What motivates us to do good?

This was what I posted on the blog for my Contemporary World Issues class today. I decided to share it here, too. Have you been thinking of essential questions to do with our reaction to the devastation in Haiti? Have you been talking about this with your students?

I have been addicted to the Haiti earthquake relief efforts. I spent much of the weekend reading news updates, blog updates, facebook group statuses, and listening to radio shows about how the world is reacting to what is happening in Haiti.

Countries, organizations, and individuals around the world are reaching out, to help in any way. A question that comes to mind for me is…

What motivates us to do good in the face of tragedy?

Some of the documents that triggered this question for me were the following:

A family’s wait for news from Haiti – I heard about this story in an interview on CBC this morning. I asked myself what motivated the journalist to help? Does it matter?

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Donate $1 Million to Doctors Without Borders – Angelina Jolie said, “It is incredibly horrible to see a catastrophe of this size hit a people who have been suffering from extreme poverty, violence and unrest for so many decades,” If that is the case, why did it have to take an earthquake to inspire the donation?

B.C. students in Haiti arrive in Canada – Are Canadians helping Canadians in Haiti first? Is that why the Canadian government is sending help?

Wyclef Jean and Yele Haiti – The website of Wyclef Jean’s Haiti Relief organization.

Here is a video of Wyclef Jean defending himself and his organization in the face of accusations of misconduct. I found it via this page at npr.

Here are some other resources:

Disaster in Haiti – CBC full coverage

Haiti Earthquake 2010 – New York Times coverage

Satellite images help focus Haiti earthquake relief

Haiti Earthquake – Day 5: Reporting with a camera

What do you think?

For those who are interested, this is what I’ve asked my students to do. It was a last minute, put together kind of assignment. I’ve put our current work in Contemporary World Issues on hold so as to focus on the events unfolding around the world in response to the earthquake in Haiti.

Start alone – Write a quick comment to our class blog with your gut reaction to the question, What motivates us to do good in the face of tragedy?

Branch out – Explore the question in your research groups. Start with these documents and then find your own. Your group will need to:

Document your resources – this means include links to any and all articles/images/video/audio etc… that you use in your research.

Your group needs to come up with a new question that springs from the research you do about this question. Sound complicated? Don’t worry you’ll figure it out :)

Present your research and your new question in an innovative way. Some ideas are:

webpageshortText is easy to use though less flexible than something like a wiki, which is easier for all group members to access. PBWorks is free for educational use and super easy to get started.

Video – you can decide how to present your ideas via video. If you choose this option you must include your resource list separately.

If you have another idea, clear it with me but please note that I will not allow PowerPoint for these research projects. Time to think outside the PowerPoint box!

Is lecture a 4-letter word? Following up a year later

Today I received a comment from Miss Teacha on a post I published almost a year ago called Is ‘lecture’ a 4-letter word? She continues our love-hate relationship conversation about lecture. I started to write my reply as a comment and then decided to post it as its own post. So here it is.

Thanks for following up on this conversation, Miss Teacha! I think the mark of a successful lecture is when you need to calm the class down, when you need to redirect their energy. Lecture is not merely a content delivery system, though it can be and often has the reputation of being solely that.

I no longer teach economics. The required course for Grade 11 has been changed to Contemporary World Issues beginning this year. It’s a course based on themes rather than specific content and I am in the middle of a section on the themes of tension and conflict using information from different areas of the world – Monks protesting in Burma; Seal Hunters in Nunavut, the Maritime provinces, and Quebec; living in the Gaza strip; living in Sri Lanka… *** (see below)

There is SO much content that if I lectured it all they would never get to the juicy stuff of developing their own definitions of tension and conflict or debating different intervention strategies. So I give them articles, music, video to read, listen to, view, and talk about in small groups. They check their understanding with me during group and class discussions – sometimes I point them to the computers for background research and sometimes I give them the background (and sometimes I even let them know that I don’t know the background very well and we research it together).

When I give them the background it may be done as a whole class exercise, where I stop activity and give background to the entire class, or to individual groups, depending on the need. If only 1 group isn’t getting something, why make others who do get it stop what they are doing?

I am finding that this kind of lecture is effective because the students see the need for it. The lecture happens because they have asked for it and not because a) it’s easier for me or b) it’s what I think they should learn. They often interrupt in order to ask questions and link what I am saying to their articles or videos or songs or however it is they are gathering their information.

So, again, lecture does not have to be a 4-letter word. Thanks to Miss Teach for following up on this conversation.

***I am lucky that this unit (we call them Learning Evaluation Situations (LES) in Quebec) has been developed for the course by a Quebec English schools support centre. It is the only teaching material for this course that has been made available to us in English so far, beyond the curricular guidelines (basically the competencies (like standards) and their descriptors). Apparently there is a textbook that is being published in sections but I have yet to see it.


I’ve made the decision to do something I have never done before and that is to remove a post. Well, actually, to replace it with this one. I have not been asked to do this by anyone, it is something I have decided to do on my own because, regardless of its intention, its results clash with what I feel is the right thing to do. I never intended to cause harm, to hurt anyone in its posting. It has and I’m truly sorry.

The post was an in-the-moment response to some of the frustrations of teaching. Frustrations that I know others experience, as was evidenced by the number of, “I know where you’re coming from,” comments to the post here and in other forums.

From the get-go, Michael felt I should ‘quietly delete’ the post, while others said no. Susan said that strong emotion teaches strong lessons. Others, that we (teachers) are expected to be devoid of emotion and that reminders of our humanity are needed from time to time. Others, that I should suck it up or leave teaching, that there are certain things I should not reflect on in my blog.

So the intention of the post was to capture my emotion in the moment. I use this blog to record the successes and challenges of teaching for the purpose of reflection and feedback. I strive to be a reflective practitioner. I strive.

I need to step back and look at the context of reflection. Since I began this blog about 3 years ago my audience has changed. It began as an audience of 1 (me) and slowly grew to an audience of a few (me and a few other teachers from other cities and countries), and more recently to a much larger (though still relatively small) audience of readers (teachers and non-teachers, including students, parents, and colleagues).

Does this mean I will stop writing about difficult issues? No. Not at all. But I will do so with a sensitivity for a shifting audience. There are times when my readers won’t agree with what I say but my delivery needs to reflect the values that are dear to me – kindness, compassion, and doing no harm. Indeed, love.

So, I haven’t been asked to remove this post or replace it in any way. But when I reflect on it and the reactions it received within the shifting readership contexts that widening social networks provide blog writers, it is the right thing to do. When I reflect on it and my mission to do no harm, it is the right thing to do.

The great thing about learning is that it never, never stops.


Photograph by Brian Bailey. Click for source.

I could have called this post ‘failed dialogue’ but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

One of the courses I teach is called ERC, Ethics and Religious Culture. The course has 3 competencies – reflects on ethical issues, demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of religion, and engages in dialogue.

So yesterday we did a little work on the 1st and third competencies with an adaptation of lesson 2 in the teaching kit on tolerance called The Power of Words from Tolerance.org.

The activity starts with individual work. I handed out a piece of paper with a list of names on one side, a list of occupations on the other. I modified the list from the teaching kit to make it more specific for our area of the world. I inserted Mohawk and French Canadian names as well as some occupations from around here. I asked my students to draw lines between the names and occupations.

Once they had made their decisions – and it was very difficult for them to remain quiet throughout the process, the activity was unsettling for them – I asked them to place their chairs in a circle and we were going to talk. The first thing I asked about had to do with some things I heard during the activity:
“I feel uncomfortable doing this”
“I feel like I am racial profiling”
Saying of names (Eli Goldstein, Latisha Smith, George Two Axe…) and then snickering or laughing out loud

Then I asked people to talk.

(this is where we get to the failed dialogue part)

It quickly became evident that 2 boys were getting into an argument about the activity, which is not necessarily a bad thing but isn’t optimal when we are sitting in a circle for the purpose of open dialogue. One boy said it was a set up, that I put ethnic names and specific jobs to make them be racist/sexist/prejudiced, and the other said that it was just a list of names and jobs and it was their minds that was doing the rest.

They wouldn’t let anyone speak. For real. Each time someone else tried to talk they continued their argument. I reminded the group of our norm, seek to understand before being understood. I asked the group to go around the circle and take turns to say their piece. I introduced a talking stick (actually a talking pine cone). One of the boys tried to sabotage the process by telling the other students to keep passing the cone around so it would get back to him. Luckily the majority of my students stood their ground and spoke their piece when they had the pine cone. It wasn’t easy though, 2 or 3 boys were fidgeting (ok, jumping up and down in their seats) and saying pass the cone, pass the cone. I had to keep interfering so the dialogue was quite stilted to say the least. Some of the other students were getting frustrated with the boys, telling them to shut up, to stop.

The pine cone finally made full circle and the first of the 2 boys had it again. The funny thing is, they couldn’t speak. They started to argue about the pine cone, about whose turn it was, about anything but the task.

At the beginning of the class I reminded my students that each time we have dialogue I will be evaluating their participation and competency development. So at this point the two boys who had so much to say asked what mark they would receive for today’s dialogue. I told them a 1 to 2 (we mark on a range from 1-5, 1 being doesn’t meet the requirements, 5 being exceeds the requirements). They couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t fair. After all, they were the only ones who had anything good to say. It was lunch time, so I asked the rest of the class to leave except for the one prime arguer and the one prime jumper up and downer ‘pass the cone, pass the cone’.

We talked.
(this is the part where the dialogue becomes unfailed)
Oh geez. It’s 6am. I need to run. I will update this from school. But I think I’ll post the first part anyways, keep you on your toes ;)

What does your best teaching look like?

I have a new blog. It’s called Teaching is a Verb and I want to collect stories about actual teaching practice there.

The long term goal of the blog is to connect teachers to teachers by providing a framework for us to visit each other’s classrooms. We have so much to learn from each other.

Anyone can register and share stories from their actual teaching practice there, or stories of teaching practice they have seen and admire.

I’ve started with my own story, and a question. I’m cross-posting it here.

What does your best teaching look like?

You know, this blog is called Teaching is a Verb yet when I answer the question I realize that examples of my ‘best’ teaching happen when I am not in the room, during those moments when I am seemingly not doing anything directly related to learning.

I spent much of one day last week, or maybe the week before, meeting with students in crises. Every once in a while we have a day like that (here’s a detailed account of one of those days from last year).

I walked into my Grade 11 CWI (Contemporary World Issues) class about 20 minutes into the period. They were quiet and had their laptops in front of them (we did a lot of fundraising last year and bought 18 mini laptops!). I figured they were taking advantage of the free time and were checking email, listening to music.

Get ready for this: they were ALL working on this assignment. I had not yet assigned it.

They went to our blog, read the new assignment, and began their research. The quiet dissipated as I walked in with, Tracy, I think I need to change my article, and Look at what I’ve found, I think there’s a connection here, can you look?, etc…

This was a class that only a week earlier had to be stopped numerous times during each period in order to regroup and address issues of silliness, noise, etc. I had taken away their seating privileges because they weren’t making smart choices in that area (sitting with friends who distract…), I spent time each class with one or another student in the den having conversations about their behaviour.

And then I realized it was about a month into the school year and that this was about the time that teaching and learning really starts.

So what does my best teaching look like? It ‘looks’ like nothing when it is happening but it is actually made up of at least a month’s worth of and ongoing consistent classroom structure, making connections with individual students, and providing them with work that they can find meaning in for themselves and create meaning from together.

The best thing about this is it eventually frees me up to work with individual students on either technical issues to do with assignments, personal issues that require some out of class intervention, comprehension issues, etc…

Here is an example of that kind of work for a course in Contemporary World Issues. It’s what they are working on right now.
Personal News Story Project

What does your best teaching look like?