Talking Openly About Mental Health

My struggle is anxiety. I didn’t know it until I was an adult, but I’ve actually been anxious my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have experienced chronic daily headaches and I was a classic worrier growing up. However, it wasn’t until my physical health began to fail me about 3 years ago that I realized something was really wrong. I was highly motivated and inspired by my work, yet I was horribly sick and began fainting. I was often dizzy, unable to eat, and angry. Doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong, so I began to think it was all in my head. It wasn’t until I found an outlet through fitness and support through counselling that I realized my physical symptoms were all a result of anxiety. I was relieved; at least I wasn’t suffering from some horrible physical illness! Little did I know how difficult this journey would be – digging deep to understand the root of our emotions is not a task easily checked off our weekend “To Do” list. I know now that it is challenging lifelong work.

foot-538324_1920

Photo via Pixabay

Since my own journey of self discovery began, I have developed so much compassion for students who suffer from anxiety. I often share my own daily experiences with them, like how it’s hard to sleep at night and how sometimes it feels like there’s an earthquake when there’s not. Or how sometimes my anxiety is triggered by events, like flying or large crowds, but most of the time it is completely unpredictable and difficult to explain. I also share self-regulation strategies that work for me like nature walks, yoga, and mindfulness.

For some reason, I have been sharing more openly in my classroom this year than before. I think being in a new school has provided me with an opportunity to share my true self – the one who I’ve been peeling away layers to get to know over the past 3 years – the one who has come so far and yet still feels like a child sometimes – and it feels good.

However, the reason I share all of this with you is because it’s easy to forget that many of our students are suffering from physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety every day. It’s becoming an epidemic in our fast-paced, modern society. These kids need to know that we know why words like “calm down” or “don’t worry about it” are unhelpful… and that negative behaviour is often an indication that we’re struggling with something inside. Other students have family members who are struggling with depression, addiction, eating disorders, or mood disorders – as do many of us. Simple conversation can go a long way toward developing a sense of acceptance and compassion for those struggling with mental health issues. It shows students that positive mental health is something we are all working on, not something you either have or you don’t.

Through sharing, we may be putting ourselves out there, but we may also end up modeling a growth mindset for our students. I personally think that being vulnerable is worth the risk of healthier, happier, and more empathetic kids.

love-482709_1920

Photo via Pixabay

Advertisements

Cross-Curricular Connections

Whenever I’m asked to share about our redesigned BC curriculum with other teachers, the first question I’m often asked is: “Can you show us examples of planning?” I struggle to answer this question for a few different reasons. First of all, planning is personal. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to planning, regardless of what your curriculum looks like. Secondly, if I truly shared my mind’s journey as I plan, I think I would frighten people. Finally, finding cross-curricular connections is something that I feel is crucial to planning with this redesigned curriculum. This takes some effort and thoughtfulness on the part of the teacher who will, in fact, be teaching whatever is being planned.

I’m lucky to have the opportunity this year to be working with teacher candidates one day per week at UBC. This means I get to play with different ways to think about this redesigned curriculum in addition to what I am trying in my own Grade 6/7 classroom. Last week, we explored how mind maps might help us visualize connections between Core French and other disciplines. Through facilitating this exercise, I realized that this simple method of brainstorming could be a powerful tool for helping all teachers beginning to think about cross-curricular connections that could eventually lead to large scale inquiry.

Learning Intention:

I can create a mind map that highlights opportunities for cross-curricular connections between Core French and other content areas.

IMG_20160127_223150494.jpg

By simply identifying curricular competencies and content that work together from a couple of different disciplines, we can begin to understand how this way of approaching teaching and learning is more efficient and more effective for our learners. For example, teacher candidates quickly realized that francophone culture – a big idea in most Core French curriculum – is a great entry point for inquiry. This can be combined easily with competencies in Social Studies or Language Arts to create a deeper, more meaningful understanding of cultural stereotypes, traditions, or historical events. Cross-curricular connections are also what free up time to allow for other creative experiments such as Maker Spaces and Genius Hour, so it’s a win/win situation.

The key to finding solid cross-curricular connections is being intentional. How can we scaffold student learning to ensure we’re targeting all disciplines involved? How can competencies be combined to allow for a single learning intention? With Core French, it’s about connecting communication with context. For example, using language structures such as les verbes à l’impératif with directional vocabulary in French can help us teach communication through P.E. skills. Students practice giving and responding to instructions while focusing on movement. Other disciplines and other classes may look different and that’s ok. Ultimately, it’s about exploring these connections so we can create the most powerful learning experiences for our students. So pull out some art supplies and start envisioning the possibilities! Exploration leads to innovation.

Screenshot (3).png

Photo Credit: Questions to consider when planning @beverleybunker

How Do We “Do” Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now, but what exactly does it mean? There seems to be a lot of confusion about what inquiry ought to look like. Harvey and Daniels outline four types of inquiry in their book Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action: Mini Inquiry, Curricular Inquiry, Lit Circles Inquiry, and Open Inquiry. There are many others out there who have also attempted to define inquiry in some sort of practical way. Regardless of the specific inquiry model or approach, there are a few key factors to consider when deciding on an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning.

What are your students’ interests?

Engagement comes from being invested in the learning process, so students’ interests are key to developing engaging inquiries. However, it’s perfectly ok to start small and within a given curricular area. For example, if life cycles are in your primary Science curriculum and you’ve been learning about butterflies, why not start by simply asking students what they are wondering about the life of a butterfly? For older students, consider sharing a video, article, or photo to spark their curiosity about a topic and develop wonders from there. This could be anything from social justice to ocean life to story writing. Simple curiosity is the birthplace of inquiry. By asking students what they want to learn, even within a given content area, we provide them with voice and choice in their learning. Mini Inquiry – asking questions and finding answers – is a great introduction to the inquiry process for teachers and students, as it can be as structured and guided as you would like.

How flexible is your time?

I feel I am so lucky to work Grade 6/7 students in an elementary school context. We have a ton of freedom in how we organize our day, which allows for powerful cross-curricular connections to be made and sometimes, time to explore Open Inquiry. However, even within a block system in a middle or high school context, there is room for inquiry. Whether it is Lit Circles in Language Arts or Curricular Inquiry in a content area like Social Studies or Science, there is an approach that will work for you and your students. Contrary to popular belief, structure is not a bad thing when it comes to inquiry, and in fact, it is essential to developing key skills and competencies in our students. However, inquiry is ultimately a frame of mind; students simply need modeling and encouragement to develop such a mindset. I find Getting Started With Student Inquiry a good place to start understanding the role of the teacher and the student in the inquiry process.

How will you help students access resources?

This one comes up often and, unfortunately, it  can be the factor that scares teachers off of inquiry. If students are pursuing different questions, how am I supposed to support them in their learning? Where do I access resources? What if I don’t know anything about their topic? The answer to all of these questions is that you are not an expert, but you can figure it out. With amazing online resources like Discovery Education and access to experts all over the world through social media, the information students need and want is out there somewhere. For those who don’t have easy access to technology, there are still plenty of books, magazines, and guest speakers out there. Regardless of the medium used, teachers roles are shifting from being experts to curators, and this is a very exciting place to be! It’s also a great opportunity to model an inquiry mindset for your students, as you ask questions and learn alongside them.

Inquiry doesn’t have to be scary. It can start small and be designed by the teacher. It can also be entirely student-driven and open-ended. The possibilities are endless, but the competencies developed throughout the inquiry process are what make this approach so valuable.

How might you “do” inquiry in your classroom this week?

5065834411_d12669d487_z

Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic via Flickr

If you’re still not sure what inquiry might look like in a classroom setting, check out Galileo Educational Network for some examples. You can also read about some of the things my students are doing this year on our class blog.

 

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

6044586156_5ed2048f98

cc Photo Credit: liquidnight via Compfight

We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

18936012716_55e7e1e372_z

cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Three Words for 2016

254473105_362f9b22ee

cc Photo Credit: keithcarver via Compfight

Happy New Year! Once again, it’s been awhile since I have devoted time to blogging. I’ve written many a post in my head, but unfortunately, they have not often translated into actual posts for people to read. I would like this to change because writing brings me joy and provides me with an outlet for reflection. However, the highlights of my 2015, although not blogging related, were pretty awesome, so I’m going to tell myself I have a long list of very good excuses and forgive myself for the lapse in writing.

beverley-and-rob-393

beverley-and-rob-187

Photo Credits: Patricia Gillespie, Moonrise Photography

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but I have been inspired over the past several years by educators who have shared their “one word” for the year. While I like the idea of a guiding word, I never felt that one was enough. So rather than choose just one, I’ve carefully chosen three words that I feel will help guide me through 2016 – not to achieve goals necessarily, but to help me be my best self.

1. Balance

This is a word that I am choosing to remind myself that it is important to rest, rejuvenate, and restore. As someone who struggles with anxiety daily, I am prone to overworking myself in pursuit of approval and perfection. I hope that the word BALANCE will remind me to revisit my passions outside of education and to focus on my social and emotional needs. It represents my desire to act and to reflect, to share and to listen, to care for others and for myself.

2. Strength

This past year, I gave up a passion of mine that keeps me grounded and in good physical health. This year, I am reminding myself to revisit physical activities that make me feel strong – hiking, dance, yoga – because to me, STRENGTH means positive physical and mental health, a sense of self. It also reminds me to look for courage within myself when I am lonely, overwhelmed, or afraid. I hope I will have the STRENGTH to make healthy decisions for myself in 2016.

3. Relationships

This word is to remind me to revisit and strengthen the many meaningful RELATIONSHIPS I already have in my life. I often get wrapped up in my day to day life and forget to connect with those I would consider my closest friends and family. I am hoping to change this. I also feel this word represents the most important aspect of my educational philosophy; I hope it will remind me of my professional values in stressful times so I can choose care and compassion over reaction.

So those are my guiding words for the new year. There is so much right in front of us that we forget to nourish. Rather than planning for drastic changes, I’m hoping my #threewordsfor2016 will help me better understand myself and my role in the lives of those around me.

What words will guide you in 2016?

Musing Over Maker Spaces

So here’s the deal… I think Maker Spaces are very cool. I also think they provide a time and a place for us to reach some kids we couldn’t reach otherwise, whether they struggle with traditional academics or they need a challenge. However, many conversations I’ve had with other educators over the past couple of years have focused on how you need the necessary funds to create the initial space. While I agree that access to a creative space as well as tools like Makey Makey, squishy circuits, and electronics are awesome, I do not at all believe that they are necessary for inspiring a maker mindset in our learners.

20150512-202349-73429020.jpg

Photo Credit: Penningtron via Compfight cc

Do you have a bunch of cardboard? Some recycled plastic or wood? Some tape? Then you have a maker space. As for the room… Our current learning space is just fine, thank you. This is exactly how I started out with my kids a couple of years ago. What could you build with cardboard and tape that you could then measure the surface area of? Kids are designing and building, which is ultimately what the maker movement is all about. If you’re looking for some inspiration for your students, Caine’s Arcade is a great place to start.

Having said that, I have also borrowed Little Bits from the very gracious Shelagh Lim and used them for maker “projects” with my kids. Last year, Bronwen Howden and I collaborated to help guide our kids through the creation process. Some were very engaged and successful, and others not. The important thing was that we were willing to try and the kids had an opportunity to design and create.

This year, I knew no more about Little Bits, but because inquiry has become an integral part of my classroom and we are intentionally focused on core competencies across disciplines, my kids are more comfortable taking risks and focusing on process over product. Below are a few clips of their creations.

Having worked with Little Bits, I can absolutely see the power in tools that provide kids with an opportunity to create functional, innovative designs that are relevant to them. A dedicated Maker Space is a wonderful, lovely place to be, and if your school is there, please share what you’re doing to inspire others! All I’m saying is that if you have to start with cardboard or clay or plastic milk jugs, there’s no shame in that either. It’s all about taking the maker movement philosophy and finding a way to make it work within your particular context.

How do you allow your kids opportunities to create?

Why My Comfort Zone is Not Important

Kids are amazing. Without fail, they exceed our expectations whenever given the opportunity to try something they’re interested in at school. Without fail, they step up to the plate and help each other learn in these instances so no one is left out. They usually do this when we have managed to shift their perspective of school from this thing they have to do every day to make it personally meaningful and relevant to their lives, passions, and curiosities.

This year, I’ve tried to have my kids learn things that make me uncomfortable. One example is coding. Not knowing where to start, we participated in the Hour of Code using tutorials from Khan Academy (available in French). The first experience was amazing for some and frustrating for others; however, they were all engaged in problem-solving and most were collaborating with a partner. Even though I know absolutely nothing about coding, I thought “Good, we tried it! I think we may do that again sometime.” What I learned 3 weeks later when we came back to it again was that the experience had sparked a passion in several of my students that I didn’t even know was there. One girl is pursuing coding daily in her spare time as part of her Genius Hour and thinks she may want to be a software developer. Another group of boys is trying to design their own video game using Scratch. How powerful is that? All because I was willing to give something that is outside my comfort zone a try.

It doesn’t take much effort, only a willingness to be the one without the answers. What have you tried with your kids lately that makes you uncomfortable?

20150425-124956-46196778.jpg

cc Photo Credit: Finn Vargas – Deviant Art