Dropping the Ball

I always know when I’ve dropped one of the gajillion juggling balls that is my teaching job. It’s when my students’ faces have the kind of look a puppy has when it’s being blamed for something it didn’t do. They look at me all wide-eyed and wondering what just happened as they listen to me express frustration.

This frustration always happens when I temporarily forget what I know about what my students need. Last week, at a moment when I was exhausted and distressed, I forgot that lecturing after 1:00pm is an utter waste of time, completely out of sync with students’ circadian rhythms.

At the time, I was so caught up in my determination to move forward on a project, that I completely ignored the signs that it was not a good time to do so.  But when I noticed those puppy-eyed looks, in the midst of my complaints about their inattention, I realized that something was wrong, and so I asked.

They reminded me that I was expecting them to focus on listening at a time when they’d normally be napping. I had forgotten that the schedule for that day had been moved forward an hour and that on any other day, they’d be on their yoga mats, listening to a recording of the sound of rain, while focusing on their breathing.

And, once again, embarrassed, I apologized.

Splotched on the tapestry that is my relationship with my students, are apologies of all kinds. Regrets for lapses in judgement, feelings of remorse for slips of anger, anguish over my inability to keep all those gajillion balls floating in sequence throughout my teaching day.

I wish I didn’t have those splotches. I wish I could always be mindful of what I say and do in my classroom. I wish I could always be attuned to my students’ energy.

But I know that would take superhuman effort of which I’m incapable.


What I am capable of is being aware of when I mess up, and then gathering the courage to clean up.

I clean up by apologizing, of course, and then by taking inventory of what I did and didn’t do leading up to the point when the balls were dropped.

Usually there’s a missed yoga class, a missed meditation session, many missed walks, and a long list of things to do on my desk.

As a teacher, I know that I’m never going to get to zero on my to-do list but I can certainly move up from zero on my well-being list.

I love that well-being is getting lots of buzz lately now that education reform has taken a turn away from standardization and toward the critical importance of emotions and relationships in learning.

We teachers have always known this but it’s nice to have the powers-that-be elevate its importance to being a core competency in the new curriculum.

I just wish the Ministry would realize that expecting teachers to be effective models for personal and social competency while we are experiencing stress due to the effects of 15 years of deep cuts to education funding, and while we are reeling from the turmoil of a massive system change, is asking for too much.

You would think the Ministry would know that, given the fact that personal and social competency is just another way of talking about relationships, it would be motivated to change its relationship with teachers.

It would be nice to have a healthier relationship with our government, a relationship in which there was a demonstration of respect for our professional expertise.

Instead, we teachers are not only regularly maligned in the media, but we also have gone to the Supreme Court of Canada to defend our constitutional rights.

What we have here in British Columbia is the ironic situation of a government rolling out a new curriculum that situates social and emotional well-being at the centre of learning while it simultaneously undermines teachers and underfunds public education.

I bet there’d be barely any dropped balls in my classroom if I had the kind of support and respect that teachers in Finland and other countries have. This is not to say that I don’t accept the responsibility to take care of myself so that I am prepared to take care of my students.

It’s just that the BC Liberals certainly don’t make that task any easier.

Having dropped the ball on public education in 2002, there is no indication that they have any intention of ever picking it up again, funding-by-photo-op in an election year notwithstanding.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to ignore that pile of marking on my desk while I take myself for a well-being walk on this beautiful Sunday.

What Politicians Teach

Did you catch the question from a teacher at the start of the second U. S. presidential debate?

The last presidential debate could’ve been rated as MA – mature audiences – per TV parental guidelines. Knowing that educators are tying the presidential debates to student’s homework, do you feel you are modelling appropriate and positive behaviour for today’s youth?

Trust a teacher to pack an entire lesson into just one question. The lesson topic: the role of politicians in our children’s lives. The big idea: politicians are teachers too.

Politicians teach our children what power can do. They teach our youth what kind of behaviour is actually rewarded in society.

When Trumpism, the Americanized version of Fascism, has millions of adults displaying all the behaviours we teach students to avoid, what is a teacher to do?

When our 24-hour media cycle continues to focus its full attention on loutish, boorish behaviour, what impact can lessons that last 60 minutes have?

Like many teachers, I am often overwhelmed by the expectations that classrooms be wombs for the genesis of a world rid of all social ills.

But while we teach tolerance and empathy in our classrooms, bullying and bigotry dominate media daily.

While we encourage civic responsibility and promote human rights in our schools, racism and prejudice is on full display at massive political rallies.


It’s hard not to sink into utter despair.

I scour the media daily for signs that the cult of Trump will be exposed for what it is – the marketing of a myth, the selling of snake oil. But there is no indication the end will come any time soon.

Now that crude and callous behaviour has been accorded relevance, it will take more than Trump’s defeat to end the Trump effect (the increase in racist bullying schools).

It will certainly take more than what is possible in our underfunded, overcrowded schools despite teachers’ best intentions.

It will take politicians seeing Patrice Brock’s question as a call to model the kind of behaviour worth emulating.

And it will be up to every ethical adult, not just teachers, to remind politicians of the responsibility of their power.

We teachers will continue to teach lessons about a different kind of power, the kind of power that pushes back the darkness: the kind that fuelled the civil rights movement, the kind of power that put a black man into a White House built by slaves.

It will take the harnessing this force more powerful, to turn Trumpism into a disgraced footnote in the textbooks of tomorrow.

Spare us the hyperbole about flexibility

British Columbia’s curriculum is being modernized to respond to [a] demanding world. To develop new models, the Ministry consulted with education experts both locally and internationally. They agree that to prepare students for the future, the curriculum must be student-centred and flexible …

One time I wished I had playdough in my classroom. Another time, a whole bunch of Lego blocks. Last week, I wished I had sunglasses with pink lenses for all my students.

Wishes like these arise whenever I see my high school students struggling to grasp a concept I had not anticipated they would not understand. Because there is no way of predicting what students know about any topic, no way of knowing how they will respond to any activity, and no way of knowing where a lesson will go once it starts, teachers have always needed to be flexible, ready to respond to whatever is in the classroom at any given moment.

You would think that the BC Ministry of Education would know this: despite detailed lesson plans, no lesson goes as planned.

Teaching is nothing if not an exercise in flexibility.

The playdough would have been handy for my lesson on the writing process. I could have used the Lego blocks to demonstrate how to structure sentences. Having sunglasses with different coloured lenses would have been useful to show how culture shades a worldview.

A teacher’s day is filled with teachable moments, unpredictable situations that arise as surprises during lessons. Skilled teachers use these the way an aikido master would, deflecting the distraction and transforming it into a lesson.

More often than not, the deflection would have been easier if teachers had access to resources not usually found on approved lists.

While millions of dollars are locked in textbook inventories that are increasingly removed from learning needs, teachers spend weekends at garage sales and dollar stores buying resources that are more responsive to the alchemy of teaching. I’m still on the lookout for Lego blocks.


It would be great if I could include them on a request for classroom supplies now that teachers have been invited to tell the powers-that-be what they need in order to create “flexible learning environments” during this time of transformation to the new curriculum.

Aside from playdough, Lego blocks, and pink sunglasses, my wish list:

I’d like a pause in the school year two weeks after it has begun. Since the beginning of this school year, I’ve learned a lot about my current students and now I need time to recalibrate the lessons I planned over the summer to better meet their needs in the absence of psychological assessments and education assistants.

I’d like the legal boundaries of my classroom to extend at least three kilometers beyond the walls so that taking my students to the park to experience a concept that they’re struggling to grasp does not require three weeks notice and a pile of paperwork.

I’d like classroom furniture that is flexible, that can be easily moved and that can provide a variety of seating.


And I want the restoration of classroom size and composition legislation.

I would be capable of multiple feats of flexibility if I had a class of 15 students with education assistants for all who needed support for learning.

It’s disingenuous for the BC Liberal government to couch its new curriculum within a framework of flexibility while simultaneously removing billions from the education budget thereby causing ever more restrictions on what is possible in classrooms.

It’s especially galling that the Minister does not acknowledge that teachers have been transforming education for decades, continuously responding to “the demands of a changing world” without much support for this Herculean task from the Ministry.

So it’s nice to finally be given official permission to do what we’ve always done – adjust the curriculum to suit the needs of our students – but unless there are dollars on the table to support all the rhetoric about change, please spare us the hyperbole about flexibility.

What should be included in Back to School Supplies?

back to school supplies

What kinds of conversations have you been hearing about back to school supplies lately? The angry ones where parents fume at teachers for demanding so much? Or the sad ones where parents living in poverty are trying to figure out what to cut from the household budget in order to buy a new pair of shoes for a child? Or have you heard those heartwarming stories of strangers approaching teachers in stores and offering to pay for all the classroom supplies that teachers are purchasing out of their own pockets?  

You must have noticed how these lists have been getting longer each year. You recall that thirty years ago, school supply lists were quite short, perhaps just two items: pencil crayons and a geometry set. But, for a number of years now,  the lists have become very long and often include two types of paper: photocopying and toilet.

How did we get to this point?

Increasingly longer school supply lists are now the norm everywhere public education is undergoing “reform”  but here in BC we can trace the pathway back to 2002 when the newly-elected BC Liberals changed the formula for funding schools. In essence this meant that they would no longer fund resources that previous governments had funded. And so, for the past 15 years, as costs have increased,  school districts have had to do more with less. They have long been cutting “low hanging fruit” and have reached a point where there is nothing more to cut. Now, parent-taxpayers, along with annually contributing to taxes earmarked for schools, have to make additional contributions to education resources.   

This is much easier for some parents to do than others.  For parents living in poverty, it is quite a hardship. With BC having the highest rate of childhood poverty in Canada, there are thousands of parents right now wondering which essential item in their household budget to do without so that their child will have shoes, clothing and supplies for school.

Whilst providing the basics may not be a difficulty for other parents, there are a different set of concerns that keep them awake at night: worrying about whether their children’s health and safety is assured while they’re at school.  15 years of cuts to education funding means that there are many public schools where parents are wondering about whether  to include the following on their shopping list for school supplies:

  1. A water testing kit to check if their child’s school is one of the 92% likely to have lead in drinking water
  2. A hazmat suit to protect against asbestos contamination
  3. Reflective vests for long walks to school in the absence of schools buses or public transport
  4. A mask to protect against breathing in mould spores
  5. Mice/Rat traps (humane ones)
  6. Buckets to catch water falling through leaky roofs
  7. Personal fans/heaters to keep cool/warm in schools with aging heating/cooling systems
  8. A Safety whistle to blow after earthquake so that recovery crews can locate survivors

Including these items on a school supplies list will add several hundred dollars to the average cost of $108 per child per year that parents spend. And that spending would be in addition to the $150 per child per year that parents are contributing to fundraisers.

Given that our Premier has already begun campaigning for re-election in 2017, perhaps conversations about school supply lists should be expanded to a province-wide conversation about how our public education system is funded.

How is it possible to have a “strong economy” when our schools are in such a state?

Whose tomorrow can be secure when our children have to contend with dilapidated buildings, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of support for their learning needs?

While considering who to vote for in May 2017, can we have a conversation about the value of public education to the citizens of BC?

Assisted Accountability – The True Flipped Classroom

This article reflects much of my education philosophy.



Eric Mazur introduced the flipped classroom to much interest a couple of decades ago. The idea—and a very good one—is that the time we have together in class is precious, and is being totally underutilized by a one-to-many dissemination of information. In the internet age, Mazur thought, why couldn’t we do the lecture outside of class, when homework would normally be done, and “work” with the concepts together, in class, when we had others around us to work with, not to mention the guidance of the expert teacher? Brilliant, no?

But I think there is an even more important flip that needs to follow. It’s flipped accountability. It’s part of a critical need to transform education by shifting the focus away from information and content (the stuff of 200 years ago) and towards skills and mindsets, to fully support development of human capacity.

Why do we need to shift? Two main…

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Building Community With Attendance Questions

My blog published on Edutopia today…


Taking attendance shows which students are physically present, but asking an attendance question stretches students’ minds toward actively learning as part of a classroom community.

Source: Building Community With Attendance Questions

What to Teach in Times like These?


I’ve been turning off the radio whenever the news comes on, having exhausted my capacity to consume any more details about the latest atrocity, whether it’s a 5-year-old girl being murdered along with her mother in Calgary, or a huge truck crushing people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. I don’t even want to know what’s happening in Turkey, and I absolutely do not want to think about TrumPence in the US.  Yes, I am being selfish, trying to protect my heart from any more hurt and horror.

But I know that, as a teacher of teens, I can only have a temporary reprieve. Before September, I need to find some way of explaining it all.

And how in the world do I do that?

In our schools we offer students tidy packages of information in textbooks. The four reasons for WWII, the ‘correct’ interpretation of novels and Shakespearean plays.

In their exams they’re asked to regurgitate that information, with the highest awards going to those students who tell us exactly what we told them. We reward them for telling us what we already know: the answers to the questions in textbooks and tests.

But teenagers begin to realize that the answers they’ve been given do not explain the world as it is, and that realization leads to many questions, the kind that find their way into the Question Box in my classroom.

Although students can place anonymous questions about anything and everything into the box, the most common topic is conflict, from the personal to the political. They want to understand conflicts with parents, with siblings, and with friends. They also want to understand why humans resort to violence and aggression so frequently when there is conflict.

Essentially, my students want to know why it’s so hard for people to get along with other people.

In the past I’ve explained the psychological, sociological, cultural, political and evolutionary basis for human behaviour but, given recent events, I no longer believe that that’s enough.

Unlocking the World

As a teacher-host, tasked with what Claudia Ruitenberg calls “unlocking the world” for my students,  I feel as though they’ve been invited to a home that has been trashed by earlier guests. They have newly arrived in the world and are eager to learn about it, but what do I offer as explanation for the mayhem they see on their screens?

What does one teach in times like these?

A few months ago, after we’d had discussions on all the questions in the box,  one of my students asked: What are you adults not telling us?

The question stumped me. I had no answer then, but I think I do now:

We adults appear to be in charge, to be in control of what happens in the world, but we’re not.  We know the solutions to many social and political problems, but we don’t always act on them. And the reason we don’t is because we lack the courage to do so.


Courage is not something that students can learn about from textbooks. It’s not something that can be tested in exams. There are no cheat sheets or Spark notes for it.

Knowing how to solve a quadratic equation will not help to bridge the divide between the descendants of slave owners and the descendants of slaves.

Knowing how to parse a sentence will not help to tell the story you are too afraid to tell.

Knowing the causes of The Great War will not help you to act when you see someone being bullied.

Only courage can help you to do all these.

Teaching courage takes courage, I’ve discovered. The old adage that children learn more from what you do than what you say, is certainly true. Students will only believe what I say about courage if I can show them what it means to be courageous in the way that Brené Brown explains:

Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 


I speak from my heart often in my classroom. Ironically, it’s usually after I have been angry and am using the situation to teach students about anger. My students learn that anger is a secondary emotion that acts as a cover for hurt or fear or pain. They also learn that it takes courage to express those primary emotions instead.

I know that one of the best places to teach and to learn courage is in classrooms. Our public school classrooms, where students of diverse backgrounds and experiences meet on common ground, are a perfect place to discover what it means to be courageous.

Over the years students have shown me in many ways what courage looks like. Here’s just one example of many stories :

When I came to this class and saw my enemy N, I was so angry. We had been enemies since elementary school. I wanted to switch out of the class because I couldn’t stand looking at her miserable, lying face. So, H and I decided to sit at a different table from N. But the teacher moved us all into our Myers-Briggs personality groups and guess who was in my group? N!  I wondered how she could possibly share the same personality traits as me.  I talked to my other classmates in my group and ignored her.

The second day N asked me how to do an assignment. I was so close to walking away but I answered her and she thanked me! I was really surprised that after all the fights and arguments she had the nerve to ask me a question. After that day everything changed. Soon  we all got together to prepare a skit and everybody got along fine, including me and N. A month into the course N and I were talking like we were best friends, I don’t know if I changed or if she changed but we never brought up the rumour or fights again.

It took the kind of courage that Brené Brown talks about for M to see N as she really was, and to work with her.  How different would the world be if more adults could do the same? 

As I prepare to host a new group of students in September, I’ll listen to the news differently, keeping an ear open for demonstrations of heart-based courage so that I can show my students an alternative view of the world.

And I hope that showing them these examples will encourage them to have courage as they explore the world beyond the answers in their textbooks and the chaos on their screens.