The Sound of Silence

I have just gone through a month of my wife being away for various lengths of time, from a few days to a little over a week. No big deal a lot of you may be saying, some might even see it as a blessing (but I bet would never admit to it ), me well it just resulted in a very quiet home.
Our house has not always been like this and it has only been in the past few months that we have had to get use to a quiet home. It wasn’t always like this, we raised five children and as some of you know that is a very busy time. Teams, practices, birthday parties, picnics, sleep overs, friends over and the myriad of other activities that children do all made our house, how shall I say this, not a quiet place. It was a good noise to have in a home and it became a very familiar, comfortable noise and I admit that at times I would contribute to the noise much to my wife’s chagrin.
We are nearly but not quite empty nesters. Most of the time we have one and a half children home, our youngest full time and our second youngest on a half time basis. Our youngest is travelling overseas and our second youngest has entered the work world with hours that often have him at work until 9:30 pm, past my bedtime. With my wife gone, daughter gone and son working it was often just me and the dog at home for the time after work. The dog doesn’t carry a conversation very well unless I have been into the kick-a-poo joy juice. Then she becomes amazingly intelligent, always knowing just when to listen. The sound of quiet in the house was nearly unbearable even withe the dog.
I remember I use to pray to have a day of silence on the weekend at home when the kids would all be quiet, entertaining themselves in their rooms, no visitors or friends over. (Perhaps you are familiar with the song “Saturday Morning Confusion” by Bobby Russell) Never did I realize that when my prayer was answered I would wish I had never asked for it. I could not fathom a time where silence would not be welcomed.
I taught Outdoor Education for fifteen plus years and during that time took many groups of students into the mountains (surprisingly many for the first time and yes they all returned). One of the activities we always did was called a Seaton Sit. Usually we would do this at the peak or summit of our trip. I would ask the students to find a place to sit where, when they looked straight ahead they could see only things from the natural world, no other students, no highway, no trail, just nature. I would ask them to find one thing in nature that moved, one thing in nature that made a noise and one thing that they would always be able to picture. After about fifteen minutes I would signal them by banging two rocks together or two sticks, a whistle just didn’t seem to fit the occasion. They would come back and I would ask them to share with each other what they observed. Later on they would record this in their journal and at the end of the trip hand it in. It constantly amazed me how much the students valued that quiet down time. It was always in the top two experiences of the trip.
There has been a dramatic change from what I have been use to the past twenty five years. Silence, I could hear my own breathing, the dog breathing, I could hear the furnace cut in and out and I never realized how much noise our house makes on a daily and nightly basis. At first I was surprised at the silence, I didn’t expect it to be so profound, then I became familiar with it, knowing what noise was what, next I felt lonely being the only human in the house and finally I came to accept it. It was like I was going through a grieving process and I needed to get through all those stages before I could move on. Now I use the quiet time to center myself, reflect, plan, explore new thinking and read. The change in the family has brought about a change in me. You could say that I went through my own evolution of the Seaton Sit.
Today’s student seems to be on the go and connected no matter where they are. They never have a chance to decouple from their world and just sit. Those I have talked to almost seem to be afraid to be disconnected from their world. They never have a chance for a Seaton Sit. I wonder what would happen with our youth if we were to give them the opportunity for “The Sound of Silence”?

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Great Expectations

Great expectations are always tough to deliver. Look at our Canadian Junior Team, full of NHL players, purportedly one of the best teams that Canada has put on the ice (if you listen to all the pundits). The team goes through the round robin undefeated but loses the first game of the quarter finals. Those in the know say they came out flat, the goal tending was not what is should have been, the team was not ready, the coaching staff did not do their job and there are a thousand excuses. The team is disappointed, a country is frustrated and no doubt Hockey Canada is perplexed. How in the world do we right the ship? Video will be dissected, team selection will be examined, coaching choices will be reviewed, everyone will have questions but very few will have answers, well, the right answers.
Every year I meet parents who have great expectations for their children. They expect them to earn great marks and be at the top of the class. The student carries on sometimes believing that having the expectation is enough to earn the highest level of assessment but sometimes the sad truth is the effort, commitment, or desire is just not there. You can see it in their faces when that first report card goes out. Confusion, frustration, blame are all emotions that the student goes through. All too often the end of the road is at the teacher’s desk. Interviews follow and those are not always a pleasant experience for all involved. I had a parent in a previous year who was concerned for their child’s mark. At the interview it became all too apparent that the parent cared more than the student did, but somehow I was at fault for the low mark. I was the reason the student failed to deliver academically, physically or emotionally in my classroom. As our world junior team is finding, it is not easy to face our public when things go wrong or expectations are not met. The typical lament is that it “must be someone’s fault” and in someone it is meant that it is anyone but the student’s.
Thank goodness for technology in education. As I mentioned in a previous blog my students have just completed their gymnastic like units. We record their routines on an iPad and have them available for student or parent viewing. That one step allows teachers to show both students and parents what the end result was for the unit. It can be compared to game film, positional film or individual film. There is no escaping the black and white of video. While this is one technological tool we can use there are several other non-technological tools to use. Having students work at both self-assessment and peer assessment is a valuable skill to teach. It focuses students on the process and result, not the emotion. Students understand what is expected and where they fit with the expectation, not always so much the parents.
My wife and I have five children who have all gone through and completed public schooling in Alberta. I am well versed in the expectations of an educator and of a parent, where it gets interesting is when the expectation and result do not match. Reflect back to our world junior team, we expected them to bring home the gold but the result was a fourth place finish. Should we as a public cry foul on the team for the fourth or should we accept it and move on. At times I found myself as a parent hovering too close to the situation to have a good perspective. I needed to step back and look at my child’s big picture and see if this was merely a bump on the road or a major detour. I have to admit that most of the time it was a bump. The foundation that we as parents had set for our children would see them through their school years and beyond.
Where does this lead in terms of expectations? In the end the greatest wisdom understands that education is not about comparative achievement, grades and report cards but rather personal bests, personal accomplishments and being the best you can be. After all, life is a one on one game, me against myself. Great expectations can lead to great accomplishments or great disappointments, I would prefer it leads to great growth, but then I hope I have the wisdom to understand that my expectations are set by myself and no one else.

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Rooted and Grounded

Each year at Christmas my wife and I take turns visiting our families. This year we made the trek to Dundurn, Sk. to visit my mom and step dad. It is a five and a half hour drive so there is plenty of time for us to visit and ask the usual questions regarding what has changed since our last visit, who we might see and how my mom and step dad have changed. Sure enough, upon our arrival we were met with two smiling faces, hugs and kisses and a welcome into the house. Stepping through the door always brings back memories for me and this visit was no different.

The house has been their residence for the past 29 years together plus another 5 for my mom. My brothers and I were raised on the family farm until it was sold and we moved into town to this house. It carries a lot of memories for me; renovating the upstairs with my dad and all the lessons of construction, wiring, plumbing and patience he taught me, building the attached garage with my brothers and dad, landscaping outside, family meals and yes the occasional party when mom and dad were gone. Every time I step through that door those and other memories come back to me. Some are good, others not so good but they are all important. 

Family, trust, learning, values, morals and traditions were lessons that I learned either directly or indirectly through the work I did with my family. Those lessons are what I value now and I reflect on them more and more and use them in my day to day life. Thinking back it was the teaching and learning that knit our family together and further knit our family into the fabric of the community. Even today, all these years later, I go home and find that it automatically centers me, I find balance, a sense of belonging as well as community. I leave refreshed, with a renewed perspective and a recharged moral fiber. In short, it is good for me to return home.

I will forever remain rooted and grounded to those lessons and emotions that made me who I am today. I am reminded that I am part of the fabric of the community which I came from. I have a strong sense of my roots, what molded me and what grounds me even today. My wife and I have unknowingly (well me anyway) done the same thing with our children. I hear it in the stories they tell during family meals, their interactions with each other and the talks they have with their mom, myself and their friends. I see the cycle of building the fabric of family and community continued.

The recent tradgedy at Shady Hook school (my thoughts and prayers to those affected) have me wondering if somehow the fabric of family and community was torn from the young man. I don’t know the details and don’t pretend to, but it does have me wondering. I see students in my school who cling to that fabric for all they are worth and will not, under any circumstances, let go. They remain rooted and grounded in their family and community and carry on with life as contributing members of their family and community. Everyone needs to belong, everyone needs to know where they belong and everyone wants to belong. I have observed that time and again in my years of teaching. Students will reach out to a significant adult in their life and attempt to find out where and how they fit. A study coming out of Ontario in the past two years indicated that 20 minutes of interaction between a student and a teacher will improve self esteem, lower anxiety and improve success, and that was 20 total minutes . . . in a YEAR!! Teachers can and do play a role in building the fabric of the school and in the greater sense the fabric of the community they teach in.

As a teacher I have learned to embrace that role, it wasn’t always easy but with experience and having my own family it has become a more and more comfortable circumstance. I know I will return to school after this break with a refreshed moral being, renewed sense of purpose and a balanced mind all due in part to having gone home for the holidays and, having my children come home for the holidays. Maybe Jon Bon Jovi has it right when he sings “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”.

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While Walking my Dog . . .

I was out walking my dog after supper on a very foggy Wednesday night. It was dark, overcast, no stars just the blurred street lights. I like to walk her east of our house back into a development area so I can let her off leash. On our way there she, Stevie, is a royal pain. She pulls at the leash, won’t walk by my side, gets distracted with all the smells, foot prints and, yes, rabbits that we meet. She has short runs at full speed only to stop when the leash pulls her rather abruptly and is generally doing everything I don’t want her to be doing. I swear that one of these days she is going to dislocate my shoulder on me when I am not paying attention. As we arrive at our off leash area her excitement becomes so intense that I can barely handle her until that magic moment happens when I let her go.

I remember the first time I did that. I was not sure if she would come back, if she would listen, if she would let me get the leash back on her collar. I was concerned, anxious, worried yet excited to see her run at her pace and not that of a human. In the end she came back and we walked back home (the bribe of a treat didn’t hurt!).

Wednesday night Stevie was in fine form. When I let her go she dashed off into the fog only to reappear coming back at me at full speed, dodged me and kept going then came racing up behind me, dodged me again and disappeared into the fog. This carried on until I thought she was going to have a heart attack! As I walked I noticed that she stayed close but not too close to let me catch her, listened to me when I needed her to come near, always knew where I was and panicked when I hid on her (yes I had my fun too). Stevie ran and ran until she had her fill, came back to me, had a treat, went out for one last run and then sat nicely while I put the leash back on her and together we walked home, a lot calmer and relaxed than on the way out.

It occurred to me that teaching some of my students is a lot like my walks with Stevie. Starting out I want to keep them close, stay on top of what they are doing, watch everything they do and be able to control the entire situation. Some rebel in words, other with inaction and others with indifference. When I first started teaching that process closely resembled my methodology. How do I engage them all I often asked myself. Even today I find myself resorting back to that methodology when I teach something for the first time however I convert to the off leash process as we grow to know each other.

In my opinion the off leash process is something that all students and teachers should experience. It takes trust and courage to let students run free with the hope that they are achieving an objective and learning about themselves as they go. Stevie, without knowing it, is improving her physical fitness, brain development and longevity with her off leash runs. She knows to stay near, has me in her sights and in the end listens to what I need her to do. My students are the same way.

We are doing our gymnastics-like unit at the moment in PE. I have completed all instruction (the on leash portion) and now the students have formed groups, are creating a routine with partners and preparing to present this routine to their classmates the last week of the unit (the off leash process). I have to trust that they are doing what needs to be done yet give them the freedom to experience, fail, retry and learn as they go. Some days they are on task at my side, others they are running away from me chasing rabbits, only to reemerge from the fog at full speed just to check in and see what I think. Without fail the routines amaze me, the creativity, risk taking and practice really pays off. Like Stevie their physical fitness improves however, unlike Stevie, their benefits also include independence, cooperation, leadership and creativity.

As a teacher I get to teach in a whole different manner. It isn’t me driving the learning it is the students. Watching them be at the center of their learning . . . what a source of energy and optimism it is for me. Sometimes you just have to let them run free and realize that walking the dog isn’t just good for the dog.

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The Last Bastions of Change?

Looking back on the last 5 years of education I have noticed some interesting changes. In our elementary schools all students are in the classroom. Pull out programs are disappearing. In their place are learning assistance teams (LAT’s) that assist classroom teachers in differentiating lessons so all students have the opportunity to learn in their classroom. I think that is a great concept, no more pull out programs, no more special classes, everyone is included in the classroom. Much like it is in life.

As students move to middle school they are kept in the classroom with; educational assistant support (EA’s), LAT support, differentiated instruction, inclusive education planning tools (IEPT), modified curriculum and other alterations all aimed at including all students in the classroom. It is sometimes difficult and frustrating to teach in this environment but the positives for the students far outweigh any negatives for the teachers.

Students move on to high school and they are given choices of; English, Social, Math 10-1, 10-2, 10-3 etc. We use to call that streaming and it was done away with a long time ago. Pull out programs do exist in high school, one of which is called Knowledge and Employability (K&E). (I’m not picking on K&E just using it as an example.) What happened to inclusion? All the time, effort and money devoted to those students in the K-9 learning environment seemingly was in vain since in the last three years they are segregated or streamed and inclusion is not practiced.

I wonder if the change is because the requirements of Alberta Education necessitate this hence there is no other way around it or if perhaps our high schools are the last bastions resisting change. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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Reflections on 2012 Grey Cup

Have to say that I am feeling much, much better today than I was a week ago. Not sure if it is because I am over the flu or that Calgary lost the Grey Cup, in any event I am feeling better. (my apologies to the Stampeder fans out there . . .  well not really) Not a bad Grey Cup game, could have been closer. I feel for Kevin Glenn, I wish he would have performed better however it is what it is. I suppose that it is sort of like the kids we teach, we hope they all do well and when they don’t we sometimes take it as a reflection on ourselves and our teaching abilities. I believe that is what makes teachers the people they are; they care, they take responsibility, they reflect on their practice, they work to make right what has gone wrong. Teaching is not the easy gig that some in our public would have others believe. It takes its toll on our emotional well-being however when done right it replenish’s us and motivates us to move forward.

Have you ever worked with a colleague who was not in the right line of work be it a profession or a career? It is painful to watch the result of someone who is trapped in something that they do not care for. It is not good for them or the people they interact with. The stress changes their personality, brings out the worst in them and fouls the work atmosphere for colleagues. On the other hand there are those who are exactly where they should be. You can tell by their infectious personality, they live and breathe their work and have found the balance between family and work. They are a joy to be around and seem to always be able to find the silver lining in the overhanging cloud.

The question then becomes how does a boss, supervisor, administrator approach and broach the topic of work satisfaction. Thomas Sergiovanni’s research and writings focus on moral leadership. Hope, trust, piety and civility are at the core of his writings. Applying his research to an unhappy employee would mean coming from a place of compassion, what is best for our students and what is best for the colleague. A tough conversation no doubt but it does lead one to reflect on finding the right fit for a potential employee during the interview process or having the conversation with a tenured employee.

In the end colleagues, administrators, parents and students all want teachers who are happy at what they do, satisfied with their work and enjoy being with adolescents for the better part of a day. It is just common sense but then I have found that common sense isn’t all that common. Just sayin’.

 

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Reflection

I have just completed a Master’s in Educational Leadership. One of the most enjoyable and stimulating parts of the process were the academic discussions that followed the introduction of various topics. During the two year process I found that I loved to write about those conversations. The more I wrote the more I loved it, strange coming from a career physical education teacher. Reflection was my format of choice and I hope to continue that here. Here is the first one, hope somebody enjoys it <grin>

Have you ever thought that finally you have things under control and then along comes this Murphy guy. We thought we had our household budget in hand on Thursday then Friday my wife’s car needed brakes ($585.00), Saturday the clutch went in our VW ($1,500.00), we didn’t drive on Sunday and I am scared to find out what will happen on Monday! Sometimes the same sort of thing happens in our classrooms. We just get settled into a routine, class is going well, then something changes and everything we planned comes apart. I think those are some of the most frustrating and consequently rewarding times in teaching. You can’t believe that your plans have been blown out of the water so you buckle down and create new ones only to end up with something that is better than the original. No, it isn’t something I wish on people but every once in a while we need to get moved out of our comfort zone otherwise we end up in a rut and that is not good for ourselves or the students we teach.

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