2020: Best Year of My Career.
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
2020 has by far been the best year of my career. Hands down. The global pandemic has seriously put a damper on a lot of things, and I wasn’t able to to accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish, but I accomplished other things instead!
I can’t go on talking about how great my year has been (professionally speaking) if I don’t first acknowledge Derek Brez and Cam Jones. These two guys helped me in ways I can’t even describe. But I’ll try.
Let me start with Cam. I teach grade 9 and 10 science and grade 11 biology (once), Cam is not a science teacher. He’s the Experiential Learning Lead with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and he’s really good at his job! He can take any learning outcome and find a way to connect it to the real world. It's not as easy a task as one might think. I would challenge any teacher to look at their curriculum and find a way to connect all of it to the real world. It's not easy. But he has, and is, helping me find ways to do just that.
See, curriculum documents, for any non-teaching readers (if there are any), are terribly disconnected from the real world. They were designed, I think, to be a checklist for teachers to tick off boxes as they tell their students what they need to know so that they can pass the test. Let me put it another way. The specific expectations of the curriculum documents can very easily be delivered in a Google Slideshow, and then “reinforced” when students go home to fill in a worksheet, if they didn’t do in class already. Granted, the overall expectations are more “real world” (I hate that term), but traditionally, the specific expectations are what gets the focus in the classroom because that’s how students are going to get the good grades they need to get into university. And Growing Success, while I think it is a good document and can be helpful to teachers, allows for teachers to decide what specific expectations to evaluate to allow their students the opportunity to demonstrate their overall achievement. But let’s be real, the overall and specific expectations are as disconnected from each other as the curriculum is disconnected from the “real world.”
But back to Cam. He is an incredibly philosophical guy. By that, I mean it's sometimes hard for me to keep up with him because his thinking is on a different level. Cam challenges me. All the time. In the best kind of way. When we’re taking the p___ out of each other it's a riot, but when we talk about education I have to slow down to process the ideas he comes up with. And his ideas are always better than mine! But he will never judge me for taking the easier route, because he is a teacher and he gets it. Sometimes we gotta do what we gotta do, and it's not always going to be top notch or “cutting edge,” or pushing the boundaries and he’s never made me feel bad for “just getting through the day.” At the same time however, somehow, he keeps me accountable to myself and my students so that “just getting through the day” doesn’t become the norm. But if my students have gotten anything out of my classes, it's because Cam has offered his thoughts and/or advice to help me do what’s right more often than doing what’s easy.
I hear a lot of experienced teachers telling new teachers not to reinvent the wheel, and “here’s my binder…” But if that’s the case, then it's on the experienced teachers to be reinventing themselves. And if they’re not doing that, then they’re doing what’s easy...and that’s not okay. Our students deserve better than doing what we’ve always done just because we’ve always done it that way or because “I know that it works.”
I like to think of my relationship with Cam and Derek like this:
Cam brings the big ideas to the table, and helps me see the bird’s eye view. Once Cam drops his philosophy (of education) bombs, Derek Brez helps me implement Cam’s ideas. Derek has a ton of experiential learning experience, and I rely heavily on him to help me bring my ideas into the classroom. If we were on the bridge of The Enterprise, Cam would be on my left and Derek on my right. I ask Cam if it's possible, and Derek helps make it so.
I used to supply teach for Brez when I was just getting started, and I knew the kids loved him! I’m not sure I ever told him this, but I would save all the lesson plans he ever shared with me (I think I still have some!) in case one day I got a full time job and needed some resources quickly. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up! Imagine my excitement when he responded to a tweet I threw out last December or January asking if anyone wanted to collaborate on a crazy idea I wasn’t even totally sure about. Cam and Derek also remind me of the importance of bringing joy and laughter into my classroom...and my life.
I met Cam in January 2020 (I think...maybe December2019) when he came to visit my classroom because my students were building windmills to power an LED light bulb as a means of learning about electricity. So when I threw out my tweet about doing something crazy, he tagged Derek Brez and the three of us met up shortly thereafter at the school board office to talk about a new pilot project Derek and I were going to start: SOSXL. The Science of Survival Experiential Learning adventure through grade nine science. I wanted to find a way for my students to uncover the curriculum by learning survival skills and the science of living off the grid. I thought this was going to be a neat way to promote biodiversity, and sustainability while at the same time providing my students with the information they were going to need for grade 10 science. And by “providing...information” I don’t mean giving it to them, I found ways for them to find the information and then do something meaningful with it.
SOSXL started in February of 2020, and if I’m being honest, I think we got off to an incredible start! I wasn’t giving lectures, there were no slideshows, and maybe only a few worksheets. But they were learning...I was sure of it. Then...The Pandemic. School shut down, blah, blah, blah, blah. I had to “pivot.” How was I going to make emergency learning meaningful? I started looking a little deeper into SOLEs (Self-Organized Learning Environments). I didn’t use SOLEs during the emergency learning of the second semester, but I did work on my “question asking skills.” I think it is a difficult task to ask a question that is big enough, open ended enough, that the students aren’t going to be able to do a quick Google search and find the answer. But it also had to cover a number of curriculum expectations. But thanks to Cam, Derek, and the pandemic, I am much better at asking big questions to my students that offer multiple entry points and require deeper thinking and research to come up with a solid answer.
Its been a long time since I’ve asked my students to memorize anything, and I can’t remember the last test I gave (but I bet it sucked), but I can show you what learning looks like! Traditional tests, quizzes and exams, if you ask me, don’t demonstrate learning. And if the definition of learning is moving information from the working memory to the long term memory, then I think they do an even worse job at demonstrating learning. Maybe studying for a test, quiz or exam helps learning, but I don’t believe writing them is a good demonstration of learning. The work that my students did during the school closures of March -June 2020 was incredible. Because I was getting better at asking questions, I could see they were learning because they were putting information together in a way that made sense to them. I could tell that they weren’t just answering questions because their teacher asked them to. They were learning, they were curious. And I saw it happening!
I’ve worked with some other really incredible teachers also, and, in particular, I have to give credit to Jess Packer-Quinnell for really helping me get to where I am in my journey. She really helped point me in the right direction and helped me put labels on ideas I was having so I could look into them further. She has been really incredible for bouncing ideas off of because she doesn’t let me off the hook and in the best way possible, she doesn’t always get me. Because of that she makes me explain myself and in doing so, she helps me find the gaps in my thinking and she helps me fill them in, too. I’ve been known to get excited about some ideas that I have, and then I catch myself and I go run it by her. We work at the same school and she understands the students I’m working with, and the other teachers in our department as well. She knows where I’m going to get pushed back and she helps me mitigate those instances, or at least prepare for them.
In July and August, Jess and I designed a grade 10 “Choose Your Own Adventure” course for the school board. That was another incredible experience! It was Jess’ idea and she asked me to help her out. Her and I joke about the fact that I am not a “structure” kind of guy, and she absolutely is. But what makes her so incredible is that she can add all kinds of structure and scaffolding to an inquiry based learning unit or problem but she doesn’t solve problems for her students. I don’t really know how she does it, but it's amazing! Students in my class sometimes get frustrated, I think, because I don’t really tell them what I want them to do (because I want them to figure it out, and do something that makes sense to themselves). I want to be more like Jess because she is better at letting her students know what her expectations are and how to achieve them than I am. We both get amazing work out of our students, but her students are a lot more organized. I’m working on it.
I don’t want to repeat myself, for your sake, but I wrote a blog post about how I used SOLEs in my Grade 11 Bio class (and about what learning looks like) in the first quadmester of this school year, and I’d love it if you took a look. I’m really proud of the work the students did in that class and it was one of the best experiences of my career. I was crazy stressed out about having to teach Grade 11 bio, which I had never taught before, in a quadmester and hybrid delivery model. I was so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t even funny. But thanks to Cam’s brilliant ideas and Derek’s help to bring them into action, I got through it and I’m telling you, it was an absolute success! I watched learning happen, but I also watched my students grow into young adults. The way they expressed themselves, and saw themselves, and advocated for themselves. I don’t know how else to say it, but it was absolutely amazing.
Now I’m in the middle of Quadmester 2 and I’m teaching Grade 9 Applied and Grade 9 Academic science. I’m trying to rekindle the SOSXL initiative we started in February but using the ESA Moon Camp Competition as the driving force behind the course. Kind of like, “What do we need to survive on Earth, and how do we apply that to long term living on the moon?” Its been going really well so far, while also being really challenging. But we’ve had the opportunity to speak with two members of the Canadian Space Agency about what goes in to living in space and how to do it successfully! I think its so cool that we have some Canadian Space Agency personnel helping our grade 9 science classes compete in a European Space Agency competition! So far we’ve been making a lot of use of my modified version of SOLEs to get our students uncovering the curriculum.
Our school has been really lucky to get a CONVIRON Growth Chamber in one of our science classrooms and I’m really thankful that I get to be teaching in that room because now I have unsolicited access to it! I haven’t gotten any really great results from it yet, but I’ve only tried two different experiments with it, so I can’t really say I’ve given it a really fair shake. There are tons of awesome opportunities available though, and I can’t wait to really sink my teeth into it. Whenever we can go back to school that is. It's also been awesome because I hopefully will have the opportunity to collaborate with some teachers in Winnipeg in the near future! I mean, I’ll collaborate with teachers in Ottawa too, but think of the skills the students would get to develop if they had to communicate with students halfway across the country!
In February, I had a student teacher from uOttawa in my class, Rieley, and it was really great working with her because she had a lot to offer in terms of what they were talking about in the faculty of education at uOttawa (my alma mater). But the bummer was that The Pandemic really shut things down for her and so we didn’t get to do much learning together. But when she gets into her own classroom, I can tell she’s going to be great, because she’s the kind of teacher that is going to put learning before teaching when she’s designing her own courses. Thankfully, this year, I have another student teacher, also from uOttawa, named Damian, and he is also going to be great! He also is the kind of teacher that puts learning before teaching. I’m also thankful that he’s willing to step outside of his comfort zone and play along with my ideas and is taking the class in the right direction. I’m thankful that him and I get to be working together during this upcoming “virtual learning” period coming up in the new year. He’s a bright guy and I’m glad I don’t have to do this all on my own! He offers some interesting perspectives, again, from what they talk about in the faculty of education and from his own background, what he wants to get out of this experience.
All of this to say, one of the major lessons I am taking away from teaching in 2020 is that it is crazy important to have a solid crew. People you can bounce ideas off of, people who support your crazy ideas, people who challenge your crazy ideas (without shutting them down) and people who will help you sort through the mistakes!
I’ve grown my Professional Learning Network (PLN) this year by being more active on Twitter and listening to more podcasts and reading more blogs. I have to give a special shout out to Punk Rock Classrooms because, perhaps unbeknownst to them, they have played a huge role in the success of my career this year. They put so many of my thoughts into words, and really made me feel like I’m not the only teacher out there that grew up in the punk scene and as they put it, I’m not the only one who grew up “fighting the man” only to “become the man,” a few years later.
I’ve also been listening to a lot more of a podcast called The Art of Manliness. Its an incredible podcast and the host asks all the best questions, even when he’s got a guest who seems to have a different agenda than he does. This podcast has introduced me to so many different topics that I would have never thought of looking into. The podcast is being about being a better person, a better friend, a better son and a better father. There are so many of his guests that talk about so many different things that I have been able to bring into my classroom that I don’t even know where to begin! Topics like Grit, and Agency, and he’s also introduced me to a lot of philosophy!
Finding philosophy this year has been a life saver! Especially stoicism. I have been able to deal with a lot of my mental health challenges by turning to philosophy, instead of psychology, which is not something I ever thought of doing. The Art of Manliness has helped make philosophy accessible and understandable to me. But also, in listening to this podcast, and finding things to learn about, I have been thinking a lot about learning. I’ve done so much learning this year, and I haven’t studied a single minute or written a single test. And if I’ve ever had to “prove” that I’ve learned something it has been by being able to apply my knowledge, teach someone else about something or just keep up in a conversation about a topic.
I would argue that The Art of Manliness, when I started listening to it, ignited a love or learning in me that I hadn’t had in a long time, if ever. But to me, there is nothing better than learning. I love it so much. And I don’t learn to prove anything to anyone, or to get credit for anything, I just learn because I love it! And while its true that I have been consuming a lot of information, using my classroom as a creative outlet has been an incredible gift!
This year hasn’t been all gumdrops and lollipops as far as teaching goes. I’ve had some conflicts with some colleagues of mine about some of my approaches to, and my philosophy of, education. But in the long run, I’m thankful for those conflicts (philosophy helped me realize that). Those confrontations and discussions helped me grow as a person and a professional. It helped me realize where some of the gaps were in my communication, and really they helped me believe more strongly in myself. Sometimes, I wish the conversations had gone a little differently and that there weren’t so many emotions involved, but I’m proud of the way I carried myself in those situations and would do it the same again if I had to. And if I do have to, I’ll be better able to express myself so that (hopefully) cooler heads can prevail on both sides of the discussion (philosophy helped me with that too!)
I have also learned this year that while I don’t love teaching online, or virtual teaching, it is a necessary evil, and may continue to be a necessary evil long after this school year. While teaching online has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, I still don’t think I’m really good at it, its not my forte, but I can do it. And if I have to, I know I can get better at it. Especially because I have a solid crew to lean on and learn from. The virtual world has opened up a much wider world of possibilities as far as collaboration is concerned, for which I am very thankful! I don’t love virtual meetings, but again, a necessary evil, but also efficient and super helpful!
One last thing for which I am really thankful that has helped me a ton this year is called Camp Sawyer. In March Sawyer, one of my dogs, had to be put down because he had lung cancer, and for the last few days of his life he just couldn’t seem to catch his breath and he couldn’t sleep or lie down. It was the toughest and more heartbreaking decision and experience of my life. He died in March and I still miss him so much it hurts! But Camp Sawyer is a little camp site I built in my backyard. I live in a forest and I found a little clearing in the bush where I built a cabin/bunkie with only recycled materials. The only thing I bought were nails and hinges to hold the door. I’m really proud of the product, but what I love the most is that it is where I start my day, everyday. I walk out to Camp Sawyer, boil some water for some coffee, either over a campfire or or a propane camp stove, and I sit and appreciate the silence. I connect with nature everyday and it has done absolute wonders for me.
Connecting with nature on a daily basis puts me in the right headspace to start my days. I see all kinds of wildlife, hear all kinds of sounds, smell all kinds of smells. I watch the sun come up. I couldn’t imagine not getting outside first thing in the morning everyday. Its not just something that is nice to do, its something that I need to do. I built a tree fort for my kids out there, I sometimes work out back there, or I find other ways to keep active. So everyday I start with some fresh air, some silence, some physical activity, some coffee and nature. I’m not just looking at it. I’m part of it, and that’s an incredible feeling!
I know that there are so many other things, and people, for which/whom I am thankful, but I can’t get to all of them. Sorry about that. This post has just been the major highlights for me this year. I want to thank Rich King, Rebecca Chambers, Erin O’Grady, Chris Hale and Robin Small for all of their support this year. As well as Tanis Haggerty, Reg Lavergne and Evan Cooper. As far as my teaching career goes, this has been an incredible year, and I think 2021 will be even better!!!
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I started my own podcast recently, and if you go to the main page of my blog and click on “Podcast” in the upper right corner of the page, you’ll be directed to it. I’m so thankful for all the support I get from all of you! Have a great 2021!