Friday, October 19, 2012


Got about to some "mumbling of the peg" yesterday and today with some friends and fellow Social Studies teachers at our Pacific Slope Consortium retreat at Purden Lake.

Mumbling the peg, you say? It's a variation on an old game where some folks stand around and flip a pocketknife into a stump using a variety of techniques: off the elbow, off the tip of the thumb, off the top of the head, and so on. Mumbleypeg. In the original game the loser has to pull a peg out the ground with his teeth, but we don't usually get that far. In fact, we didn't even get to the knife-tossing bit this year.

We did however, mumble the peg in the more pedagogic sense. The "socratic circle" version involves revery by the fire combined with no-holds barred conversation on the educational issues that are on our minds. We hold ourselves and ideas open to intense scrutiny, four lakeside inquirists tossing notions up to be deconstructed, laughed at/with, and cheered. Some ideas missed the mark, some landed with grace and perfect balance, others stuck to the mark through fierce rhetoric and chance accuracy. In some ways it was like chucking knives about, but in a softer, "mumbley" way we also were free to trade barbs and challenge each others' thinking because of a large amount of trust and good humour.

Here are sample of the big and small ideas that we set in play and sent to the stump one way or another, midst the feast and fire:
  • teacher mediocrity - can we expect system change when we are often our own worst enemies? What can we do to improve our lot? Failing that, what can we do to step around the dysfunction and do some stuff that is not mediocre?
  • admin mediocrity - is it even reasonable to expect more from our admin? do we actually want the best teachers to become the best admin, like in the olden days? would teacher self-reliance allow admin to focus on more important roles than the mall-cop ones we've made for them? and maybe require less of them? what can we do to model leadership for our leaders?
  • student mediocrity - what are the long term implications of the way our system ignores (and even rewards) poor performance, how can we tastefully let our students know we care and will also hold them to high standards?
  • if you want to send the message that it matters, don't brush off the activity, e.g. the critical thinking value of a research essay and work necessary to get students to take it seriously, being persistent about skills and seeing the content as a way to successively develop skills, importance of an ongoing teacher narrative to explain that to students that this is what is actually happening
  • pros and cons of PD on twitter - some things we've learned, some repetitive jargon-filled stuff we're tired of learning about, laughed at some apparent dorkiness, wondered whether it justified the time invested, compared our district leaders' use of social media and blogs to what we see in other districts
  • technology comedies - looked at recent attempts to coax a dialogue on tech with district decision-makers, agreed that if leaders (of any kind) ignore teacher passion and planning regarding "learning enhanced by technology" they might want to wear bags on their heads when promoting 21st Century Learning and the BC Edplan
  • celebrated the timeless possibilities of low-tech teaching - give us 11x17 paper, some pencils, internet connection, a heated & well-lit room and we'll figure out the rest, if anyone wants to actually talk tech or figure out why smartboards are not all they're cracked up to be, they know where to find us in our hobbit holes
  • grad requirement changes - digested some of the implications for our craft, and cranked up the settings on our respective crap detectors, debated use of letter grades in Gr 8 and 9, imagined alternatives, speculated on what a two-tiered education system would look like
  • deconstructing competencies - what do we actually want our SS students to demonstrate to us? how can we get this without bogus mark-counting and what do we value re skills/processes vs big themes vs content?
  • debunk the effort/learning myth - why do educators still engage in the bizarro debate about "no zeros" assuming that learning is some pure measurable product (deserving a %) and that everything else is behaviour (not deserving a %). The most painful suggestion is that learning = content familiarity or work completion. If Marcy and Liam both work on maps, and Marcy never turns in her map, but Liam does and gets a mark, we are essentially rewarding Liam for good work habits, it may not even matter what he learned from the map. 
  • from effort/learning split to wholistic assessment - how does this change when we base assessment on performance, on what students can actually demonstrate of what they learned? this is obviously not new, but (remarkably) teachers drift away from this far too often, and allow the "just assess the learning" tagline to push student responsibility and skill-buidling off the assessment radar
  • performance based assessment - worked through what a matrix might look like that matched up competencies with focus questions, beyond averaging and assigning percentages, how can we produce an evaluation that students can be real clear about
  • ways of communicating student performance to parents - some old tricks (the folder full of exemplars) and new ones like the video clip of students' binders, which teacher shares with parents, or have student take a pic of an impromptu portfolio (e.g. spread out on desk) showing what they're working on and text it to parents
  • intervention models and "getting kids through" - are we doing more harm than good, shared some models that appear to be working, compared models and asked whether LIF funds were being squandered
  • blended learning and what do we do for the gifted - planted some seeds here, more than that wondered about little ways to build in our own intrinsic rewards because hell will freeze over before we actually get paid to be good at our jobs
  • deconstructing decolonization - what we observe in/from our First Nations students, some challenges to the notion that our FN kids come knowledgeable about their own supposed ways of approaching learning (although they come with many other challenges to overcome), and that we already place a high value on the notion that learning is embedded in memory, history, and story; still, we would like to learn more about how our FN kids can dial in
  • field trip to Vimy Ridge 2017 - light a bit of a fire here to talk about who and how big
Did I miss any?

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