Gratitude for February 21, 2014

This may sound strange, but I really feel like I’ve been coming into my own power lately. It has been amazing to watch and be in awe of myself.  I’m sure that sounds narcissist to you right now, but I promise it’s not. It’s not that I am any more special or able than anyone else. It’s just that I haven’t tapped into it as often as I could and now that I am doing it I can stand back in awe of what we are truly capable of.

I haven’t done anything other than presented my authentic self to the universe, honestly evaluated myself, my motives, what makes me tick and what I want for myself and my family, and I have been honest to myself and others about my needs. In doing this, I have brought about, or had brought to me, more opportunities, more coincidences, more connections, and more love.  

Even though I have struggles, some of them daily struggles, I am in a good place. Thank you God for always “entertaining” my ideas and dreams, bringing me what I need, and for always showing me (throughout my entire life, mind you) that in order to receive, all I have to do is ask.

 

School Done Right, An Interview with the Teacher

Many of you know that I homeschool my son. There are several reasons why Mr. Right and I decided on that path for the time being. Not liking or respecting teachers is NOT one of them. I would actually say that I have really liked and highly regarded most of the ones I’ve known.

Some of the things I don’t like about the school system are completely beyond teacher control, and I believe that they would choose differently were it up to them. For instance, I have never met a teacher who would choose to have 35 kids in his/her class instead of, say, 10. I am quite certain that if they were not tied by the constraints of a mandatory curriculum, among other things, and had the freedom to teach what they wanted and how they wanted, far more individualized and holistic education would occur.

Whenever I think of the possibilities in mainstream, traditional education, my good friend Erin Esposito (5th grade teacher), comes to mind. She is a revolutionary in today’s broken (and hopefully changing) system. She is the teacher I would want my kids to have should they ever return to public school. She does it all with the support of the board, her principal, the students in her class, and their parents. I wanted to know how she came to the place she is at now. How do 5th grade students direct their own learning and plan out their own days? What does a day in her classroom really look like? What is she doing to create this classroom environment that is full of children who love to learn and can’t wait to go to school every day? Let’s find out.

Q: What inspired you to change the way that you teach?

A: It was a slow process that began with my Child and Youth studies and learning about the Montessori model and constructivist theory, which is about students constructing and building on their own knowledge based on their interests. I watched the Sir Ken Robinson TED talk which had me question why we put kids in packages and act like it’s still the industrial revolution. I furthered it with my own son going into Montessori and seeing the benefits of that and then it furthered even more after I actually had a ministry worker come into my classroom and look at student learning.  All she did was observe and write notes on exactly what the kids were doing during my lesson time. Some examples would be; hand on head, looking off to the side. After collaborating and working with her, the number one concern was student engagement. Students were not achieving because they weren’t engaged. That experience linked me back to my education and had me question myself on how I could get students engaged.  Student engagement is one of the huge contributing factors to their success, so I needed to figure out how to make that happen to facilitate true learning. They call part of what I am doing inquiry-based learning, but I’m finding that that term is kind of getting a bad rap. Some think that inquiry is research, but there is so much more to it. It’s about students driving their education and back-mapping the curriculum based on their interests and questioning.  So that is the short of my journey. Through it, my staff has come on board and we are learning as a professional learning community, reading lots of research and talking about things that have worked and not worked in our classrooms.

Q: Would you call that a “teaching philosophy” that you adhere to?

A: I would say it’s a mind-set. It’s a shift in the way you think about teaching, not necessarily a technique or a way of doing things. I am not the sole bringer of knowledge to the table any more. I am no longer giving my students information and expecting them to regurgitate it back to me. It’s a change in that we co-construct our learning together, meeting kids where they are at, allowing them to go off into their own little adventures and guiding them in what they want to learn about. For me, knowing your students is the number one thing. Knowing your learner. Instead of having the teacher instructing, the kids have a big idea and then they do what they can with that big idea or task and you teach based on where they’ve shown you they are at in that task.

What I do is incorporate several different philosophies, like Reggio, Montessori, and constructivist. I am melding a whole bunch of beliefs into a few core ideas such as knowing your students, putting the students in the driver’s seat, responding to their needs, meeting them where they are at, and individualizing feedback. I don’t base everything on a test or a product.

Q: So are you still giving tests?

A: Not in the traditional sense. I triangulate data based on student product, student voice and observation. All of those things should be the assessment, not just a test or a project. It isn’t all about the product.  It is about their learning. For the most part parents are supportive, but there are still a few that see tests as an important skill that their kids will need in the future.  I address that by saying that instead of covering content, I want them to learn the content, and a test doesn’t tell me if they’ve learned it or just remembered it for that test. A lot of kids, including myself, forget it after so it isn’t really learned. It is not about content. It is more about skills because if they need to know something they can look it up on Google. They need to learn what to do with that information and how to think critically, how to make meaning out of it, how to apply it to their own lives and how to reflect on it. I think that a lot of the things that I am doing you can’t test, like character building, collaborating, analyzing. Those are not things that can be assessed in a test.

I also give them multiple opportunities. They don’t do one project and get a mark and then it’s done – the learning is over. No. The learning goes on the whole year, so I give them feedback, they take the feedback and they do something with it. They show me that they have understood what I’ve said. In previous years, I found that I would give all this feedback and then nothing would get done with it because once I put a mark on it they felt like it was over and there was no point. Now I give them the opportunity to use that feedback and come back again. It has gotten to the point where now students in the class are giving each other feedback because they now know what the expectations are.

Q: Can you give us a precise example of how that works?

A: Sure. Right now they have built their dream homes. First they did it on a computer, actually using a program that they found. I was going to have them use another program and they said it was too confusing and they didn’t like it so they found their own program that turned out to be way better. They took those computer plans and turned them into a model using a scale to show true size. I embedded my geometry expectations with questioning about shapes and symmetry. I also have to do a science unit on structure so we started talking about what the external and internal forces are. I had an architect come in and talk about all of the forces and structural things that he has to think about, and he looked at their structures and gave them feedback. I pushed it even further into a measurement unit where we were doing area and perimeter with our homes. Then I pushed it even further for another science unit on conservation of energy. They researched how to make their home energy efficient and what products they would use and then presented it. As they are doing all of this, I am questioning them and pushing their thinking. To make sure to consolidate it all and hold them accountable for their time, we are doing a home show. They have to display their answers of all the learning that we’ve done, and we are going to do invitations for the other grades and our parent community to come in and look at our homes and talk to us about our plans, process and conserving energy. At that time, I will listen to the conversations they are having and what they are teaching the other kids. That will show me what they have learned that they can speak of from their head. I also take pictures and videos throughout the year to prompt my memory.

Architect speaking to the class about structures and geometry in his job to launch our dream home design and build. He was also able to give students feedback about their designs.

Architect speaking to the class about structures and geometry in his job to launch the dream home design and build. He was also able to give students feedback about their designs.

Q: You still have to teach the curriculum set out by the Ministry of Education. How do you do that now that your perspective has changed?

A: The Ministry of Education sets out curriculum documents that have expectations in them. Those are the things that you are responsible for having your students learn. I still adhere to that. It’s just the way I’m going about it is different. Just in that dream home example I had four different strands of the curriculum that I’m responsible for, but they naturally came up and then I took it in that direction. Instead of standing up and giving a lesson and having them fill out a worksheet, I let it come up naturally with whatever we are working on and then steer it in the direction I need. You really have to know your curriculum to be able to do it. You need to know what it is that they need to know in order to be able to make use of those teachable moments. The kids are teaching each other as well. It’s not just me. I am co-learning with them. Sometimes I don’t know the answers to things and we use that as a learning opportunity.

Q: I imagine this way of teaching has required a lot more from you.

A: Absolutely. I am totally spent at the end of the day. It requires a lot more thinking on the student’s part too. I’ve noticed that the kids that excelled in the past, the ones who learned to play the game of school, think this is crazy in the beginning. On the other hand, the kids who have struggled with school, the ones who were considered low learners have the most amazing ideas and just think about things in the most amazing ways, but we never gave them those opportunities before. So for a while my classroom was basically turned upside down. Now the high-achieving students have come around. It just took them a bit longer because the game that they had played for so long had changed. It all just shows me that I am giving them all what they need. They are thinking now instead of memorizing.

Q: Are you worried that they will continue on after this year into someone else’s classroom that may not have the same mind-set?

A: It is slowly changing. The most recent curriculum document put out by the Ministry is inquiry-based learning. They stress that we don’t teach the curriculum, we teach kids. It is shifting to skills as opposed to content. They are turning the expectation towards this way of teaching. It is even trickling into high schools. I have actually gone into in-services with high school teachers about project-based learning and how to do it. It is changing. It is just taking some people longer. With my background, experiences and research, it was something that I was very passionate about so I jumped into it a bit more quickly than other people.

Q: How do you feel about technology in the classroom?

A: Love it. It is the way that the world is now and it can bring the world right into your classroom. The kids are engaged using it.

Q: What does an average day in your classroom look like, and how does that differ from the norm?

A: I begin every day with a morning meeting to share ideas. We talk about anything mission related (having to do with Grade 5 Can, a foundation the class started), anything personal they want to share, and they tell me what they are going to do in the next block of time for their learning. They do a centre or inquiry-type time. Then we work on our big idea, such as the dream home project. At the end of the day, they present what they’ve done to the class. So they are responsible at the morning meeting to tell me what their day plan is and they are accountable at the end of the day for what they have done. I also have a daily leader, secretary and safety monitor. The students drive it all.

Students whom Erin's class put into school in Haiti by purchasing uniforms through our fundraising with their foundation Grade 5 Can

Students whom Erin’s class put into school in Haiti by purchasing uniforms through their fundraising with their foundation Grade 5 Can

Q: They decide what they are doing throughout their day?

A: Yes. They deemed it as centre time because they are all doing something different. It’s led us into lessons about prioritizing and time management and not always doing what you want but doing what you have to do first. There was a bit of floundering too where kids were just playing games, but then kids started to call each other out on it. It wasn’t just me. I was stepping back and afterwards asking them if they had made the most of their time and they would have to self-evaluate and say yes or no and tell me why. We would then figure out how to get them interested in something. The morning meetings and personal sharing have really built community in the classroom and they now feel accountable to each other, not just to the teacher.

Q: How do you base your report card grades?

A: I still have to use A, B, C, D and I do the observations. I basically take qualitative data and turn it into a quantitative mark using my professional judgment. I meet them where they are at and base it on the growth that I have seen.  There haven’t been many bad marks. They are all achieving and they are all moving, which is the goal. And, they are all loving learning.

Q: What is the greatest benefit that you have witnessed in the children you have used these new methods with?

A:  Student engagement and student achievement. Totally.

END INTERVIEW

Wow. In the homeschooling world we call this unschooling or interest-led learning. I am so happy that traditional schools and some of today’s educators are finally wrapping their minds around the fact that kids only learn what they are interested in learning, when they are interested in learning it. I feel proud that these methods are being implemented in my community, and I feel so hopeful about the future of mainstream education. Cheers to you, innovative teachers everywhere.

Weekly Menu 3

Hi friends. Sorry it’s been awhile.  Last week was incredibly hectic and I didn’t cook a a single day (other than the odd grilled cheese, scrambled egg or reheated leftovers). This week is promising to be somewhat hectic as well and I don’t plan on cooking as much either. However, that’s hard on the pocket, so I will make less meals and we will eat them more times 🙂 The good news is that A.) you’re getting one of my fave recipes (mujadarra) and B.) these are all really budget-friendly meals!  Enjoy, and as always please let me know your thoughts if you try them!

Mmmm Mujadarra

Ham and Broccoli Quiche

Moroccan Chicken – this link will take you to the weelicious site for Catherine’s recipe. Just a couple of notes here – 1.) I make this in my slow cooker all the time and it’s fab and 2.) I at least DOUBLE all the spices in the recipe except for the salt.

P.S. Stay tuned peeps – you will be getting a real story at the end of the week, and it’s a good one!!

Which Town is Our Town?

In the near future, we are going to be handed a bit of freedom and opportunity. At that point, we are seriously considering making a big move and doing some lifestyle changes. But there will be more to come on all that in another post…. For now, help us figure out our dream locale by playing a game where you throw in your two cents!

The game is called “Which Town is Our Town?” The rules are simple. You read what we’re looking for and what we’re not looking for and if you live there, have heard of there or have been there, convince us that YOUR town is OUR town!  If your town wins (by having the most votes for the town/city), I’ll write a post all about the pros/cons of your town and why we will or won’t be moving there. Comment below to cast your vote and sell us your great city 🙂

Your town is not our town if:

If the locals in your town think that 25 C is too hot or that -10 C is not too cold, then your town is not our town.

If words like sustainable living, organic gardening, homeschooling, small house movement or naturopathic medicine would raise a few eyebrows in your local coffee shop, then your town is not our town.

If it’s hard to find local foods most of the year, then your town is not our town.

If ½ an acre or preferably more of land costs in excess of 50K, then your town is not our town.

Your town might be our town if:

There is a beautiful beach we can drive to within 2 hours.

There are beautiful, snowboardable mountains we can drive to within 2 hours.

There is natural beauty to be found at many corners, and specialty coffee shops, bars, top of the line restaurants and all around rad places for cool cats at the remaining corners.

There are many young families and you frequently see children playing outside.

You have this amazing gluten-free bakery that gluten-eaters frequent because, yes, it’s that good.

There is a sense of community and pride evident by clean streets and friendly people.

ocean famWe want a place with an awesome vibe, community feel, natural beauty, and cool peeps. One of the most important things to me is being somewhere warmer than here (Southern Ontario).  Major bonus points (although not a requirement) if I can smell the clean, salty air that comes from living somewhat near the ocean. That being said, there is something to be said about loving what you’ve got, so I’m happy to hear from people who think our roots are already planted in the perfect place. Okay.  Sell it. Go!

It’s Simple

It’s amazing when you go into a seemingly tedious project for one purpose, and then come out on the other end of it with a changed view of life. That is exactly what has happened to me in the last few weeks.

My house is up for sale, and as part of preparations, I went through and staged it.  It has truly been an eye-opening experience. We have been living here for only four years, but the amount of stuff we have accumulated is scary and in all honesty, excessive.  As I went through each room, packing up all the items deemed unnecessary for daily living, all I could think is, why do I have all this stuff? Where did it come from?

At the end of the day, I had successfully filled my basement and huge shed with boxes. I then forgot about it and focused on the business of selling my house. The change happened when a couple of weeks later I realized that I couldn’t remember what I had packed away.  Right now, at this very moment, I have approximately 50 boxes of random things in my house and for the life of me; I cannot remember what is in them. What’s more is that I started looking around my house with new eyes and realized that not only did I obviously not need whatever is in those 50 boxes, but I also don’t need half of what I still have hanging around unpacked. 

How did this happen? How did we accumulate a houseful of things that we don’t need or use and for the most part do not hold any true sentimental value? Looking within, I came to the conclusion that, in a way, we equate having an abundance of things with having an abundance of wealth and happiness.  The funny thing is that the complete opposite is true. Sure, when you buy something shiny and new you may experience a happy high that lasts anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, but it is not the lasting kind of happiness that fulfills us long term. The truth is that the more things you’ve accumulated, the more cleaning and picking up you have to do, the more money you have to earn to keep up with living in excess, and as a result the less time you have for the important things like following dreams and spending time with your loved ones.

I was hit hard with the minimalist bug.  It was a slow start.  I have a baby and a 6-year-old that I homeschool. As you can imagine, time is not something I have a lot of.  I started with my junk drawer – you know – that one drawer in your kitchen or office where you stick everything that doesn’t have a home.  Within 15 minutes, I had thrown away everything that was in it. I actually didn’t need a single thing in there! And I felt free.  A huge weight had been lifted, and it was only one drawer.  Whenever I had time, I went to the next drawer, which became a closet, which became a room.  Where I once opened my wardrobe filled with 300 items of clothing and felt I had nothing to wear, I now open it with 100 items and feel like my options are limitless because I love everything I’ve kept. I had uncovered clothes that I had forgotten were even there. With each area I decluttered, I felt like I was not only organizing my house but also clearing out the clutter in my mind.  Studies have shown that the clutter in our homes and the clutter in the rest of our lives are intrinsically connected. Both mental and physical clutter can eat away at our productivity, motivation and most importantly, happiness.  Clutter is stress.

I still have a ways to go.  There are still nooks and crannies I haven’t touched. Those 50 boxes of forgotten items?  They haven’t been tackled yet. I will get there though. It has become important to me to weed out the unnecessary and the excessive to make room for simplicity, gratitude for what I have, and freedom – freedom from possessions and freedom of time.  I highly recommend giving it a try.  Being an extreme minimalist isn’t for everyone. Thankfully there are different levels of minimalism, and in my opinion minimizing is something that most people can benefit from. It will benefit you by reducing stress, creating time and freedom, and making you aware of consumerism and the effect it has on you and our world today. It can benefit our community when you donate the items you don’t need to the people who do, in fact, need it.  If you decide to undertake it, go easy on yourself. Take it one drawer at a time or 15 minutes a day. Less really is more.  It’s simple.

Weekly Menu

I’m always looking for ways to make dinnertime a bit easier.  Between homeschooling Gordo (6-year-old son) and almost constantly having to carry Bita (10-month-old daughter), along with all my other daily tasks, I feel like I have very little time leftover for preparing delicious meals. I find that the most anxiety occurs when it’s 5:30 p.m., Mr. Right is leaving work soon, and I still have no idea what I’m making or if I even have anything in my pantry/fridge/freezer to make.  Enter menu planning.

Once upon a time, I was a daycare provider.  One way to keep sanity in my household was through menu planning. It helped simplify the week, reduced anxiety, and helped me stay within budget if I just sat down every weekend and planned what I was going to make and bought only what we needed for the week. I have been struggling since Bita was born. Way more often than I care to admit we have eaten processed, sugar and salt laden, completely unhealthy packaged or ordered food because I haven’t had it together. I hope that in sharing menu plans with you, it will help you in some small way while holding me accountable for my families eating. You now know my situation a little better.  Easy is the name of the game.  You aren’t going to find anything fancy this week, or anything that takes more than 20 minutes of my time. In fact, four of these recipes use less than 5 ingredients (not counting common pantry items), three of them are slow cooker recipes, and the other two are one skillet wonders. Two of the dishes are vegetarian and two others can be made vegetarian. I should mention that, at my house, a weekly plan contains 5 meals.  I cook five nights, and we eat leftovers two nights. Here is what I’m feeding my family this week:

Sausage and Sweet Potato Hash

Shredded BBQ Chicken

3 Bean Turkey Chili

Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese

Mango and Black Bean Quesadilla

Healthy snacks are hard for me to come up with too.  This week my family will be snacking on nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits, apple and kale chips, raw veggies, crackers and homemade hummus.

If this has been at all helpful to you or inspired you in any way, please let me know in the comments below.  Depending on the level of interest, I may make this a weekly Sunday post.  Enjoy 🙂

I Dont Know

Today I was confronted again with the often-repeated phrase “I don’t know”. Such an easy, apathetic and lazy excuse for an answer. Once said, it can completely kill a conversation and leave the other person feeling like you are either dumb or disinterested.  I’m not saying there is never a time where it can be safely said. What I am saying is that I believe we, as a society, too often use it as a crutch so as not to give too much thought to something we’d rather not be bothered with.  I am 100% guilty of this, most especially when answering questions such as “Why are some birds brown, others black and others red, yellow, blue….?” Or “If God is in everything, are we killing a piece of God every time we kill a bug?”

I realized that it had become a problem for me recently when my 6-year-old son started prefacing his questions to me with “I know you’re going to say you don’t know, but…..”.  It forced me to take a look at why I was so quick to avoid any kind of real thought to his questions and also to evaluate how I felt when others give me the same excuse/response.

What should we do about blah blah blah?

I don’t know.

Can I go [insert place here] on [insert day here]?

I don’t know.

How do you feel?

I don’t know.

Do you think we can blah blah blah?

I don’t know.

Where should we go from here?

I don’t know.

How was the universe created?

I don’t know.

 These are all questions I have posed or have had posed to me that resulted in that very answer.  What if that little three-word phrase didn’t exist in that context?  What if we could no longer use it to answer questions about our feelings and thoughts or even straight facts? We might replace the answers with:

What should we do about blah blah blah?

Let’s brainstorm and figure it out together!

Can I go [insert place here] on [insert day here]?

Let’s look at the calendar and see if that will work.

How do you feel?

I feel [insert feeling here] OR I need more time to think about that.

Do you think we can blah blah blah?

Of course we can!  Let’s figure out how.

Where should we go from here?

Well that depends, where do we see ourselves at the end?

How was the universe created?

Let’s Google it!

It’s almost just as easy to come up with a thought -out, acceptable answer in a very short amount of time, as it is to say I don’t know. An answer that gives you personal power and leaves the other person feeling validated.  With every “ I don’t know” we throw around, we relinquish our creative power and inner knowledge.  We give away the gift of looking within to hear our truth and set it free and we give away the knowledge that could be incurred by learning something new.  Really people, it’s all within you and what’s not, we have the all-knowing Internet for.  Let’s challenge ourselves to be less lazy and more caring; both of ourselves and of the people we interact with by giving a bit more thought before using that catchall phrase.

“When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense.”  ~ Kahlil Gibran