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.