inquiring minds

international teaching

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DIY and Inquiry

One thing I’m really interested in is the idea of Makerspaces.

In an age of consumerism, I like people realizing the value of making or creating something for themselves.

A couple summers ago I got frustrated with the fact that I didn’t know how to make anything. I remembered how I liked to draw when I was a kid, so I bought a Bamboo Tablet and started playing around with drawing. I got really into it and drew my own ‘Infographic’ in lieu of sending home a lengthy letter to introduce my PE program to students and parent.

Lower School PE Infographic

Lower School PE Infographic

Shortly after that I decided I wanted to learn how to knit. Winters in Finland are very cold and I wanted to challenge myself to knit my own accessories. I taught myself using videos from YouTube and KnittingHelp. I also followed several knitting blogs and joined Ravelry, a social network especially for knitters.

This year I feel like I see inquiry in a new light. Inspired by my colleagues, I’ve been allowing my students to investigate topics that interest them, but always within our unit themes. My second graders become enthusiastic and motivated when given this opportunity for ‘personal inquiry’. They beg for more time dedicated to ‘PI’ in our busy schedule and amaze me with their independence and self-direction.

After a conversation with another colleague, I thought, ‘Is it truly personal inquiry if I restrict my students to inquiring within the confines of our unit?’

How much of what my students make or create is their choice? How often do they get to decide what they learn?

How much of what they learn or make is dictated by me?

This may not be the answer, but I was nonetheless thrilled when one of my colleagues introduced me to DIY, an online community for kids that encourages them to make things.

From the DIY website:

DIY is a community where young people become Makers. They discover new Skills, make projects in the real world, and share their work online to inspire and learn from each other. The big idea is that anyone can become anything just by trying – we all learn by doing. Our company and our community strive to make it easier for Makers to build confidence in their own creativity.

Not sure how I plan to use this in my class yet. I like the amount of choice and the freedom to inquire. And I like the idea of kids learning something because it interests them. I’m not 100% convinced about the extrinsic motivation factor, (badges), despite the research out there about the power of gaming elements in real life, (like earning badges and leveling up).

What do your students make?

What do you make?


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Go Where the Students Are

This article by Clarence Fisher on his Remote Access blog resonated with me.  I started following Fisher’s blog because he was on the COETAIL list of recommended blogs to follow.  It’s quickly become one of my favorites because I am interested in many things Fisher has been doing and writing about for years.  (Like makerspaces and coding. Funnily enough our Raspberry Pi computers arrived at around the same time.)

But it was Fisher’s article reflecting on his practice of using individual blogs for his students that clinched it for me.

Fisher throws out a bunch of solutions at the end of his article. I like this one: “Interest / passion based communities that exist outside of schools that we simply help them to locate and join?”

What a powerful idea! Students joining an online community based on a personal interest or passion and beginning to connect, share, and create within the community. Sounds like they’ll be geeking out in no time!

My favorite comment was from Juliana Bonilla Garcia who said “I appreciate your honesty… It takes a reflective practitioner to know when to abandon something that is not working for their students even when it goes against the mainstream. I hope you figure out what the “new” thing is that will get your kids excited about sharing their thoughts, reflections and voices. When you do, I look forward to learning from you.

When it comes to anything we do in the classroom, what has worked in the past will not necessarily work forever.

Here’s where I’m going to connect what Fisher and Garcia were talking about with my own experiences. Please note that my experiences are different. From what I understand,  Fisher has been a middle school classroom teacher for many years and a pioneer in student tech use. I, on the other hand, before ending up at tech-savvy YIS, was teaching elementary students at a school with one tiny computer lab. Then I moved on to teaching PE at a school that was beginning to explore the importance of technology in the everyday curriculum, but was not quite there in terms of implementation.

This is just a head’s up that my experiences have to do with student – teacher communication – not connecting authentically with a global community like Fisher’s struggles. Because of my limited experience these are the only connections I’m able to make at this point.

When I was teaching PE in Helsinki, I was having a hard time keeping in touch with my MYP classes because I only had class time with them once a week.  Communication was essential because our lessons depended on the weather and the facilities available. I had to communicate to them where to meet and what to bring, sometimes at the last minute. Every year I tried something different; text messaging, a class blog, finally closed Facebook groups combined with a class blog to post resources and assignments that they needed to access outside of class time, (+ we used our mobile phones for emergency purposes or to text last minute messages).  With this combination of tools, our interactions became more frequent and more collaborative. They made authentic connections beyond the classroom. Using these tools, they were even able to rally their community to support a charity event that was successful because they advertised and built hype where everyone they knew was hanging out.

I was trying to meet the students where they were hanging out, and in the case mentioned, it worked for me and the group of kids I was with.

So my suggestion for Fischer is to find out where his students are hanging out and ask them how they authentically connect with their community and beyond. Is it Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr? ReaditFlickr? YouTube? How do they connect in these communities? What do they create? What do they contribute? Maybe it’s different for each student.

How do you get beyond something that doesn’t seem to excite your students anymore, especially when it’s been so successful in the past?

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My Literate Life

For my Reading Pt. 1 Course, I have been asked to reflect on my life as a reader.  I thought I’d share my thoughts here.

My Experiences as a Reader

Early Childhood

From what my mother tells me, my early reading life consisted of us reciting nursery rhymes and singing together.  I remember having books of Fairy Tales with illustrations that were both beautiful and terrifying.  My other early memories center more around classic children’s television programming more than books.

Elementary School

I attended a French Immersion school, so my primary school books were ‘Dimoitou et ses amis’, and Robert Munch translated into French.
My interest in books blossomed slowly and really bloomed when my mother took my brother and I to our public library.  I was introduced to Dr. Seuss and other books that I would borrow again and again.  I was fond of rhyming and repetition and rereading.

Books gradually became an escape for me in my junior and intermediate years.  I was always very heavily into television, so when I was told to turn off the TV, I would escape into some Babysitter Club, RL Stein, or Christopher Pike book and later any Caroline B. Cooney book that I could get my hands on.  I attribute my becoming a voracious reader to Archie comics and Babysitter Club books.  Although I attempted a few classics when I was stranded at my Grandparent’s house, I wasn’t really ready and ended up quickly abandoning many of them.  I did enjoy the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and fell in love with Alice in Wonderland, but wouldn’t read another acclaimed children’s classic until much later.  My love of television got me hooked on another form of comic book as Japanese animation became popular. Through this medium I discovered Manga (Japanese style comic books) and began a collection of Heroine-centred and fantasy themed manga books.

High School

Starting high school, I continued to read for pleasure to avoid doing homework when there was nothing of interest on TV or my parents thought I’d watched enough for the day.  My feelings about the required reading in my high school English classes depended half on the book itself and half on the teacher’s personality and style of teaching.  I had very little patience for the ‘read a chapter then answer these questions’ method of reading instruction.  Now as an afterthought I find it really strange that we read so many plays in English class, but never acted any out.  Some notable books we read in High School included Romeo & Juliet and Brave New World.  I continued with French Emerson, so we had twice as many novels and pieces of literature to study.  I really enjoyed reading Le pont sur la rivier Kwai, (The Bridge on the River Kwai) in French, but I couldn’t help noticing the books we read in French class were far racier with themes of sexuality and explicit language.  On top of the required reading in high school I discovered Harry Potter series quite by accident.  Like everyone before and after me, I instantly got swept into the world of Hogwarts.


In University, I continued my study of foreign languages by majoring in Spanish language and literature.  This opened up yet another world of books.  I fell in love with the short plays by Paloma Pedrero, the movies of Pedro Almodovar and books such as Bajarse al moro.
One summer I took a Children’s literature class as an elective and was blown away by all the classics I had either abandoned or hadn’t even interested me as a child.  I was introduced to Watership Down which holds a strong position among my favorite books of all time.  This was one of the best courses I took in University and the diversity of books I was exposed to was truly outstanding.
In teacher’s college and my first years of teaching, I am thankful to have been introduced to so many great children’s authors and the power of picture books in particular.

Adult Life

Nowadays I am extremely thankful for technology, because it has really revolutionised how I read and what I read.  Because I’m living and teaching overseas, I don’t have very easy access to books in English and colleagues who share the same practices and resources as the ones I left in Ontario.  I keep up do date via on-line resources and blogs related to Young Adult and Children’s literature.  I get ideas for professional resources and non-fiction reads via renowned teaching blogs and websites.  I can carry my library with me on my Kindle and I can listen to audio books while doing the dishes or laundry.
Right now I am very into Young Adult and Adult Fantasy and Futuristic Distopian Genres.  Books by Megan Whalen Turner, Kristen Cashore, Melina Marchetta, Susanne Collins, and George R.R. Martin are some recent favorites.

How these Experiences Influence the Way I Teach Reading

The reading experiences I have had over the years have made me realise that readers develop at their own pace.  Independent of all curriculum and other mandated documents, I try to teach both students and their parents that reading is a very personal endeavour.  It’s ok to abandon books, to ‘get stuck in a rut’ of a particular genre or author, to reread and to read electronically or with your ears (audio books).  I try to provide my students with different media, such as pictures, articles, and movies to help enrich the reading experience and I do my best to expose them to different forms of reading material such as books, magazines, manuals, websites, audiobooks, comic books, manga, etc.  I also try to read a lot of books at the appropriate age level of my students and keep up to date with new authors and trends.  I am therefore able to recommend and discuss reading material with my students.  My goal is to help students find the joy in reading for pleasure any way I can.


Grade 3 Skype Experience

(This past Thursday, I set up a Skype call for our grade 3 class at ISH to connect with students from Jacksonville, Florida.  It was a great experience – you can watch an amazing video reflection from the students at their end here, on the ‘Around the World with 80 Schools‘ Ning.)

Using Skype in class…

‘I thought it was over-rated…Maybe just an over-hyped novelty…Probably end up being a one-time thing…’

Boy was I wrong.

It was worth the hype and more.

The students level of excitement, the wide eyes, the ooohs and ahhhs.

This was definitely a memorable experience for these kids – one that had them making connections and asking questions, and learning from each other.  They were carrying on a dialogue over thousands of kilometres.  A dialogue that saw them looking at kids their age in a different part of the world, different cultural and religious backgrounds and realizing – they had just as much in common with these kids than their neighbour sitting next to them.

I was very fortunate that the teacher at the other end had lots of experience conducting these kinds of lessons, and I was very happy to follow her lead.  They asked and answered great questions that highlighted both the differences (geographically and culturally) and similarities – this was so key.  The similarities now seem insignificant – two kids on opposite sides of the ocean have art as their favourite subject – both groups of kids like pizza, the same TV shows – and the same Hannah Montana song.  But these seemingly insignificant shared pieces of pop culture astounded and united the kids who were oceans away from each other.

In order to do a better job of this next time , (and there DEFINITELY will be a next time), I’m reflecting on how I prepared, what I loved, what I learned, and what I would do differently next time.

What I did to prepare:

  • I ‘test-called’ the other teacher in Florida to make sure I could get a good skype connection at school
  • Informed students and ‘hyped’ them up
  • Sent home a letter (email) to parents asking permission for students to stay after school to skype and included information (website, etc.) about the school we would be communicating with
  • Tried to prepare the students for our call by using ‘Google Earth’ to find both Helsinki and Florida on the map and compare.  Looked at photos of our school and of their school and compared
  • Made a list of different nationalities represented in our class.  (13!!!)
  • Talked a little bit about what the call would look like (but I wasn’t very helpful…this was my first time  too!)
  • Set up the video camera – (ended up being useless)

What I loved:

  • The excitement in the room
  • The anticipation
  • The faces of the kids in the room

What I learned (or re-learned):

  • How important it is for kids to connect with other kids
  • Kids can learn from each other
  • Kids can teach each other
  • Connections are powerful
What I would do differently next time:
  • I would prepare the kids better (inquire into the places we are skyping to)
  • Set up a ‘hot seat’ for the person speaking
  • Get a better external microphone that can pick up the whole class, but is still able to clearly pick up the person speaking (any suggestions?)
  • Get a tripod for my video camera and have a designated camera person
  • Maybe figure out how to ‘tape’ the webcam feed (on both ends for video making purposes)
  • Have students rehearse asking and answering questions
  • Talk about ‘good’ questions
  • Talk about behaviour expectations
  • Have students record what is going on during the call (back-channelling, photos, videos)
  • Have a student introduce the class
  • Prepare something special for the class to show the school we’re skyping with
  • Debrief students immediately afterwards

One big thing I learned after this lesson, (that is completely unrelated to Skype), is that I have zero video editing skills!  This is something I plan to change.

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‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ by Daniel H. Pink

I’m really glad I read ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, by Daniel H. Pink.

(Actually, I guess I didn’t read it, I listened to it in audiobook format.)

I liked the author’s combination of scientific research and real-life examples to explain that people are generally more motivated and productive if given autonomy over certain aspects of their work.  This applies to people of all ages.

As an educator, I guess I wasn’t as surprised by Pink’s collection of research and concrete examples as I should have been.  This is because I see the harmful effects that carrot and stick reward systems have on kids every day.

Pink really gave me hope, though.  His tool-kit for teachers in the third part of his book offered lots of solutions for both teachers and parents to foster ‘type i’ behaviour in our kids.  `Type i’ refers to intrinsically motivated people.  (As opposed to those who are mostly extrinsically motivated.)

I know from now on I will definitely be giving any homework I assign the ‘type i’ test be sure it is meaningful home learning.

I hope to use Pink’s ideas so I can better motivate my students with lessons that promote autonomy, mastery, and have a clear purpose.

I will be recommending ‘Drive’ for my school’s professional development literature circles.  I think it is a must read for all educators and others involved in the business of motivating people.