Low tech

The Puzzle of Perspective

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In the spring, my thoughtful friend, amazing educator/podcaster Sandra Chow, surprised me by sending me a special puzzle called “Blue” that she had a feeling I would like. I was so excited! Not only is blue my favourite colour, but when I started putting the puzzle together, I realized that a lot of the pieces that made up the puzzle reminded me of different events, trips, symbols, memories, etc. that I connected with as part of my own personal story - the many distinct pieces that make me who I am. Working on this puzzle got me thinking about how each of us is a completely unique compilation of special puzzle pieces that fit together to make us who we are, and in turn, colour the lenses through which we see ourselves and see the world.

Every conversation we’ve participated in, book we’ve read, show/movie we’ve watched, song we’ve listened to, place that we’ve visited, teacher we’ve learned from, experience we’ve had, goal that we accomplished (or didn’t), thing that we’ve decided we like (or don’t), and so many more factors, help contribute to the story we make up in our head about our identity and the core beliefs that guide us in the ways we “show up” in life, and in our interactions with others. No two people could possibly have the exact same combination of puzzle pieces that make them who they are. As a result, no two people could possibly see the world in exactly the same way. There will always be differences, even if slight, that affect our “worldview” or perspective.

As I have been working with students to continue our plastic pollution awareness collaboration project with friends in Bangladesh (and more countries confirmed for the new year!), I have been wanting them to understand this idea of “puzzle pieces”, and how the country and culture we live in can add another layer of beautiful complexity to this concept. We will continue to build on this idea over the course of the year, especially as we do more collaborative work with our learning partners in other countries. Before we can understand the perspectives of others, however, we need to start by looking at ourselves and what makes us who we are and how we see the world.

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I have been familiar with the work of Global Nomads Group for quite a few years, and have always been impressed with the elegant and empathetic way that they address difficult social issues and concepts. I was looking through some of their resources and found some terrific ideas in their “One World Many Stories” curriculum. I had our students work through the “Selfie” activity this week. It was really interesting to have students start to put together descriptors of what makes them unique, and it was more challenging and time consuming than I had anticipated. When we shared our selfie information with others in small groups, I encouraged students to think about how they might react to others from a place of curiosity, rather than a place of judgement if their puzzle pieces were different from one another’s, which inevitably they will be. An example of this might be if one student sees themselves as unique because they love brussels sprouts and another doesn’t, the first reaction of someone who doesn’t like them might be to judge and say, “Ewwww! Those are so gross! How could you like those?!” We talked about how we could, instead, ask questions from a place of curiosity, to find out more about the stories behind why the person liked (or didn’t like) them. When we are willing to dig deeper rather than jump straight to a judgement or opinion, we often find out things that transform our thinking and surprise us! Recognizing why someone has a certain perspective, or what contributed to them taking that perspective, can be very enlightening! As I tell the students a lot, try to keep an open mind: different people, even within our own class (but certainly those from other parts of the world), have different ideas and ways of doing things. There are multiple ways of “right” that might not be exactly the same as ours. Another way of putting it, as a colleague says to her students, “Not right. Not wrong. Just different.”

There are some terrific picture books that address the topic of perspective, which I am hoping to use with students in the next few weeks. While picture books are often seen as only of interest to younger students, many have deeper ideas and topics that make them a perfect vehicle for exploring ideas and launching amazing discussions with older students, and even adults. “They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel will be one that I use for sure. This book is simple in format, but I think will elicit some interesting opinions from the grade 6 and 7 students I am working with. I love the idea of how each person or animal in the book is seeing the same cat, but all of them have a different perspective about what the meaning or emotion attached to that cat for them.

Another great book I am hoping to share is called, “I Like, I Don’t Like” by Anna Baccelliere, which was just introduced to me in a workshop that I was fortunate to recently attend, led by the amazing Adrienne Gear. While short on words, this book packs a big punch in addressing perspective, privilege, child labour and poverty. The last, and most directly linked to our topic of plastic pollution, is “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia” by Miranda Paul. I am loving the “Lit With Literacy” read aloud version of this book by @theSTEAMteacher. I will have the print copy of this book available for students, but with older kids, sometimes it is nice to have a version to project on the larger screen, especially when narrated by someone with a terrific reading voice!

Have you thought about the puzzle pieces that make up who you are and what you believe? How do they make you unique?

Do you have any activities that you have used, or want to try, with students that help address the topic of perspective or worldview?

Do you have any picture books or other resources that you like to use, or want to try, with students that help address the topic of perspective or worldview?

Please share in the comments below, on Twitter, or join our Facebook group and tell us your stories there! Your voice and ideas are important and valued.

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Albatrosses and Affirmations

He went like one that hath been stunned, 
And is of sense forlorn: 
A sadder and a wiser man, 
He rose the morrow morn.

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Samuel Colderidge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


The 2017/18 school year came to a close for me on Friday, and as with most endings, I became very reflective about the events that made up the period of time that just concluded. This was a hard 12 months for me - probably the most difficult I have experienced in my nearly half a century on the planet - but mixed in with the challenges, changes, troubles and tears were some amazing moments and learning that I am incredibly grateful for. Many of these happened in May and June.

I have written about the plastic pollution project that I worked on with my students in the last two months, documented in these posts: The Last Straw and Curiosity and the CAN-BAN Connection. Since this project is undoubtedly the most transformational work (for my students and for myself) that I have done in my career, I wanted to write a further update on how we wrapped things up, plans for next year, and why I feel so hopeful about the future as a result of this work. I am very proud of what we have accomplished, the fact that we are addressing important global sustainable development goals, and that we have taken our learning beyond the walls of the classroom, harnessing the power of technology to connect, create and collaborate with friends in different parts of the world.

After our friends in Bangladesh completed their school year on June 10, we no longer had collaboration partners to work on projects with for the remainder of the month, but we still delved into some deep and inspiring learning to round out the project before the end of June. One of the most powerful things we watched was a movie called, “Albatross” by Chris Jordan. Chris and his team visited Midway Island, a wildlife refuge in the North Pacific Ocean, that is inhabited only by birds, including many albatross. As there are no natural predators on the island, the birds were very trusting of the humans there to study and film them, and allowed the crew to get up close and personal in a way that made the finished product feel like a story of heartbreak and hope, a work of Art, and a beautiful piece of social activism and information all in one. These amazing creatures have been unwittingly consuming the plastic that humans have discarded and polluted the ocean with. It is killing them and their babies, their bellies and bodies damaged by the debris they confuse as dietary nourishment.  It is such an important message to watch, receive and ponder. Chris made the film available for free, starting on World Oceans Day at the beginning of June. You can view or download the full film from this webpage.

Albatross was difficult to watch, and there were few dry eyes in the classroom when the movie concluded. We had a rich discussion after the film ended, with some great connections to First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, the way that we treat and respect all living creatures, interconnectedness, and our obligation to clean up the literal and figurative mess that we have made of the planet.  One of my students commented, “I think this movie is going to stay with me for a very long time.” Multiple heads in the room nodded in agreement, mine included.

We moved on to a more joyful project by creating muppet-style puppets. While not without its frustrations (there were a few hot glue gun burns, tears and a classroom covered in strings of hot glue residue), it was definitely a memorable way of combining Art and activism. The intent was to have the students use their puppets to create a green-screened PSA video about plastic pollution and its effects on marine wildlife. The puppets were completed, scripts were written, and scenes rehearsed, but ultimately, no groups were prepared in time to film. This was disappointing for everyone, however, it opened another discussion about real-world issues: this time on meeting deadlines, working toward goals as a team, and how the learning and creation process that we engaged in was ultimately more powerful than a completed video.  You can view a gallery of some of the terrific puppet creations below. In addition to the puppets, we also learned about levels of government in Canada and what their responsibilities are, and then wrote letters to our local, provincial, and country leaders to encourage them to ban single-use plastic. It was a proud moment when the completed messages went in the mail delivery!

On the last day of school, we finished our year together by playing an eco-themed BreakoutEDU game called “Save the Planet”. While not directly related to plastic pollution, it was a terrific final critical-thinking activity to bring everything full circle.

The “prize” when they opened the box at the end was a stainless steel straw for each student. While not precious or expensive, I was gratified by the excitement and enthusiasm the students displayed when they realized what they were receiving (see video below). My friend, Pedro Aparicio, had shared some beautiful words that he wrote on the board for students on their final school day.  I was inspired to do something similar by tying a special message to each straw in the box.

My collaboration partner, Emil, and I have been doing a lot of reflection and discussion on this year’s brief version of the project together, and where we would like to take things next year when we have 10 months to really dive deep. We have invited friends/colleagues from several other countries to join us and are planning some great projects, challenges, and collaborative activities for our students to be involved in. I am excited to start in September and see how it evolves!

As I wrote final report cards for my students, I found the format a difficult medium to use to accurately assess and share what my students had done. What evidence did I have that they were engaged and learning? I received a few affirmations as the year concluded.  A parent of one of my students stopped in to see me. She said, “I know as a teacher you probably don’t often hear that you are making an impact, but I want to tell you about how what you are doing in class has changed my son.” She went on to explain that her child now refuses plastic straws when they go out for fast food or to restaurants, and tries to limit his use of other plastic containers. He is encouraging everyone in the family to do so as well. She also told me that when it was his turn to choose a fun family activity on the weekend, he requested that they all go to a local park and do beach cleanup.  It was a proud moment! Other students in my class have reported doing similar things. Some of them have started clubs outside of school, put up posters, and even created cards to leave at restaurants, either asking management to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics or praising them when they have instituted policies such as asking patrons whether or not they actually want a straw. In our own school, staff have noticed that playground litter, which had been a huge problem earlier in the year, has been greatly reduced, and that more students have been actively picking up garbage that does not belong to them. (We can’t take all the credit for this, as another grade 6/7 class has also been presenting to groups in our school about litterless lunches, etc., but we still feel proud of our part in the change!). Far more relevant and powerful than test scores, letter grades or term comments, these real-world manifestations of the learning that we have been doing make me feel certain that this is good work with a purpose that MUST continue in the fall.

I plan on mindfully relaxing and actively enjoying each moment of my summer, so the blog will likely get a bit quiet over the next two months.  That being said, please expect new posts to start flowing in the fall, brimming with excitement about the new ideas and learning activities that have been planned and engaged in. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey! Thank you for being a part of the adventure so far!

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The Last Straw

This year in my classroom, we have established a few important philosophies.  The first is having a “yes, and…” attitude toward things - an improvisational technique that encourages us to “just go with” things that happen and find a way to make it work.  The second is liberal use of the small, but important word: “yet”. No person in our room is allowed to say they they are not good at something without appending the sentence with “yet” at the end (... and yes, they frequently correct their teacher on this when they catch me forgetting to do it too!).   Recently, a third catchphrase has started to embed itself in our classroom culture as well: “Do something!”

Earlier this school year, our talented District Literacy Resource Teachers introduced us to a powerful video called, “The Tree” .  The message is so transformative that we have gone back to re-watch this video multiple times since, for a variety of purposes.

Each time we have watched this as a class, we have followed up with a talking circle to discuss our thoughts on how the theme is related to our current topic. The important messages that we have pondered as a result of watching the video are that it’s important to “do something” (don’t just sit there and wait for someone else to solve the problem), that kids can make a difference, and that (based on a connection to an important message in a short TED talk by Derek Sivers that we also watched as a class) often the first couple of people to join the “lone nut” trying to start something are actually the most courageous ones, helping turn a good idea into a movement.  

This week, due to the fact that it is Earth Day (April 22), we chose to address this year’s campaign of ending plastic pollution.  As a provocation, I shared a beautifully filmed, yet challenging to watch, video trailer for a movie called “Albatross”, that illustrates the negative impact that the plastic waste being generated by humans is having on our oceans and marine/bird life.

Many of my students were shocked by the video, and had no idea that their plastic waste is impacting the planet and its inhabitants in such a harmful way.  We had a really rich talking circle after watching the video, where many of the students shared their surprise and distress. I spoke frankly to them about my honest concerns that, despite its many positive aspects, social media has helped create a culture where many of us feel that we are “making a difference” by simply clicking a “like” button, re-sharing something, or changing our profile picture to temporarily include a logo or colour scheme. While these actions can show support for a cause and help an idea to spread, if that is all we do when we are truly upset or passionate about a topic, are we really “doing something” that will lead to any positive change?  This led to more great discussion and sharing. Most agreed that more action than a "like" needs to be taken in order for something to create a measurable impact. Fifth graders can be pretty amazing, and I was impressed by their thoughtful and mature conversation!

One thing that was touched on in our talking circle, and that I will be going deeper into discussion on with my students in the next week or two, is the impact of single-use plastic drinking straws.  We’ll be watching some more provocative videos on this topic, including this difficult-to-watch piece about a beautiful sea turtle who is having a plastic straw extracted from its nasal passage, and another about a sea turtle who has a plastic fork caught in its nose.  We’ll also be talking about some exciting advances in the area of plastic waste, such as the recent discovery of a bacterial enzyme that “eats” plastic, and interesting innovations that humans are designing to try to address the problem, such as a collapsible, reusable drinking straw that fits on your keychain, and using quickly biodegrading food products to create items usually made from plastics.  I am curious to hear their thoughts on the ban on plastic drinking straws that has recently been implemented by Great Britain, and that Canada has been invited to be a part of as well.

I am interested to see, as we learn more about this topic, what my students come up with as ideas to “do something” to address this issue. Kids CAN create a difference. It only takes a few people to start a movement.  Courageous, curious and caring humans can come up with creative solutions to our world’s problems that we don’t know how to solve YET, and a “yes, and” attitude will help get us there! I wonder how we can leverage technology to make a bigger impact? I am excited to see where this goes in the next few weeks!

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The Worst Presentation Ever!

I don't think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you can also know the dark side of life.     

- Bessel Van Der Kolk

If it was never dark, we would have no way of understanding what light was. If we had never experienced suffering or sadness, it would be hard to comprehend what joy and happiness feel like. If we had never been sick, we would take times of good health completely for granted. In order for something to be truly and deeply understood and appreciated by humans, we also need to experience its opposite.  

The negative aspects of things can be our best teachers, even if they are painful or difficult to go through. While they are not always enjoyable, these experiences often contain lessons that we might not learn as quickly or deeply another way, and the education we receive by going through the difficulties can often be much more powerful than the learning we might otherwise glean from more positive, "easy" experiences. It sucks, but it's true. Sometimes, when we are sitting in the middle of something painful, it is difficult to see how it will benefit us in the longer term, but looking back later, we can understand how the difficulties have made us smarter, stronger, kinder, and more resilient. Working through challenges can help us develop a sense of gratitude for the many wonderful things in our lives. 

All of the above are ideas I have been processing and pondering as part of the path my life has been leading me on lately.  I wondered if there were any lessons that I could take out of what I was learning in this part of my personal journey that could be applied in my classroom. I decided to try to put these concepts to use to help improve upon one of the more painful things I have had to experience as an educator: really bad presentations.

I am being somewhat facetious, and am not trying to minimize terrible life experiences by saying that what we feel while enduring a presentation with bad Slides or PowerPoints is on par with the pain we feel when going through something traumatic (although... I suppose it may depend who you ask! LOL). Nevertheless, I have heard people share feelings that mirror what I have heard others describe in terms of physical pain when they are anticipating, or have had to sit through, a presentation that is truly horrible.  I wanted to do my part to help improve my students' abilities in this area to prevent grievous potential injury to their future audience members, so I came up with an idea that I thought would help.

I recently went through part of a free e-course called "Designing Presentations" on the outstanding KQED Teach website. This course does a great job of leading educators through some modules that help with learning good presentation design. I was inspired by ideas from a resource shared in these modules and modified them to share with my students.  I have embedded the slides I adapted/created below. You can also access them here if you would like to make a copy.

Rather than show my students a good example of a presentation slide deck, I gave them exposure to one of the worst ones I could create - a total FAIL - with tips as to what was wrong and how to avoid the mistakes. It was tempting to then give them an assignment to create a really visually appealing slide deck of their own as a way of showing what they had learned, however, I decided to continue to let pain be the best teacher and challenged them instead to create a Google Slides presentation that was even worse than the one I had shown them.

I had no idea how much the students would love this exercise in failure and suffering! In some ways, it was "exciting" for them to feel like they were breaking the rules, and they were truly delighted by the pained sounds of their classmates groaning, cringing as they shielded their eyes from the horrible designs, colour combinations, and font choices that were shared. Pain and joy did not have to be separate. I dare say that the learning they got out of having to explain their appalling choices (and what made their decisions to incorporate them into their slides truly terrible) was exponentially more powerful than if they had simply created a "nice" presentation deck and called it a day. The value of the lesson actually INCREASED because we were actively making mistakes. Pain and failure for the learning win!

I really enjoy reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, "No Mud, No Lotus", he discusses how perspective can be powerful, and suffering and happiness are not separate. He says, "People often ask, 'Why do I have to suffer?' Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side. The same is true of thinking we have a life in which no happiness whatsoever is to be found... If there's no right, then there's no left. Where there is no suffering, there can be no happiness either, and vice versa." It doesn't have to be either/or. Pain and joy can exist at the same time.

None of us are able to get through life without experiencing pain, making mistakes, and suffering.  But by using these principles in the classroom to teach our students about better slide design, maybe.... just maybe... we can at least spare them the pain of sitting through any more bad presentations in the future!

Jay Shetty is quickly becoming one of my favourite media personalities online. If you still need more convincing about how failure and pain can become amazing catalysts for change, take a few minutes to watch the great video below. It's worth your time!

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What If You Just Said, "Yes"?

2017 was the first time that I picked a word to guide me for the year ahead. I liked the idea of the simplicity of that process - rather than a whole list of resolutions, streamlining things into one word of intention that would keep me focussed and moving forward.  I won’t share publicly on the blog the word I chose last year, but I WILL say that the Universe had a whole different definition of it than what I had intended in my own mind - and not at all in a way that worked with my plans and dreams for 2017. Things definitely did not turn out the way I had hoped with that one carefully chosen word. As a result, I was a little nervous to choose a word for 2018, fearing that I might face a similar situation with my new selection.

My friend, HyperDoc guru and amazing educator Lisa Highfill, tagged me in a post about a special “One Little Word” HyperDoc created by the equally outstanding educator, Sarah Landis.  It was beautiful and inspiring enough to convince me to revisit the value of this process and practice, to try it out with my students, and to choose another word myself.  I have embedded the HyperDoc below, but you can also access it at: http://bit.ly/onewordhd  As always with HyperDocs, please maintain credit to the original author in your copies or iterations.

While browsing my Twitter feed, I noticed others posting similar One Word activities, and sharing their own words for 2018, using the hashtag #oneword2018.  I was inspired by the great posts, the quality word choices, and the ideas for extending this activity.  There were beautiful graphic designs, amazing decorated doors, stellar sketchnotes, and much more to peruse. So much One Word goodness was being posted!  Another terrific One Word HyperDoc was shared by Meredith Akers on her website.  I definitely recommend you check it out as well. It is similar in idea to Sarah’s HyperDoc, but has a slightly different format for sharing out each student’s word. You can choose what might work best for your class - or possibly a mash-up of both! You can find Meredith’s activity details by clicking here.

Choosing a word does not have to be something that you do just at the beginning of the year.  I can see this being a powerful practice at the start of each month, each term or semester, or even each season of the year.  It might be something you do each year on your birthday, or at other pivotal times where you would like to refocus yourself.  It is never a bad time to stop, reflect, and move forward with intention. The word you choose is a great touchstone to come back to as you ponder next steps and consider how it has influenced the time in between choosing it and where you are now.  In British Columbia, where I live, our students are required to self-assess on a number of important core competencies.  The One Word activity could definitely tie very nicely into these reflections and assessments.

Maybe choosing a word is not your thing, but you would still like to have your students thinking about the year ahead and setting goals and intentions.  You might be interested in this additional activity that talented Texas educator Kasey Bell posted on her blog about creating digital vision boards.  I love this idea so much that I think my class will be doing it in addition to the One Word exercises!  You can find instructions and inspiration for Kasey’s vision board activity by clicking here.

I kept resisting picking my own word for 2018, but there WAS a word that kept showing up for me that was really resonating.  That word was, “Yes.”  It showed up when I had to decide whether to take a friend up on her incredible offer of a special, last minute vacation getaway.  It appeared in some beautiful meditations that I practiced from incredible teacher and author Tara Brach.  I kept finding it in articles and posts and books that I was reading.  It also showed up when Lisa tagged me in the post about the One Word HyperDoc, inviting me to reconsider choosing a word for this year and encouraging my students to join me. I have decided to let go of my fear from last year, say “Yes!” to the word, “yes”, and claim that word for my own this year. I am choosing to believe that "yes" means that good things will come to me when I release fear, try new things, choose to shift perspective and see the underlying freedom in situations that might feel like they are currently burdening me, and receive opportunities that are sent my way. My fingers are crossed that this year my word takes me places that are far better than I ever could have imagined.

If you are struggling to choose a word, even after looking through the great resources, inspiration, and word lists, maybe you should consider making up your own word? My thoughtful father recently came across and shared with me a really incredible TEDx talk by John Koening called, “Beautiful New Words to Describe Obscure Emotions” which might inspire you to start generating words of your own. John is the author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows where he shares the words he has created to describe things that have previously eluded a single expression to define them.  He also has a YouTube channel where you can view all of the videos for the words he has carefully and thoughtfully crafted. The videos are absolutely, breathtakingly, poetically beautiful.  “Socha” made my breath catch.  “Sonder” touched my heart.  I have posted it below. Sonder means, “The realization that everyone has a story.”  What do you hope your story will look like in 2018? What word will you choose to represent it this year?

Have you chosen a word for 2018?

Have you tried doing a one word or vision boarding activity to start the new year with your students?

Do you have any other great activities that you like to use to start a new month, year, term, semester, or season in your classroom?

Please share in the comments below, or join our Facebook group and tell us your stories there!  Your voice and ideas are important and valued.