Just Remember

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In November of 2002, I had the opportunity to attend the Teacher’s Institute on Parliamentary Democracy in Ottawa for a week. Aside, from being amazing professional development and the fact that I met incredible people from across Canada, it brought me to our nation’s capital, a city I never visited before. The patriotic Canadian in me loved Ottawa.

But nothing could have prepared me for the true beauty and intensity of experiencing a Remembrance Day service at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity and I think it is something all Canadians should experience once in their lifetime. I was in awe of the thousands of people who lined the streets nearby, the parade of hundreds of pipers and war Veterans marching in and the unparalleled sense of respect that surrounded us. A visit to the Canadian War Museum that afternoon gave me the opportunity to meet firsthand then, one of the few remaining World War 1 veterans at 101 years old. He has since passed. I was privileged enough to be staying at the Lord Elgin Hotel across from Confederation Square. By that evening as we packed up to head home the image of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier covered in a sea of red poppies was breathtaking and is forever etched in my memory.

Since then I have had a strong conviction to work even harder to help students gain insight into the true significance of Remembrance Day. As a parent, I also tried to ensure that my children began to understand and appreciate the great sacrifice of our Veterans, from a very early age.

It is a topic I have given a lot of thought to….that is how to best discuss the subject of Remembrance Day with kids. No one wants to talk to their little ones about war, guns, and death, but what I have come to realize is that we sometimes don’t give them enough credit. As kids get older and more mature, so too should our conversations. Also, our conversations need to focus less on content, that being facts, dates, locations, and statistics but the stories of war; the loss, the emotions, the impact, and the sacrifice.

And when we do so; when we frame our lessons and our student learning around the STORY and through a lens of EMPATHY  kids are ultimately far more invested in the topic. They want to know more. Our focus and conversations around this are hopefully not just a “one-off” before our school assembly once a year but should instead be much more impactful than that and include deeper thinking and reflection.

Here are a few resources I have collected over the years to help facilitate and promote inquiry, questioning, critical thinking and conversations around this topic through an empathetic lens.

The resources listed below include videos, texts, artifacts and images and then the variety of strategies used to respond through questioning, critical thinking, reflection, and discussions. Many of the strategies that can be used to support student response come from two excellent resources including:

Resources for Remembering

Videos

The first number of videos are ones I have used for our school Remembrance Day service over the years but can also be used in classrooms to activate thinking. Some of the ones listed toward the end could be used with further, more specific intent in mind.

Shawn Hlookoff -Soldier

The Trews-Highway of Heroes

George Canyon-I Want You to Live

Global TV Soldier Cries

Standing Strong and True (For Tomorrow),- an all-star Canadian country single

Bell Poppy Commercial (powerful- lead to conversations focused on being empathetic, taking action)

Remembrance Day Ad- war through time (great for timeline)

Veterans Affairs- learning videos (content focus)

A good “go-to” strategy for videos is RVL- Read, View, Listen from Q Tasks.

Text

One text resource that can be used with students in the middle years is the newspaper a lot of schools order through Veteran Affairs. In fact, Veteran Affairs Canada has a multitude of resources teachers can order in advance each year.

Two strategies that work well with this newspaper and other expository texts related to war and Remembrance Day online or in books are the QAR strategy or Fact React.

In the way of fiction Feather and Fools by Mem Fox I have found to be an excellent picture book to help discuss the topic of war with younger children.

For older students, the picture book Faithful Elephants is the thought provoking story of elephants in a zoo in Japan during World War 2.

Images

Pictures are a great source to stimulate thinking and conversations. Veteran Affairs has an Image Gallery and each year Veteran Affairs Canada produces a poster with powerful images which schools can order. They also have all of the past posters archived here and I have used the past year’s posters to set up picture response inquiry stations for students to work through. Practical strategies for responding to images are Step In, Step Out from Q Tasks or from Making Thinking Visible; Step Inside or See Think Wonder.

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Artifacts

Seeing and touching actual artifacts from history is an excellent entry point for our students to be able to relate and understand more deeply. I taught at a school in the North End of Winnipeg for 10 years and we were lucky enough to be located near the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives . Each year I would have the organization send over artifacts and or we would have the students visit the museum.

Veteran Affairs also has also begun a Borrow a Boot Project in recent years. Also, try asking students to bring in war-related artifacts, surprisingly over the years my students have brought in quite a few to share. My own children have also had the opportunity to bring in their great grandfather’s war medals we have at home and this was a very meaningful opportunity for them.

There are many rich learning opportunities to explore with our students through inquiry around the topics of our Canadian Veterans and Remembrance Day.

As the years pass and many of our Veterans do as well, it becomes more and more essential that we give our children the knowledge and understanding needed to ensure remembrance in future generations.

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Paradigm Shift to Personalized Learning

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This tweet resonates with me for many reasons….it brings forth big ideas related to personalized, student-driven learning as well as learner engagement, empowerment, and agency. We know in the realm of education, these are topics on the minds of many.

We also know that our contemporary learners are vastly different than previous generations.  They are far more diverse, as are their needs. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet their changing needs and the demands of our society.  Past practices, and only focusing on filling our learners’ minds with knowledge, are no longer enough. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. We know that the extensive research, knowledge, and experience we now have access to must drive the changes necessary to not only better meet the dynamic needs of our students but also our society as a whole.  

We also know that many of the students presently in schools are disengaged.  They struggle to see the relevance of much of the content they are learning and to connect it to their current context.  Traditional classroom practices leave them disinterested and simply going through the motions. We can look to the Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) initiative on this topic, entitled What did you do in school today?  It has shed much light on the topic of engagement in schools with its survey results from over 60,000 students investigating how student engagement impacts academic outcomes, instructional challenge, and intellectual engagement.

maya

These wise words from Maya Angelou, seem fitting. “When you know better, you do better.” We now do know better, but often following through with the action or the “doing” part is easier said than done. In order, to see the true paradigm shift needed to transform educational practices and support our students in becoming dynamic learners, a number of changes will need to happen.

First, we will need to see less of a focus in our classrooms on content related outcomes, and more emphasis put on the skills and competencies our students need to be successful.  This includes critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, along with a myriad of personal and social attitudes and skills around such things as; global awareness, empathy, reflection, risk-taking, resilience, and self-regulation. We see examples of curricular reform happening both internationally and nationally with BC leading the way with their recent  Redesigned Curriculum.   The curriculum models a shift in perspective which highlights the same 6 Core Competencies supporting pedagogy and practice throughout the grades from K-12.  Big Ideas drive a focus for each subject area, with a stronger emphasis on Curricular Competencies and a reduced number of Content related outcomes at each grade.  

Second, as suggested in the Tweet by Jason Hubbard above, we need to ensure that classrooms are in fact, “their classrooms”, that is our students’ classrooms driven in many ways by their interests, strengths, and needs. Moving towards a model of teacher as mentor and facilitator of learning is essential. It is only through a more personalized, student-driven learning approach, that we will see our learners engaged in their learning and invested in their education.

There are a number of schools we can look to as models.  High Tech High being one of the most well known.  At High Tech High schools, a strong emphasis is put on personalization.  These schools practice a learner-centered, inclusive approach that supports and challenges each student individually. Students have the opportunity to pursue their passions through projects and reflect deeply on their learning.  The focus integrates hands-on inquiry across multiple disciplines, engages students in work that is meaningful and connects learning to their community and world. High Tech High teachers work together to design curriculum and projects, not only with colleagues but with their students as “design partners”.There are a number of other schools or programs that have parallel approaches; some Canadian examples include SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning), Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, Connect Charter in Calgary and the PROPEL program in Winnipeg. In visiting all of these personalized, inquiry-driven programs one thing is evident, the students there are not only actively involved and engaged in their work, they are driving their own learning.

Last week, I attended one of the PROPEL program’s final presentation celebration events.  I witnessed four high school students share a half hour presentation on the personal learning project that represented much of their learning for the semester.  PROPEL uses an integrated approach to curriculum and students receive a Transactional English credit, a Technologies credit and an Electives credit related to their area of pursuit, a model feasible for many high schools. The students take coursework in the other core subjects in the alternate semester.

At this particular final presentation evening, one student shared her perspectives on creating music videos and her own YouTube channel to share her amazing songwriting and singing talents.  One student described her deep, reflective learning journey in all of the work placements she had organized for herself over the five months,  ranging from apprenticing as a mechanic, to implementing art therapy with people with developmental disabilities, to working in a dental office. The next student described how he had found his potential life path by working on his own film and delving into the filmmaking world through acoustic engineering.  And the final student reflected on a two-year project he had been working on first designing a 3D model of a warming hut and then constructing it.  His creation is now accessible to thousands of Winnipeggers on the skating trails at The Forks Market.

These four students were eloquent and impassioned in describing their learning journeys.  They could not have been more invested.  One of them, Seah Kohli, the creator of the warming hut, summed it up as he spoke about how valuable the experiences at PROPEL had been for him as a learner.  He suggested that programs and approaches to teaching and learning such as PROPEL are “the future of education”.  We can only hope that he is right and that all of our students’ school careers include learning as powerful and meaningful as the PROPEL experience was for these ones.  

Over the past few years, I have been involved with implementing an experiential learning initiative through Winnipeg School Division’s STEAM Centres. I have seen firsthand the power personalized learning opportunities and a flexible learning environment can have on developing autonomy, confidence and agency in young learners.

The WSD STEAM program is offered to students in grades 4-6, across the division’s elementary schools and is built on four key pillars; the 4 C competencies, the design thinking process, reflection, and, strength based learning. After taking part in a variety of learning experiences related to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics such as coding, design, instant challenges, game based learning, and other creation, makerspace type learning, students spend time exploring areas of strength and interest.  The program uses a very hands-on, inquiry based, active learning focus and students are highly engaged and successful. Further to this, we now see many other K-6 schools across our division, adopting this type of STEAM centred learning approach through practices such as makerspace, challenge learning or Genius Hour initiatives, and it is exciting to see this elementary movement growing.

We can look to the examples above to help drive change and guide us towards a more competency focused, personalized approach for our learners, but the reality is that these schools and programs were in fact designed and created with this exact purpose, mindset and intent in mind from day one. With that in mind, they may not face many of the same challenges that is the reality for all other established public schools.  Moving towards programming such as this within the realities and contexts of our current school systems as a whole is a bigger challenge.  In Will Richardson’s and Bruce Dixon’s 10 Principles for Schools for Modern Learning they suggest,  “Today, truly transformative change at a systems level in pre-existing schools is very difficult to find. It’s easier to build a new school than to change an old one.” In our current context in many schools, we see pockets of innovative practice and student driven approaches being used by teachers, but finding examples of where this may be happening school wide is tough.  This may be the reality for a variety of reasons. Challenges may arise when teachers don’t have support and big picture understanding from the administrators in their building. Or on the flip side, in other situations learning leaders in schools are faced with resistance from teachers who are reluctant to let go of traditional methods which place students as passive learners, or still focus solely on content.  It’s complicated.  It is imperative that these changes occur and are supported at all levels and by all stakeholders.

There is much to do and at times this work will be messy and wrought with many stumbling blocks, barriers, and failures. The most worthwhile endeavors are rarely easy. Change is hard. A shift in paradigm involves a fundamental evolution in approach and often challenges much of what many believe and assume to be true.  There is no one clear path, no magic formula, no silver bullet moving forward.  But moving forward in this direction is not optional.  

We owe it not only our youth but to society as a whole, to offer an education that best prepares our students for the future that is their reality.  We owe it to our students to find the best ways to support building the essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed today in a meaningful, and engaging context. We owe it to our students to facilitate learning opportunities that are active, student driven, authentic and personalized.  Ultimately, we owe it to our students to ensure our classrooms are in fact “their classrooms”.