cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by sean dreilinger

I spent this past weekend in Banff at the Middle Years Council Conference where I did a session on using technology to improve communication and make our learning public, and listening to a number of good presentations. The two speakers that inspired this post were Phil McRae and Shelley Wright, as they both helped me tie together a few ideas I have been having trouble connecting.

Phil McRae spoke about where education is going in the future and talked about two specific areas we need to be concerned about – Technology and Parenting. The point I took away from his talk came at the end when a question was posed to him about how we can best focus on helping our kids for an ever-changing future and Phil’s response was that we needed to teach them Resiliency.

Shelley’s talk was amazing, she told great stories of the work she has done with her students and the power she found in giving up control of her room, her classes and her teaching to her students. It was an engaging 90 minutes, and the point that really hit home with me was when she talked about how her kids worked so hard and gave more than she had ever thought they could because the work they were doing had Meaning.

During our Innovation Week, there was a common theme we found amongst the really special projects our students were able to complete. We found that when the students took on a really challenging, but meaningful project, they all hit a moment where they were Stuck. A point in the project where the progress hit a stand still and the group or individual was put to the test. How would they move forward? WOULD they move forward? What we found in those that created great work is that they did find the motivation, or inspiration, to continue and to find the answer they needed on how to progress. In the end, they would all talk about how they didn’t know what to do or where to go, but that they kept at it and in persevering, found the path to success.

Resilience. We have all heard that its an important attribute to instill in our students, but how often has that comment been followed by “… and this is How”. Its very easy to say Resiliency but a heck of a lot harder to figure out how to introduce it, teach it, develop it, challenge it. I am not writing this post to tell you I know how, but I think with our Innovation Week project, we have found one method to create the opportunity for students to develop resiliency. I believe that one way we can foster resiliency is to create learning opportunities that follow this progression:


A) Start with Excitement

We need to create learning opportunities that get kids excited. Listening to Shelley talk about the projects she had done with her students, and the amazing results they were able to achieve just reinforced this idea for me. When we give our students the chance, they will exceed our expectations, but we have to provide them work they believe is exciting.


B) Get Our Students Stuck

We have to help students get stuck. This is a big challenge, and maybe one that you end up failing more than you succeed at in the beginning, but worth it if you are able to figure it out. We have to help students find projects that are challenging enough that they can’t just breeze through it, and not so difficult that they could never find success. With our Innovation Week, there was definitely a selection of student groups who were able to find that key zone of challenge, one that pushed them to the edge but that they were able to persevere through and complete. Yes, there were groups that fit on either side of this zone, some who chose work far too easy and some who tackled tasks that were a little beyond their abilities. When it comes to the ones that found that right level of challenge, maybe it was just luck, or maybe it was that these students had a very developed ability to judge their own potential. Maybe with more opportunities, the rest of the students who didn’t quite find the right challenge would develop this awareness as well. Maybe, if we know our students well enough, we can help guide them towards projects that are the right level of challenge for them, remembering that we WANT them to struggle.


C) Meaningful Enough To Work Through

Now that we have them “stuck”, what is going to happen? Well I believe that if the work is personally meaningful enough to the student, they will do what it takes to keep going. If the work isn’t meaningful enough, there is a chance, probably a pretty strong chance, that the student could shut down or walk away. We have all seen it in our classes, I know for me the clear memory I have is of trying to teach a class Trigonometry and a student being so frustrated by not getting the ratios that he blew up and ended up having to be removed to the hallway. So how do we make the work meaningful enough? My best bet is Choice. The reason that projects like Genius Hour are so successful, and that we see the best work come from our kids during these projects, is that inherently there is always meaning for the student doing the work. Innovation Week for us provided our students the meaning in their work to push through challenge and literally practice resiliency.


If we are going to teach students to be resilient we are going to have to have them practice being resilient. We want them to know what it feels like to be frustrated, to feel lost or helpless, to feel like they are at a dead end. That is not pleasant, and if we don’t give them the meaning in their work to want to see it to its completion, they won’t persevere. We found our Innovation Week provided a solid blueprint for this type of practice, but what has worked for you? I’d love to hear what lessons or activities you find provide your students a great experience in resilience.

Take A Trip!

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Dave Greebe

Wow. What a couple days! I spent Monday and Tuesday in Coquitlam, Surrey and Agassiz learning from some very smart people about all sorts of things. I was in BC for some coaching related work, and was able to extend the trip to spend some time at my parents and get down to the Lower Mainland for these meetings. While it meant a few more days away from my wife and daughter, I am really glad I made the trip, and that these kind and brilliant people had the time to spend with me.

I started at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, and he and his students toured us (Gallit Zvi was also there) around the school and talked to us about their Inquiry coursework, their alternate delivery of curriculum and their very unique school. I was amazed by his students and their familiarity with the language of their school. One Gr. 9 student talked about her “Self Pace” program, another about their “Inquiries” and the students scoffed at how much work they would have had to do to complete an I.D.S. (Independent Directed Study). The school only opened in September, and they have clearly done a great job of educating their kids on the work that they will do and how they will be experiencing their education. After the tour, David, Gallit and I went for some Pho (never had it, not sure I’ll be running out to have it again! haha sorry David) and had a chance to really talk. David told us about the grant that one of his Gr. 9 students applied for and received for a considerable amount of money, which was to be dedicated to her group’s inquiry project in which they were building a school garden. These three girls have been planning and working on this for some time, and they already have plans to bring primary aged students in to experience the garden and grow some plants themselves. It was an amazing story to hear, and I hope for David it was a nice chance to share just a few of his many successes from his school. The topic opened up to what Gallit and I were doing in our buildings and we had some great conversations about infusing innovation experiences into our students’ learning and how to get the most meaningful learning out of those opportunities.

Next it was off to Fraser Heights School to meet with Parm Brar and Jess Pelat, two very bright young ladies teaching an Inquiry 8 curriculum, one where all four core subjects are blended into one program full of project learning and powerful questions and challenges. In typical teacher fashion, the two were very modest about their accomplishments and really didn’t feel they were doing something special, which after 90 minutes of discussing I had heard they clearly were. We discussed what they found challenging and what they found rewarding about this first-time experience developing and teaching this class. We talked about how best to create cross-curricular learning activities and the impact it has on student engagement and motivation. I found myself very excited to know that many of our staff would be at the same conference as Parm and Jess in little over a month and I am hopeful they will be able to connect and share with these two amazing teachers.

Tuesday morning I had a brief but very impressive experience watching Genius Hour in action with Gallit Zvi and Hugh MacDonald. Three groups from their classes were presenting completed projects and sharing how the project went for them. After that, the kids broke out into groups in various learning spaces and went to work on their projects, and I was able to sit with many groups and ask the students about their experience with Genius Hour. It was great to see how proud the students were of Genius Hour and their teachers, and how much pride they took in the work they were doing. I asked one student why they chose to work on a video project and he said that he “had been inspired by the work of his classmate”… no lie, he actually said that. Another student said the best part of Genius Hour is that it “Let’s us all be creative in our own ways”. Before this visit I loved Genius Hour, but now I am not prepared to wait any longer to get it started at Greystone.

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit's class)

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit’s class)

On my way back to Kamloops to catch my flight I was able to stop and meet face to face (finally) with Chris Wejr, someone I have been connected with on Twitter from almost the first day I signed up. Chris is a smart guy, and the one thing you notice when you hear him speak is his desire to make his school better for his staff and for his students. We talked about some shared struggles we have had with technology in our buildings, he toured me around and showed me the amazing view he has from his school field (see pic below) and then over lunch we talked about our shared passion for getting teachers connected via Social Media. It was a quick lunch, as I had to make my flight, but the one thing I knew as I dropped him off at his school was that we will definitely connect more now, both online and hopefully in person.

(The beautiful view from Chris's school field)

(The beautiful view from Chris’s school field)

So as I sat in the airport in Calgary waiting for my connecting flight to take me home to my wife and daughter who I missed a great deal on my 5 day trip to BC, and while I was excited to see them, I was also relishing the invigorating energy my trip has provided. I am really looking forward to meeting with our staff and sharing all the great learning I did and to work with them to find ways to put some of that learning into action in our building.

Now I was able to make this trip happen due to circumstances falling into place, but I am sure there are some of you reading this who have never even gone to visit another school in your own division. When we spend time in other buildings and conversing with other professionals, we are opened up to their perspectives, their knowledge and their passions. It doesn’t take long to find schools that are exploring similar ideas to your own, and coming together to discuss these ideas is mutually beneficial for all involved. This is true of visiting another province, state or country but I also believe this to be true of visiting another school in your own division. I know that spending time just 15 minutes down the road in Travis McNaughton‘s Muir Lake School opened my eyes up to a number of things we could do at Greystone.

When it comes to connecting I will always be a big advocate for using Social Media (every link on this page is to a twitter page!), and I would never have been able to connect with David, Gallit, Hugh, Jess, and Chris if it wasn’t for twitter. But I believe there is a great deal of power in making an effort to go to other buildings and go to meet with people so that the conversation can be deep and meaningful and not limited by the number of characters. Take a trip, either somewhere outside of your division, state, province or country, or even just a trip down the road to a school near you. Go and listen to what people do in other buildings and share with them what you do. I bet you’ll feel just as energized as I do.

Engagement is Enough!

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ad@mK

I love when a metaphor is so clearly portrayed in a picture. We have all heard this one… parent spends an exorbitant amount of money on a toy for their child only to have the child get more out of the box itself. The parent always tells the story as a funny but frustrating anecdote, and with a sigh, laughs at the silliness of it all. In the end, they have a happy baby, excited to play and that’s all that matters.

I have been spending a lot of my free time reading and discussing a number of innovative projects being done by people all over the place. I’ve spent time discussing Genius Hour on the hashtag #geniushour and today, was lucky enough to hang out with the first lady of Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi (tomorrow I am spending the morning in her class for their Genius Hour!). I have been reading about Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days, and of course Innovation Day/Innovation Week. My morning today was spent at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, hearing how they are able to provide students with the time and space to really take ownership of their learning. Speaking with Gallit and David, you can see their pride in their students and the amazing projects they are doing. They are eager to share just how driven their students are when working on work they care about.

As I read and converse more and more with other people considering these projects, I often hear questions about how the projects are assessed and how they connect with curriculum, and while these are valid questions, they always seemed to irk me a little. I felt like people needed to experience these projects for themselves to see the real power they possess, and if they did, they might not be so worried about the assessment or curricular ties. You see the real power in these projects is the engagement that results in our students when they are given the power to direct their learning. I saw it during our Innovation Week, and I have read about the same reaction is students experiencing Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days. Kids get excited about learning.

To me, that is reason enough to try one of these projects. After our innovation week, there was excitement residue all over the place. Students talked about their projects, and what they were going to do for the next innovation week. Innovation-style activities started popping up all over our building as teachers embraced the energy from the week and re-created it in their rooms. If we can do projects that get students excited to come to school then we are creating a culture in our buildings of eager students who value learning. Isn’t that a good start for any building?

Eventually, we can add the curricular connections we want our students to make, and we can find appropriate ways to assess their learning, but it doesn’t have to be the driving force behind every learning experience we provide our students. Creating a passion for learning, an engaged young person will pay dividends for us in every lesson we teach so for now Engagement is Enough. We get our excited student the same way we get the excited baby happy just to play with the box, and we can be ok with a student who is just excited to learn as well. If having students excited to learn and engaged in the process is something important to you, think about giving one of these projects a try. While it may not hit the outcomes or end up with a grade on it, I am willing to bet it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have as an educator.

Think Tank

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by ToddMorris

When I was a kid, I felt I was pretty smart, and I was secretly proud of that. While I put up a front that I was really all about sports, I liked being good at Math and Science. I remember once hearing about a Think Tank, and asked what that was. I remember a teacher telling me that it was a group of smart people that got together to come up with solutions to problems or inventions or something like that. For some reason, I pictured these geniuses meeting in actual tanks, big metal bunkers with doors like on a submarine, locking themselves away from potential idea thieves. I know, I was a weird kid. Even as I got older, I thought the idea of being part of a Think Tank might be the coolest thing ever. To date, I have never been part of a Think Tank, but to me the idea still seems great.

Today I went for a coffee with my friend George Couros. I always enjoy our conversations, George is one of those people who is always a few steps ahead of the rest of us and challenging the status quo. What I enjoy most about our conversations is that they always bring the best out of me. We talk, we come up with ideas for my school and for our division, and I leave feeling energized and empowered. It was on the drive home that I realized that meeting with George is like having my own personal Think Tank. Earlier this school year I was able to spend time with Travis McNaughton, an Assistant Principal in my division. We spent some time in his building and at a conference. With our conversations, I had a similar experience. Travis is a dynamic and brilliant administrator and in our time together we helped each other develop ideas for each of our buildings and even some ideas of how we might help others in our division. There are many others in my division and in my school with whom I have shared these invigorating conversations.

I am sure that in most divisions, people have groups of colleagues they share conversations with that change their practice and the direction of their schools. We all have the potential for our own Think Tanks, but are we doing whatever we can to have these Think Tanks assemble?

I am bad for relying on Social Media to be my connection to the smart people. I am on Twitter, posting and reading blogs, and sharing whatever I can to those conversations, but there is something about meeting with George and Travis and others from my division that brings more to the conversation. Whether it is a shared understanding of where we work, our students, our parent community etc, for some reason those conversations have so much more meat to them.

I propose that regardless of whatever excuse we use to avoid these meetings from happening, we make them happen anyway. No money for subs, no time in the day, conflicting schedules, these are no reason to stand in the way of these meetings when we all know the power that lies in these connections.

I  am unsure if the power of the face to face meeting only exists when people work in the same school or division. In fact, I plan on putting it to the test. I am going to be traveling in less than  three weeks to BC, and while there I am going to make my way to Surrey, Coquitlam and Agassiz to meet with Gallit Zvi, Jess Pelat, David Truss, Neil Stephenson, and Chris Wejr for face to face meetings to discuss various education issues. While the five of them don’t work in the same division or even same province as I do, I know from our connections on Social Media that we do share a lot in common. I have great faith that might be all you need for a face to face meeting to have the potential for great things to come from it. I’ll let you know.

Do you have your own “Think Tank”? What does meeting with your “Think Tank” provide for you? Where do you meet? When do you meet? What structure do your meetings take on? I would love to hear from others on this topic so leave a comment and get the conversations started!

Let Them Discover

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Tinkerbots

I spent some time on my spring break going back over things I favorited on Twitter or put into my “read later” places. One of them was a great interview by Jeff Herb on his podcast Instructional Tech Talk, where he interviewed Jessica Pack and John Stevens about their 20% projects. It was great to hear the two of them discuss how they set up and ran the 20% project in their buildings and the wonderful results they saw with their students. I was lucky enough to attend a Google Apps For Education Summit in Edmonton in February and saw a session by Sean Williams on Google 20% time. He shared stories of people doing similar projects and had a teacher from California connect with us over Google Hangouts to share his story as well. Their are a number of great posts out there on why Google 20% time is beneficial in education (here and here) as well as posts about how it is going in schools all over the place (here and here).

The Google 20% model has a lot in common with what Gallit Zvi is doing with her Genius Hour projects, and what Josh Stumpenhorst is doing with his Passion Projects and Innovation Day. Students having choice in what they learn about, freedom to learn in their own way, not limited by schedule or structure, and students excited about the learning. Josh’s Innovation Day inspired us to run our own Innovation Week this past December. It was an overwhelming success and every day I am at school I am asked by at least one student when our next Innovation Week will take place (Innovation Week 2 coming this June!).

I don’t think there are many educators out there that are surprised by the success of any one of these initiatives. I believe most of us are well aware of the power in transferring the responsibility for learning to our students, and the impact that it has on the engagement of our students when they are given the responsibility. I do think that some educators are afraid of giving up so much of the control of the learning in their classroom. Most have made the transition from stand and deliver to guiding the learning, but this goes even further. We have gone from providing the information to providing the right questions, but with initiatives like these, we want the students to be asking the questions as well.

So what is it that we do as teachers when we undertake one of these learning initiatives?

What I believe we do is we help students to discover whatever it is they are passionate about and are excited to learn about. I believe our job goes from crafting the powerful questions that challenge our students to helping students find ways to challenge themselves. Katherine von Jan recently wrote in her post entitled “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.

I believe this includes us when it comes to the “others expectations”. We can’t judge what our students are passionate about, but we can help shape the experience to improve the chances it will have real depth and meaning. Katherine speaks eloquently to this idea as well when she says:

For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.

Our job can be to find the connections to deeper learning in the questions that come from each development in the project. During our Innovation Week, the single greatest commonality among all of the best projects was a shared moment of struggle. Every group that was able to take their Innovation Week project to amazing places found some time where they were stuck. What each of these groups also found was that they were able to overcome this impasse and stagnation by finding a way to solve the problem. It was in these moments that they sought out a new solution, consulted teachers, classmates, websites, pictures etc and they developed a plan.

Our group that built the functioning hovercraft began with a plan to use a lawnmower engine to power it. When they constructed the hovercraft and found it would not float, they tried increasing the number of airholes on the bottom, and they tried altering the position of the engine, but nothing worked. They realized after multiple tests and failures that the engine was too heavy, and in developing a new plan to use a lighter leaf-blower engine they learned far more than just physics. When our students choose topics they are truly passionate about, they will show greater resiliency than we could have ever expected. They will seek out further understanding and they will find solutions to problems that we may not have thought our students could solve.

We talk all the time about how our students can show us so much when given the chance, but then we subject them to learning that never provides that chance. What these projects all share in common is the ability to provide our students with as a great a challenge as they are capable of. Sure, it also provides us with just as many opportunities for our students to fail, but we all know these experiences are just as important as the successful ones. I think this is even more powerful when we distance the assessment as far from the project itself, as we can. We should assess our students skills and competencies during these projects but through observation and through the assessment of their reflections NOT by assessing the actual success of the project. If we can help our students understand that we want to assess their learning, and that failure is just as much a part of learning as succeeding, hopefully these projects can instill a passion for risk-taking, creativity and innovation.

I know how powerful these activities can be. Our innovation week was the most eye-opening and invigorating 5 days of my education career. I also know from experience that it can be a bit scary to undertake one of these activities. It all comes back to the idea of modelling for our students that we are learners too, and that we aren’t afraid to take risks and to chance failure if it is going to provide us the chance to grow. I know that if you are reading this, you are someone who wants to see the best education for our students, and knowing what these initiatives can provide them is reason enough to give them a try.