Creative Corners…

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted anything. It’s certainly not because of a lack of ideas/concepts/thoughts, it’s been more due to the fact that holidays are done and I’m back into the groove of school. I wondered when I started this blog whether or not I’d be able to maintain it once “reality” kicked in. Did I need the sound of the lake and the sunshine in order to inspire me to write? Does setting play a role in one’s ability to be creative?

I love my job and spending time with colleagues who embrace the core belief in wanting to do what is best for our students. It’s been very rewarding seeing our staff come into the school to prepare their rooms for their incoming students. The environment plays such an important factor in setting the tone and culture in a classroom as well as in a school. Brightly painted bulletin boards, Welcome signs, organized learning centres and labelled bins all signify to the students that this is a place where you are wanted and this is a purposeful place of learning.

As a school system, we have been moving in the direction of Bump It Up Walls or as I like to call them, Feedback Forums ~ a display within the classroom where students can see their work, but they can also see examples of how to improve their work. Those types of displays set a powerful tone in a learning environment. When I walk into a classroom, I’m cognizant of the layout of the student desks and student work areas. Are students provided with the opportunity to work in pairs/groups or are they expected to work in isolation? Are there designated areas in the room for guided reading and guided writing groups? Is the technology accessible to the students or is it used solely as a presentation tool by the teacher?

In a discussion with a colleague this week, she shared that when she visits schools, her focus when she walks into a classroom is to monitor who is speaking. Is the teacher doing all of the talking or are students engaged in meaningful discussions? Powerful dialogue can lead to the generation of wonderful ideas for writing. The best way to learn about something and to solidify your thinking is to be able to talk to someone else about it. Are you giving your students lots of time for purposeful discussion?

So my question for today is…..

What does your classroom say about the quality of learning that will be taking place in it? It is an environment which will allow creativity to flow? It is a place where children will be inspired to write?

Come write with me!

Who is Your Audience?

Well this blog is almost a week old.  I’ve posted a few random thoughts and I’m beginning to develop a structure within each piece, whereby I pose a question or two and then invite the reader to “Come write with me”.   This morning, I’m sitting here looking out over Lake Huron ~ the water is crystal clear and gently lapping on the shores, there is a single sailboat off in the distance slowly making its way to who knows where, but obviously in no rush to get to its destination.  I can hear some birds chirping in the woods behind me and there isn’t a soul around.  This is my little piece of sanity ~ this is where I truly feel at peace….  But I digress…

As is my usual morning routine (by the lake or not) I scroll through Twitter and catch up on the latest news.  This morning was no different, but I found myself wondering, who else is reading those tweets?  And similarly with this blog, who in the world would take the time to read some of my random thoughts?  When one finally gets the courage to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard you realize that all of a sudden your thoughts, ideas, feelings, aha moments and insecurities are about to become public. In this day of electronic communication, we are continually reminded that anything we send can easily fall into the inbox of someone else without our knowledge, with a quick “forward” or a more sophisticated cut and paste. But for today’s purposes, we are assuming that we know that others will be reading our message.

Does it matter who our audience is? I guess it goes back to the purpose of writing. When I think about all the opportunities we provide our students for writing, do we consciously ask them to think about their intended audience?  I know that it is an actual curriculum expectation and teachers include it on report cards. But if I asked a student, “Who are you writing this for?” I would imagine that most of them would say, “For my teacher because it is going to be marked”.  As adults do we write because we are being evaluated?  During the last several years, as I’ve worked through my Masters and Supervisory Officers courses, my purpose for writing was definitely for evaluation and I knew that my audience was my instructor.  Therefore I used a very particular style and voice when writing.  When I look at what I’m doing within this blog, I have no idea who is actually going to read this, so my style and voice can change and hopefully evolve as I continue to “ponder and post”.

I wonder how crucial it is for proclaimed authors to think about their audiences.   Does Stephen King know that only thriller fans will read his novels or does he hope to capture a wider audience?   Do famous bloggers, like Seth Godin, really know who their intended audiences are? I would never have considered myself someone interested in marketing and yet I find more connections to education in daily blogs about “Quality control”, “Courageous conversations” “Being interested and being interesting”.  In a short time, I’ve become a fan.  I listened to his latest book, Poke the Box in June and it inspired me to make some changes in my practice. It’s probably one of the reasons behind this blog.  What shapes his writing??  Is it as simple as if you are passionate about something, anything, then what you write will find its own audience?

 A few questions to think about….

If your intended audience shapes your writing, does that constrict you as a writer? Do we give students enough opportunities to write for different audiences? And what does that look like?  As we move past the era of marking everything that students do and towards an era of providing constructive feedback throughout the process and keeping the evaluation until the end, will students be able to get away from the notion of, “I’m writing this for my teacher” and into a world of “I’m writing about this because I have something important to say about this topic and I want to share it”?

What do you think?

Come write with me….  (I promise NOT to evaluate it 🙂 )


From a Tweet comes some Inspiration….

How many of you Tweet? How many of you follow Twitter? My iPhone has quickly become one of my favourite connections to the outside world. Instead of starting my day reading the London Free Press, I find myself scrolling through Twitter and reading the short posts from some of my favourite educational gurus. As an aside, within the last few weeks, I’ve had to add “Breaking News” as one of the sites that I follow, after having a coffee with friend and being embarrassed that although I could tell him where Todd Whitaker was speaking and the latest educational techno app, I was oblivious to the disaster that had just occurred in Norway that morning. So I now feel that I have all of the important bases covered ~ education and current events!

Some tweets are basic information such as “Heading out to the ball game” or ” Just ate at the best restaurant in town”, but others truly make me stop and think about my role as an educator.

Todd Whitaker, who I had the pleasure of hearing speak while I was in my first year as an administrator, has quickly become one of my favourites. I wonder if it’s because I have that “personal” connection with the man. When he spoke at our board office, he was truly engaging. This guy stands about 6’6″ and is the epitome of a southern gentleman, complete with his distinctive southern drawl. He enthralled a room full of administrators with his comical and heart-warming tales of his days as a teacher and as a principal. He was sharing his book, What Great Principals Do Differently  (read much of it on Google Books) and all of his examples made perfect sense to me. The book is a quick and easy read ~ I still find myself thumbing through it on occasion when I need a quick “pick me up!”

When it came to lunchtime, Todd sat down at our table to join us and he seemed genuinely interested in what we did and the challenges and successes within our school board. I still remember feeling that sense of “Wow ~ he chose our table to sit at!” It was similar to the feeling that a teenager would have if Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift stopped by for a chat….smile

A few questions to ponder……

Do our students need that personal connection in order to really get excited about reading and writing? How do we provide that type of inspiration when our students come from such varied backgrounds with such a vast spectrum of prior knowledge, interests and abilities? How do we create those “rock star” moments?

Today’s Twitter check-in was no exception and Mr. Whitaker provided me with a few things to ponder as he tweeted ~ When Einstein came home from school his mother never asked, “What did you learn today?”…. but rather, “What questions did you ask?”

In my current role as an administrator, I love it when teachers send their students to my office to share their work. As our school goal is writing, there is always a written component to the work that makes it way to my door…smile! This year we have been focussing on providing students with feedback which will assist them in improving their writing. So, after the students proudly read their masterpiece, my usual question is, ” Share with me how you improved your first draft in order to produce this piece of writing?” I’ve quickly learned that this is the greatest way for me to determine if our students are actually internalizing the goals that we as the teachers have created. A school goal is just a bunch of words on a page unless those we are working with actually understand what it is and how to reach it.

I’m also modelling asking questions and making our students think about their writing. As I walk through classrooms, our students have quickly learned that Mrs. Bruyns will always ask a question when she stops by your desk.

But, am I modelling this tactic with my staff? At our monthly staff meetings how much information do I share versus how many questions do I ask? Does my staff walk out of a meeting learning new information just by me talking to them about it or is the new information developed as we discuss it and challenge each other to come to the best solution? If I could video our staff meeting a week prior to the actual date and the outcome would be the same, then something is not right. I recall reading a book a few years back, Death by Meetings by Patrick Lencioni. (again check out Google Books) In that book, he states that people would rather go and watch a movie where the outcome is predetermined and they are passive participants than sit through a meeting, where they could potentially have the opportunity to interact with others and change the course of the meeting.

So my question for today is….

How do you create a culture where staff are encouraged to ask questions? How do you create a school culture where our students are encouraged to ask questions and not just sit passively in their seats while we spoon feed them information?

What do you think?

Come write with me!

Some Things Never Change

While some things never change…..maybe some things shouldn’t have changed!

This summer I find myself back at a family resort that we’ve been coming to for the past 15 years. Last year, I was the bad guy and decided to change our family’s summer plans and rent a cottage on another lake for most of the summer. But my youngest son still found a way to get himself invited back to this resort with another family. When I listen to my kids talk about their experiences here, how could I not help but give in and come back “one more year”. They talk about playing cards until all hours of the night by firelight, about getting caught in storms while out boating, about making crafts and about dining room antics.

When I describe this place to others, I start by saying, “Picture the summer resort in the movie, Dirty Dancing, without any sign of Patrick Swayze”. The cottages are definitely circa 1960 ~ complete with the rustic furniture and hand-created artwork adorning the panelled walls. The windows open just enough to let the bugs in at night, but not enough to create any type of airflow on the most humid of days. The evening activities are things that we would rarely do back home, such as Bingo, Samba lessons (now updated to Zumba lessons), Karaoke, Magic shows and “just like in the movie”, the week ends with a Talent Show. But once again, no Patrick Swayze jumping off the stage and into the crowd. As you make your way to the dining hall for your three mandatory meals, Beach Boys tunes and the occasional Johnny Cash song are blaring from the loud speakers. The recreation director does a great job of getting people involved in beach baseball, sand castle building, beach volleyball and horse shoes. Not much has changed in the last 15 years.

Now, not only have we been coming for the past 15 years, but we’ve been coming the same week for the past 15 years, along with many of the same families. Years ago, when the resort was in its prime and the American dollar was much healthier, this place was booked solid ~ to the point that you had to reserve your cabin in February. This year, we called three days before arriving and there was a cabin available. Times may have changed financially , but watching the sunset over Lake Huron, sitting around a campfire until midnight while telling stories and watching the most incredible night sky full of stars never gets old.

One of the families that we’ve come to know drives up here from Michigan each year. Grandma and Grandpa foot the bill for their two kids and their own families, who live elsewhere in the States. It’s the one time each year that the whole family is together. Grandpa is a retired shop teacher, so you can imagine our beach chats. I love listening to his stories about when he was teaching and his views on how education has changed. He certainly didn’t have a lot in the way of materials, tools etc. for his students, but they always learned a great deal. Tonight he was telling me about how he used to sharpen all of the tools himself, so that his students had the best possible opportunity to create their masterpieces.

What “tools” do teachers sharpen today so that their students can create masterpieces?

Grandpa talks with such pride about his days in the classroom (his shop) and he laments about the fact that over the years all of those “industrial arts” programs have continued to be cut. That is a point that we agree on ~ That is one thing in education that shouldn’t have changed!

We have a significant number of students in my current school who would greatly benefit from having more opportunities to fix and build things with their hands. We do what we can by bringing in old motors and bikes for some students to repair, but it’s only for a chosen few. I recall as a student having a choice of Industrial Arts or Home Economics when I was in grade 7 and 8. Those courses are no longer available at the elementary level. Students have to wait until they are in Secondary school and even then, there are so many mandatory courses, students only have a few opportunities to take such “elective” courses.

As we go into this new school year, we are going to reach out to our school community and connect with some church groups to see if there are volunteers who will come in one afternoon a week and share their talent (knitting, woodworking etc) with some of our students.

My chats with Grandpa often lead to comparisons between the American system and our Ontario system of education. I love learning what other countries deem as important when it comes to educating their youth. I strongly defend our system, yet deep down I realize, like any other system, we can always learn from others and continue to improve.

Well it’s off for a rousing game of Bingo…. I can bet that there will be the four corner game, where the winner has to yell, “I have BO!”. We all groan, but deep down we’re thrilled that some things never change.

Mulling! Important or not?

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted another blog entry, but I must say I haven’t forgotten about it. In fact, I’ve been mulling a lot about it since I last asked myself my over-riding question – How do we motivate students to write better – become better communicators and, I suppose, tied up in all of that, motivate them to write about things they know about and enjoy the process. I think that last part is almost instinctively vital for most teachers – we want kids to enjoy whatever we ask them to do. I mean, “You aren’t going out for recess, until you write for 2 minutes straight!!”, is a strong motivator, but what quality will we get from that type of motivation? Will we end up with engaging writers, who show a passion for their topic?

And so since the last posting I mulled. Actually looked the word up and one might say the first two meanings are appropriate!  Mull is actually an island off the coast of Scotland and I actually was on an island for a part of the week on a family holiday. Lots of time to mull. And mulling is a term used to heat and spice wine, for example! Ah, a glass of wine! Might be better for me than the Diet Coke my friend is always warning me about.  But the mulling I was doing had more to do with “to go over extensively in the mind; ponder or ruminate”.

Now there’s a good word – ruminate – actually has some roots in a cow chewing its cud, over and over again as it moves it from one stomach to another, (you knew cows had 4 stomach compartments, right?) Well, they do and I suppose that’s a good metaphor for the ideas I’ve been tossing around about motivating kids with their writing.

And then, like that proverbial light bulb, I got another flash! Do we ever teach kids how to ruminate over a topic? If we did what would that look like? When we give them a “QuickWrite” are we doing the writer and the topic justice? Should they be allowed to ruminate or ponder a topic for a bit? What kind of writing would I produce if someone walked into my office one morning and held up a stop-watch and said “Write for 2 minutes!” What would I produce?

So I guess the question for today is “How important is pre-planning, thinking about one’s topic, pondering, ruminating (if you will) to the whole writing process? How is that done? How does it begin? Practically speaking, what does that look like in a classroom of 30 learners, all of whom have different likes, dislikes and abilities. What’s a teacher to do? And is this stage one or some other stage.

What do you think?

Come write with me!

Sue …..