Inspiring the Next Generation

I have some interesting news to share.

The Grade 10s in one of the schools where I sub began their poetry unit in English this week. I subbed for them yesterday.

One of their tasks yesterday was to write a poem in one of the forms they had already learned, then share these with the class. There were some very reluctant students; they had a low opinion about this sharing business, particularly their contributive involvement in it.



I decided to break the ice by sharing one of my poems. And I had access to two: those I published in my writing blog.

The poem I chose to share was Van Gogh and the Moon. It was a hit, particularly when I explained to the kids that the poem was an in promptu (five minute) response to a writing prompt in the local writing club.

So, yes, I got a chance to plug the Write Group as well; I told the kids that students from the school were part of the group, which peeked more interest.

But more importantly, it got each of the students to open up and share some of their poems, not just those they wrote in class yesterday, but those they had access to through their iPhones and other devices.

It was a perfect marriage of teacher and student sharing, technology (I used the Smart board; the students used their devices), and encouragement and modelling by example.

It never ceases to amaze me how well these teachable moments go when the teacher releases control and opens up to her or his students. (Of course, it also never ceases to amaze me how badly such moments go as well at times. There is a definite case for timing and thoughtful and responsive judgement here.)

These students have everything to be proud of. They have incredible imaginations, and a deep and active appreciation for written communication.

Moments like these remind me how much I love teaching, and learning with, these students.

This article is cross-posted in Digital Substitute and Stefras’ Bridge.


Our Children’s Gears: Do You Like Dinosaurs?

Do you like dinosaurs?

Or did you when you were a kid?



Dinosaurs are neat. They are big, ferocious and were, quite frankly, very successful. They were also the dominant animals of the Mesozoic, for 180 million years. That is impressive.


I never liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. I found them boring.

I was beguiled by the Palaeozoic and early Cenozoic rather than the Mesozoic. The creatures — plants and animals — that lived then were alien, intriguing and awesome.

I could never put my finger on why trilobites and Paraceratherium interested me more than dinosaurs. But there was a pattern in that interest that cropped up elsewhere in my life.

An underlying ecology

When it came time for me to enter university, I knew exactly what I wanted to be — an ecologist. Not a botanist, not a zoologist, not even a geologist, an ecologist. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated in zoology, botany and geology, mostly botany, but I did not want to study one thing.

I was interested in it all. I was interested in how it all fit and worked together. I was interested in how life lived on an erratic Earth. Its individual forms fascinate, but mostly as pieces of the intricate whole.

And that, as I later found out, was why I didn’t like dinosaurs. They ate. They fought. They terrorized the land — not to mention other animals. But, until the last ten to twenty years, for me they never belonged — neither fit nor worked — within a bigger system.

They were boring.

In the last decade or two, that changed, or perhaps I became aware of the “bigger” Mesozoic picture. More Mesozoic palaeoecology has been learned and integrated into other disciplines, as illustrated in Harold Levin‘s The Earth Through Time (I have the 2003 seventh edition published by John Wiley and Sons). And now the dinosaurs belong with, influence and are influenced by a bigger lifescape and ecology. Dinosaurs became more and more interesting as they began to fit and work in the puzzle of life and living in a changing, furious Earth.



It is their place in ecology that fascinates me, not their ferociousness nor their reputation.

The point? Even as a child, I was geared toward ecology.

An overarching Universe



My enjoyment of astronomy also stems from the same root. I am fascinated by the Earth’s place and development in the Solar System, and of the Solar System’s place and development in the Universe.

I look at a star as I do a handful of sand and I wonder about its past, about its surroundings, its environment, its present and its future. I wonder about what it interacted — or will interact — with, what it influences or what it is influenced by. I similarly wonder (to the same depth) about the Universe that the star represents and the Earth and rock that the sand typifies.

I remember encountering an ant crawling on a moss and seeing its ecology and the ecology of the ecosystem where it lived. I had no words for these concepts, but I distinctly remember seeing the ant interacting with its environment. I barely noticed the ant outside of this frame. I was in grade two. And I still see ants and stars and handfuls of sand this way.



A far-sweeping magic

Story exists in this way too. With story we build our cultures, societies, histories, skills and technologies. But we also build our spirit and curiosity.

Story exists in a bigger context, constructed of reality and imagination and wonder.

Arthur C. Clarke coined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I prefer to replace “advanced” with “exotic”, meaning unfamiliar or novel or not (currently) understood.

Ants and sand and stars, ecology and math and story and language are magic. There is always more of them to explore.

Story is a form of species-changing magic. And writing transmits this magic into the minds of generations and far-flung peoples.

In writing fantasy (which I mostly do), one creates the rules of a given world and studies how a story fits and works within that world. It is intriguing to witness story unfold even as one writes it. I am always surprised by what story reveals, about what it says about the world it explores, influences, interacts with and is influenced by.



Story is a key part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I am geared toward it like I am ecology and astronomy.

The gears of our children

In his essay forward, The Gears of My Childhood, to his 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert eloquently describes how gears shaped how he perceived the world and approached learning when he was a child.

We all have our gears where what we learn ceases to be flat and static and becomes multidimensional and living. Papert describes vividly how gears of different sizes fit together to produce meshing products in a multiplication table. I tried to describe here how interactions are part of my guiding gears. I have students who are ranchers. Others are athletes, artists, scientists, writers. And of course they are each interested in more than one thing and are geared toward truly fundamental world views.



Imagine viewing multiplication as representation of meshing gears. What most affects us, influences our world view and shapes how we perceive and interpret what we later encounter has a great effect and affect on what we learn and how we do it.

Teaching toward our children’s gears might help them understand and learn what we are teaching. It also might allow them to more easily own what they learn, extend it beyond our teaching and keep it for a lifetime. Teaching the student more than the students and the lesson content facilitates her engagement with and conceptualization of the outcomes we wish him to learn.

Papert recounts his discovery that others do not share his world model of the gears, but have different models instead. We have to teach students we know in multiple ways to help them learn what we want them to learn. We have to know and value our students to help them realize their influence, their potential and their dreams.

We might have a class under our charge, but that class consists of unique individuals geared by unique world models. The function and art of teaching is to change behaviour not people. Our gears are as precious as our names. Sometimes all we own are these two things. We need to be careful to nurture and engage our children’s gears so that they might serve our children well in our multi-layered societies.



This post was inspired by David Wees’ draft of a keynote he was invited to present at the 2012 University of Alberta Faculty of Education Technology Fair.

Bait Them With Suspense

To begin, happy Thanksgiving to those of you who read my blog and live in Canada. I hope you are doing well and having a great day.



Autumn has always been my favourite season. Along with Christmas, Halloween is my favorite Holiday. Thanksgiving is my next. I think this is because these Holidays remind me of the change of seasons, the metamorphosis from one form of nature to another, when change itself portends something new, something unknown. It is this portent, this suspense, that hooks students and maintains their attention.

Suspense is the desire to know what is next or what something unknown is. It is very different from what was that and what just happened. Suspense is not confusion; it is curiosity awakened and denied, like a bulging pouch dangled on a stick.

In addition to portending change and suspense, Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas seem to be the Holidays when we most clearly recognize and celebrate nature. I always liked natural mysteries, particularly when they are related to phenomena that have been explained.

Take this Astronomy Picture of the Day that seems to show an ocean on fire. But is it?

Actually, it is a sunrise over the Rio de La Plata. Imagine if you would introducing this photograph in your Science or Language Arts class and discussing it before explaining what it is about, then discussing the explanation and how the two descriptions differ and why.



I have often been fascinated by the phenomena of mysterious natural lights, and Autumn seems to fire this fascination. Many of these lights have been explained; many have not. Folklore, contemporary, ancient and in between, magnifies these phenomena making for great language arts stories and controversial, if not messy and notorious, scientific investigations. But what fun kids can have studying these edgy subjects and learning the nature of language arts and scientific inquiry.

Mysterious Weather Phenomena


St. Elmo’s Fire (explained and verified)



Will-o’-the-Wisp (unexplained and unconfirmed)



Newton studied the Will-o’-the-Wisp, as did several other famous and respected investigators. Several authors and poets have used it as a motif. For instance, I wrote an analysis comparing Brook’s King of the Silver River, Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and Tolkien’s Tinfang Warble to the Will o’ the Wisp phenomenon.

Want to get your students interested about nature? Start by teaching them what we do not know and understand, then what we have come to know and understand, and finally what we have studied thoroughly. Natural phenomena offer a mystery, an authentic element of suspense, that stirs almost all curiosity.

Engaging Kids: Outside of the Classroom and into the Club

The first section of this post is cross-posted in my writer’s blog, Stefras’ Bridge.

I have had three deep passions throughout my life so far and the good fortune to experience them all. I love nature, so I became an ecologist. I love learning and sharing my passions, so I became a teacher. And I love storytelling and storycrafting, so I became a writer.



In a previous post, I discussed the change in teaching style when one engages with students outside of the lesson and in camps and clubs. About a month ago, I attended a Don’t Hibernate Fair in my town. This fair is designed to connect clubs and people. I attended a table and recruited new members into the Write Group.

This was an exhilarating experience for me. I have been in many clubs and organizations, but this was the first time I recruited new members to a club. I had thirteen people sign up and express keen interest. Best of all a few of these are students I sub.

My Students: Engaging Passions

Imagine if you will how profound

It is nice to see students and witness their talents outside of the classroom. We often forget how rich, or conversely how poor, our students’ lives are. And though we spend much time preparing and considering the lessons we teach them, we typically forget in the daily details of our jobs how small, and yet how big, our classes are to our kids. Our influence is cumulative, each class a small part of each school day, yet so important to our students over time.

This in itself is a good argument for making our classes as memorable and impactful as possible, so that our students consciously identify with the concepts we try to help them learn. One of the big goals of our teaching is to contribute to the richness of our students’ daily lives, to keep that excitement that should be every day alive in the people we are raising.



The hidden factory-style curriculum of traditional education attempts to quash this anticipation so students docily accept factory-style jobs and even factory-style lives.

Our students deserve better, better than turning content, geared curriculum, contrived exercises and lectures. Isn’t the whole point of life to experience and wonder? Shouldn’t our classes go beyond “this is today’s content” to “imagine if you will how profound”?

Imagine if you will how profound. Better starts today, each day, in how we teach each class our students attend. It might be our eighth class we teach today. It might be their eighth class they attend. But it is the one class, the class right now, where we can excite them about learning, about participating, about the concepts we teach and about the possibilities and opportunities and wonders, even about the horrors, of life. We are teaching their lives now. We are teaching their lives in their futures. They deserve the best in this class. So, we have to engage them and rile their passions.

This is certainly a lesson I keep learning. And sometimes it is hard to figure out how to do that with the lesson plans I am given. Sometimes I am exhausted or under the weather. This happens. But I try to remember the key, the key, that this class, this class here, is part of my students’ lives, a part they deserve to be fired up about. Attitude begets attitude; passion begets passion.

Meeting them where they live

I remember when I first really decided to write. It is not the first time I wrote. It is not the first time I slung stories. I was already well into these, for others and for fun. But it was the first time when I thought that writing was really, really, really neat and something I wanted to do more regularly than occasionally, and more for fun than for others.



I started seriously, playfully, writing when I was eleven, a year older than the lowest age of the students I am teaching. (I currently teach 10 to 21 year olds.) In my time, where I lived, there were no clubs to encourage my writing, no community of people passionate about the same passion. Those of my students who joined the Write Group get to share and grow in their passion with like-minded people of all ages in an environment where, unlike school, they are not judged for the quality of their work, where they can choose to share, what to share, or not, where they can experience the work of others and where they can open their minds to new and beautiful worlds.

The Write Group is experiential. It is as good as what is shared.

In the Write Group everyone is equal and the only criteria is the love of the written image, the spoken story. I look forward to witnessing my students engaged in their passions, sharing that which stokes their pride and celebrating what they love.

The Camp, the Club and the Class

Our students require a lot from us. Sometimes they need a class. Sometimes they need a camp. Sometimes a club. A lab. A project. These types of teaching should:

  1. reflect the content of our lessons — the form of the lesson should reflect the structure of the content.
  2. reflect the knowledge, skills, curiosity, skepticism, problem solving and innovation we want our students to learn.
  3. reflect who are students are, what they are interested in and how they learn.
  4. provide authenticity and relevance of our lessons to our students.
  5. provide a variety of learning opportunities and styles to invoke and promote a variety of thinking and physical skills.
  6. invoke curiosity, awe, confidence, mastery and gratification from our lessons or their learning in our students.



A class, under controlled circumstances, explores content and skills. A lab and a project duplicate a class but invoke handling content and skills. A lab is more immediate and cooperative than a project; a project delves deeper and ranges farther. A camp combines class and lab in open and unfamiliar circumstances. And a club combines each of these in an open, guided, non-critical, low-stakes milieu.

When was the last time you taught in a club-style? What lessons coming up can best be learned if they were experienced as a club rather than a class?

Transition into School: Studying Streams to End Summer

Goodbye International Year of Youth

Today is International Youth Day, the last day of International Year of Youth. Both are a special celebration of youth, our future and childhood, all of which are deserving of endless recognition. As teachers, and some of us as parents, we are keenly aware of the value, potential and capacity of youth. We celebrate youth every day and every year.

In North America, the school year will resume in a couple of weeks. We are all busy preparing ourselves and our classes for our students. We are eager to get started and perhaps even a bit nervous to do so (stage fright is so exhilarating).

Update: Due to the fact that I am not an organization arranging a celebration of youth related events, I do not have permission to display the UN International Year of Youth logo. So, I have exchanged my image for a link to the logo. Please select the link to see the logo.



The International Year of Youth logo depicts a planet filled with colourful speech bubbles. The speech bubbles and the sense of community they convey symbolize the theme of the International Year of Youth: “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”. The logo illustrates that the entire world can get involved in the International Year of Youth and can promote dialogue and mutual understanding. The words “International Year of Youth” appear below the logo together with date of the Year (August 2010 – 2011) and the slogan for the Year “Our Year. Our Voice”. [The slogan was chosen by the global youth themselves.]

Refer to UN Observances for other official international UN events.

Just because the International Year of Youth is ending, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep youth in mind. In fact, with the last couple of weeks of Summer still ahead of us, now is a perfect time to think about outdoor science, whether we engage in it now or in September. And what better field camp or trip to transition out of Summer and into school with than to study the local creek or river.



Multi-disciplinary science

Stream science is multi-disciplinary. It involves problem solving in hydrology, geology, geohydrology, geomorphology, chemistry, ecology, physiology, animal behaviour, lux physics, physics, mathematics, art, sonology and civil, environmental and restoration engineering in a simple, concrete, measurable, authentic and holistic setting.

Students use levels, flow meters, D-frames, drift nets, bio-samplers, measuring tape, surveying equipment, sketch supplies, still and video cameras, sound recorders and computers to conduct various experiments to measure, inventory and analyze the morphology and ecology of streams. Not only do they explore the characteristics of streams and stream ecosystems, they use cool tools in authentic situations. If the stream needs restoration or habitat maintenance, the activities the students do aid the community as well.



Streams are defined by mostly one-direction flow (of water, substrate, energy, organic matter, chemistry/water quality, biota, riparian and hyporheic character, and stream morphology) and ecosystem instability (dynamic disturbance). They are dynamic systems, and students generally only get to visit a snapshot of these ecosystems.

Some stream topics are:



Here I will discuss only some mathematical aspects of streams to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of stream study.

The math in stream morphology

This section corresponds to the blue ‘Units’ and ‘Types’ sections of the concept web above.

Streams are periodic in shape, though the shape of the stream and length of the periodicity change with time and location. This shape or stream morphology is determined by landscape features and stream discharge, the volume of water that passes across a cross-section of a stream within a certain time. The greater the discharge, the more drastic its effect (e.g, a 100-year flood is actually a measure of volume, not frequency). The predominant discharge is bankfull discharge, a discharge that fills a channel from bank to bank. Due to its predominance, bankfull discharge literally carves the stream channel.



To understand how bankfull discharge carves the channel, one must understand the nature of unconstricted currents. Streams roll in three dimensional Euler loops as they flow. We see this helical structure in currents in the atmosphere and ocean. On land, the landscape constrains these loops. Different stream structures or types form as the Euler current is embedded onto different landscapes and substrates.



Nonetheless, there is a predictable underlying base pattern to stream morphology. I will present only the mid- or reach-scale morphology, leaving the stream-long and micro- or substrate-scale morphologies to the students to research and study. Reach morphology is determined by bankfull width, which is proportional to bankfull discharge. The following diagram illustrates this morphology, opening a whole new insight into streams that most students never before notice. Equally inspirational hydraulic patterns are waiting to be discovered at other scales of stream morphology.



The reach morphology of the stream cycles downstream with changing periodicity and structure in response to changes in the landscape and substrate the stream cuts through. In addition, bankfull width changes as the stream encounters different obstacles and constrictions. So, though the ideal stream form is predictable, the actual morphology of any stream is dynamic. The form also migrates downstream as the stream erodes and deposits bed and bank substrate.

Stream and riparian landscape and ecology are strongly influenced by stream morphology, hydraulics and hydrology. In addition, like the landscape, biota influence stream morphology.

All this makes stream science a truly interdisciplinary study and a great way to transition students out of summer and into school.

What do your community and you do to help students embrace the last two weeks of summer?

When Education Becomes Punishment



Shawn, the Dictator

Last week, I had to do the worse thing I think a teacher could do. I was subbing for one teacher, and marking during one of her Prep periods, when the school principal asked me to babysit, and I use the word literally, a Junior High class that had been misbehaving the previous period. (And no, I don’t know what they were doing.) So, I had to babysit them, and they had to read, something none of them wanted to do, particularly since they were being kept from gym.

Neither the students nor I were happy about the arrangement. They were distressed because they were missing gym and I was distressed because reading was their punishment. Most of them refused to read, which just made my job harder and more distasteful. Because of their reluctance and regular teacher and principal checks, I had to actively enforce the reading punishment order. (And the definition of dictator is … Mr. Urban?)

Really? Reading as punishment? My hands are gyrating in the air even as I type this. Punishment? What?

Some Disturbing Facts



Here, I should present some background information.

First, in Alberta, it is estimated that 40% of the adult population (16yr+) is functionally illiterate. This of course doesn’t mean that these adults cannot read and write. But it does mean that they have difficulty functionally comprehending and using what they are reading and its implications. That statistic is very sobering. And I know the problem is not due to the lack of quality teaching.

Second, I am relatively new at teaching, and have been out of a K-12 classroom for … well, let me use the word decades. I don’t remember whether students my age, when they were in K-12, hated reading. I suspect some did, but most, like me, enjoyed it. By their own admission most of the students I teach today do not like reading, ever, at all. And using reading as a punishment does not build eager readers.

Third, contrary to my students, I love reading, a lot. I have been reading for enjoyment for as long as I can remember. I started “seriously” reading when my grade six teacher read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my class. Of course, I read since I was a toddler and some of my favorite writing themes I can trace back to these early times. My careers, ecology and teaching, rely heavily on reading. So, reading is not just enjoyable, it is practical. (Interesting, how I am reduced to defending reading here.)




So, I am left with contradictions. To me, reading is a life-growing activity. One can not lose by learning to read and to enjoy reading. Yet, my students dislike it. Worse yet, reading is used as a punishment for them. (Actually, it is probably just used as a filler while they are being punished, but it is still being forced on them and they associate it with their punishment.) Finally, I, someone who celebrates reading and desires to pass that celebration to my students, am required to ensure the punished students are reading while I babysit them.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. And I worry the loss could be life-long. I personally hate being the enforcer of this punishment, for it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what I hoped to give to my students. I worry that I stole something very precious from my students, something that they will never get back.

I wonder. Has anyone had to deal with a similar situation? If you have, what did you do? If you haven’t, what would you do?