Lens of a Learner



IMMOOC- Week 3 Blog Prompt….What is one thing that you used to do in education that you no longer do or believe in? Why the change?

 Despite thinking about this prompt all week, I have been struggling to find the right reflective piece to blog about. However, on the eve of taking part in a highly anticipated day of learning with AJ Juliani tomorrow, it dawned on me.

One thing that has changed so much for me over the last few years is how I engage as a professional learner. Becoming a NETWORKED, connected educator over the last number of years has been a game changer for me.


In years past when attending professional learning sessions put on by colleagues or at conferences, I would take copious notes, capturing the content of the session, as well as the thoughts and connections I was making. In the end, I am not sure how effective or impactful those strategies were for me as learner. I don’t recall going back to all of those notes very often, as when I did I often found they hadn’t in the end really captured what I was looking for.


Now, when I attend PD, I regularly use Twitter. I often capture some of my biggest takeaways in the form of a Tweet and using this platform I often engage with the presenter as well as other participants. This process is dynamic, engaging and furthers both collaboration and learning. If there is something a presenter says that really resonates with me, I capture it graphically as well, using something like Quote Creator etc. What often makes the PD and my entry points even richer yet,  is the fact that I have often already made a connection to the presenter and his or her work either via Twitter or his or her blog etc. This too helps to enrich and extend the valuable learning I do as a participant.

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I can’t tell you how many times I have used the Twitter Advanced Search to seek out something I have Tweeted from a conference or presentation. I also use Storify to capture and archive a number of Tweets related to a presenter, conference or specific focus. For example after spending 4 days taking part in an amazing PD opportunity at the Learning Forward Conference in Vancouver last December, I captured many of my Tweets and those of others using Storify. Or I regularly created a Storify to celebrate all of the Tweeting and reflection that would happen in my school division, when George Couros came to work with our school division staff for a week at a time like seen here. The process of creating a Storify as well as having it as a resource to come back to over and over again is very powerful.

I also often blog after taking part in valuable professional learning. Blogging helps me unpack my new learning in a deeper way. Reflecting on where I am at and where I am going is what pushes my thinking forward. Doing this in a public way makes me even more cognizant and accountable for my reflective practice.

Similarly, I now do all of these exact same things when reading a professional book. Being a NETWORKED educator has immensely changed that process for the better as well. Having the ability to engage with an author while reading his or her work, using the means of Tweeting to converse with them, and reviewing their extended work online, extends my own learning once again. Blogging about this author’s work while reflecting and documenting my thinking helps me carve my own learning path or next steps moving forward.

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As a professional learner, shifting from my more PASSIVE STANCE of the past, to a position of being a much more connected, engaged member of a professional LEARNING NETWORK has been hugely impactful for me.  Keeping in mind innovative shifts in education and the larger context,  I will continue to embrace continued change, and growth as a learner, moving forward! 


“I Am Standing….”


This year Winnipeg School Division is excited to have educational leader, and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros once again working closely with our staff.  Now in its second year, one of the key pieces of this initiative involves extensive work with two Innovative Teaching and Learning Leaders (ITLLs) from each school. A guiding question in our work continues to be “How do we move from ‘pockets of innovation’ to a ‘culture of innovation’ within our schools?”(Couros, 2015)  For further information about the scope of the project visit these two previous posts.

One of the major components of the ITLL project has involved the participants developing a reflective blog and their own personal, digital portfolio, outlined here. As we embark into year two and continue this blogging journey, our ITLLs are now invited to write a targeted post reflecting on a new professional book added to the project this year, the inspiring and practical, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. As a group, we are using this book to focus conversations on practical ways to embed innovative and creative practice in our classrooms.  

In my previous post, I discuss one of Dave Burgess’ provocative questions of “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?” and how it was a meaningful exercise for me to give some thought to my own “stand out lessons”.  

In my mind these are the lessons or a sequence of lessons that are dear to my heart. They are the activities that keep me up at night in anticipation, that have me jumping out of bed in the morning to get to, and that have become refined works of art over the years.  As teachers, many of us have units, lessons, and activities we do with our students that we are the MOST proud of, that we know are highly effective and engage our students in superlative ways. An important skill for any educator is reflecting regularly on our practice, building on our strengths, recognizing our challenges and planning our next steps.  

The pirate’s question about “lessons we could sell tickets for” can offer us a lens to start or continue this good work. However, for some reflecting on their own practice through this narrow focus may be challenging. Some teachers’ strengths may not be articulated through exploration of a single lesson or a series of lessons, but instead in other ways such as, in the relationships they build with students or flexibility in meeting individual student needs.

Either way, this thinking and the inspiring work of both George Couros and Dave Burgess help us to frame the first reflective blog post assignment for the Innovative Teaching and Learning Leaders this year. The ITLLs are tasked with:

Describe and reflect upon a lesson or learning opportunity you have offered your students that “you could sell tickets for”.


Thinking about your own learning through the ITLL initiative and the newest addition of Teach Like a Pirate, describe and reflect upon skills, strategies and practices you use to ensure student success, increase engagement/empowerment and  boost creativity in your own classroom or school.

As I first read TLAP this summer, I recall connecting to a number of the suggestions made and activities outlined. The costumes and dramatic pieces may not necessarily be in my wheelhouse but as a former Inquiry Support Teacher and Language Arts teacher for 16 years, the use of artifacts, music, images, technology, personalized learning and a number of the other “hooks” were things I could relate to place to in my own teaching.

And so I offer an example of my own series of learning experiences along a writing theme that I did with students that I can potentially consider through the lens of “a  lesson I could sell tickets for”.

One of my favourite learning sequences to teach in Language Arts is on descriptive writing.  In my mind I call this focus my “I am standing…” writing pieces.  

I have used a variation of these lessons over a span of many years and with students in grades 4-8. The intent of these lessons is for students  to practice describing something so that a picture is formed in their reader’s mind. It aims to capture an event, person, place or thing in such a way that it makes the writing more engaging and interesting by paying close attention to the details using all of the five senses.

I always begin by modeling for the students.  I choose one scene or location and I bring in a number of sensory artifacts into the classroom to replicate this scene.  The Lake as a setting is a good starting point for me.  This has varied over the years but may include:  a tub of cold water, sand, reeds, a tree branch, an evergreen or fresh rain scented candle, a fan, a life jacket, a paddle, a turtle shell, images, sound effects of water lapping or loons calling etc. As the students engage in this sensory experience of  “the lake” I ask them to record words, images and thoughts that came to mind, using the five senses.  This might be on chart paper, post it notes, or digitally on an App such as Popplet. At times they have used the List Group Label strategy to further extend this brainstorming.

Next, I share my own writing piece about the lake, or model this writing in front of them- I Do (Routman- Optimal Learning Model).  See here for an example.  I ask the students to look for evidence of each of the five senses being explored, examples of adjectives and adverbs being used, and the use of literary devices. There are many outcomes that can be reviewed within this form of writing.

We wrap up the day’s events by making a list of other possible settings or scenes we could explore in a similar way. Typically the students come up many…city centre, park, beach, ocean, farm, prairie field, blizzard, campfire, bakery, amusement park, circus, concert, forrest, sporting event, airport, mountains…to name a few.

For our next class, I set up more sensory stations along these themes.  I have images on most of the scenes in a file. I have collected a number of related artifacts along these scenes in a plastic tub I pull out each year and I gather others from nature.  I find sound effects online such as; crowds cheering, ocean waves, crickets, and a campfire crackling.  Others are conveniently on my Conair Sound Machine.  I bring in popcorn, marshmallows, baked goods or other tasty treats where applicable. While exploring the sensory stations, the students use this graphic organizer or a digital variation to record their observations using each of their five senses.

After, spending some time exploring the stations and recording our thoughts, we regroup as a class and choose one of the settings to do as a shared writing piece –We Do. Here is an example of a shared descriptive writing piece we wrote as a class on a Fall scene at the park.

The final class, the students choose their own scene or setting to write their own descriptive piece on –You Do.  They have the option of using the graphic organizer as a pre-writing sheet and we review the criteria for the descriptive piece of writing.  They work through all stages of the writing process.

The beautiful writing that comes out of this often amazes me! Some years, the students take their imagery filled, descriptive writing pieces a step further by completing watercolour paintings to go alongside, or they use an App such as Adobe Voice to visually represent their lovely language using images and their spoken words.

This series of lessons has traditionally produced some of the best writing my students do all year.  During these lessons they seem to thrive on the hands on, sensory nature of the work. The scaffolded, collaborative piece of working together before completing their own writing, ensures a high degree of success for all learners.

Teach Like a Pirate


Teach like a Pirate by Dave Burgess has crossed my path numerous times over the past number of years, but I am not sure why I never picked it up. I tend to shy away from things that feel a bit gimmicky, so perhaps it was some preconceived notion I had.  However, this past summer a colleague of mine highly recommended it, so I decided to download it for the ride home across the Canadian prairies.  I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. I was sold. I loved The Pirate’s enthusiasm, passion and message about increasing student engagement, boosting creativity and  transforming the lives of educators.

I found each of the six sections of the PIRATE system (Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask and Analyze, Transformation, Enthusiasm) relevant and through provoking. Dave Burgess has a way of disrupting our thinking as readers and pushing the envelope.  It may be difficult to find too many teachers that can match his energy, style and somewhat outlandish ways but we can all apply the principles behind the thinking in our own way.

Throughout the book, Dave Burgess has a refreshing way of telling it like it is.  This starts early on page 3 when he addresses the issue of passion and acknowledges that it is NOT possible or realistic to be passionate about EVERYTHING we teach. He talks about how passion is broken into three distinct categories: Content Passion, Professional Passion, and Personal Passion.  The key to impassioned, successful teaching involves tapping into all three of these types of passions and in doing so we become “relentless in our pursuit of excellence as an educator”.  Teaching is not a profession in which we can leave our passion, and the essence of who we are, at the door.  Demonstrating passion as an educator is a game changer.

When Dave Burgess talks about immersion the stand out for me is the pool metaphor.  When it comes to teaching… are you a lifeguard or a swimmer?  A lifeguard type of teacher sits above the action and supervises the pool deck.  A swimmer immerses him or herself in the water, gets wet and is an integral part of the action. For me, this powerful analogy drives home the importance of being present and involved as an educator and truly immersing ourselves in what we are facilitating, modeling, and teaching. It means at times being vulnerable. It means being a risk taker ourselves and it means learning alongside our students.  As we move away from traditional practices of stand and deliver and students as mere passive learners, to a more personalized approach with students taking a more active role in their own learning, we must let go of the idea that we as teachers have all the answers. It is essential that we immerse ourselves in the journey and be learners ourselves.

In discussing the necessity of developing rapport with students, the pirate does an excellent job of outlining just how to start to build this foundation.  He highlights the importance of developing relationships and community, first and always.  As he outlines his “First Three Days”, he suggests the need to slow things down, focus on really getting to know students, offer regular opportunities for teamwork or collaboration and set the stage for an exciting, inclusive, engaging, dynamic learning environment.  If we truly want to reach our students, we must first develop rapport, next build trust and ultimately strengthen relationships.  It is through the thoughtful planning of meaningful, engaging, and rich lessons and learning opportunities that “the pirate” hooks his audience, gets huge buy in, ensures his learning intentions are met and ultimately develops rapport with this students.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes up in the ask and analyze section.  I am a firm believer that as educators, one of our most important skills and charges is to be creative.  We constantly have to come up with new and improved ways to teach a concept, adapt a lesson, structure a project, deal with a problem, support a learner, and three thousand other things along the way. Thinking and doing in creative and innovative ways is inherent and necessary within the job, perhaps like in no other profession, each and every day.  The 6 Words spoken to him by a teacher at a workshop…”It’s easy for you. You’re creative” resonated with me.

First of all, teaching isn’t easy. Being an effective, engaging, empowering educator is no simple feat.  It takes hard work, a lot of time, great effort, constant learning, along with continuous personal and professional reflection and growth.  It’s not “easy” for the pirate and it’s not “easy” for any of you reading this.

Secondly, as the pirate so eloquently says, “We all have unbelievable creative potential”. That creativity can be demonstrated and shared in a variety of ways, but each and every one of us has our own individual creative capacity.   We MUST believe that of ourselves and we MUST  believe that of our students.  Often people get caught up in seeing creativity through a very narrow lens. Creativity goes beyond art, music and dance.  Creativity is not reserved for those with dramatic tendencies or a knack for design.  We all have valuable, innovative ideas worth developing and sharing. Dave Burgess outlines a plethora of ways it is possible to be creative in our classroom in the second section of the book.  The key is asking ourselves the right questions, being open to trying something new, and believing in our potential as educators and creators.

In the transformation section Dave Burgess suggests two questions for raising the bar: “If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?” and  “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?”.  I found the second question fascinating and compelling.  I liked the idea of thinking about my own “stand out lessons”.  In my mind these are the lessons or a sequence of lessons that I would never dream of leaving to a substitute. They are the activities that kept me up at night in anticipation, that had me jumping out of bed in the morning to get to and that had become refined works of art over the years.  As teachers, many of us have units, lessons, and activities we do with our students that we are the most proud of, that we know are highly effective and engage our students in superlative ways.  An important skill for any educator is reflecting regularly on our practice, building on our strengths, recognizing our challenges and planning our next steps.  The pirate’s question about “lessons we could sell tickets for” gives us a lens to start this good work. Watch for more on this topic, and my own reflections, in a follow up blog post.

If there is one thing Dave Burgess is not short on, it is enthusiasm which he readily admits, however in this section he also acknowledges many of things he “is not good at” as an educator. He explains how, like all of us, despite our many years of teaching experience we are still a “work in progress”. He goes on though, to stress the necessity and importance of being enthusiastic. If we do not demonstrate interest and enthusiasm in what we teach, how can we expect engagement from our students? In fact, it doesn’t matter how much material you cover, or how much work students do, nothing is more important than “nurturing and building a love of learning”.  

The second part of the book does an extraordinary job of outlining page after page of practical ideas for crafting engaging lessons.  There is an extensive selection of prompting questions, ideas and “hooks” related to:  presentation styles, props, movement, costumes, artifacts, music, the arts, technology, food, drama, current events and building on students’ interests.  There is also a considerable number of unique and novel suggestions in areas such as:  student choice, classroom design, magic, mystery, reality tv and the list goes on.  Dave Burgess outlines how to send students out on secret missions for extra credit.  He uses “advanced tactics” to come up with mysteries to unravel related to content. He describes the ways he has transformed his classroom to replicate a bus, a factory, the moon, or a courtroom, dependent on his unit of study. He offers suggestions in dressing up like a multitude of characters to build authenticity. He promotes the use of just the right video, image, piece of music or prop to provoke, entice and illicit interest and intrigue.  He makes learning relevant, exciting and fun, which in turn both engages and empowers his learners. There is no shortage of amazing ideas to build on here and I think it may be hard to walk away from reading this section without at least a few things to try in your classroom…. tomorrow…… at any grade level.

Dave Burgess names two intents for the book. The first one is  to be inspirational, and the second is  to offer a variety of ideas for educators to apply to their teaching.  The book goes well beyond that and serves as an excellent reminder of the importance of setting a stage for student learning that engages, inspires and empowers learners on a daily basis, that boosts creativity and nurtures a love of learning. It then backs it up with practical, real, time-tested ways to do exactly that!