Wednesday 14 February 2018

Involving Mentors

We are so pleased to publish our first GUEST BLOG.  This blog is written by Kim Ondrik, one of the founders of Vernon Community School, and a long time friend and supporter of Through a Different Lens.  The blog tells a story of the impact and richness of involving mentors in the lives of our students.

One Story about Mentoring at Vernon Community School

I entered the circle late that morning and didn’t even notice Brad. I found a vacant spot on the carpeted floor. He had buried himself in the couches amongst these forty vibrant teens. And so his voice caught me off guard - “I’m excited to be here today with you” - it was deep and unfamiliar. He looked rugged with a toque and tattoos. I was intrigued. Who was this mystery man?
 Brad is a professional writer, interested in teaching, who learned about Vernon Community School from one of our school’s secretaries after moving to town. Like most mentors, he had contacted Murray Sasges, a founding teacher of VCS, and they met for coffee at a local cafe. After hearing Brad’s ideas, Murray extended an invitation to visit VCS and make a pitch to the students - telling the story of his passions and what he was willing to offer the students. Nothing is promised to mentors at this stage. Students are invited to take or leave the suggested engagements offered by each mentor - our bias at VCS is respect understood as deep commitment not as compliance or politeness. When a learner selects a mentor, they are making a very important promise to learn from them for the entirety of the year (and sometimes longer). Because each of the forty mentors we have enjoyed and appreciated over the past 3 1/2 years - since the beginnings of VCS - are volunteers, our slogan is ‘mentors trump all.’ We adapt our schedules and agendas around each mentors - no matter what. Sometimes assessments are even rescheduled to respect mentor time constraints. This hospitable ecology seems to have created sustainability - positive word of mouth stories in our community and a steady flow of curious mentors. Since the genesis of the school, we have probably had 10 mentors who have not connected to our students’ interests or passions, and although thanked for their time and effort, their pitches were not taken up. Some have returned with revised plans and attracted students the second time - which also provides astonishing modelling of persistence for our students and teachers.

Brad’s pitch was very powerful. He spoke with confidence and certainty - “I know what it’s like to earn a living writing. Here are some magazines that have included my writing. I can help you become a better writer.” To be honest, I thought his pitch would intimidate many of our vulnerable learners. Busy with self- directed work, when the circle dissolved, only Nick stayed behind to talk with Brad. My heart sunk as it always does for those who come, pitch and don’t receive much attention. This young man had been avoiding writing and really anything that led to vulnerable feelings for the past 1 1/2 years, and I didn’t know how to reach him yet - nor had the other teachers at VCS. Thankfully Brad had the morning to hang around, so he asked Nick to show him any writing that he had done. Nick pulled out a story that I didn’t know existed, and they spent all morning together chatting, attending to the text, and chatting some more. It was heart warming. And remarkable, when Brad informed me that Nick was a gifted writer. Nick became alive in a way I had never seen before. I was humbled, and delighted.
We have noticed that one of the unintended outcomes of mentors at Vernon Community School is that students have the opportunity to learn and interact with all kinds of diverse adults. Most teachers, like Murray and I, are people who generally did well at school stuff. Mentors, on the other hand, can be people who didn’t succeed in school, and have found success in the world - who inspire students to reframe their potential. Mentors can be people who are rough around the edges, and who mirror and affirm a child’s personality or life experiences. And mentors can be people who through their passion give time and attention to a child who needs this kind of care before they can sustain interest in other academic challenges. Mentors bring the world into the classroom - students lives are changed, and teachers no longer have to represent all things to all students. Mentors too have reported that their bad experiences in school have been transformed through their valued contributions to VCS. Also significant have been the relationships developed and the gratitude extended at our yearly student-led mentor appreciation dinner and honouring. According to any data we have collected from students and mentors over the past 3 1/2 years, it’s a win-win, reciprocal relationship.
Nick’s relationship with Brad was observed by more than me. Now, Brad has a weekly creative writing class where a committed group of 20 - ages 12-17 - spend all morning working towards writing 30 pages by spring break. Some are strong writers who are very anxious to share their thoughts. Others have limitations which have made writing almost impossible in the past who are pushing themselves far beyond my wildest expectations. And finally there are those who think Brad is so dynamic and interesting that they are willing to take up whatever challenge he presents to bask in his attention and support. Brad demonstrates appreciative workshopping and reminds these budding creatives that in real life it’s on the 8th draft that you worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar - until then you work on telling a gripping tale - which is hard work! Brad, on the other hand, now knows that teaching is his passion, and is inspired by these interesting and diverse young people. We are so grateful for him, and he can’t wait to return next Tuesday …
Thanks Kim Ondrik, Vernon Community School

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Problem-based Learning

How fortunate we are in our district to have some new, young, enthusiastic, thoughtful teachers who really want to teach ALL kids well… who plan with the kids who need more support and the kids who need more challenge in mind, and who take risks and reflect on their practice.  Ashley Aoki is one of those.  Please enjoy her blog.

Reflections from a third year teacher on her journey in math

I used to: 
- show little interest in math
- rely heavily on textbooks, program, workbooks, notes, assigned pages
- have little collaborative discussions, critical thinking or relfection on strengths and struggles
- allow math to be tedious

Then I registered for a two part math workshop:
The presenter engaged us (as his learners) in open-ended problem solving which we completed on non-permanent vertical surfaces. We worked in small groups, each team was tasked with the challenge of completing the assigned problem and demonstrate our thinking both in written and oral formats. Throughout the time, we (as the learners) were engaging in collaborative discussions, problem solving, critically thinking, accessing background knowledge (what mathematical skillsets do we already know that can help us solve this problem), and learning from other groups. After engaging in the process, I knew this was something that I wanted to include in my math program; the implementation began immediately.  

I am beginning to implement such a process in my classroom with anticipation and excitement. The chalkboards and whiteboards in my classroom were divided and numbered, and I began the lesson by walking around the room with playing cards that matched the numbers on the non-permanent surfaces asking my learners to select one card. Slightly thrown off they began selecting their card and arranging themselves appropriately. I then issued their first problem solving question orally

How Many 7’s?
If you write out the numbers from 1 to 1000,
 how many times will you write the number 7?
[from Peter Lilijedahl, - December 2017]

and watched as student stood at their space both perplexed and confused by such a question. Then, the magic happened! My learners began writing numbers on the board, discussing with their teammates, erasing their original answers, adding to their new ones, and adjusting their work based on their teams combined knowledge. The classroom was filled with an electric energy as learners tried to complete a problem that didn’t have one “right way” to solve it. As the classroom teacher, I had the opportunity to circulate around the classroom noticing the progress being made and asking questions to continue probing deeper thinking such as “How do you know you’ve written every 7?” “Are you confident this is the answer? How do you know?” 

Possibly one of the most exciting components for me was noting how long my learners took to wrestle with the problem (about 35 minutes), discuss possible answers with their peers, and engage in the math in meaningful ways. Completing the work on non-permanent surfaces allowed several opportunities for my learners to easily erase, replace, or completely try their work again from scratch. After about 35 minutes we, as a classroom community, gathered around one of the boards and invited the small group to explain their thinking, process, and reasoned answer to their peers. We then reflected as a large group on our learning answering questions such as: “What was the purpose of the activity?” “What are we learning by engaging in this and using this model?”. The answers ranged from “building our teamwork skills” “working on math” “communicating with others” and “working with a different group of people”.

This purposeful activity has made its way into my math routine and I haven’t looked back! I too am learning and teaching “through a different lens”.

Submitted by: Ashley Aoki, SD #67 Teacher