You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Go Big!

Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a national Health and Physical Education conference in Banff. It was one of the best conferences I have ever attended - so good that I had the professional fortitude to drive my family to Sunshine ski area, drop them off, and return to Banff for the conference. I did consider the concept that skiing on a beautiful Saturday in May would be a form of PD, but I took the high road. I'm really glad in did. I attended a session about Spirit Days in schools by Chris Wilson. His message was "Go Big". Set the bar high. Big costume, big investment, BIG FUN!!!I have adopted this philosophy wholeheartedly this year. Going big means letting those around you know that you are "all in". School spirit is hard to define, difficult to quantify. But, I can absolutely guarantee that it exists. It's a feeling, a sense, an energy that makes a school a great place to be. I work in an amazing place. The teachers are skilled, caring, and completely committed to the kids. We have an extremely supportive parent group who will do everything they can to ensure our students have the most positive experience possible. We regularly "go big" when it comes to residencies, guest instructors, and special events.
There is nothing to be lost by going big and everything to gain. It's fun for everyone. It's memorable for all involved. It makes being at school special. And, what else could you ask for?Even better, I've always wanted to be Superman, Batman and Teacherman (plus, I didn't have to iron clothes all week long.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lessons in Film

I am up front about my weaknesses. For example, I love fishing. I can't help myself. I particularly love fly fishing. I would go fly fishing every day, all day if I could. Another weakness? My kids and being a dad. I love my kids beyond belief. If there is a song or music video that has anything to do with a dad and his children, I weep openly and without shame. A final weakness is that I love film. I get very unhappy when my students ask if they can watch a "movie". At one point, I summed it up as "Films are movies that are actually worth watching." I'm not trying to be snooty - I'm just saying that there is a big difference between "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop".

Before I taught grade four, I found a way to work all or part of the film "A River Runs Through It' into every class I taught, be it Social Studies, English, Health or my fourth year Language Arts curriculum class. True, the fishing aspect of the story is beautiful to watch. What is most compelling to me, though, is the family dynamic. The story's author, Norman Maclean, tells the story of his father, a Presbyterian minister, and his younger daredevil brother, Paul. The family settled in Missoula, Montana in the early 1900s - as the film states, "it was a world with dew still on it." There are so many ideas and thoughts in this wonderful film about families, education and human nature. I had a watershed moment last summer when I watched this film with my two sons (who are remarkably similar to Norman and Paul in terms of age differential and personality.) We finished watching the film (in tears - imagine that) and had such a meaningful conversation about always being there for your family, no matter what. Even better, we went fishing the next day and my older son caught his first two trout on a dry fly.

Another film I love to use when doing presentations for teachers is "Stand and Deliver'. This film is the true story of Jaime Escalante, a Puerto Rican immigrant who taught mathematics in difficult neighborhoods in Los Angeles. More than anything, I deeply admire the determination of Escalante's character in the film. Real or dramatized, the lesson in the film is to never quit, regardless of the barriers you face. This video is my favorite scene and sums up what Escalante stood for

There are many other "teacher" films I enjoy like "Dead Poet's Society", "To Sir with Love", "The Karate Kid", "Coach Carter" and yes, even "School of Rock". Often, we don't have to watch the entire film in order to select the key ideas and messages. To me, this is the power of YouTube and iTunes. It is amazing to have these resources at your fingertips and I really believe that they enrich your classroom when you use them properly.

I've only scratched the surface of this topic. In the end, my big message is that there are SO many lessons that can be learned from good films. If you are a teacher, do me a favour and don't just show a movie for the sake of showing a movie. Show a film. Have a purpose and communicate that purpose to your students. One of my favourite experiences as a teacher was showing my Grade 8 students "Life is Beautiful". My kids were initially reluctant about watching a subtitled film - every time I used it, I was asked "Why do we have to read and watch a movie?" By the end of the film, though, the power of Roberto Benigni's story pulled all of my kids in to the touching story of a father who makes the ultimate sacrifice.

There are amazing lessons to be found in film. I would love to hear more from you about the films that affect you.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Take Time

Time. There seems to be too much of it, too little of it. Time can be on our side. Time can be ticking. However you look at it, time is a relative concept. I'm writing this post on May long weekend and since we decided to stay in town, I feel like I have an abundance of time. Today is Sunday, but it feels like a Saturday and I'm really enjoying the luxury of time.

In my career, I have to remind myself to "take time". One joy of being a teacher and school administrator is that my job is never boring. Time flies, usually because I'm having fun! It is, however, easy to get wrapped up in what I do in my classroom and forget to take time for the other people in the school - teachers, parents, and even the kids in my class. When I really think about it, it's important to take time to do three things.

The first, probably most important thing I have to remind myself to do is say positive things. I give encouragement, pats on the back, and support all the time in my classroom. What I am talking about, though, is genuine praise. This is the type of praise where you take someone aside, look them in the eyes, and tell them something they have done very well. Last week, one of my students found a teacher's wallet in the parking lot and brought it to me. It was the perfect time to make a big deal about doing the right thing. At times, I have to remind myself to say something positive, write a positive e-mail, make a positive phone call home. When it is genuine, directed and earnest, saying something nice to someone else is incredibly powerful.

When we get wrapped up in our lives, we sometimes forget to listen. Years ago, I heard Dr. Michele Borba speak about the importance of consciously building empathy in children. According to her, teaching children to LISTEN is one of the crucial elements of empathy. When I was a middle school administrator, I took pride in the fact that I would listen to every child, every parent, every staff member who came into my office. It feels good to know that you can be trusted. As a parent and husband, it is equally important to listen carefully. At times, this is a struggle with my 10 year old son who is an endless stream of facts, ideas and information that is incredibly important to him. I have caught myself saying "Not now, Connor" and feel terrible when I do so. Listening, really listening, is so important.

The final element of the "take time" triad? Take time to acknowledge people. When I moved to Red Deer, one of the things I really enjoyed was the fact that people nodded and said hello when they passed one another on the street. A few weeks ago, our family got the opportunity to be greeters at our church. It was so nice to see my children experience the joy of simply saying hello. One of the most important things a teacher can do is meet their class at the door. The simple act of saying hello is remarkably powerful. The first time I heard Todd Whitaker speak, he said that, as a principal, he would never walk by someone in the hallway without acknowledging them. It's simple, but it takes a conscious effort and it takes a bit of time.

I'm not perfect. I don't manage to do all of these things all of the time. It takes a conscious effort and I have to remind myself to do these things. In the end, though, it is time well spent. There is no rewind button in life. You don't get "do-overs". So, I try hard to take time the first time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Shakespeare for Kindergarten?

I want to follow up on my previous post about the value of the arts. I'm interested in the idea of transformational experiences and watershed events. Epiphanies come rarely, though I can definitely say I enjoyed a degree of transformation in the past few days.

This week, our school worked with Quest Theatre from Calgary. Our end product of the residency was a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Initially, I was skeptical and not looking forward to the disruption that would ensue. When I saw the script, the schedule and the play choice, I was even more skeptical. A Midsummer's Night Dream is probably my least favorite Shakespeare piece - partly because I don't fully understand it and partly because I really love things like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. So, I grumbled about the 7:45 Monday morning meeting. I took a stack of marking the first time my class went to work with the guest artist. I was skeptical about my students' ability to successfully perform the difficult opening scene for the production. But slowly, over the week, I was reminded of the power and value of drama.

My experience this week was very similar to my experience as a teacher. At the end of my first year of teaching, I was offered a full-time middle school Drama position. Definitely not my first choice, but in the early 1990s, teaching jobs were scarce. I really wanted to stay at my school, I had taught one drama class in my first year, and I was taking over from a master teacher who really helped me along. Taking that teaching position changed my teaching career in an incredibly positive way. I learned the value of developing strong relationships and found great joy in having my students come to class happy and leave my class happy. Somewhere along the way, though, the value of the arts got shuffled lower on my list of priorities.

The second time I took my class to the work on their scene, I decided I would watch, help and participate. And, with my attention firmly on my kids instead of my e-mail or marking, I was taken by how much fun they were having. I jumped in to a game of "Splat" with my class and remembered exactly how much fun it is to be the drama teacher. On third day of the residency, the transformation was well in motion. Many of my students who struggle with reading were so motivated and excited about the performance, they went home and memorized all of their lines. They were having fun on stage. They were incredibly motivated because, as the bard once noted, "The show's the thing."

I finally got a chance to see the entire school perform yesterday morning. And, in most of the students, I saw a spark and energy. I'm proud to say that my class performed the opening scene and got the show off to a tremendous start. They had a difficult scene, yet they were performing Shakespeare with great joy and commitment. When the kindergarten class pulled off their dance scene (think fairies, Shakespeare and "All the Single Ladies"), I witnessed the power of interpretation. Parents, teachers, and the Quest instructors looked on with genuine pride. And, for the first time, I really understood the play. Remarkable.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Value of the Arts

This week has taken me back to the value of the arts. Sports and outdoor pursuits dominated my childhood. No piano lessons, choral instruction or drama classes for this cowboy. I did, however, attend every hockey school my parents could afford. The result? I played junior hockey, which paid for my education. But somehow, I can't help but think that something was missing from my childhood.

As a child, I certainly had a dramatic side. The first day my kindergarten teacher read us the Three Billy Goats Gruff, I couldn't help but be the troll under the bridge, complete with scary troll voice. In grade four, I had difficulty being quiet. One afternoon, I could not help but sing the jingle from a particularly catchy Kraft Pizza television ad. During my second warning, my teacher told me that if I couldn't stop singing, I would have to sing in front of the entire class. I don't think she expected me to take her up on the offer. I called her bluff and she had to let me lead the class in "The Other Day, I Met a Bear." In grade six, I got the part of Marley's ghost in the school operetta. Unfortunately, the early onset of puberty meant that my singing voice cracked horribly. Eventually, my teacher suggested "Ted, just SAY the words to the song." I may have been the world's first white rapper. Oh - and I fell down the stairs during the dress rehearsal in front of the entire school, including my little sister and her creepy little friends. After elementary school, the arts were not part of my education or my life. Sports, friends, cars and Led Zeppelin took over.

I have always loved music but lack training, knowledge and musical ability of any kind. Some of that changed this year because I got the opportunity to take my younger son to his Music for Young Children classes. Now, I can at least read music. I've played a duet with my son. I'm still tone deaf and have a poor singing voice. Either way, I'm feeling a bit more complete.

On Monday, my children had their year end piano recital. My older son opened the recital by playing the national anthem (beautifully, I might add...) My younger boy played a version of "Do Your Ears Hang Low." The pieces ranged from simple and cute to wonderful, artistic renditions of difficult music. What struck me as I looked around the room was the look of intense pride on parents' faces as they listened to their children. I couldn't help but think back to the looks on the faces of hockey parents. I spend most of the winter watching and coaching minor hockey. Hockey parents definitely have their proud moments, but the looks are so much different to me. I'm not sure if it isthe intensity of the looks or the range of emotions that sets their reactions apart.

No judgments here - just observations. In the end, I'm glad that my kids had the chance to see the "Hockey" look of pride and the "Music" look of pride. And I'm glad that they had balance in their lives.