Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Over the last few weeks I have seen a number of blog posts that I could dub the "11 questions" posts.  It's rather simple.  Share 11 facts about myself, answer 11 questions posed for me by another, and then invite 11 more to answer 11 random questions I pose for them.  I have loved reading and learning things about others.  Often in my PLN I hear exclusively about what is happening in classrooms/schools and this "11s" project has put a real human face to every one of the people I converse with.
And so today I was challenged to do my homework and join the ranks of the 11s, thanks to the amazing Sheila Morissette (@sheilamoris) (who I have been lucky enough to work for - she was my first principal, and gave me so much support and so many opportunities in the early days of my career!)
So without further ado...
11 random things about me
1.  I am a geek.  Totally in love with science and Doctor Who and Disney, and all things Joss Whedon.  I love that it's okay to be a geek these days.  
2.  I am a total travel addict.  I am constantly planning my travel adventures one year (or more) down the road and looking for as many opportunities as I can to see or experience some place new.  Travel is such an amazing form of education.  I have tried to share this with my students as well - I took yearbook students to NYC in 2012, and am taking science students in London March 2014 and Student Council students to Disneyland for leadership training in May 2014.  I have a travel blog with all my adventures (Chasing Magnets). 
3.  I love photography.  I started taking photos on a Nikon 401X when I was 10 years old after our house was robbed and the insurance company replaced our crappy camera with this superior model.  I prefer to take photos of nature, landscapes and architecture - so travel photography is pretty much the perfect blend for me.  However, I do put these skills to use for the school yearbook, as well as shooting weddings, maternity, family and infant portraits.  I am also a bit of a photo snob.  For this reason I hate instagram.  For me there is a big difference between snapshots and the art of photography (and there is nothing wrong with snapshots - time and place for each though!)
4.  While I have always lived in the lower mainland, I have spent some portion of every summer in Osoyoos.  Being on the boat and watching the sunset behind the mountains is probably my favourite thing in the world.  I got my first job at the Supervalu on Main Street in Osoyoos, learned to wakeboard, developed my confidence, and met my husband on this lake.  
5.  I got engaged when I was 19, after 6 weeks of dating my husband.  We were married on reading break shortly after I turned 20.  Best decision ever.  I knew I wanted to share my life with him, and when you know, why wait?  Conversely, my wedding was one of the worst days of my life.  However, a wedding is not a marriage.  My husband is my best friend, my favourite travel companion, and also an inspiring educator.
6.  I love the fall and winter.  Mostly just the cold.  I love scarves and wool coats and toques and mittens and wandering in the snow.  I love the smell of the rain, and the sound it makes.  Even in the winter I generally sleep with my window open to I can enjoy the crisp air.  I hate being hot. 
7.  When I was in high school they offered Physics 12 and Band 12 in the same block and forced me to choose one.  This was a big decision to make at 15.  While I love science and am passionate about teaching Physics (and in no way regret my choice to take the Physics course), a small part of me is sad that I let my study of music fall away in the process.
8.  When I was in high school I saw Apollo 13 for the first time and instantly fell in love with space.  From that moment on I wanted to be an astronaut.  I read everything I could about NASA and started gathering information on the best Universities to go to in order to prepare for my career in aeronautics.  I had a stack of university calendars 2 feet tall.  I really wanted to go to the University of Hawaii to study astronomy.  I wrote my SAT and ACT in grade 10 so that I could go. But finally realized that I would never be able to afford it.  Also realized that becoming an astronaut was not as easy as one might think at 14.  But I do infuse my love of space in to my Science 9 and Physics 11 classes.  
9.  Both sets of my grandparents immigrated from Holland shortly after WWII.  And while my parents never lived there and I do not speak Dutch, when i visit Holland, it feels like I am going home.  If I was to move anywhere else in the world, it would be Holland.  Bikes, Vla, Gouda, Canals, Art, Water, Markets, and a generally slower pace of life.  It's pretty fantastic.
10.  I hate cilantro.  And rosemary.  And Feta.  And Curry.  And sushi.  Basically, I'm a pretty picky eater.  This drives my husband nuts, as he is a total foodie, and does all the cooking.  
11.  I am a terrible manager of my time.  This has to do with loving too many things and perseverating on too many things.  Combine this with my type-A, control-freak, workaholic, perfectionist personality and basically I'm forever throwing myself into a million and one things that I love equally, all the time.  This leaves me constantly on the verge of burnt out.  I'm working on balance.  I'm guessing it will be a life-long challenge.
11 questions posed to me by Sheila Morissette (@sheilamoris)
1. What are you reading now?
Currently into The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, working through Bounce by Matthew Syed, and about to embark on my fifth draft of a book-in-progress called Marbles and Wine by my colleague Margo Freeman.
2. How do you stay current in your field?
I just finished my Masters of Education in Curriculum & Instruction: Critical, Creative and Collaborative Inquiry.  The past two years I feel like I have been neck deep in educational thinking, movement and reform.  So that helps.  And of course I read a lot of articles, books and blogs.  And then there is twitter of course.  But most importantly I surround myself with good people (in person and electronically) who know me and challenge me.  I'm grateful to have so many avenues to push myself.
3. Are you a camper or a hotel person? 
If I had to choose, I would say camper.  Being connected with nature fills my soul.  I would take a campfire and a cold Montana night with pancakes or grilled cheese on a camp stove over a Best Western and restaurant food at almost any turn.  Unless it is ridiculously hot out (see above) in which case I will crave air conditioning.  In 2011 my husband and I completed a 23 state, 3 week, 13,000 km road trip across North America and the night we were in Atlanta we set up our tent and went to bed at 11:30pm - it was 38 degrees outside.  It was miserable.  But at the end of the day I am a traveler - I want to see everything - so whatever gets me to the most authentic experience of nature, history, culture etc - that's my choice!
4.  What is the next conference you plan to attend?
I wish I could say I had a plan to attend one.  We don't get a lot of Pro-D money at the teacher level and getting to most of the conferences that sound exciting costs $$.  I was just reading about Fuse14 and totally intrigued by that.  But if you have a conference you think is amazing - leave a comment and let me know!  Now that my time (and money) isn't being totally consumed by SFU, a conference may in in the future!
5.  What excites you about the new year ahead?
As I mentioned, in March I am taking (along with a few colleagues of mine) a group of 15 grade 10 - 12 students to London to study the history of science.  I'm so excited to walk in the footsteps of Newton, Darwin, Hawking and so many more.  I really have no idea what it is going to be like, as this is the first time I'm attempting this travel study.  But I'm confident it will be an amazing experience regardless.   
I am also working on a leadership training retreat for my Student Council students to Disneyland in May. Disney runs a program for high school students to teach them about leadership, focusing on communication, goal setting, creativity and collaboration.  I think it will be an amazing experience for my students, and I can't wait to see what they get out of it, and what they bring back and put into action at Sullivan Heights.  
6.  Who introduced you to twitter and blogging?
No one.  I was one of the early adopters.  When I first signed up for a twitter account I was looking to use it to replace my course website.  I found my students weren't accessing my website and updating it was too cumbersome for the benefits.  I found I could use my phone to send instant updates about what was happening in class for my students to see, and started using this with students my second year teaching.  Shortly after that I started connecting to some of the early tweeters (@bobneuf, @calebirks, @chriswejr, @chrkennedy) and it took off from there.  At that time I could read every single tweet by every single person I followed.  Oh how times have changed.  
As for blogging - again - there wasn't anyone.  I was moved schools between my second and third year of teaching.  I found myself very alone at my new school, and worked with many colleagues who had different (some may say "old school") philosophies from what I had been exposed to in PDP and at Sullivan Heights - which made it hard for me to dialogue with colleagues.  I started blogging to start a conversation with someone, any one, out there in my PLN.  This also grew out of a belief that I could only grow if I was willing to create, not only consume, ideas.
7.  Who would you most like to have dinner with?
The Doctor.  Or Josiah Bartlett.  
8. What inspires you?
My students.  Every single day.  They are capable of so much more than I imagine sometimes.  I often feel like we ask them to be brave, and trust who they are, and face their fears, and own the learning - we ask so much of them.  Maybe even more than we ourselves would be willing to do.  Watching them rise to these challenges every day inspires me.  They make me better.
9.  What do you do to relax?
Read.  Watch TV.  Travel.  Plan trips I will one day take.  Take my camera out and wander through a garden or along the bank of a river.  Sit by the camp fire.  
10. Name a couple of bloggers who inspire you.
On an education level, I really enjoy the ideas of John Spencer, the conversations on character from Vijay Manual, and Physics/Math stuff from Shawn Cornally
But as a human (and woman) I think Megan Gagan has some of the most beautiful, open, raw, real, honest posts out there.  I am inspired and touched with each one.  If I could only read one blog, it would be hers.
11. What are you working on that excites you?
Well, as I mentioned in #5, I'm working on developing some travel studies that I am excited about.  Outside of that, I am currently working on taking all that stuff I learned in my masters program and trying to bring it into my Physics classroom.  It's harder than it looks to take a topic as traditional as Physics (and with a demanding curriculum), and try and rework it to focus on inquiry and critical thinking.  I'm excited to change how Physics is being taught and to focus on critical thinking, creativity and collaboration in my classroom - but it's been (and continues to be) mentally consuming.  But when I get it "right" and I see students engaged and THINKING...ahhh...it's the greatest reward!
11 questions for others
1.  If you were stuck on a desert island with only one musical album, what would it be?
2.  If you were to pick up and move to another city or country to start your life there, where would it be and why?
3.  What one educational trend, catch phrase or fad do you think is overrated and why?
4.  What is one educational belief or desire you hold that you find hard(er) to put into practice?
5.  What is something that you are currently looking forward to?
6.  If you were to go back to school tomorrow to get a degree in any subject, what would you study?
7.  What is one moment or experience you had with colleagues or students in the last month (or so) that reinforced your call to be an educator (or reminded you of why you love what you do)? (I hope you have one!)
8.  If you had the power to change one thing about the current educational system that is out of your control, what would it be?
9.  What's your favourite course you have ever taken in your educational journey?
10.  What is one goal you have for the new year (personal or professional)?
11.  What does the perfect vacation look like to you?
11 People
@garr_s, @rwd01, @vicit, @msfree1, @vijaymanual34, @balranu, @jennifer_spain, @rayjbecker, @abbyelise, @teachertong, @Vendram1n

Monday, December 23, 2013

10:30 pm.

2:20 pm - Block 5 begins.  Last block of the day.  Physics 12 students are writing a short quiz on gravitational energy.  I'm handing out our newly designed Physics 12 t-shirts as they write - they look fantastic.  Student council students are trying to tip toe in and out of the room to gather various supplies for their project known as "deck the halls".  Students from the room next door are at my doors, eyes wide open, asking if I can talk to their Chem teacher so that they can leave the study block in the room next door and start hanging up reindeer.  Scissors, glue and tape have been borrowed, and bells are hanging from my windows.  I'm stepping in and out of classroom door to help the hallway student council students begin their quest to decorate the entire school building, while stepping back into the classroom to answer various Physics questions as they arise.  In between I'm tending to 5 students in the lab who are trying to to build a trebuchet for the science competition the next day.  It isn't working yet, because of the various broken pieces from the night before.

3:40 pm -  Bell rings and some of my Physics students flee for the weekend, while others continue on their quest to build a trebuchet.  A few other Physics students join with the crew in the hallway, now busy at work painting windows and hanging garland.  

4:00 pm - Meet with a parent and help a student with her lab report.  Watch the stress melt away when she realizes I am less concerned with her mark and more concerned with her understanding how to communicate what she knows.  Feel happy to know that I could help alleviate anxiety and enhance her learning.

4:40 pm - Wander the hallway to check on the situation.  Provide some feedback (and tape) to various small groups in their various school concerns.  Paint is done in the math wing, countdown calendar is hung up, and tulle is draped across the walls.  The reindeer and stables are hung up in the science wing and the leaderships displays are coming together.  

5:30 pm - Student Council is called up to my room for pizza dinner.  40 kids flood into my classroom and grab food and a seat.  Though they are free to leave, they all insist on cramming into my room and sitting together.  Kids are grouped in fives, sixes and sevens - each group having students from at least three grades in them.  They are laughing and singing as they munch on their dinner.  When they are done, they thoroughly clean up and take out the garbage and recycling.  One student grabs paper towel and washes down my tables.  No one is asked - they just do it.  By 6:00 my room is clean and empty.

6:30 pm - Wander down to the hub and find a colleage of mine helping my Physics 12 students with their trebuchet project - which is improving, but still not working well.  I'm happy to let them continue with their problem solving.  They are SO determined!  It warms my heart to see them working together, persevering, and working through the scientific process.  They are so immersed in their learning and building, and I don't want to take away from it by giving them advice yet.  They will ask if they need it.  And right now they are good.  What outstanding kids!  I wander back and find a group straining the garland and hanging the wreath by the front door.  All the snowflakes are up and the positive message sticky notes are well under way.  

7:15 pm - Sitting at my desk, I consider marking or photocopying for the week ahead.  After staring at my screen for 15 minutes I feel a little lonely.  I am now the last teacher in the building, and the 13 hour day is starting to wear at me.  I text a my good friend and college Robert Dewinetz (@rwd01), who quickly reminds me that THESE moments are the ones that kids will remember.  He's right.  I decide to leave my desk as is and put off the photocopying to next week.  I start to wander the hall and decide to talk to the kids instead.

7:30 pm - I spend the next two hours wandering the building talking with my student council students.  I learn about their goals and passions.  Their favourite classes and teachers.  Their ambitions.  I hear all about the new friends they are making and how grateful they are to be part of student council.  I hear a lot of laughter.  I see faces light up as I approach each group.  I teach a couple kids how to wrap the railings in ribbon, and help decorate a tree with my grade 12's.  I write a few positive sticky notes on the lockers, and join a verse or two of "Deck the Halls" as I wander.  With each conversation I am more and more amazed at the sheer quality of kids I am lucky enough to know.  Smart, compassionate, funny, humble, open teenagers.  Who love to learn.  And who love each other. And who love this school.  I watch them work in perfect harmony for hours.  I don't know who this "deck the halls" effort is for anymore - the school - or them.  I think everyone is winning tonight.

9:30 pm - I start to carrell the students into clean up mode.  Meanwhile the hub is still home to my Physics 12 students working on their trebuchet.  I watch them REJOICE as the 50 gram ball of play dough flies 15 feet - their best yet.  I wish I could bottle the joy on their faces.  It is priceless.  However, they are still unhappy and want to make it work even better.  I leave them to continue as I go back to supervise the cleanup effort. 

10:15 pm - We are done cleaning and the school is beautiful - full of holiday cheer for all to enjoy.  Try as I might, I cannot convince my Physics students to call it a night.  They have now been working on their trebuchet for 14 straight hours - without giving up.  They ask for 5 more minutes.  Then take 10.  And by 10:30 pm, it is finally loaded in my car, and the student council kids have said good night.  As I escort the last few students out of the building, I stop and just take a breath.  I look around at the beautiful work that student council kids have done today, and then at the hard work my Physics students put into their trebuchet and I am amazed.  And feel so incredibly lucky.  I have the best job ever.  This day, at 10:30 pm.  This moment I am going to remember.  Because this is why I teach.  Why I get up out of bed, and arrive early and stay late.  These moments - the laughter and smiles and belted holiday carols and students willing to stick through a problem for hours on end - these moments leave me filled with joy, and peace, and love - and hope.  These kids are the future.  And they are a GOOD future.

10:30 pm - One perfect reflective moment.  A really good moment.  One I won't be forgetting for a long while.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why I became a teacher

Back in April I attended a Pro-D event hosted by Jordan Tinney (@jordantinney) with guest speaker George Couros (@gcouros) designed for current and future bloggers in the #sd36learn family.  One of the questions that George put out there for us to blog about was the age old question, "Why did you become a teacher?"  This is not a new question.  And though my "how I became a teacher" story is fixed, my "why I am a teacher" story is constantly evolving.  I was excited to write my story, because, like all stories, it's unique.  Of course it's taken me a while to finish writing it (as with many stories worth telling, they take time).  I tell my students this (long) story every year at some point, when they come to me struggling/confused/frustrated with the pressing question of what they should "be" when they grow up.  And I tell them the truth.  That once upon a time, I had no idea either.

When I was in high school I wanted to be an astronaut.  I fell in love with space when I was 14 years old and watched Tom Hanks pilot the Apollo 13 mission on the big screen.  After that I would lie in bed at night and stare at the moon and dream of walking on the surface.  I researched every major university that would help me prepare for my future working for NASA.  And as I got closer and closer to graduation, I began to realize that my dream may not be as attainable as I originally thought (partially because I wasn't planning to join the air force, and partially because I had PE teachers that counted how many consecutive free-throws I could make, embarrassed me through PE, and made me realize that I would never be able to run the marathon distances required of an "in-shape" astronaut....don't discount the power of a teacher to shame a student away from their dreams).  But in turn I had an amazing Physics and Biology teacher that continued to infuse my love of science, as well as my love for leadership and caring for those in need.  I spent my grade 12 year running the school 30 hour famine, helping raise $54,000 - the most any school in Canada had ever raised.  Because of this I earned a free trip to Toronto to work behind the scenes for World Vision - the week of provincial exams.  My first choice University - Dalhousie - wouldn't admit me until the exams were written in August, but a call from my Biology teacher to my back up University (at the time - best thing that ever happened to me, in retrospect), Trinity Western, made it possible for me to enrol and attend there, as they understood and supported the work I wanted to do with World Vision.  I thought I'd go for just a year, and then transfer, except the school changed my life.

TWU didn't have a Physics major, so I had to settle for a minor while majoring in Biology.  I considered changing to Chem for a moment, until I realized I hated organic chemistry.  Then I considered changing to Comm so I could do an internship in LA - until I decided to get married instead (and realized I hated Comm).  I ended up moving from a Bio major to concentration to avoid Biochem (again - hated organic chemistry), and ended up with a blended natural science degree.  Along the way, I elected to do an undergraduate thesis after a semester with a self-directed Ecology course that made me excited to be mentored by my professor - Dr. David Clements (don't underestimate the power of an amazing teacher to change your life also - and I've been lucky to have many).  Working under him throughout my thesis, and in the summer after graduation made me more passionate about ecosystems and the environment.  I spent my senior year mentoring a group of freshman Bio majors.  They were such an outstanding group, and I have been so proud to watch them take on their various roles in the world, as Doctors, nurses, parents, researchers and more.  I didn't think anything of the teaching experience then though.  I finished up my degree and spent the summer working for Dr. Clements until I was no longer considered a student, and forced to move on from the University I loved.  I thought I would find a job working in a lab somewhere, and make the "big" bucks.

Except then there wasn't any lab jobs.  Or any money.  The few jobs out there washing glasswear were reserved for grad students, and paid $12 an hour with little job security.  I got a job working at Long & McQuade doing bookwork 20 hours a week, until they decided that I was overqualified and needed to train someone who would stay long term.  I went back to working at the video store part time, and eventually got a job working at a doctors office.  I was also interested in Biology, and had excellent organizational skills, so running the office seemed like a good fit.  Except it wasn't.  It was really stressful.

Of course by now, I started to realize that having a degree didn't mean much more than the fact I was capable of learning anything, but not necessarily qualified to do anything.  I was 22 and frustrated, and poor and married, and the one thing I did know is that eventually I wanted children.  So I decided the best plan of action was just to have kids.  To be a mom.  I'd figure the rest out later.  (Yes - this is the wisdom of a 22 year old....)

But months ticked on, and as is often in life, things didn't go as planned.  I hated my job, wasn't on the mom track in any tangible way, and I realized that maybe, just maybe, I needed a back up plan.

At the time, having kids was the only real plan on my list.  I tried to come up with a list of jobs that would allow me to be the best parent I could.  And of course something that would make use of my science degree (I mean, I did spent 4 years in University learning something).  So why not just become a teacher.  That way I could be home with my kids in the evening and morning and weekends and summer and would have tons and tons of time to be a parent and relax and enjoy life.  Because you know those teachers, they have the best hours.  Ever.  They barely work.  Easiest job out there.  Right?

So I went back to school to pick up some courses.  Educational Psych.  Biochem and Genetics and Evolution and courses I didn't need because of my earlier choice to go from Bio major to concentration (which I was now reversing).  I volunteered a bit at a middle school in Chilliwack and worked part time running an office for a kids camp.

And while some people were dying to get in to PDP, I was rather indifferent.  I just wanted a job.  I wanted to stop being poor.  I just wanted some security.

And I got in.

And while many who worked much harder for it, who were passionate about it, and who desperately wanted nothing more than to teach, were wait listed, I was school bound again.

And so I showed up to SFU Surrey in the Fall of 2007 ready to get this last year of my education under way.  I was nervous about the social setting.  I was scared to stand in front of class and teach kids.  But I loved science, and liked the idea of having a say in what my day could look like (yes - the type A personality wanted a job with some "control"....).  And after 6 weeks of never-ending ice breakers, and outings, and articles on professionalism, and debates about homework, and lectures in "Assessment for Learning," they sent me off to Princess Margaret to work with the amazing Michelle Larsen.  For the first week I watched, scared out of my mind.  And then my turn came to stand up in front of the class and teach.  I created a short unit on Ecology and the Environment - and my first lesson talked about the effects of line fishing vs. trolling.  I had a model set up front with a little ecosystem I'd built, and as I dragged my fishing net along the bottom and destroyed my model to demonstrate the effect of trolling I heard students gasp.  A few even stood up out of their seat.  Hands were in the air, conversation began and students were engaged.

The lunch bell rang, and the room emptied.  And then, a minute later, students came back in.  With their friends.  "Can we show them what you showed us?" they asked me.  So they set up the model, and started teaching their friends.

And that was it.  My entire world changed right then in there.  I was filled with a passion unlike anything I could possibly describe in words.  The world was brighter, I could breathe easy and see clearly, and was ready for anything.  I wanted to sob right then and there because something was revealed to me in this moment that I never could have expected or anticipated.  I was born to TEACH.  And my life has never been the same.

I don't know if most teachers have a moment like that.  I moment where their calling to this profession came to them in total and utter clarity.  But I do.  I remember everything about that moment.  It was in this moment where my life suddenly had purpose.  And it was beautiful.

You see, I never went into teaching for any of the "right" reasons.  I didn't know I was meant for this. I ended up here because of a series of forks and road blocks and split second decisions made in moments of desperation.  And yet, I ended up here.  Exactly where I belong.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Giving Assessment to the Kids

At the end of last school year Dean Shareski (@shareski) came to visit for a little lunch time Pro-D.  During our conversation we were talking about assessment and he posed the question "Why can't the students come up with the assessment?"  And the question got stuck with me.  I mean, why can't they?  Why don't we involve them more?  
As I was bell rang and I was walking back up to my classroom, the idea continued to cycle in my mind, and by the time I walked through the doors and greated my Science 9 class, I was ready to try something new.  I had barely thought it out and I had no idea if it was going to work, and frankly, I wasn't too concerned.  I just wanted to see what would happen if I gave the assessment back to the kids.

We were working on a unit on space and my intention for the day was to have them make a poster for travel to a planet.  I wanted them to think about what makes that planet special, and how it is different from Earth, and what it would be like to live there.  So when the class quieted down, this is exactly what I told them.  "I want you to make me a poster, to convince me to visit another planet."  And then I asked them, "What kind of things should we be looking for from each other's posters?"  I had given them TWO SENTENCES.  One statement.  One question.  And 17 hands shot up in the air.  I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor.  So I picked up a white board marker, and started asking kids.  We compiled a list as a class and it was brilliant.  They knew exactly what they should be looking for.  They wanted it to focus on what made the planet special.  It should be convincing.  It should be attractive and draw in the audience and be professionally done.  It should be persuasive and of course the information should be accurate.  

So we took all their ideas and boiled it down into 4 main criteria, together, in that exact moment.  And this is what they came up with:

And instantly the kids got to work.  I have never seen my students this focused and driven on any project like this - ever.  They were all working.  They had ideas.  They were coming up and asking meaningful questions.  They were getting each other to judge their work by the criteria to make sure they were on the right track.  And a week later - every single student handed their poster in.  On time.  We put them all up as they came through the door, and had a gallery walk, using our rubric to self and peer assess what they had done.  In the end, they needed nothing from me.  I didn't need to assess them.  They got it.  They understood it.  And they met the outcomes better than I ever thought possible.

Not sure why it is that we sell kids short.  Why we assume that they aren't capable of having a say.  Because from what I saw here, it is so much better when they do.  While I have not yet found a way to make this work for every single assignment, I am working to continually give students a greater and great degree of input into how they are assessed.  Just as I believe in giving a great degree of autonomy and freedom in how they demonstrate their learning, they are equally capable in speaking up for what they thing is important in how they are assessed.  And the conversations that come out of this being a collaborative process are priceless.

So thanks to Dean for posing the question.  I look forward to challenging myself (and my students) with the topic of collaborative assessment more and more in the days to come.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Greek Letter Posters

My Physics students are fascinated with the greek letters.  The idea that we can borrow letters from another alphabet seems fascinating to them.  They take time to practice how to draw these letters, as if they were young, learning to write the letter "R" for the first time.  Or the letter "Q".  Or my favourite - low case "q."

We've talked about the vastness of Physics and the need for my variables and the history of Physics as a study done by scholars in Latin and Greek, and the early connection of education of this nature with the church.  Seems talking about Greek letters has led to all sorts of interesting conversations.

And so for the sake of intrigue - I've decided to put the greek alphabet up on my classroom wall.  At bare minimum, it will be fun.  And my hope is that it will spark many more interesting conversations!

Because I couldn't find anything I liked, I decided to make my own using InDesign.  So if you, too, are looking for a matching set to post on your classroom wall - look no further!  They all look like the one in the image above.  Just download the zip file here to get all 24 glorious greek letter posters.  My gift to you!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Dose of Vitamin N

After a few years of seeing advertisements and being curious, I decided to spend my most recent professional development day at an event hosted by Grouse Mountain.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but what I did know was that there was a possible field trip opportunity and I thought I would explore it in depth.  What I ended up was a much greater lesson.

The event, free to registered teachers, started off with a Skyride to the top of the mountain, and the best views I could imagine.  Despite being a local, I had never been up to the top of Grouse Mountain, and now I feel like I've been missing out my whole life.  Starting off in the cold, foggy, damp base, we quickly rose through the clouds and above them, to a world were the trees are green an the sun is shining.  British Columbia truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  I was then greeted by the crisp, fresh, mountain air, a muffin, and some information on the field trip opportunities.

We entered the theatre and listened to three different guest speakers, one from Grouse Mountain about the educational opportunities, one from the Veterinarian, talking about the wildlife in the area, and of course, the grizzly bears, and one from a lady from Metro Vancouver.  Her message was clear - kids need more vitamin "N" - NATURE!  She went on to talk about the benefits of getting outside - how kids who play outside are healthier, happier, more intelligent, have better self-esteem, are more creative and the list goes on.  There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by spending more time in the outdoors.  She was able to give a list of tools to how this could be done on your school property and in your neighbourhood.  Learning, observing, hearing, watching, smelling - engaging your senses and you walk, sit, stand or lie on the earth is so important for our students.  Somehow I think I forgot this.  How many of us spend the entire day inside?  Every day?  All Year?  As a high school science teacher there is so much to explore outside my classroom walls, and yet I rarely leave the room.  I think I forgot how amazing it is to be in nature.  I never thought that maybe I had a responsibility to help my students discover how much nature has to offer.  Teaching science, we have every opportunity to make connections to nature - but seeing it and experiencing it are two totally different things, and I was reminded of this very important point.  I left excited to find ways to get my students outside in the weeks and year to come.  Not just through a field trip to Grouse Mountain (though I do hope to bring students up in the spring), but just by getting outside in general. More vitamin "N"!

The keynote was followed by a guided tour of the different aspects of nature and culture that could be explored by students on a field trip.  We had a carte-blanche day pass - getting us anywhere we wanted to go on the mountain - which was really nice (thank you Grouse!)  We (that is me, along with two of my colleagues) followed along with the tour until I was mesmerized by the grizzly bears!  I have to believe at some point in my life I must have seen a live one before, but if I have, I couldn't recall.  I literally gasped when I saw how large they were.  And then proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes circling their 5 acre living space, observing their movements and taking their photos.  They are so beautiful!  And fascinating.  The way they move, the size of their claws, the sounds they make - each piece was equally mesmerizing.  Towards the end, the bears curled up under a tree, and looked just like little puppy dogs.  Except for their razor sharp claws and ability to kill you in an instant that is.  I got home and was already thinking about what I could go back and watch them some more.  Just me, a cup of tea, my camera, and a handful of memory cards.

Of course while watching the bears I got distracted by the owl.  Owls are fascinating!  They so incredibly beautiful (I know - I said that of the bears too - but it's true!) and I couldn't stop watching her look around and stretch her wings.  Owls may be one of my favourite animals to observe.  The stillness, the grace, the beauty....sigh....this world really is full of so many amazing creatures!

Once I was able to tear myself away from the bears, we took that 14 minute chairlift to the top, so that we could take the 21 story elevator to the top of the Eye of the Wind - the Wind turbine that generates energy used directly by the mountain.  First off, the view from the top is outstanding, as long as you can handle the fact that you are standing right next to the 200 foot blades spinning around and shaking the tower.  Completely surrounded by glass, this is a chance not only to look at the pretty surroundings but to learn about sustainable energy sources.  The TV inside shows the temperature, wind speed, and daily/monthly/yearly/lifetime energy creation statistics, showing how energy can be produced sustainably.  All the programs at Grouse mountain are focused on respecting and protecting the beautiful place in which we live - and this is such a relevant lesson for us as adults, and our students going forward, who will feel the impacts of our poor choices and disregard for the environment even more so in their futures, and the futures of their children.  Watching energy be produced and learning about what role they have to play in caring for the earth is so important - and even more impacting to hear while standing among the trees, opposed to in a classroom.

On the ride back down, we literally watched the fog roll in, as the sunny day disappeared, and temperatures dropped to 4 degrees.  I was glad to have settled on a scarf and toque when heading up, and it is evident that winter is just around the bend.  Bears will be in hibernation shortly, and not seen again until spring, and soon the skiers and snowboarders will take to the mountains, and the hikers will put away their boots for the season.  The reindeer will come out to play, and Grouse will transform into a winter wonderland.  And the magic of nature will continue.

I am looking forward to getting my kids outside to explore all seasons!  Snowfall will be ice and lessons in friction, spring will bring rising water levels and watersheds, and at the edge of summer, Grouse will be green again, the bears will be out, and hopefully my students will be there to see it.

So I am grateful for a wonderful day out with my amazing colleagues, to share the experience, to dialogue and learn together, and to be along side me when I fell in love with nature all over again.

**note: Video links are not showing up when viewing this using feedly.  Visit website for the full experience.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fear Abounds. Relationships Needed.

Last night was our fall edition of parent-teacher (and student) conferences.  I really enjoy an evening of sitting down and talking with parents and students together, discussing their goals for the course and how we can work together to bring them to reality.  The thing that struck me while reflecting back on 4 hours and 30 conversations was how much FEAR students have.

Students are afraid to fail.  For many students in Physics 11, they are use to being "A" students.  They are use to things being easy.  But even for the best, Physics is rarely easy.  It's something completely new and seldom experienced.  It is a combination of totally theoretical and mathematically complex and while learning something new can be exhilarating, it can also be scary.  But for many students, they aren't use to struggling.  They aren't use to not understanding an idea.  Or getting many questions wrong.  Or getting 3/5 on a quiz.  They are SO AFRAID of failure.  I talked this week with a student, who for the past six weeks, despite intense struggles in my course, would not have a conversation with me about it.  She would just nod and say she understood.  Finally, in talking with her, I came to realize that she had become paralyzed with fear.  She didn't know what she was suppose to do, when she didn't know what to do.  This fear isn't about their learning anymore - it is about their self-esteem and self-worth.  Little do their realize that their confidence and sense of self will only benefit from working through the problems, not avoiding them.  I continue to work on building a course focused on patient and persistent problem-solving.  One were students are expected to get things wrong, and work through it.  I believe this to be essential in both Physics, and life.  But it is hard to help students develop this when they have become so afraid to be wrong that they are unable to hear or access the tools that I am giving them.  They get stuck in a cycle of fear that limits their ability to grow.  This is a significant problem.

Students are afraid of looking stupid.  There seems to be a growing trend of students unwilling to ask for help because they are afraid that the teacher (or their peers) might think that they are "stupid."  They believe that asking questions or seeking help somehow makes them weaker, or less capable.  This is a huge barrier to success.  This fear of what others think of them prevents them from owning their own learning.  I had to remind students (and parents) that I am here to help them succeed.  And in fact, I expect that they don't know everything.  And that in no way am I judging them for their struggles.  The course is built in a way that they should need help from time to time, and shouldn't be afraid to access it.    This is part of the scaffolding.  They are meant to be challenged!  Helping overturn the culture where students are fearful of being wrong is crucial. This goes hand-in-hand with building a culture of relationship.  Getting to know students, helping them understand and feel safe in the classroom, and knowing that I am in there corner is necessary.  Yesterday I looked into my students eyes, and into their parents eyes and said "I am here to help you succeed."  I will say it again and again.  I spend my days asking about soccer games and bake sales and club activities.  I try to engage as many conversations as I can.  I want students to know that I am here for them, that I know them, that I genuinely want to help them.  I want them to feel safe to be vulnerable, and to struggle, and not to fear that I am in any way judging them.  I don't know where the turning point is that students stop believing this about their teachers, but my number one priority is providing them a safe learning environment - and that happens through relationship.  This was reinforced to me last night.

Students are afraid of the unknown.  They are afraid of their future.  They are afraid of things they do not know or do not yet understand.  And they don't always have the tools to know how to face this fear.  This is normal for a teenager.  The future can be overwhelming.  They need beacons of light to help guide them as they face this fear and navigate the course.  Parents.  Teachers.  Mentors.  Friends.  We have a role to play.  To help illuminate their paths when needed, as they take brave steps forward.  Students need to know (or be reminded) that they are not going it alone.

What I was reminded of through my evening of conversations with parents and students is that the most important roll I have as a teacher has nothing to do with Physics.  Or Science.  Or PE, Socials, French or whatever topics you engage in.  These are but a door to helping students grow up.  Helping them develop confidence.  To develop problem-solving skills.  To help them as they learn to persevere through problems they once could not even dream up.  To encourage them when they try.  To help them get up when they fall.  To ask a question that makes them think, and encourage them to think harder when they otherwise would get up.  To help them become stronger, more confident, individuals.  

So as I sit here at my desk this morning, looking at the empty room and enjoying my hour of solitude before the students start flooding through my doors I am not thinking of equilibrium, or DNA, or the net force of a person on a scale in an elevator (as important as those ideas are) - I'm thinking about how I am going to engage with my students in a way that will help them leave their fear behind and fully - FULLY - engage in the learning.  And this can only be done by putting fear aside.  So I ask - how do you help your students let go of their fear?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What does balance look like?

In the first 2 weeks of my teaching career, a colleague stopped me in the hallway to welcome to me to the school.  Throughout the conversation he told me that it is now my responsibility to build myself a portfolio.  To get involved and develop "my career" in the way that an artist or investor would.  I didn't know how to make sense of this idea at the time, but it laid roots in the back of my mind, and encouraged me to say "YES" a lot.

There was no such thing as balanced.

But I was young, and full of enthusiasm.  And I was naive.  So I said "YES."  I joined a lot of committees.  And I got involved with everything I could.  I wanted to get involved with the students, so I joined Student Council and Global Issues.  I wanted to grow professionally, so I joined Developing Readers, and the Barry Bennett group.  I wanted to be part of the team, so I joined the Awards Committee and the Grade 8 Team.  I wanted to help support the kids where there was a need, so I said "Yes" when asked to sponsor Junior Girls Basketball and Ultimate Frisbee and "Yes" when asked if I was willing to join Health and Safety.  I got involved with Learning through the Arts and Apple Technology grants as an attempt to bring technology into my classroom, grow professionally, and provide my students with great learning opportunities.  Of course I had a great reason for each and every one of those things - hence all the "Yeses."  

I didn't have was the ability to find balance.  

In the middle of the rising swell of busyness and commitments, were my classes.  You know, that teaching thing I was hired to (and loved to) do.  I was still new, so I was prepping everything...from scratch (I was stubborn like that).  I was trying to develop meaningful learning opportunities, assess student work and make time to help students outside of class time.

And then I started teaching the yearbook.  

And without knowing what I had signed up for, I now was a little bit involved with everything.  And I wanted to do the job well.  More than well.  I wanted to represent the school, staff and students the way they deserved.  I believe in the power of the yearbook.  I believe it represents the best of the community and reflected a sense of who we are and why we belong.  I love the school and the students.  And the yearbook was a labour of love.  But I soon realized that trying to be everywhere, and do everything, and wear so many hats at once, just wasn't possible.

The concept of balance wasn't even on the table.  The only thing I new was survival.

So I sacrificed.  Some days, I sacrificed the quality of my lesson.  Some days the quality of the photos.  Some times it was time after school to help students, or a meeting I couldn't attend.  But mostly I sacrificed my health, sleep, sanity and relationships.  I didn't have time to be active, eat well, sleep more than 5 hours or do fun things.  And I stopped having time for people.  Coffee with friends was far and few between and date nights were non-existant.  "Time off" became an evening watching TV while responding to emails and editing photos or fixing yearbook spreads.  When deadlines were met, and I could breathe a little easier, I could reward myself with a clean kitchen or an extra hour sleep.

But exhaustion wears at relationships.  For weeks straight, I would walk past colleagues who would tell me how exhausted I looked. My husband would complain that I was too busy, and my friends would begin our brief conversations with "we never see you any more."  And I would wax on about how involved in my work I had been.  I wanted to do the job right.  Apparently, I was building a career.  

And this is the problem.  I didn't know what that meant.  I did know that I wanted to do right by the kids, and I did know that my job gave me a great sense of fulfilment.  I didn't stop to ask myself if I could do both of these things without sacrificing so much.

I didn't know what it meant to be balanced.

And so I resolved to do better.  I came back to my school on a permanent contract, a commitment to excellence, and a desire to DO BETTER.

And I thought that would be the perfect (note: sarcasm) time to start my Masters.  Because though I desired to do better (5 points for good intentions), I still had learned nothing from my past mistakes.

And two years flew by.

No.  That's a lie.  Two sleep deprived, stress filled, tear laden years slowly dragged on, while the countdown clock on my dashboard moved backwards just to torment me.

And some days I did better.  And some months I didn't.  But I made it through.  I learned a lot.  I accomplished a lot.  I survied!  And I was (and am) proud.  But I was tired.  So tired.  

But I'm here now.  At the and of one road, and the beginning of another.  My role as yearbook teacher has been passed on to another - and I'm enjoying being able to help, and share what I have learned, with him.  I have finished my Masters, and have so many ideas spinning in my head, waiting to be used.  I have hundreds of bookmarked articles and lesson ideas that I have filed, labeled and put aside, ready to be digested, applied, discarded or discussed.  And I want to dig in.  But I don't want to have to dig myself out.  And so I find myself scared.  

I don't know how to do balanced.  

I had a great weekend.  My mom came to visit.  I got up on Saturday morning, after a restful nine hours of sleep, following a  wonderful home cooked meal the night before (complete with vegetables).  My laundry was done and kitchen was cleaned.  I put on my comfy pants and curled up with my mom on the couch and gave her lessons in Pinterest and iTunes.  We stopped for icecaps and then went shopping for a few work clothes, and finally went out for dinner with my husband, before Face-timing with my dad - who's off at work in Northern Alberta.  It was perfect.  To have time for people without stress, guilt or anything pressing, was as it should be.  

This must be part of balance, right?

And then I slept again, and got up this morning.  And I ate breakfast (high-five me!)  And then I got an email.  And then another.  And then a third.  So many great initiatives going on at work.  Students looking for help with their homework.  And I started to feel bad.  Am I doing enough?  Pushing myself enough?  Volunteering enough?  Involved enough?  Am I available to my students enough?  The guilt started to build.  

Why in seeking balance, do I feel like I am failing?  

For the first time in six years, I had begun the year well.  I had limited my commitments, made time for family and friends, dedicated myself fully to a single extracurricular club, and provided my students with a great deal of availability and support.  I had also placed a premium on time to build the relationships with students (which I believe to be crucial to their education).  

And I had 12 consecutive guilt-free days.  


And so that is the battle ahead.  The battle for balance and wholeness.  With room for healing, growth, peace and persistance.  Time for creativity and quiet.  Room for relationship, health, and happiness.  Energy for adventures and silliness.  Courage to try something new.  Am I asking too much?

It's a new year.  And so, in setting my goal for the year ahead, I have picked one word.  One word for this year (because teacher run on school years....not calendar years of course).


Now if anyone can tell me the secret to balance, I'd appreciate it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 21 photos of 2012

That's right.  21.  I was aiming for 12, but figured that it's my blog, my rules.  So 21 it is!

Flatiron Building, NYC, June 2012

Vancouver Christmas Market, December 2012

Street Art, as viewed from High Line Park, NYC, June 2012

Greek Marble Statue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, June 2012

Flora of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, March 2012

CPR Graffiti, Spences Bridge, BC, August 2012

Abby & Ben Engagement Photo, Gastown, Vancouver, BC, May 2012

Ray meet Surf, Tofino, BC, August 2012

Pacific Sunset, Tofino, BC, August 2012

Lisa & Tamara (and students), Playland Field Trip, September 2012

Noah, White Rock, BC, November 2012

Times Square, as seen from the Empire State Building, NYC, June 2012

A Tearful Bride, Abbotsford, BC, June 2012

A wedding is a perfect time for a song, Abbotsford, BC, June 2012

New Life, Aldergrove, BC, September 2012

Feed the Birds, NYC, June 2012

Family, Langley, BC, December 2012

Brothers, Langley, BC, December 2012

Gum Wall, Seattle, WA, July, 2012

Gum Wall, Seattle, WA, December 2012

Spring comes early, Langley, BC, January 2012