It’s All A Matter Of Perspective

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A friend recently asked me how I get through what she considered to be my somewhat ‘shitshow’ of a life (her words, not mine). I’ll be honest…our family has experienced its share of craziness, hardship and sadness in the past five years. Yet, we’ve bounced back many times. Why? The answer is laughter…lots of laughter. That, and the understanding that with each crappy situation, we can also find some really incredible moments, and quite often, a life lesson. It all comes down to your perspective.

In all seriousness, I don’t know how interesting my life would be if everything went exactly according to plan every single moment of every single day? To be honest, I’d be living an absolute snooze-fest. On the lighter side, my hikes this year would have lacked in hilarity had it not been for an out-of-nowhere lightening and hail storm, red army ants, killer tree branches and a train riding our butts in a tunnel. I wouldn’t have felt the exhilaration of getting to the top of a climb to see spectacular views if the hike up hadn’t had my lungs screaming at me to return to the beach. My memories wouldn’t have been quite as memorable if I hadn’t locked my keys in the car in the middle of nowhere…because how can you not laugh at your own idiocy?

I know that my roadtrips wouldn’t have been as exciting if we didn’t get lost every once in a while…or had car troubles…or had our luggage sent to the opposite ends of the world…or were sent to another country with nothing but our underwear. These glitches in carefully laid plans tested my sanity, but also give me opportunities to problem-solve, and perservere. And the people that I met in the strangest of circumstances are an added bonus that made these hiccups and frustrations so worth my while.

Struggles in my personal life with loss and illness are another story. To say that these experiences sucked is an understatement of colossal proportions. They were painful to experience and difficult to work through. But…they also brought about a sense of community and family, and the laughter that came from the stories shared was healing in many respects. Do I wish that they hadn’t happened and that people that I love were still with me? Without question. The void that their absences have left in our lives is enormous. Yet, I can’t change the outcome and bring them back. Instead, I can choose to remember the good times and the lessons learned. And believe me, there are many.

So, in answer to my friend’s question, life has definitely been chaotic for our family in the past five years…that goes without saying. As a result, I’ve had a few stories to tell over the years. Some were entertaining, several were heartbreaking and others fall somewhere inbetween. Whether they evoke a guffaw or not, these stories are my life, with all its ups and downs. What I do know is that the challenges that I have faced have made me stronger, more resilient and definitely more tolerant of things coming at me from left field. How I choose to see them is all just a matter of perspective. And I choose to see the humour…and the good…and the awesomeness that life has provided me. So this shitshow…well, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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When They Do It For The World, They Want It To Be ‘Good’!

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It is Saturday night and I’m reading Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL and the Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and Katie Nowak. I may need to get a life, but as with his first book, it is giving me a lot to think about and so I am writing once again!

Our team is into Year 2 of our Project-Based Learning (PBL) initiative for our Grades 5 to 8 (actually, it’s closer to Year 3 if you count our initial preparation to get it up and running) and Year 1 for our UDL initiative in Kindergarten to Grade 4 (same goes for the prep time!). We learned quickly that the two are very much intertwined and for PBL to have an impact, it has to run off the same principles as UDL.

Our first year was a success for both students and staff, in large part because we learned so much from the process, thanks to the hiccups along the way and a real team effort to make this happen. This success found its way into other grade levels as well, as our Kindergarten and Grade 3/4 teams began implementing their own versions of PBL/UDL practice. Through it all, to say that our learning curve was crazy would be an understatement.

The majority of our students loved the process, but our Grade 8 students struggled with the changes to their learning routines because they weren’t used to the less-than traditional methods of learning that they were being thrust into. A few students even asked their teachers to go back to the ‘old ways’ where they gave them the information because this ‘research and thinking stuff’ was too hard. Yet, when the students were surveyed in the Spring to determine if their engagement levels had improved from the previous year, we knew that we were at least on the right track when the data showed an increase of 17%. This isn’t a testament to their levels of empowerment, but it is definitely a start.

Our team also struggled initially, some more than others. I would be lying if I said that PBL isn’t a lot of work. You have to learn to think outside the box, collaborate with your team when you may prefer to work with your door closed in your classroom, and discover different ways to meet your many students’ needs. Yet, by the second and then the third round of PBL, our teachers were seeing the fruits of their labour. Their students were buying in, the level of energy in each class had increased substantially for both students and staff, and they were able to see the difference that they were making in their students’ learning.

Why? Because their students were empowered to demonstrate their awesomeness in authentic and relevant ways. A Museum of Caring saw students prepare exhibits in multiple ways to share stories about events and individuals that have made a difference in the world. By presenting their work to outside agencies, people took note and some of these presentations made it to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights as part of The 180 exhibit featuring elementary and high school students.

In answering the question, ‘Is disease necessary?’, other students worked with graphic designers from a local business to create PSA’s about any number of diseases currently having an impact on our community. These were presented to community members and students in other schools so that others were equipped with the same information.

Students also brought the medieval times to life through video and board games that were featured in a community event. They also designed the next donut flavour for Tim Horton’s and had to pitch their best work to a panel of judges, including an employee of Tim Horton’s. (I may have been one of those judges and may have had a ‘few’ samplings of 16 different types of donuts! My personal favourite…strawberry & bacon!!! Seriously delicious!!!) In both cases, the students’ presentation and persuasive writing skills were beyond impressive, particularly given that some were in Grade 3 and others in Grade 8.

Throughout the PBL process, the students’ work was made authentic by including community members, agencies and businesses in their learning. It was made relevant by developing ideas around curricular outcomes so that they met student interests and strengths, while supporting areas that require extra support.

In the past year, I believe that everybody learned…teachers…students…and administration. And we were better for it. All that said, my favorite part of our first year with the PBL experience was the impact that it had on our students’ desire to improve their work, not because they were going to get a better grade, but because they felt that they could improve their ideas based on what they had learned throughout the process. When our Grade 7/8 students had to answer the driving question, ‘How can we learn from what others have left behind?’, they came up with a variety of visual representations and pitches to make their case. Following some reflective work and feedback from their peers, community members and staff, as well as the learning that took place based on other students’ work, some groups came back asking if they could tweek their ideas because they felt that they could make some improvements. Did this take extra work on their part? Yes. Did this extra committment deter them from iterating their ‘final’ project? Not for a second. Just as Rushton Hurley said, they were no longer interested in their projects being ‘good enough’. With all that they had learned, knowing that others aside from their classroom teacher were going to see their work, they wanted it to be ‘good’ (Couros & Nowak, p. 38) and I would wager a guess that they wanted their work to be better than ‘good’. And you know what, they were awesome! Not only did I learn something from each of them, they made my heart sing!

And so, we will continue to learn in this amazing community. I can’t wait to see what happens this year!

More thoughts on Parenting 101

More thoughts on Parenting 101, following my last post. One of the smartest decisions that I made as a young mother was to take parenting classes…as many as were available over the course of my child-rearing years. I’ve often wondered why it is that we need schooling to learn to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, pilots, estheticians and the list goes on. Yet, for such an important job like parenting, there are no requirements. The minute you choose to have that baby, you are in free-fall mode. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Why did I decide to go the parenting class route? When my second child arrived, my once-upon-a-time angel of a first born turned into Satan’s spawn and I did not handle it well. Mommy Dearest comes to mind. Being the astute person that she was, my mother called me out on it, something that did not sit well with me. That said, she was right on the money and I knew that before my life became a complete shitshow, I needed to get my head in the game, sleep or no sleep.

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And so began my journey with discovering the ins and outs of parenting à la parenting classes. If anything, I signed up to be with people who were experiencing similar issues, and to work with mentors who had ‘been there, bought the t-shirt, and done that’. So what are a few of the tidbits that I learned over the years, courtesy of these classes?

  • They provided me with an avenue to work through certain issues, to be proactive rather than reactive and to realize that we all go through unique situations as parents. The first class that I took (and loved it so much that I went for a second round) was Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (S.T.E.P.) for children 6 and under. Who knew that I wasn’t the only person on the planet who had moments where she felt like ripping out her hair when one baby was teething, two were suffering with chicken pox and Momma Bear hadn’t slept in a week? Talk about liberating!
  • I also learned that some ‘problems’ weren’t battles that needed to be fought nor were they hills that I wanted to ‘die on’ with my need for control and to be right. If my daughters wanted to dress themselves in the morning, have at ‘er. The only requirements were that their clothes weren’t dirty or ripped. That meant the odd ensemble of sweatpants under a tartan skirt, with a lovely dinosaur sweater, and topped off with a tam, none of which matched. My favorite was the dress-up hair extensions that one child chose to wear to school as a hat. An added bonus were the looks from complete strangers…sooo worth it, because their shocked expressions were hilarious!
  • I learned that if your child wants to ‘help’ with housework, let them. Yes, the chances are really good that your floor will be disgustingly sticky once they get through with their ‘cleaning’, but sometimes having to rewash the floors once the kids have been put to bed is worth their pride in being your helper. And as time goes on, they will only get better at it, so much so that you can be sipping on a martini, only having to lift your legs in time to allow them to sweep under your feet! (Now wouldn’t that be fabulous!)
  • I learned that when you ask a child a question and expect an honest answer, do not (and I repeat) do not pass judgement on their response. That is hands down the quickest way to get them to shut down. How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk was a great class that had me opening my ears and closing my mouth more and more. The upside is that my children are exceptionally open with me and each other. The downside is that my children are also exceptionally open with me and each other! There have been a few moments over the years when I made the very conscious decision to cover my ears, complete with alot of very loud ‘la-la-la-la-las’ to block out any noise and incoming information that as a mother, I had zero interest in hearing!

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  • I learned that when your child has had a complete and utter loss of brain function, and by that I mean that they decide to throw on some ‘tude at any particular moment and speak to you with some form of disrespect, don’t worry about what your neighbors are thinking or what the strangers believe is taking place. They aren’t your concern. Your child’s life lesson about how to speak to people in their presence at that moment is. My mentors taught me to deal with my children’s momentary lapses in judgement as they happened…respectfully, but firmly in a way that didn’t damage their self-esteem. A glance (in my case, often referred to as the ‘mother look’) and perhaps a «I’d suggest you try that again» worked far better than bottling up my anger so that it came out at a later time at a Hurricane 6 level. And to be honest, their ‘tudes were very few over the years, so I’d say this method worked wonders.
  • I also learned that if you have multiple children, one great idea is to take each of them on dates individually. This idea came from Sibling Rivalry, by the same authors who wrote How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. These dates don’t have to be an expensive affair, but you need to take the time to spend time with each of them on their own so that they understand that their place in your life is not being usurped by another child or new baby. When my girls were young, I would take them out…to the library, for a picnic in the park, for a bike ride, for an ice cream cone, etc. When one daughter was with me, the other two were at home with Dad, and when it was his turn to hang out with one child, I spent time enjoying the other two. They loved it and felt really special to be able to spend that time with each of us. As adults, they still call and ask me for a mother-daughter date and I love every minute of it. (One of our many hikes over the years!)

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These are just a few of the MANY lessons that I have learned over the years. That said, I continue to learn as a mother, even as a mama to adult children. I know that I make mistakes along the way, just as I did when they were toddlers. But, the mistakes that I would have made without the support of the different mentors with whom I worked over the years, and the classes that I took to get better at what I do would have been far more frequent, and possibly life-altering. For what it’s worth, take the parenting classes, read the books and ask for help! It will be well worth the ride!

I had no idea!

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One of my daughters asked me yesterday how it came to be that I understood what to do as a parent. The answer is that I’m still learning, 28 years in! Parenting is a tough gig. Our children do not come with ‘how-to’ manuals upon arrival, and even if they did, no manual on this planet would even come close to helping us navigate the mirky waters of being a mother, because let’s face it, no two kids are exactly alike. And I have three very free-spirited, mountain-climbing, jungle-trekking, ocean-swimming daughters who are in no way, shape or form alike. So we go through life as a new Mom and then a not-so-new Mom constantly trying to figure out how best to support those bambinos of ours well into adulthood. As I sit at home minus another child who has finally moved out…alone for the first time in an eternity and looking at family photos, I am reminded of those days.

As a new Mom, I did not even remotely understand what it meant to be sleepless…until I had my second child. That brought exhaustion to a whole new level for me, so much so that I was known for putting my car keys in the freezer and my frozen goods in the trunk of the car.

I did not have the vaguest idea about toilet training, and only lucked out when our eldest, who constantly played the potty like it was a drum, turned it right side up, sat down and ‘accidentally’ pooped in it. Her initial fear turned into jubilation on our part, and so our potty training was complete…with child #1. I can’t say it was quite so easy with #2 and #3, #2 being of the projectile pooping variety. ‘Nuff said!

I also did not know that I had to check the floor to one daughter’s bedroom like it was a minefield before entering in the middle of the night, as she was wont to toss her full diaper over the side of the crib and then go back to sleep, her tiny little butt in the air.

I did not have any idea what a full-blown tantrum would look like in a crowded mall or about the looks that we would receive from passersby when we pretended not to know our child, hoping that the craze would pass quickly.

I did not know that spot-checking my children’s underwear selection was a necessity, until my youngest chose to cartwheel down the aisle in Walmart in full commando under her sundress.

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I did not understand just how curious children can be until I had to retrieve my three-year-old from the top of a 40-foot pine tree…because she wanted to see what the world looked like from high above the roof.

I did not know just how much fear I could withstand nor how much strength I could muster until one daughter suffered a serious head trauma. I also didn’t know that even when your voice sucks beyond measure, you will sing publicly in a crowded hospital and you will not care, because that is the only thing that your child recognizes…the only thing that will calm her.

I did not know just quickly I would be able to change a diaper when pressed for time, even when this meant a full clothing change three times over within a twenty-minute period.

I did not know how insanely crazy my children could drive me with their 5 million questions in their toddler years and how much like my parents I sounded when I finally answered, « Just because! » I also did not know how much I would come to miss those questions as my adult children moved away.

I did not know that I would have to be very precise about what it means to use power tools under the direct guidance of an adult, because, as creative as my children are, that mitre saw might have come out in my absence once or twice. That said…the fort that arose as a result of the use of said mitre saw was amazing!

I did not know just how much my own heart would ache for my daughters when their hearts were broken, and how much I would draw on my father’s sense of humour to make things better for them, without ever really succeeding in mending the hurt.

I did not know how much their laughter would fill my soul over the years, nor how much I would go back to my journals and videos to be reminded of those times when we laughed most, healing as it is.

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I did not know how much I would miss them when they moved out permanently, this empty-nesting thing not being all that it’s cracked up to be.

I did not know alot of things before I embarked on this journey of motherhood. In fact, I’m still learning. What I do know now is that using the potty as a drum, strolling through the mall as a toddler with or without your briefs, climbing those trees, building those forts, asking those questions and dealing with heartache are simply a part of growing up and learning about the world, for both the parent and the child. Did I lose a few hours of sleep over the years? Absolutely! Would I change any of it? Not for a minute.

Year One with PBL

We have officially completed one school year with Project-Based Learning and what a ride it has been. Our team put in an extraordinary amount of effort to get this initiative up and running and despite a number of hiccups along the way, I’d say that Round One was a success.

We opted to develop three projects for our Grades 5/6 and 7/8 teams to allow our team to ‘ease’ into the process. With the help of our Teacher-Librarian, our teams were able to come up with integrative ideas based on our curriculum, two in French and one in English. Full-time PBL would have been overkill for us, as our team needed to be able to breathe in between each project.

In Grade 5/6, two of the projects that they worked on focused on these driving questions: 1. How do we tell a story about a person or event that has had a positive impact either locally or globally? and 2. Now what can we do as individuals or as a team to make a difference? This involved researching events and people, spending time at our Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) to learn about what makes a great exhibit and then setting up a Museum of Caring to present their own exhibits to our community. As a side benefit to this, five of our students’ displays were then chosen by the Educator in Residence to be a part of The 180 exhibit at the CMHR where they presented their work to museum attendees and then participated in a panel discussion in the evening. Not too many people can say that they have been presenters at a national museum. This then led to a collective fundraiser for Siloam Mission with a Pride-themed dance party to cap off their learning.

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The learning that went on was incredible. Research, public-speaking, writing of all varieties (memos, essays, letters of intent, etc.), not to mention the opportunities for developing time-management skills, resilience and perseverance. I was blown away by their professionalism and by the growth that I witnessed with a number of students who have normally shied away from public-speaking or taking on leadership roles.

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The Grades 7/8 teams worked on projects that looked at the following driving questions: 1. What can we learn from what others have left behind?; 2. Is disease necessary? and 3. How can we bring the Medieval Ages to life? The first involved developing archeological presentations that demonstrate how history has been impacted by our ancestors. The second had the support of graphic artists from a local company who helped students develop their own public service announcements. The third had students presenting their recently developed games to members of the Sharks’ Den and parents to garner investments for either their video or board games. What impressed me was the desire for many students to continue tweaking their work to make improvements. The process became the focus and not the final product. At the same time, I was amazed at their creativity, their openness about the process and their intuitiveness when it came to their understanding of their strengths and areas where they could improve.

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How do I know that this year was a success? Multiple ways.

  1. Our annual Tell Them From Me survey saw an increase in student engagement to 77%, up from 64% last year. Comments to open-ended questions saw a 100% buy-in with our Grades 5/6 students. Our Grade 7 students were also very much pro-PBL. Grade 8 students weren’t as sold on the idea initially, as this was an entirely new way of learning for them. Yet, by the third go-round, they were really enjoying the project, minus perhaps the stress that came with project deadlines.
  2. Reading test scores saw the majority of students at or above grade levels.
  3. Teachers indicated that more students were actively working on projects and on-task throughout the day.
  4. Behavior management issues decreased, as compared to last year.

The added bonus was that teachers in other grade levels were also impacted by the excitement that this initiative was causing in our middle years, so they too started to develop their own PBLs. Two of our Grade 3/4 classes tweaked an Optimal Learning Model project to answer the following question: How can we create the next best Tim Horton’s donut flavor? Students developed their persuasive writing skills, public-speaking and creativity when they presented their donut to the judging panel, including a representative from Tim Horton’s. And there were some very interesting and delicious flavors in the mix!

At the same time, when our Kindergarten teacher asked her students what they liked best about Kindergarten as a wrap up to the year, every single student mentioned the two PBL projects that they did this year, one on the Arctic and the other on Space.

So we’re headed in the right direction. This takes time, perseverance, creativity and an openness to learning on our part, but I believe that it is 100% worth every minute invested in the process. I can’t wait for Year Two!!!

Raising Hope

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This weekend was my first time participating in the 14th Annual Brain Tumour Walk. This was a surreal experience, in large part because I was walking in memory of my mother and not beside her on one of our many strolls in the past.

I didn’t know anything about the walk because brain tumors were not one of the cancers that had impacted my family to date, so this wasn’t even on my radar. And then it was. A friend who lost her brother to the same disease suggested that we participate together in support of research for a cure, and of each other because we both understand what its impact can have on the people left behind.

This morning was many things. It was incredibly sad because Mom wasn’t there. At the same time, I had the support of a friend who hung on tight to my hand as we honoured those who were no longer among us with a minute of silence. This helped.

It was heart-breaking to be surrounded by so many families who are in the same boat that I am, and who also don’t have the luxury of walking with their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, wives or husbands. Yet, it was also heart-warming to see all these same people coming together in memory of these people who meant so much to them.

It was uplifting because the crowds were able to honour the survivors, people young and old who were still with us, donning their blue warrior t-shirts that told the crowd that there is still room for hope.

It was heart wrenching because many of these survivors were so ridiculously young, a teenager, a father with a young child strapped to his shoulders, a young twenty-something woman with the tell-tale signs of hair that is just growing in…people too young to be suffering like this.

But most of all, it was hopeful. People like myself were surrounded by supporters, family and friends who came out to stand by and for their loved ones, to raise funds and awareness about a cancer that has devasting results. (As a PSA, a diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme has a median survival rate of 12-14 months, with a 1% to 14% change of survival for 5 years or more, depending on your age…the younger, the better. Mom made it for 11 weeks. Might I add that this sucks…enormously!)

The upside to this day was a beautiful walk with friends and the knowledge that the organizers of this fundraiser were able to surpass their goal of $90,000. The reality is that this is so very far from being enough, but when I think about the young father carting his baby on his shoulders, enjoying every minute with him on that Saturday afternoon, I hope and continue to pray that at some point, it will be enough.