If They Build It, They Will Learn

Display at Lego Fair.

How do we learn best? Why is it that we can recall certain aspects of our education but not all? What is it that resonates with a learner? I’ve been focused on creating a collaborative learning environment this year with my students. I believe that my role as an educator is to facilitate their learning, to assist them in their own understanding of their learning and how to connect this to their everyday lives. This is especially difficult with a prescribed curriculum and standardized testing that are pervasive in education today, however as an educator, if I can locate ways to circumvent these obstacles while still maintaining the student’s learning and excitement for learning, I do so.

Our classroom operates as a collaborative mini-society of thoughts, ideas, questions and most importantly opportunity. The opportunity to try, fail and try again. The opportunity to create and construct our own learning through activities chosen and put forth by us all as a team.

Our most recent endeavour was in Science, where we decided together to combine two of our units: Building Devices and Vehicles That Move and Wheels and Levers into one large encompassing project utilizing the student’s choice of Lego and K’Nex building materials. We discussed what the units looked like, what we are required to learn and understand and then we set about finding a way we could do this that excited and motivated us. The students immediately chose Lego and K’Nex, I supplied the materials and support, and the building began.

They worked in self-chosen groups based on interest and build they did. There were four groups: wheels and axles, gears, levers and pulleys and together they built vehicles,  ferris wheels, long and short ramps, sail boats, flag poles, egg beaters, chain saws, trikes, helicopters and wells.

Machines built at school.
Machines built at school.

A group of my students came to me and said that they have been building at home and would like to bring in their work to share.  They had extended their own learning beyond our classroom walls and were getting together on their own time and building. I was flabbergasted but extremely proud so we held a class discussion and decided that not only was it ok to bring their work in, but that we needed to showcase it. Together they came up with the idea of hosting a Lego and K’Nex Fair for their parents and our school. Within a week, our classroom was transformed into a warehouse of Lego and K’Nex creations. There were more machines built at home than there was in our room, and they kept coming in.

Machines built at home.
Machines built at home.

Sensing their excitement building beyond anything I had ever witnessed, I asked them how we can make our fair even more interactive. We talked about stations and one student asked if we could use our iPads in some way. I suggested we try and use the Show Me app to explain how they built their machines, the machine’s purpose and what they learned. They loved this idea and paired up with their building partners and began taking photos of their work. They uploaded these photos into the app and created mini-videos explaining how their simple machines operated. They not only created them for the projects at school, but also the ones they created at home.

iPad table featuring their Show Me videos.
iPad table featuring their Show Me videos.

We hosted our Lego and K’Nex Fair yesterday in our school’s gymnasium. We had a total of  8 tables and an iPad viewing centre for visitors to watch and listen to their Show Me app videos. The students gathered and organized their machines and welcomed their proud and excited parents and peers for an hour of learning and discussion. Each group chose a table of expertise and explained to the guests just how each machine operated, how it was built and its need and importance in our world.

Vehicles, buildings and free-time build projects.
Vehicles, buildings and free-time build projects.

As the fair commenced, I stood back and just watched them interact with each other and their guests. I saw responsibility, independence, growth, learning, understanding, teamwork and most importantly pride. They were beaming with pride from owning their learning. I will forever recall them answering questions but making eye-contact with me through the crowds and smiling wide knowing-smiles. THIS is what learning is and it’s the students who need to build it for themselves in order for it to be life-long.


Connection Requires Vulnerability

My first farm visit.
The need to connect with my students’ lives; my first time ever on a farm.

One of the most powerful aspects of teaching for me has been that of connection. It’s the tie that binds, it’s the meaning behind learning and it’s what drives me to learn for and with my students every day.

I recall watching a very compelling TED talk a few years ago by Brené Brown called ” The Power of Vulnerability “. She discussed how authentic connection is made and its importance to relationships. One fundamental thought from her talk which helps to guide me in my teaching practices is the following:

  • In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

In education, there sometimes exists an imaginary wall which divides teachers from their students. We are seen only as Miss, or Mrs. or Mr., who never leave the classroom and whose lives do not exist beyond the walls of the school. Connection, for me, demolishes this barrier and instead creates an open, compassionate, and understanding community between myself and my students. I care and learn deeply about their lives outside of our classroom, their hobbies, interests, backgrounds and I share with them mine. Somewhere in those bonds, that connection is formed and relationships are fostered and grown.

Authentic connection requires vulnerability. We, as teachers, need to show our students our human side. We make mistakes, we have bad hair days, we trip and get back up, we cry, we laugh and we really don’t know everything and that’s ok!

In one of my very first practicums, I was asked to read with a struggling student who had immigrated to Canada and was not at grade level in reading. We sat in the library together and I listened as he read aloud. I was able to sense that he wasn’t comprehending the story and was just echoing syllables. It became even more apparent when the word cereal continuously evaded him. All of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks, does he know what cereal is?

Growing up juggling two very distinct cultures had placed me in a position to understand that what is obvious to one may not be to another. He bowed his head and said no, with embarrassment. In that moment, I knew and could empathize with the thoughts running through his mind. My mother would send me off to school with grape leaves wrapped in a pita or hummus and baba ghanoosh for lunch while my classmates were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I remember having to ask a friend after watching her eat this delicious-looking round piece of bread with some sort of cream in the centre, just what it was. That was my first introduction to bagels and cream cheese.

I had two options at this point, just tell him what cereal was and have him continue reading, or I could break those walls of embarrassment and feelings of insecurity and share with him my lunch stories and allow him to tell me his. I chose option two, I chose connection. We laughed and learned a lot more than just what cereal was that afternoon. That reading session turned into a cultural exchange as he also taught me about his favourite breakfast foods. Our reading time was forever changed, we had formed a connection and he was no longer embarrassed to tell me when he was struggling because he knew that I too struggled and that I would help him through and past it.

We have these options everyday, it’s just a matter of whether we see them or not.

I spent my first few years bouncing from classroom to classroom and never had the opportunity to be with a group from September to June, as I was filling temporary positions. It made it very hard to leave mid-year, especially when those bonds were formed. I consider myself extremely lucky in my current teaching position, as my students have been with me since grade two. When they leave me, I would have been their teacher for three years. Our connection as a group is strong. I know each of their passions whether its horses, rodeos, drawing, trucks or dancing. I know their fears, worries and what their hopes are. I attend their hockey and baseball games, music concerts and festivals and cheer from the stands. They take pride in teaching me about farming, quadding and fishing, among many other things.

They’ve seen me make mistakes, they know about my irrational fear of bugs, they worry about my commute because maybe I drove my vehicle into the ditch yet again, they know that my knowledge about farming comes from their stories, they know what makes me laugh and cry,  and that I get homesick and miss my family some days too. Most importantly, they know that I care about them as individuals, about their safety and their education. They know that I am their biggest supporter and that together we are a team; this is connection.


The Power of Change

The one room Fort Assiniboine Old School House.
The Fort Assiniboine Old School House

The concept of change is something that many of us struggle with. It’s not so much what is changing, but the process that it brings forth, the uncertainties, insecurities and potential for error. However, change is a constant in life, and if embraced wholeheartedly, it brings great growth.

This past year has been one filled with an immense amount of change, both personal and professional. Its allowed for a lot of reflection on my current practices, my passions and where I see myself and my future as an educator. The changes are allowing me to grow into the educator I’ve always envisioned myself to be and to push through the boundaries I had inadvertently placed in my own path.

I’m a quiet observer, always taking in information and reconfiguring it to construct my own meaning, but I am quick to action when everything starts coming together. This year is when everything started clicking and changing around me. I have started to grow my PLN (Personal Learning Network) and the speed at which I am making connections with educators all around the world is astounding. Through the power of Twitter, I have made invaluable connections for not only myself but my students. Dedicated and passionate educators who I can collaborate with and share ideas, thoughts and visions. Its allowed me to see that we are all changing and growing together; education thrives with change.

This has resonated in my classroom and with my students who seek authentic forms of connection as much as we all do. I’ve connected them with not only one another but the world through blogging and the use of Twitter in our classroom. They are expressing their thoughts, concerns and hopes through their writing and its reaching an audience that never existed to them. They’ve met students from other provinces and countries through Skype, related their learning to national movements on Twitter, watched a science experiment live in space via web-cast, engaged in a Google doodle competition and even tweeted with their local favourite nesting goose. Its made school real and meaningful and its only just the beginning. Together we are changing the concept of what true learning is and how its applied outside of the classroom.

I took the cover photo above this week while at our local museum’s one room school house. I sat in the desk of teachers before me, who could have never imagined the wealth of knowledge and endless opportunities and possibilities that lay before us now as educators. I was in awe at the challenges they faced and how they grew through them. We only have to open the door for change and embrace the new to grow to our highest potential.

I’m excited for our future and what we will say about education 10, 20, 50 years from now.


My Journey to Education

Your life’s passion has a way of finding you, but not in the way you would have ever expected it to. A career in Education never crossed my thoughts, yet looking back the seeds were slowly being sown without my realizing it.

I am a first-generation teacher in my family. I grew up during the turbulent Lebanese civil war. My earliest recollections of school were of being ushered onto the floor of a school bus with classmates under heavy shelling and transported to my teacher’s house for safety until my parents could arrive to pick me up. My teacher risked her life and opened up her home to protect her students, actions which stay with me to this day.

My family immigrated to Canada shortly after and I entered the educational system as an ESL student. I vividly remember working one-on-one with a dedicated teacher who brought out the love of the English language in me. Her persistence created a student who not only excelled in English but devoured books and wrote in journals at every opportunity.

Three more inspirational educator role models soon followed.

My fourth grade teacher who fostered an atmosphere of culture in her classroom and encouraged her students to learn about the world around them. I never felt more welcomed and proud of my heritage then when I was sharing with my classmates that year.

My eighth grade teacher who despite his very strict demeanour, only wanted the absolute best from his students. He pushed me to revise and edit absolutely everything I submitted to him to ensure the highest quality of my work. He taught me that easy isn’t necessarily best and to continually strive for more. Lessons which I apply to everything in life.

Then came my family’s transitional move back to Lebanon at the start of tenth grade. I entered an international American high school while juggling the cultural differences that surrounded me. I had a deep love for sports and was on the cross-country, track and field, soccer and basketball teams prior to our move, all of which did not exist beyond physical education classes at my new school. The exception was soccer but even then it was a boys-only team. I was determined to start a basketball and soccer team. and so I approached the coach with my ideas. He saw the fierce determination in a teenager whose passion for sports came through in everything she did, so he allowed me to put my plans into action. That year saw the creation of the first girl’s basketball team, and the first time a girl (me) played on the boy’s soccer team. The creation of a girl’s soccer team followed the next year. That educator showed me that I was capable of anything I put my mind to and that nothing is impossible if you really want it.

I moved by myself back to Ontario, Canada for university and planned on becoming a journalist to assist in writing the stories of others. I delved in and became a news editor for the university paper while interning at the city newspaper and a local public relations company. I was achieving the goals I had set out for myself, fuelled by the educational mentors who showed me the strength I had. I graduated and began in a corporate and internal communications position with an international corporation. I enjoyed the writing, interviewing, event-planning and travelling, but something was missing.

One day a friend mentioned that a co-worker was looking for an English tutor for her struggling fifth grade daughter. I immediately volunteered even though I hadn’t tutored anyone before. It only took one tutoring session and I immediately knew what I was looking for all along. Working with that student brought a sense of joy and meaning to my life like I had never experienced. Everyday I would look for ways to engage and connect her with her learning and soon realized that it was the one thing I looked forward to all week.

At that same time, my personal life was in transition and an opportunity to move to Alberta came about. I took a chance on the move and made sure to apply to both the Education program at the University of Alberta and public relations job positions. I told myself whichever works out was meant to be, and before I knew it, I was a student pursuing my B.Ed.

I’ve been an elementary teacher now for three years and though the journey was bumpy and unexpected, it’s allowed me to connect to what I love most which is working with amazing children and helping to foster their passions and strengths.

I laugh, love, and learn every day.