Experiential Education in the Outdoors

This past week, I facilitated my last PD session of the year. It was called Experiential Education in the Outdoors, and I must admit, I use the term facilitated loosely because two teachers in our school division did most of the work. The day was the brainchild of a teacher colleague who does a great deal of learning with his class along the river near his school. He is passionate about the kinds of learning experienced outdoors and I felt this would be a great addition to our PD roster for the year. So, we asked another colleague from the opposite side of the division to co-facilitate with us and we were on our way!

For the day, we headed to Greenwater Provincial Park, which is located in the south eastern part of our school division. We wanted a place that would offer unique opportunities to explore the outdoors with the teachers who had registered. Even though spring was late this year, the leaves had just burst and we had plenty of beautiful environment to enjoy. The weather prediction turned out to be conservative and we ended up with a scorching hot day, filled with plenty of sun.

In the morning, we met in a parking lot on the edge of the park and loaded up the fifteen passenger van and a couple of trucks and headed to a remote-ish location along the lake. One of our co-facilitators had set up the kitchen area early in the morning, so we just had to finish up by finding spots for our lawn chairs. Our two big ideas for the day were: 1) Being outdoors creates a physical and emotional response that readies us for learning because it makes us feel good; and 2) Learning outdoors can be integrated into any subject with any age group. We encouraged the participants to take stock of their feelings throughout the day and to imagine how each activity we explored could be adapted to the age group of students with whom they work.

For the first three hours, we rotated three groups through three different locations, where we engaged in learning experiences that tied to multiple curricula across multiple grade levels. The first activity occurred down by the river, where the participants engaged in a study of the water ecosystem and made plaster casts of animal prints. The second grouping occurred in the forest, where the participants built a shelter. The final group gathered with me and we created watercolour paintings and wooden block artworks based on Australian Aboriginal paintings. We also looked ta several ways to take students outdoors as part of English Language Arts classes.

Our lunch was amazing! One of our facilitators did a fish fry, which included delicious battered fish, homemade french fries, and salads. He had even brought an appetizer. The participants could not stop talking about the food (and I can’t stop thinking about it!) We all sat in a circle and enjoyed the sun and good conversation. It felt really colleagial and everyone was enjoying themselves. We all reflected on ways we could bring this same vibe to other professional development events. I continue to think about this as I plan for next year.

In the afternoon, my two teacher colleagues shared their tips for safety, permissions, and planning an outdoor experience. They gave us insight about hunting times, ways to avoid pesticides, and how to keep students safe. They also shared some of their best contacts in the environmental world – we live in a very outdoor-sy area of the province and there is ample opportunity to engage in the environment in really meaningful ways.

We took a couple of breaks in the information sessions to play a First Nations game and learn how to set beaver traps (a very new experience for me!) We finished the day by looking at curricular outcomes and rubrics and discussing ways the learning experiences for students could happen outdoors. There were many really creative ideas shared and it was a good chance to look at our curricula again and think about it in a new way.

Before we loaded back into the vehicles, we headed down to the river to grab our animal print casts and share some of the things we had seen (mostly leeches and bugs…ugh.) Everyone seemed very energized (and quite sun-drenched as well.) I could not believe how quickly the day flew by! It was definitely one of my favourite PD days this year. A huge hats off to my co-facilitators, whose commitment to this day was amazing.

Here are a few pictures:

A deer track Artworks Building shelters Eating lunch Fries!! Getting our animal prints In the bush More painting Naomi in the water On the bus Our chef Setting traps part 2 Setting traps The fish

Creating Art That Is Spot On!

My class of older students has spent a couple of weeks creating functional art works that are decorated entirely in spots. We looked at Australian Aboriginal artwork as well as the art of Leah Dorian as inspiration. All of these artists use dots to create complex images. Using these ideas as springboards, we moved into creating our own artworks.

Our supplies were fairly simple to get together. I was on one of my frequent visits to the Salvation Army, and I picked up a wooden salad bowl set for $4.00. The wood was nice and dark and the bowls were in really great condition. I then purchased a box of cotton swabs and brought in the usual array of acrylics, paper plates (as palettes) and water jugs.

The students were asked to create functional art pieces out of the re-purposed bowls and this was all the instruction they seemed to need. I didn’t tell them to paint an undercoat on the bowls but a few of them decided to do this on their own. Others just left the wood as-is and started painting dots immediately. Many started with simple patterns on their first bowls and then, on their second, moved in different directions. Sometimes, the materials are the catalyst for creativity, and this seemed to be the case.

Here are some of their works, completed, or in progress:

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Nuggets from ASCD 14

I have a travel blog and when I journeyed to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago to attend the ASCD Conference, I documented the trip on that blog. However, I cannot resist capturing some of the educational wisdom I gleaned from my time there on this blog. I guess I think of the two different blogs as the the physical journey (travel blog) and the journey in my mind (this blog).

My colleague and I started by attending a two-day pre-conference called “Engaging Educators with Data to Create the Future of Your School,” which was led by Victoria Bernhardt and her colleague Bradley. Here are the nuggets from that session:

  • The people you meet from around the world are one of the very best things about going to large conferences. I think it is important to take advantage of this networking because it really facilitates reflection about your own system when you listen to others.
  • It is very important to look at demographic, perceptual, system and academic data when making decisions. Too often, we focus on a single data set and limit our ability to determine root causes, influences and responses. (I know we have not looked at demographic data enough.)
  • “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Abraham Lincoln. This was a huge focus of this session- moving forward.
  • There is a huge difference between compliance and commitment in continuous improvement. Our assumptions determine which side we are on. Therefore, discussing the why behind decisions as well and inviting engagement in information from which decisions are made is a must. Superficial compliance is not transformative. (I concur wholeheartedly. Compliance without commitment signals we have not done a good enough job yet.)
  • When looking at data, jot your thinking and connection-making as you go. The “in the moment thinking” is rich. First, wonder, question and wonder some more. Then, synthesize. But don’t move ahead before taking time to notice. (This is tough. We always want to rush to solutions without letting the thinking, noticing and connection-making happen first. We are always in such a hurry. I teach this exact same lesson to students in my art class.)
  • Having a strong process is essential for examining data and making decisions. Without a process, everything falls apart. Think about successes, challenges, implications for a school or system and additional data needs. (No processes = chaos.)
  • When facilitating data analysis, control the misconceptions. Be ready to step in and clarify when needed. (This reminds me of the same discussion we have around inquiry. There is a time to let things happen and there is a time to step in. Knowing the difference is the sweet spot.)
  • A good first step is to inventory the data available to a school or system. Then “clean it up” or make it easy to read, triangulate and reflect on.
  • “Your school is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting.” (Reality check moment.)
  • “Avoid random acts of improvement.” Ensure work is targeted and focused. (This happens so much in education. Good intentions lost due to lack of strategic focus.)

Our first keynote was Daniel Pink. I had read his book, Drive just prior to attending and was looking forward to his wisdom. This is what I gleaned from his session:

  • Teaching is persuading. Not only that, but it is persuading children to do what we want them to do instead of what they think they would like to do. In other words, it is no easy task.
  • Education has changed because we have moved to a place where educators have information parity with students. It is no longer a case of telling students things they don’t know. Instead, we are persuading them to manipulate the knowledge we all hold in various ways. (I hadn’t thought of education in this way. I think this is an area where we feel some discomfort as educators right now. We are used to having the answers.)
  • Remember, small wins cascade to other small wins. Aim for small wins.
  • There are six ways to increase your chances of persuasion. Tip 1: You can increase your effectiveness by temporarily decreasing your feelings of power. This allows you to empathize, which has tremendous impact.
  • Tip 2: Ambiverts are the best persuaders. There are studies that show that the most persuasive people are those who are both extroverted and introverted. Either extreme has less persuasive ability.
  • Tip 3: Interrogative self-talk is the most effective way to ensure success. Instead of saying to yourself, “You can do this,” ask yourself, “Can you do this?” After a question like this, you are more likely to prepare.
  • Tip 4: Ask these questions of the other person- “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to…?” Follow up with, “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?” This way, the other person works to defend your position.
  • Tip 5: Context drives behaviours so make it easy for people to act. As Pink says, “Show people the off ramp and they will more likely take it.” Don’t worry so much about changing minds. Change behaviours first.
  • Tip 6: Explain why…even more than how.

Next up was Jay McTighe and Essential Questions. I have to explain that what I learned may have been different from others because we have been working on using essential questions in our division for years now. So, this is what struck me as particularly worth considering as a person who already knew a lot about EQs:

  • A good questions is like an itch – you want to scratch it. That is why finding the right question, whether students do it or teachers do it, is so important. (We have spent so much time on finding the “just right” question in our division. Once you find it, you know it but I think we under-estimate the brainstorming that has to happen before we find the compelling question.)
  • Essential questions require a defense. It is important that students understand that it isn’t just about the answer…it is about why that answer was given. (This is actually articulated on many of our rubrics.)
  • Essential questions should recur. They are part of larger understanding. (And they should recur authentically. Again, compliance or commitment?)
  • There are four categories of essential questions: Philosophical, Epistemological, Meaning Making and Metacognitive or Reflective.
  • Essential questions must be kid-friendly. They can be part of making this so!

The evening keynote was Sir Ken Robinson, who is funny and thought-provoking all in one! Here is what I learned from his session:

  • Life is chaos. It is a continual process of improvisation and anyone who claims otherwise is misrepresenting reality. As a result, few of us know where our life will head when we are in school. It is simply impossible. So, if we create our lives, do our school systems reflect this? Do schools invite this process for students? (And do we expect students to have made decisions too early? Are we giving them enough time and opportunity?)
  • In order for us to end up doing the things we are meant to do, we need to figure out what we are good at and look for opportunities to use that talent. To be “in your element” means doing something for which you have an aptitude and a spiritual energy (love). If you are in your element, others are drawn to you. The big thing is finding your element. How often does our school system overlook or marginalize the “elements” of our students? We have to help students find the things that they love!
  • The basics of education are not the core subjects…they are the four purposes (economic, cultural, social and personal).
  • There are two worlds that exist for every human – the larger world and a world of our private consciousness. Both are really important to the decisions we make.
  • Human beings are built with a tremendous capacity to be creative and think of alternatives. Creativity is not some special feature of a few select people. We have to foster creativity because all fields move forward by people contributing original ideas. What teachers pay attention to is what students think is important. If we give attention to creativity and innovation, so will students. (This makes me wonder what students think is important now? Being quiet? Handing in work? Getting stuff done? Behaviour is more important than learning?)
  • When students perceive there is one right answer to a problem, creativity and imagination shut down. Don’t let creativity be educated out of our children! (I loved the video he showed to demonstrate this. I even tried it with my art students and found that when they were allowed absolutely freedom, they were far more creative.)

My last session was with Grant Wiggins and John Kao, who were talking about innovation in education and specifically about their project: EdgeMaker. Here is what I learned:

  • We have still not arrived in education. Grant stated he has been engaged in education for a long time and we are still working on getting to where we need to for students. (Agreed.)
  • “…the idealism and passion of the young are one of the most underutilized resources on the planet.” This session communicated the belief that children are full and complete humans, capable of creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking. We no longer need to wait for students to get old so they can solve the world’s problems – we need to let them begin to solve them now, because they may, in fact, be the most capable of doing so. (This was a huge aha for me. Not because I didn’t know it but because, when stated so clearly, I realized we have some very huge assumptions in our society about children. I have said it before-kids are hugely tolerant of adults and our systems.)
  • Maybe it is time to facilitate and listen in different ways in the classroom. Maybe we need to re-position ourselves with students and the “wicked problems” they want to think about. Do adults really believe children can be innovative? Do we invite this nearly enough? We need to get students out of the bleachers and put them in the game!
  • We need to aim for self-sustaining student learning. If the teacher is solely responsible for sustaining learning, then the purpose for doing the learning is not nearly compelling enough. On top of this, when adults do all of the sustaining and then students move on to post-secondary, they are under-prepared to have executive control over their own learning. We have taught them to look to others for motivation.
  • We are living off our innovation inheritance. It is time to change this and one way is to let children innovate.
  • We also need to design units around wicked problems using essential questions. Let them be project-driven so the students can have executive control and the teacher can step back and let students think.

My colleague and I have already started to use many of the data pieces we learned in our pre-conference. It is so exciting to attend PD where the learning is immediately applicable. ASCD put on a fabulous conference and it was a privilege to attend.

 

 

Creative Chaos

Wow, last night’s art class ensured I fell asleep before both my own children after we got home! It was a whirlwind of excitement and busy-ness, where everyone was exploring for the entire time, so I count that as success. However, I am finding the class make-up this time around requires a little more energy than past years. I have six students who are 4-7 years old and four who are 9-15. I have divided the class into these same groups for the next few weeks and I think that division was wise.

With the younger group, we embarked on an “experiment with colours.” We started with baking soda, vinegar, food colouring, eye droppers, trays and cups of water. We tried various proportions and combinations of the ingredients until we got interesting new colours with proper fizzes and pops of liquid floating in our trays. We then practiced cleaning up all on our own, which was an experiment in-and-of-itself. Nevertheless, we got there and we were ready to set out on our second adventure: Contemporary circles and colours! We used paper cups and acrylic paint to make circles in colours of their choosing (we spend a lot of time practicing sharing, compromise, turn-taking). We then used brushes to fill in details. We ended by making “Respect Monsters,” which was a project one of the students really wanted to do (they have been learning about respect at school and he wanted a monster for his desk. The others felt it was a great idea.) The students responded especially well to the idea of experimentation. We asked questions along the way and I prompted with, “I wonder..” statements to generate discussing and prediction-making.

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clean up

Explosions

The older crew set out on an entirely different adventure: Fashion design. This past summer, while in Northern England, we came across an art show by students which focused on fashion. I was enchanted with the creativity of their arts expressions and I knew I wanted to try this with my own students.

I started by visiting the local thrift store, purchasing a number of interesting clothing items. I then added needles, thread, embroidery thread, beads, ribbon and cloth swatches to the mix. While I got the younger group set up, the older group chose their clothing items and began to plan. They needed very little guidance. The class rolled out as an inquiry, with the students making choices about how to attach things, and doing some preliminary design drawings. Their only snag was learning that they needed to be taught how to finish a stitch. I gave them a mini-lesson and then they were on their way again. I am incredibly excited to see the final products.

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Thoughts on “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”

I consider myself a leader. I understand that my role as a Coordinator makes that the case, but being a leader, for me,  comes down to much more than a job title. I remember the exact time I decided to embrace my “need to lead” and it was a difficult decision. I had been asked to consider a Vice Principalship at a middle and secondary school. As had occurred in the past, I felt tangible excitement at the idea, but I had, until that point, supressed the excitement in order to work part time and maintain my perceived formula for work-family balance. Whenever I considered leadership, I recognized that it would require a commitment of both time and energy and I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of either. I had two children, a marriage and a home to devote time and energy to and I worried that I would be doing an ‘unmotherly’ or ‘uncaring’ thing by deciding to explore the idea of leadership in my career. In the end, though, I took the leap and accepted the position and I haven’t looked back. However, making the decision, didn’t make things easier. As I have explored leadership as a Differentiated Instruction Facilitator, a Vice Principal, a Principal and now a Coordinator, I have had few women to look to for guidance and support (but the ones I did find are simply gems). Education is filled with women but, where I work, far fewer women can be found in leadership roles.

Last week, I read Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I had listened to and enjoyed her TedTalk and was hoping for some more insight into women and leadership and why it seems to be so hard sometimes. She delivered on insight and, in many ways, it was a real relief to read about my own personal struggles with leadership in such a large scale place like this book. It helped me to recognize the challenges that women face in reaching and sustaining leadership roles in the workplace. One of the most interesting aspects of these challenges is that more than a few of them come from inside women, themselves. I recognize my own hestitancy to lean in at times and this book helped to clarify why this is so.

Here are some of the points from the book that resonated for me:

  • It is normal to feel conflicted about leaning in to work because society places a great deal of emphasis on the role of women to “manage” the home. This is unfair to both women and men, since there is nothing wrong (in fact, it is essential for women who choose to work full time) with sharing responsibilities at home or even (can you imagine?) inviting men to shoulder more than half of the load, if they choose.
  • In the years when we are building our families, women often lean back, when they could lean in. In fact, Sheryl contends that it is better to strive for and obtain positions that are challenging and fulfilling at work because those are the roles that keep us in the workplace. Women sell themselves short by not engaing in jobs that are challenging and fulfilling, which can often lead to further reduction in work time, in order to search for fulfillment in other ways.
  • Women are perceived by both men and other women in a more negative light when they express leadership qualities (strength, ambition, decisiveness). Men are valued for the same qualities that women are criticized for and this makes leadership difficult sometimes. Women, above all, should be nurturing and so when they decide to work full time and lead as part of this work, this is percevied as undesireable.
  • Men mentor men. Women have greater difficulty finding mentors because there are fewer women in leadership roles. This perpetuates the cycle because without mentors and sponsors, it is challenging for women to advance within their organization. There are also perceived complications with men mentoring women, that we have to “get over” in order to solve this dilemma.
  • We cannot do it all. We just can’t. Media perpetuates a myth that leads to feelings of failure for women and men. I struggle with this every single day and, while I know my hope for doing it all is not realistic, I continue to buy in to the myth that if I just work hard enough and manage my time well enough, I can be the perfect wife, mother, worker, housecleaner, cook, volunteer…well, you see what I mean.
  • Life on the home front has to be 50-50 if both partners work full time. I have a fantastic partner and this has been demonstrated time and again. I, personally, could not do what I do without the partner I have. Period. And I more than acknowledge how challenging things must be for single parents.
  • We have to start talking about gender again. I don’t know how and, while Sheryl gives some suggestions, I have to think about this a great deal more. This book applies to me but it is written for millions of women (and men!) Each of us has to figure out what we want and how we will navigate the waters of our own oceans. But it cannot be denied that women are not yet represented enough in leadership roles and, both Sheryl and I would contend, that the world would be better off if this were to happen.

Found materials as inspiration

Tonight, my Mom joined my art class. It was lovely to have her and her artistic help. The kids really dove into various media through a full inquiry process. The invitation was my materials box, filled with silk flowers, random miniatures, Popsicle sticks, feathers, and anything else I could pick up at Value Village. Add to that, packages of clay and exploration was on! The results were varied and wonderful. Mom helped me facilitate reflection with the students which helped them work their way toward balance and movement in their works. The students joined up at times and worked on their own at others. Overall, it felt like we played a lot tonight, which is never boring.

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The art that lives inside us!

Today, we all dove into our ongoing art works as soon as we arrived. Everyone was in a different place. Most people were working on their portraits, or their Picasso studies. Everyone embraced colour. I am finding that facilitating is so much better when everyone works at their own pace. Some students want to learn how to mix colours because their just-right colour isn’t in my selection. Some want to learn how to balance their works. Some teach each other how to blend oil pastels. Others go in a totally unplanned direction and make creatures, working in pairs and laughing at their combinations. Regardless of where they all are, they ask to explore something as it relates to the image they are striving to create. This is when learning is magical – the sweet spot. They learn because they want to learn and not because I think they should learn.

Here are some of their results:

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She spent a great deal of time trying to master blending with oil pastels and the results were powerful. She taught the others what she had learned.

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She mixed every colour on her own! She was unhappy with the brown that I had so she experimented until she found the colour she wanted. Once she started mixing, she decided to make every colour on her own.

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She did some amazing work today. She has worked really hard on balance and her Mona Lisa showed it. Impressive for grade four! Her Blue Period work was also completely independent. She just dove in a made it work. Her challenge was working in mostly monochromatic and still making her figure “pop.”

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She has no fear of colour. Her challenge was colour balance. Picasso really moved colours around and she decided to add the pink around the head at the last minute.

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This five year old completed the paint and portrait on his own and then he worked with a grade four friend to create the crazy creatures. They amused themselves for the whole hour and a half. The results are really funny and interesting.

There is no doubt that art lives inside human beings. The fun part is watching it come out.