The Cold Days of Winter

As the mercury dropped outside this week, I raised the thermostat, made a cup of tea and snuggled under a blanket on the couch. At one point I drove to the Bissell Centre to drop off some donations. The entrance was riddled with shopping carts and sleeping bags; the people inside finding relief from the frigid temperatures. When I walked in, an odd sense came over me. Sadness, guilt, gratefulness: all wrapped into one.

Before each recess we check the temperature: at – 20 degrees or colder, we stay inside. My trip to the Bissell Centre reminded me that not everyone has that choice, that luxury. I can’t help but wonder what brings people to a point in life where they have no home to go to. I wonder about their individual stories. At some point, they were all children in elementary school, exuberant about life. And now they leave their shopping carts at the door to find refuge from the cold in downtown Edmonton.

When I drove away, the bag of clothing I dropped off seemed so insignificant. My thoughts jolted back to our students. It is devastating to think that any of them might potentially be forced to live on the streets, without a home to call their own.

We certainly cannot predict the path our students will take in life. We can however create a supportive school environment for each and every student. We can help build a foundation of skills: literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking. We can model empathy and compassion. We can inspire our students to find purpose and passion in life. We can give those deemed ‘at risk’ a little bit of normalcy and acceptance.

I will continue to donate clothing and money for a warm meal here and there; and perhaps to those without, that gesture is not so insignificant. Yet I will also strive to empower each student I encounter. I may not see the results but our students are certainly worth the effort.

A Puzzle

I work with a little one each day who continues to be a puzzle. Even after this first term of grade one, when those around him are learning to read, he struggles to learn the letters of the alphabet. The only letter he could identify a few weeks ago was the letter x. Until recently he didn’t even know the first letter of his name. This after much repetition, multiple modes of teaching and learning, games, activities and more repetition.

I continue to be hopeful to see some progress. Yet daily, my heart breaks when I realize how confusing these letters and words and this business of reading all seem to be for him. I don’t think he could formulate these questions, but this is what his face suggests: What? Letters have names? And sounds too? I don’t know what that squiggle is, why do you keep asking me?

Though he is not diagnosed with any specific disorder, it is evident that learning is going to be a challenge for him. Some students catch on to this idea of literacy with ease. Yet my daily work with this boy reminds me that the ability to read is truly complex. In some ways it is miraculous that any of us can make sense of these letters on the page. The students I work with tend to be the ones whose experiences with literacy have not been especially positive and who haven’t yet figured out how all the pieces of the puzzle come together.

I can tell you though, when it happens, when those pieces do begin to fit together, the rewards are priceless.

A Universal Language

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

Imagine a gym full of children, heads bowed, as quiet as the falling snow, The Last Post penetrating the silence. Imagine those students new to Canada, those with limited English skills, looking curiously around at this solemn silence. Though confused at the circumstance, the emotion was clear.

On Saturday I saw 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Citadel. The range of emotion involved in learning to play an instrument was highlighted by the music itself: intense, uplifting, demanding, hopeful, jubilant.

It is difficult to imagine the world without music. Music can transport us to another time or place. It is used to calm, inspire and motivate. Music is entertainment. It is reverence and prayer. Music is used in celebration and as therapy. It is used to establish mood. It is a form of art and expression. Music transcends the boundaries of language.

Though I myself have limited musical talent, I am grateful for those who dedicate their lives to its creation, those whose aptitude is matched by their persistence.

“If music be the food of love, play on…” William Shakespeare.


Standardized Tests, Reality TV

An interesting thing happened the other night: a parent inquired about her child’s standardized test scores moments before an evening presentation about 21st century learning. It may not seem interesting at first glance; however, had you heard the presentation, it was an ironic inquiry.

Recently, there has been some recognition that standardized testing may not be serving its purpose. In fact, Provincial Achievement Tests in Alberta are slowly being phased out.

Our current curriculum is primarily knowledge based. Therefore, standardized tests supposedly tell us who has acquired the knowledge. Though I know the intent, I have never been convinced that they serve the intended purpose. Robert John Meehan said, “Standardized Testing tells us as much about learning as Reality TV tells us about reality.” How true.

I have been reading, talking and writing a lot about the curriculum redesign our province is undertaking. From what I can tell, it’s a step in the right direction. As educators, we recognize that our students are different than they were five, ten and fifteen years ago. We also recognize that the skills students need when they graduate have dramatically changed. Therefore a curriculum redesign, an overhaul really, is required.

I want our children to be educated. I want them to learn to create, collaborate and think critically. I want them to find their passion and purpose in life. I want them to become contributing members of the global community.

Can this happen within our current curriculum? With innovation and hard work on the part of the teacher, yes. My hope however, is that within the new curriculum, students have room to create, collaborate and think critically using an area of passion as a springboard. Ultimately, my hope is that teachers are freed from the common lament of content overload and students become more engaged in their learning.

As far as I’m concerned both standardized testing and reality TV have passed their expiration date!