices that tell them to ‘mouth the words’.

a critical reading of the dream

How ‘genuine’ a story Boyle’s will be remains to be unseen.  And, perhaps authenticity isn’t the critical issue, at least in terms of understanding the ‘teachable moments’ of the story.  Dennis Palumbo, in his Huffington Post article asks the question: What if Susan Boyle couldn’t sing?

The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn’t sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don’t match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?

This is the interesting question.  Ask a class full of students (or teachers) to think about that for a bit.  I would imagine that the conversation could be quite rich.  Ask how many episodes of American Idol and similar reality-based television shows are dedicated to exploiting the failings of the hopeful but not particularly talented contestants who draw the implicit (and sometimes explicit) ridicule of the judges/audience?  

Susan Boyle photo collage “Untitled” by Bert Kommerij  There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image. AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike