Wyoming 1971

This is a companion post to Building blocks published on the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning blog for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. It is, as my wife puts it, a means to spare readers with commitment and time issues a chance to get some of the back story if they want it instead of a longer read.

In the early 1970s, my family moved to the State of Wyoming, USA. We settled in a little town of 10 000 people. It was there that I began 7 years of school from K to 6.

Our school year started in September and finished at the end of May. It was glorious. Once Alice Cooper’s anthem played on the radio we all knew that 3 months of vacation awaited. We would leave the house in the morning and only reture for a few reasons; food, medical attention, and the toilet. Neighbourhoods swarmed with kids of all ages on bikes, playing sports, fishing in the local creek, and cooling off in a pool. Parental supervision was at a minimum. The entire neighbourhood looked out for one another. There must have been at least 6 other families to turn to if trouble came my way. Summer vacation in Wyoming was spent outdoors, playing from dawn to dusk, and without talk of school. We all had chores to do, but even most of them were outdoors. My parents did not have a single school related task to fill those days; that I knew about.

The moment Labour Day weekend rolled around new clothes were purchased, maybe some shoes too if we outgrew the old ones, and like a switch got flipped, we were all back in school mode. Since I was new to all of this there was a lot of oblivion as it related to which class I would be in or who my teacher(s) might be. The only thing I knew about kindergarden was that a nap was scheduled in the afternoon, but I wondered who it was really for? Us or the teacher? By foot was how most of us arrived each day, with the only exception being a school bus full of tired farm kids whose commute was up to an hour each way.

Independence and the rust

From K to 1 someone walked me to school, but from Grade 2 on I joined the commuter class of children who walked to school on their own. It was a distance of about 700 metres that included 3 turns and crossing the street. We avoided cars, strangers, and loose dogs. At lunch, many of us would walk home and back, even though school lunch was provided in our lunch room for the price of 45 cents – milk included. It was nice to go home and relax in between classes. Our school had a nurse who checked our hearing, vision, and teeth. She applied iodine and bandages, which is probably why most kids chose not to go in when cuts or scrapes occured. It was better to take your chances with an infection than it was with the iodine. When my mom would ask me what happened, most of the time I couldn’t remember because we were too busy playing.

Of course it wasn’t only like Neverland in Wyoming. Once we settled into our classrooms each year there were the usual get to know you activities and expectations. Teachers would be trying to assess us on our abilities to read, write, do Science, and answer increasingly difficult pages of Math questions as fast as possible as our ages increased. Nothing like shaking the cobwebs off from the get-go. It was tantamount to a leap into frigid waters not felt since May. For some it was shock to the system and yet for others there were no effects.

For me, after being out of the classroom for 3 months, it was obvious some rust had formed and I knew it. However, it never seemed like our teachers were worried about what we remembered or forgot from the previous year. Perhaps, they believed that recalling knowledge was like riding a bike even though your feet haven’t touched the pedals in years. It just comes back to you after a little practice. Sure there were some wobbly moments and crashes, but eventually momentum was regained.

In that time, it never felt as though we weren’t getting better each year. Some subjects were harder for me and others came easier. We were taught, we tried to apply the lessons, we were tested, corrected(shown how to improve), and taught some more. Not much has changed 45 years later except I’m on the other side of the desks now. And students are a whole lot more connected and savvy than then. The Math we are asking them to understand is kilometres ahead of the drill and kill days. At least in some ways.

As I work with students who have been off for 10 weeks over the summer break, I am noticing that many are coming to school in September exhausted and anxious. They struggle to shake the rust off and pick up where they left off at the end of June. I wonder when/if they were able to be still, run, recharge or play without having every moment of their day prescribed by a camp, sports team, or club? Many of these programs seem more tied to child care than they do to fun and seem to be a necessary reality for children where all of the adults in the home are in the workforce.

As a result Math seems to suffer the greatest amount of rust over the summer. And this might contribute to some of the anxiety that we are now seeing in the classroom each September. Perhaps if we gave our students the time to savour the summer rather than sail through it, we might give them the opportunity to return to schoolready for another year at the speed of learning.

That leads to the blog I originally wrote called Building upon balance, which inspired this preamble and its companion Building blocks.

Thank you for reading. Please take time to share or comment to let me know your thoughts. If you would like to read a bit more about the experience of leaving this mid-west Shangri La and what it was like to return to Canada, please read Uprooted.

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D’s-unease

D angerDistorted driver’s
deep disassociation
destroys.

Discouraged
denizens decry
death’s devastation.

Downfallen
daunted
desparate
dreamless.

Dutiful
dedication
despite danger.

Dedicated to the victims, families, responders, and citizens whose dreams were robbed today in Toronto.

 

 

Remembrance and gratitude

Today I sit, move, teach, and learn without fear of war in the place I call home. Today I stand. Tomorrow I will do the same, and each day hereafter.

622px-lest_we_forget

photo by Hobvias Sudoneighm – Flickr, CC BY-SA2.0,

This week I seek to honour those who have sacrificed so much while never knowing the countless lives that were made better by their actions. This week I stand with those who have served.

This month I receive a torch; as mine to hold high to guard the flames of bravery, selflessness, virtue, and kindness that make our nation a light on a hill. This month I stand for those who serve.

This year I pause, again, to remember that those who have come before me have not served in vain. This year I stand for those who will serve in the future.

In my life there is still work to be done.

But for now, I am taking time to be still, to look back, and give thanks.
Lest we forget.

…why I hate Jell-O

I am going to provide some insight about why I hate Jell-O. It is written with tongue in cheek, whatever that means, and may give cause to ponder some issues far more important to us all than a low-cost food item. I hope you will enjoy it in the spirit with which it is intended.

Some thoughts to consider;

  1. Jell-O takes the form of whatever acts upon it – it is infirm of purpose (sorry Shakespeare) – people can be like this too.
  2. Jell-O can be layered. This allows outside forces to affect it. (see point 1)
  3. Jell-O can be whipped into looking like something else-possibly masking hidden things like coconut and marshmallows. (or hidden agendas)
  4. Jell-O is sweet, possibly too sweet – sugar kills yo! It riles up the blood.
  5. Jell-O does not require the use of teeth to be eaten-unless it’s the gristly kind
  6. Jell-O shakes when you walk into the room – like it has something to hide.

By virtue of no reasons at all, am I not entitled to hate Jell-O in my own perfectly irrational way merely because it’s so different from other foods? Although, it appears harmless with a bounty of flavours and quasi-psychedelic-tinted-transparency, it’s the uncontrollable quivering that freaks me out when someone takes Jell-O out of the refrigerator.

How can food shake? Food that shakes is evil. It’s wrong in every way, and that’s that!* Nothing irrational to unpack here right?  Maybe this fear comes from watching the Blob on TV, or other frightening shows.The media is always reporting about the most important(popular) and therefore best ideas right? They wouldn’t lie to us. After all, any biases or social agendas of any sort are not professional or ethical in the news business. No media outlet would ever be shaking the minds of viewers by inciting controversy or LoCoDe** to drive-up their ratings?

All the Jell-O lovers in the world on social media, or speaking from a podium are not going to convince me of its goodness by saying,”Jell-O can make mealtime great again.” It will never work. So why is so much being served right now? Having visited the hospital and observing it shaking on tray after tray in a servery was reason enough to keep saying no, and keep my distance. If they’re serving Jell-O to sick people because it is easy to digest as part of the recovery process then something must be up. Be afraid of what can be whipped up and hidden inside.

I​ can say without fear of any significant recourse that I hate Jell-O.*** Here are some verbs to use that articulate my abject disdain for this useless and disgusting dessert; loathe, hate, dislike, unlove,  despise, detest, deplore, distrust, and fear.

How did fear get in with the others you ask? Hmm. Don’t we always hate what we fear? Do our life’s fears exaggerate misunderstandings which then in confusion lead us to hating something?

I know lots of people who hate spiders, rats, and snakes. They hate them so much that they can’t bear being anywhere nearby if they are present. I’ve heard of some who see other people like that too. I  have, on occasion referred to these folks as racists, bigots, and even candidates for office. So how can something so illogically irrational such as hatred and fear be the rallying cry in dividing a highly civilized world? Are segments of humankind going to the dogs, choosing to run in Superpacs?

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This is not the dog that bit me. This is Ellablue.

When I was little, a dog bit me. At that moment, I didn’t understand why, and it made me afraid of dogs long afterwards, despite my fear I did not hate that dog. I never once tried to bite the dog in retaliation. However, it took some time and learning to resolve those fears, and an understanding that the dog was just being a dog by protecting its yard.

There are lots of people suffering from figurative dog bites. They’ve been bitten by misunderstanding, and if they encounter others who don’t share the same faith, beliefs, status, culture, education, or political affiliation rabidly succumb to fear and distrust. When faced with a stranger in their yard, their only response is to bark, lunge, and bite. No one is safe around an erratic or irrationally behaving dog whether it’s tethered or roaming around the countryside. Most would develop a healthy dislike for something like that, would naturally want to avoid it at all times, and would tell their friends to do the same. Not run towards it, right?

So is it fear or hate that keeps us from getting past what we don’t agree with, understand, or particularly like? What are you willing to admit that you hate? Could you replace the word hate with fear or struggle to understand? It’s OK to hate fear something that weirds us out like Jell-O or those creepy crawlies things, or a dog that bit us, but never another human being. As we confront others with difficulties differentiating between hate and fear at school, work, or in politics we need to put understanding and rational behaviour at the front of all times. Confrontation is not an option.

If we can get one thing right before it’s too late, let’s use our collective efforts to see the good and value in everyone and everything. If that means me getting over my unfounded fear of food that shakes in order to help others get over their xenophobia, bigotry, and ignorance then pass the bowl and a spoon.

You are here either via a FB, Twitter or perhaps by sheer curiosity with the title. Regardless of the reason, thank you. Please follow my blog, commenting, and sharing. It is greatly appreciated.

*I will go as far as publicly declaring that I have a fear of all food that shakes and since Jell-O is at the top of the shaky-food food-chain it is personal enemy number one. I’m not the only one, but admit to probably being the first to be so sweetly transparent about it(sigh). Albeit irrational, my dislike for the wiggly wonder which is Jell-O comes from years of hoping there would be something better for dessert, and that crunchy gristle that comes from not stirring the mix long enough while it’s being made. Yuck with a capital Yuh!
**Lowest common denominator = LoCoDe
***For the sake of time when I refer to Jell-O, I mean any and all gelatin dessert products. For the sake of this story Jell-O is a catch-all name serving as the standard like the name Kleenex gets used when people think about facial tissue? I wish no harm to the good folks who enjoy, serve, sell, or manufacture this product.

Perception

How we perceive ourselves is a matter of inner vision, trust, and wisdom. It must come from the belief we are all infinitely awesome at something. For me this came in realizing, albeit later in life, my true calling as an encourager, mentor, and educator.

So, at a time when mid-life sees many people my age taking stock of their relationships and buying little red sports cars, I sold my company and took a gigantic leap of faith with family intact.

Deciding to pursue a career in education came with an unimaginable amount of uncertainty. Terrible job prospects, rejection letters from all but one faculty of education (props Tyndale), and reduced revenue streams while I studied, practice taught, parented, and husbanded (a considerable challenge indeed).

Do you know the expression sometimes you have to learn the hard way before you can learn the right way? I’m sure I made some of that up, but I had basically flunked out of university in the 80s. I left with a chip in my shoulder and hurt that I did not succeed. What happened next was not a 25 year pity party over, but rather an education along the road of experience.

This journey has allowed me to arrive, alive, bruised, and better. What I learnt was that although what I did wasn’t always a success, it was the best I could do at the time. That my best was good enough so self-doubt, my ego, and abject personal disdain could go shove a rock. I realized I was a work in progress.

So…What makes you get out of bed before the alarm clock each morning?
Are you in the place that makes you the happiest and your light is undeniable?
How do you stay there? What sustains you when times get tough?

What keeps you hitting the snooze button until last minute late panic sets in or a terrible song drives you screaming towards the bathroom?
What would it take for you to change and get up before your alarm?

Where do you turn when you need help?
What would you change if you knew you would not fail?
Who could you talk to today?

Is it a matter of how you perceive yourself? Let’s Talk.

Freedom

This is the second post in a series about freedom.

Is there any freedom in education? Would it be easily identifiable, as if through some sort of standardized test?
Could there be a way to quantify freedom? What about qualitative data to define freedom instead? Just ask some students and they’ll be happy to give you a piece of their mind.

As I shared in my previous post, I am wrestling with the idea of freedom. Here are some questions that have been flying around my mind: How about the sunflower in the header photo? How does it dare to defy its surroundings to stand out above the choking crowd of corn? Are we really giving students the freedom in their educations to rise above the systems as they learn?

I want the answer to be yes, but am well aware that freedom comes with costs. Costs to identity, creativity, and in many cases joy of learning. Think of how Sir Ken laments this is, to no small part, in Changing Education Paradigms (RSA version).

Shoe does not tell

That got me thinking about how much real freedom exists in our world of education? We want students to come through our doors everyday with smiles on their faces and boundless energy to pay attention, sit still and answer all questions asked. Frighteningly enough, this also implies that students will not be asking any questions themselves. Students are being asked to perform more like programmable robots, akin to a follow up generation from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, let’s call them the Stepford Students who are programmed to conform rather than thinking and (inter)acting?

Another way of seeing this is very much like a new computer. It is given an operating system(education), a number of pre-programmed executable files(curriculum) and a hard drive to fill with personalized content. What the learner doesn’t realize is that the OS and the programs consume most of the hard drive and limit the computer’s potential to function at optimum speed and or intention.The Kids and the Computer

Where’s the freedom in education when everything is prescribed rather than inspired? (With thanks to Ursula Franklin’s Real World of Technology) Are we risking future freedoms in education for the sake of perfunctory outcomes? Will students be allowed to learn on their terms?

Much of education seems counter-intuitive to freedom. Schedules are set by bus companies, unions, school boards and governments. Don’t forget the publishing industry too. Curriculum is established top down with little consideration of student input or their various interests. Students who excel then, are usually still kept in the same learning line based on their year of birth rather than strength of abilities. In many cases learning seems to be in compartments with human management as the top priority. As I reflect through all of this it must be mentioned that these first world problems of freedom hold little weight compared to the global fight for equality and freedom to learn for over 100 million students.

It seems that there are lots of great causes for freedom in the area of education. None more prevalent, in my mind, than the #HeforShe movement and UNESCO’s Literacy for All. On a macro scale, gender equality and access to literacy for all are arguably crucial to reversing many of our global socio-economic problems. So how would freedom make the difference? Our youth must see a place for themselves at the table of the future. That means our youth need their freedom to be heard as they safely share their voices, hopes, dreams and needs without fear of violence, reprisal or loss.

Giving freedom to students around the world will not cost our economy, but rather allow it to grow. Plain and simple – education changes lives. Providing ALL learners opportunities and freedom(s) to alter the course of their futures will be the greatest legacy we can endow to our students.

Educate your students to possess the resilience of dandelions.

This is the first of two posts about freedom to grow in education.

I am wrestling with the idea of freedom. There are some questions floating around my mind like dandelion seeds: So in true randomly consistent fashion I go off topic from the start and into the thoughts below.

So I am cutting my lawn the other day. However, at first look, lawn is a generous label. Lawns according to most are explicitly intended to be pristine alignments of grass.

Stripes on the Lawn -EmmanuelMy perception of viewing a lawn much more as something  akin to a dandelion hosting site. And so thoughts about dandelions and education took root and sprouted…

Does the lawn tell the weeds where to grow? After cutting the dandelions this week, I know this is impossible. So why have we historically told students how, where and when to grow? If education is analogous to tending a garden, then our goals to sow, water, tend, prune, feed, nurture, and harvest are all in-line. However, how we deal with the weeds leaves me second guessing the process.

Dandelions possess a beautifully disobedient resilience in their ability to grow when and where scattered. To defy human chemistry, thrive, and stand above a crowd is admirable? They even provide delicious greens for salads. All the while being berated, maligned and removed. And yet, year after year, a new crop stands at the ready to take over despite all best efforts. These are the students who don’t fit the mould. Do we just cut them down? Do we not need variety in the garden even at the risk of losing perfection and conformity? Isn’t this the type of student differentiation and multiple intelligence theory is meant to reach and teach?

Are we altering the nature of our learners by planting them in infertile educational soil, asking them to perform a series of mundane tasks, and expecting unified responses? A recent Twitter post sums this up all too well.

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Are we really giving students the freedom in their educations to rise above the system as they learn? Have we offered them a place where they are safe to grow as they are able and equipped to do so? Are we covering them with weed killer and mowing them down? Is there room for something other than grass in our educational landscaping?

Would love to hear your thoughts.