Month: March 2013

Nothing Left Unsaid


I have been thinking about trust and loyalty. I have been thinking about my Dad.

I have been thinking about family spaces.

Snuggled on the sofa last night with Jess, my daughter, we shared about my Dad, Albert, and about family spaces.

This story is for you, for Jess, for me, for Alec & George, for my Dad, for the kids now and the kids who came before, and certainly, for the Snow Shoveling Five.

This is for us.

This is for our family. This is for our family-story. Please, share your family-story…



Greg’s How? – A Guest Post

Friday was my last bus trip with the senior basketball team. Greg, the grade 3, 4, & 5 teacher at the school, is the coach; I just kinda tag along because, although we are a ‘senior boys’ team made of two schools and many kids, hence the ‘need’ for both a male and female supervisor.  I’ve miss coaching basketball this year. I usually coach junior boys’ basketball. The first year I was at my current school the junior boys’ basketball team made it to conference finals. This year, we had four students who signed up to play junior ball. This is the nature of sport at a small rural school. So I ride the bus. I play ball at recess, on weekends and in the wee hours on overnight tournaments with the senior kids.  

Many of these students will graduate in June. Last Friday, even more than other times, I needed to make the bus trip. June and graduation are fast approaching. These are the times I value most with kids, when we laugh and tell stories away from formalities. It’s a time for the kids and I to play hide and seek, stay up well into the night sitting in the staff room drinking tea at overnight tournaments, and I especially like the bus rides. These kids are the stories of my life.  

Greg understands my basketball-story and he understands my educator-story.

“A key in negotiating relationships as narrative inquirers is our collective sharing of stories of experience. In the shared vulnerability experienced in this communal process, the space negotiated in the meeting of stories becomes filled with complex understanding of lives, understandings with significant potential for shaping cultural, institution, personal, and social transformation” (M. Young et al, 2009).

Greg attends to my narratives.

Because of this, I like visiting with Greg.

He smiles easily. Friday we lost by 60 points. Our team laughed the entire game, much of that was because of Greg’s lead.

I’ve never heard him raise his voice. Greg reminds me of my Dad’s ways of being with kids: easy going, organized, project based. My Dad always listened to kids, and Greg does too. Because of this, I feel Greg is able to see the whole court, to see the play develop.

I like that he teaches younger kids and shares their success stories all the time. I like that he seeks feedback about the kids he teaches. I like that the senior kids and I have been invited into his room so often I’ve lost count, and that I’ve collaborated with him so often that the senior kids reflected positively on those moments with the younger grades in their term final projects. I like that the stories of his kids and their families are honored.

I learn from Greg every day.

Bus rides are times bouncing, talking about how to make learning fun.

We share project ideas, dream up ways we can collaborate. We talk about what schooling should feel like, look like. We share our families too.

However, we are both deeply reflective, enjoying our silence, our books, our writing.  Friday on the three hour regreg and kidsturn trip, I interrupted his writing and asked him for a favour. See, I am often asked how relational narrative inquiry works in a classroom. For the senior students in the Language Learning courses (ELA) whom I live alongside, stories come rather easily. Greg teaches an eclectic and active group of young learners’ with grades 3 to 5 in the same room. Usually, by the end of the bus tip, we’ve each jotted down a few educational ideas.

Friday I wrote about the professional role he sees for me, and the similarities between Pre-K and senior ELA courses.

However, Friday I also asked him to share the notes I had watched him make over the six hour bus trip.

His class is the kind of learning space that attends to students’ passions (relational narrative inquiry) and is where I’d like to hang out. I think you’ll understand why once you come to know the ‘How’ of Greg’s relational learning space.

Bus trips with Cori are always inspiring to me. She loves education and that is contagious.

We believe in so many of the same things regarding the well-being of our students and at the same time she challenges me with her perspectives. I think we have the same passion but different experiences brought us to the same bus.

On the long trip home I began to write about my dream 2013-14 school year teaching my grade 3, 4, 5 class. My dream seems realistically within arms length.

I received a Christmas gift from my wife Lia, The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Wisdom which I read passages from often. Today I read: …I consider hatred to be the ultimate enemy. By ‘enemy’ I mean the person or factor which directly or indirectly destroys our interest. Our interest is that which ultimately creates happiness. This passage struck me because I had to think about what His Holiness meant. Then I got it. This is the entire crux of what I try to do with my students. In education speak we replace the word interest with engagement. So being engaged in what you are learning about equals happy, eager learners.

From my experience this is one hundred percent accurate. I went from a Kinesiology D student to an honours grad in International Studies. I was the same person, with the same brain, same attitudes about education, same values, but I found interest and value in International Studies and not in Kinesiology.

What are you interested in? I’m interested in having a happy day…aren’t you? What makes my days at work happy are smiling faces, chatter, playfulness, and above all the questions I get when my kids ask, “when are we going to work on __________?” The blank is anything, but more often then not it is a project we are working in. This is interest, and engagement.

These are some of the notes about my next year I wrote on the bus ride last night:

Inquiry projects.
New project every 10 days.
Each would have written and presentation component and would be tied to either ss, science, or health.
There would be a big idea presented by me, then they would come up with the questions which would drive their learning.

Maybe the first couple days of each project we could focus on the ELA aspects of the project, the conventions of the different products we are going to be doing.

A key resource I should try to utilize would be families of the students. At beginning of each project I could send a homework note home informing parents of what the class is learning about and the. Have the students go through the KWLH chart with their parents to see if they have anything to bring to the table (expertise, resources to share, know of someone who could come and speak on the topic, insight into the topic other finding info).

There would be self, peer, and teacher evaluation for each and sometimes we could have an outside audience evaluate as well

We would not have time slotted for ELA and the other subjects we would have inquiry project time.

I need to remember to keep things simple. Simplicity and challenge is the key to engagement at this age.

Flow of ELA products I would like. What would be the best progression?  Skit. Formal essay. Narrative. Poetry. Slide presentation. Comic. Graphic novel. Online story.  Paragraph. Model/diagram. Song or rap.  Podcast or radio show. Poster.  Formal letter, resume of famous Canadian scientist/FNIM/other

Math could also be driven this way as I’m trying to do with the 5s right now.

Now I also need to figure out how to do this for 2 different groups at the same time.
Might not be too hard if they by into it and they could all collaborate on each others subjects/big ideas/driving questions.

Engagement piece at the beginning. You are going to be in charge of your education, in charge of what you learn, in charge of what this year is going to look like for you.

At the end of each project we will check in on how things went and do shout outs and suggestions to motivate for the next one and keep improving for the future.

Questions about inquiry project structure.
How to know if you’re going deep enough into the content area. You present a big idea and let the students take it where they want. But how do you get them the info to want to ask the tough questions. Like if the topic is light science, students think of light and they have never thought about it before, light is just there we use it, big deal.
How do we get them to ask the probing questions?  What is the hook? It has to be connected to an interest area, something they have prior experience with so they have a jumping off point.
And what about those things that students should at least be familiar with, like the names of the provinces and territories, does it really matter or is that one of those things that some kids will pick on and some won’t no matter how Canadian geography is taught?

What about the reading aspects of my ELA program? How do I integrate that with the resources I have at school? My current resource is reading A to Z which has some connections but not a lot. How do I make this happen, I’m fine with working with my librarian but she is not a teacher librarian.

Outdoor education, I would like to do this stuff outside. Have a place outside where we can sit, share ideas, learn, write. Maybe around the ball diamond. Could we make seats like the one I have that you lean back on?

So planning before the year: project big ideas. Diving in points or ‘hooks’ to get the unit going. Reproducible (calendar, rubrics to start with, templates for notes- 4 squares, sequence of ELA products.)

Day 1. Big idea
ELA project
Rubric for ELA part and maybe for other subject area too
Write note to parents as class
KWLH and have parents do their own on the subject!
Day 2. Review homework thoughts and build on them to come up with driving questions and project ideas.
Focus on ELA stuff again today
Think up supplies needed

Day 3. Dive into project
Still spend time on learning the ins and outs of the ELA components.

Greg Kotschorek


Greg is Dad to Bodhi, and partner to Lia. Greg teaches and learns alongside students in grades 3, 4 & 5 at Mortlach School, Canada. Greg coaches senior basketball and many other sports. If you get the chance, chat with Greg, play ball with Greg. You’ll have fun. Find him here.

Main Idea

This past fall my division implemented class time for Professional Learning Teams, known as Learning Improvement Teams (LITs). I love my team. I love the structured time with my team and I love the process. The focus of our team is for all “teachers [to] work collaboratively, [so that] student learning improves as … specific needs of students at our school are addressed” (Read more here)

My graduate writing group includes a superintendent from another division who is writing her dissertation on the three big changes she has been part of during her career. PLCs are one of these changes. A few weeks ago she arrived to group and shared her reflection on this change. She spoke from a superintendent’s perspective and I was awed because I call a few of the leaders in my division friends. I know that many of the leaders who have been responsible for implementing and promoting LITs in our division have faced long days and much negative feedback. However, like my writing team-member, not all LIT feedback in negative. My LIT members appreciate our meetings.

Our small team of five teachers values the time we spend with each other every two weeks. We like that, as a staff, we get to create common assessment for our students; we like that we get to choose literature that best matches the experiences and cultures of our students; we like that we get to come together as a staff every two weeks to discuss what isn’t working with our instruction and to celebrate what is working; we like that we discuss our instructional strategies and our students’ needs and that we no longer discuss Tupperware or fundraising, or relationships. We like that we are singularly focused on improving student learning.

For me and the K-2 teacher, we like that every two weeks we see each other and talk about kids and learning and instruction. We are a very small school but in all school spaces how often do you meaningfully engage in critical and creative reflection about teaching and learning with all members of your staff? It used to be that weeks would go by and I hardly saw the K-2 teacher. I like that my bosses made time for us to talk with each other because communication is, I feel, where everything begins.

Right now, our team is focused on Reading. Specifically our team understands that our students are struggling to understand the difference between a main idea and a topic. This is important work. The middle years’ kids are a bit stronger than the rest of the school. We’ve gone back and talked with the kids. We’ve changed our instruction, again and again. We’ve gone back to our assessment piece. We’ve gone back to our literature. We have returned to the how and to the when, over and over.

What I appreciate with our LITs is that, within a supportive environment, I am encouraged to change my instruction. A supportive trusting environment makes all the difference to my learning. Around our small tables pulled together to make one bigger table and munching on veggies and drinking water we share: what went well, what we hope to change, what we would like to do more, better or differently. We seek feedback. We talk openly about how to change our practice. Most importantly, we come to our LIT table ready to listen.

My LIT encourages me to be creative with students.

I like having a team.

This February was the start of a new term, the beginning of Creative Writing with the grade elevens and twelves. This is my favourite course to teach (yes, I am aware that I say this often). This is a wonderful course in part because my principal allows us a great deal of freedom. Throughout the course the students immerse themselves in the study of place, specifically, the study of how place stories-them, Place Based Education. Once a week, the students and I come together in a structured setting to tell stories. As well, once a week, the students and I leave the building for an afternoon. During this time, we learn in different places, we learn from different places.

Our storytelling sessions haven’t been going well. Our regular class periods haven’t been going well. We are a small group and we have been quarreling. Our time together has been something like: “Well you never”, “This just”, “I hate”, and “Why don’t we” lines of accusations, and if not these, then worse. Spaces filled with loaded silence. No-one is having fun and no-one trusts.

I was about to try my hand at direct instruction with notes on the board.

And I told the students this.

However, I decided to wait until after our first day in the field. I try to begin our PLE experiences with a study connected with food. There is something about food.

We booked into a well-known fast food restaurant in the city. The kids carpooled.

First we met a ‘our’ coffee house where I handed each student a hard covered notebook – pre-ordered by a grade twelve student who said we must have hard covered books if we were to create away from school – I arrived with black leather  journals. We sunk into the soft seats and I asked students to jot down a declarative statement from a moment in their life when they could mark a before and an after memory. For me, mine was a moment in the future, a moment to come, “She’s gone. I’m alone.” Of cause I am referencing the moment when I realise my daughter is away at University and our life living-together will never be the same. Most jumped into story. Most jumped so deeply that they continued to write and I had to pull them away when my Hedge Hog Mocha coffee was ready and it was time for us to we move on to the restaurant for lunch.

Seated, the day’s focus was clarified: to savour every moment, to be aware. Students were encouraged to order items from the menu they had never before tried. A grade twelve student and I shared a chocolate-peanut-butter milkshake, a disgusting sludge that tasted like banana fuzzed dirt. My ordering partner drank the remainder with her hands wrapped around the frosted-metal vat. Another student ordered a strawberry-kiwi milkshake that was like smooth liquid Skittles. Eight milkshakes where soon passed up and down the table (don’t mix the previous two that is just gross). We ordered chicken strips and dozens of different dipping sauces. We tried to out-sauce each other. We wrote. We tasted. We delighted. We smelled. We listened.  

Soon we noted our language. We listened to the statements we used when engaging with our food. With motza sticks in both hands, cheese dangly from her mouth, another grade 12 student sighed, “OH! Ooooh, this is good!”  The lines kept coming. We kept laughing and we kept writing. Deep fried pickles arrived, and grease dribbled down our hands onto our jeans and we shoved in the greasy goodness.

We loaded left-over pickles into takeout boxes along with sweet-potato fries, French fries and seventeen sauces and returned to school to meet the busses home, holding our stomachs and whining from far too many tastes and far too much food. Our sides stretched. Our cheeks hurt.

Before we left the restaurant we had taken those three ideas and combined them into one story. Some asked if the story would be a farcical tale. Others simply listened.  

The next day, sitting around our tight familiar storying table, when I asked what had gone well with our day in the field this is what they shared:

We are more relaxed away from school

We get along better.

We laugh more.

We take writing more seriously.

We focus more.

The waitress will never forgive us.

I heard things I’d never thought I would.

Effortlessly, we then shared our stories. Sometimes we offered feedback sharing what we liked, finding similarities between our writing, jumping off into story again. When we had all shared, we then synthesized our stories down to three sentences. Again, after everyone had shared, we synthesized our stories down to two sentences. A student asked if one sentence would be next, and I replied, “No, one word.”

A few of the kids looked at me. But a few were already rereading their work. We shared again, in the same order.

One word.

A magical thing happened then. One of the grade 11 students said her word twice, then she said, “That’s the main idea of my story. I just found the main idea of my story!”

Another student commented, “I see what you did there.”

“What did I do there? [Long pause] Read your words again.”

As the kids said their words again a look came over them, they were looking at each other. They were listening to each other. They had spent the day together. They had laughed and been silly together even though their beginnings had been different. They had listened to each other. Their main ideas began profoundly differently: the illness of an aunt, the illness of a mother, the night spent in a jail cell… They did not need to read their words, the students knew them. The students had known them when they had lived them years ago and then had jumped into writing about them in the coffee shop. The students are their main ideas; we are our stories.

In one word.

Good.   Twisted.   Shaken.   Differences.   Bond.   Change.   Horrified.   Good.   Quiet.   Stop.

Change the environment.

Learning from a place of trust makes all the difference.

I love having a team.