Category Archives: Leadership

Dear Families…. Can we talk about inclusive language?

I’m hoping that the way I’ve addressed this post hasn’t caused shock and awe.  According to some of the inaccurate statements being circulated about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), you should be offended that I didn’t address you as “mom” or “dad,” or “ladies” and “gentlemen,” and you should assume it’s because the words “mom,” and “dad,” “ladies,” and “gentlemen,” “boys” and “girls,” are all banned.  You should assume that my intent is to devalue you, and eliminate your influence over your children.  Please do not be lured to such ridiculous conclusions.

In the context of SOGI conversations, using an address like “Dear Families” instead of “Dear Moms and Dads” or “Dear Parents” has become a contentious issue.  I’ve been teaching for 22 years and I started using “Dear Families” long before SOGI policy was enacted or SOGI was part of the provincial curriculum.  I prefer it to “Dear Parents / Guardians.”  I didn’t make this adjustment because policy demanded it or because someone told me I couldn’t use the words “mom,” “dad,” or “parent.”  I did this because it reflected the unique situations that students go home to on a daily basis. To suggest that all kids have a mother and a father is willfully ignorant of the daily lives of a lot of children.  Granted, at conception, the contribution of genetic material from a biological mother and from a biological father may be necessary, it is not true that all those “donors” play an active role in their children’s lives afterwards.

Some Anti-SOGI extremists are claiming that by opting for inclusive language (like “families” instead of “parents”) that educators are somehow trying to undermine the status of parents, interfere with their parental rights, and ban the words “mom” and “dad.”  There is no such ban and there is no such objective.   We recognize how important parents are as partners.  I can tell you right now that I don’t have the time to go through every book in the library and replace the words “mom,” “dad.” I’m not even sure there’s enough white-out for the task – and besides, my mom and dad taught me to respect and appreciate books.   See what I did there?  I used “mom,” and “dad” – in the same sentence no less.  I haven’t been struck by lightning, I haven’t had my credentials stripped, I haven’t been disciplined by my union.

I have no interest in eliminating or devaluing words like “mom” or “dad” from our vocabulary.  Moms and dads are amazing beings.  I am fortunate to have both my mother and father in my life.  I also happen to have their acceptance, love and support.  They’ve played valuable roles in the person I’ve become, and their identities as my parents are non-negotiable.  I have no intention of revoking “Mom” or “Dad” from either of their lists of achievements.

Recently, each of my siblings became parents for the first time. Watching my sister nurture and interact with my niece is magical.  Having a child in her life has so obviously enhanced her sense of purpose and her sense of being – as well as her ability to function under sleep deprivation conditions. Hearing her daughter first articulate the words “mum,” “mama,” or “mom” has been an affirming emotional experience. None of educators’ efforts to create inclusive, welcoming spaces for students is an attempt to erase or undermine the role of any mother.  I’d be the first to resist if anyone attempted to steal this title from my sister, from my mom, or from any other person who, under whatever circumstances, assumed the role of mother.

Similarly with my brother, his connection to his son, and the pride he takes in watching the development of this little person in his life is undeniable.  His new role has enhanced his life and has transformed his identity in a powerful way. The pride both my siblings display in becoming parents and assuming each of their roles as “Mom” or “Dad” is something that will always deserve recognition.  The terms “Mom” and “Dad” are not in danger of extinction.

For the record, becoming an uncle has been a privilege and is a new and important aspect of my identity.  Hearing these little human beings refer to me as Uncle, might just melt my heart a little – even if I’m reluctant to admit it at times.  Uncle is a title I’m more than happy to own.  There is something irresistible about having “Uncle” attached to your name, regardless of how they butcher the pronunciation of the title or of my name.  Uncle is another word that is not in danger of being extinguished.  Interestingly enough, if a notice came home from either my niece or nephew’s schools, inviting “families” to come to a performance or open house, I’d feel like I could attend.  If the notice was addressed to “Moms” and “Dads,” I would feel like I wasn’t welcome, and that their grandparents were excluded from engaging with their grandchildren at a school event.  What kid’s life isn’t enriched by the presence of a whole bunch of people who love and support them, and show up for them?

When I address the collective of a class, I try to be inclusive of all the incarnations of family that may exist (i.e. “Share your brainstorm with your family,” “Are there any adults at home that might be able to volunteer for our fieldtrip?”).  When I speak to an individual child, I use the terms that are appropriate for their specific context (i.e. “Did you show your notice to your mom?”  “Are your grandparents coming to pick you up?”  “Do your dads know about the early dismissal on Friday?”).  When I address the collective, I try to use inclusive language.  I try to avoid making assumptions about the people I’m talking about, and I try to avoid leaving someone out.  When I address the individual, I use the language and terms that are specific to their situation.

Here’s an example of avoiding making assumptions: I go to a party. I engage in conversation with a colleague.  Someone I wouldn’t necessarily call a friend.  Maybe more of an acquaintance. I don’t encounter them frequently outside of work and can’t say that I know a lot of details about their life.   I’m curious if they came alone or whether they are attached to someone.  If I ask “is your husband here?,” I’ve made an assumption about that person’s sexual orientation and that the person is married.  If I adjust the question to “Are you here with your spouse?,” now I’m being more sensitive and providing the opportunity for that person to self-identify their sexual orientation, but I’m still making the assumption they’re married.  If I ask “Did you come with someone tonight?,” I’m not making any assumptions. The answer might very well be “no.” The answer might be, “My friend, Gus, came with me.”  If that person points to someone on the opposite side of the room and says “See that person over there in the grey sweater…that’s my wife,” then I know that when I refer to that person’s partner it’s clear that the appropriate word to use is “wife.”

Imagine going to a meal at a restaurant with a large group of friends.  You all order different items from the menu.  One person orders steak. One orders pasta. Another orders pizza.  Someone opts for chicken.  Someone else asks for lamb. One person orders a salad.  Someone else gets a burger.  Someone orders a stir fry.  One person orders salmon.  Someone else has fish and chips.  Someone else has lobster.  One person orders only from the appetizer menu.  One is a vegetarian.  Their partner is a vegan.  One has allergies to peanuts.  One is gluten free.  One wants their salad dressing on the side.  And two want to make substitutions.  This is obviously a diverse dining group with a complicated order.

At the end of the evening, you’re curious how everyone’s experience was. You’re the one who coordinated the evening and you’re hopeful everyone’s had a good experience.  You consider asking “how were your fish and meat?” Most people had some form of fish or meat, but will everybody be included in your invitation to evaluate the experience?  You figure that covers most of the party.  You have made some assumptions about some of the menu items.  It’s not abnormal for pasta, or even salad, to include a meat, or seafood option.  You realize that “seafood” might be a better word to choose, because it would include fish, salmon, lobster, and the shrimp in your friend’s stir fry.  You realize that more of the guests will be included if you ask “how was your meat or seafood?”  You scan the table, considering the guests, wondering if anyone will be left out if you ask “how was your seafood or meat?”

You pause at the vegetarian and the vegan.  You ask yourself, “How do I include everyone? This is ‘nuts.’”  You catch the eye of your friend who you hope is carrying their Epipen, because you know they’re anaphylactic.  You scroll through vocabulary in your brain seeking the right words.  You consider “how was your entrée?”  That seems pretty inclusive, until you realize that your partner only ordered from the appetizer menu.  They are attentive to detail.  Will they feel like they can contribute a response if their appetizer was served with everyone else’s entrée, but, technically, is still categorized as an appetizer and not an entrée?  You do not want to risk the them feeling undervalued or excluded.

The server comes by to deliver the bills.  Placing the bill on the table, the server addresses the collective and asks “How were your meals?”  A simple, inclusive question that anyone at the table can answer.  After several nods and responses, the serve asks individual questions, specific to people’s orders.  “Was the steak done to your liking?  The chicken was amazing, wasn’t it?  The wild salmon really makes that meal, don’t you think?”

That’s how inclusive language works.  It might take a little training and awareness.  It might take a little practice.  It’s not about being politically correct.  It’s about being kind.  It’s about being respectful.  It’s about creating situations where people are not “othered” in some way.  It’s about creating situations where everyone is welcome.

Call it SOGI.  Call it fostering appreciation for differences.  Call it encouraging acceptance.  All teachers are attempting to do is to make safe, comfortable spaces where kids can be kids.  Where they feel included, and appreciated by the communities in which they exist. They are encouraged to be visible and authentic, and to develop pride in who they are.  That’s how kids develop into exceptional beings – when they have the environments that allow them to learn without fear or shame.

“That’s all.” – Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada.

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False Narratives: How LLTT uses SOGI 123 as TNT

If she were elected, Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson would be required to work with teachers like me. (Questionable OPINION on SOGI).  I’m not going to lie…this is NOT something I would look forward to.  My primary issue is that valuable time and resources would have to be invested in responding to false narratives that she promotes.  She clearly has many misconceptions about how education works – and about SOGI.

Her attack on the resources of SOGI 123 continue to be ridiculous and her political platform and public identity is based on a misrepresentation of truth.  She takes “nuggets” from lesson plans, resources, and videos and sensationalizes them with ominous exaggerations.  What she claims with regard to the intent behind them, and how the materials are used might be analogous to me suggesting that, because the Bible mentions slavery, the intent of all Christians is to teach young kids to recruit slaves.  The mere mention of a group of people, and clarity around what their experience might entail is not indoctrination.  We don’t try to teach children to be gender fluid, but we do try to ensure that students who identify in that manner feel safe in their classrooms.

Thompson is under the impression that that when we talk to students about gender as a spectrum, we are attempting to make ALL students gender fluid.  The vast majority of students will identify as male or female and no one is interfering with that aspect of their identity.  SOGI inclusive education is simply about asking students to recognize that SOME people have a different experience of gender that is not adequately understood within binary restrictions.

Teachers make decisions about resources that are relevant and meaningful to our learning objectives (as defined by the curriculum).  We adapt and design lessons to be engaging and informative.  We are responsive to the dynamics of our classroom, and because those dynamics are so unique to each classroom, we rarely follow any lesson plan exactly as written.  So, to take quotes from a suggested plan, and suggest that all teachers are teaching it exactly as drafted is, at best, misleading, at worst, willfully ignorant.

There are certainly lots of recommended resources and lessons plans available to choose from for ANY subject area.  There is such a wealth of resources available, that, even if we endeavoured to, we wouldn’t be able to use them all.  The fact that 14 books that feature transgender characters exist or are recommended does not mean that those 14 books are going to be used in the classroom. It simply means that teachers have choices.  It allows for teachers to think critically about the materials and select texts that are developmentally appropriate and connected to themes they are developing in their classrooms.  These books are often used among a multitude of other books.  Resource selection and use is informed by experience gained in practicums, methodology courses, seminars, professional development opportunities, and building relationships with our students.  Our choices are informed by the needs of our students, some of whom identify as trans.

Thompson taking issue with the number of books available is a little like claiming a 10 000 volume library collection insists that patrons become paleontologists because Thompson found 100 books about dinosaurs.  Or claiming that grocery stores are force-feeding green beans to their customers because there is a display of them in the produce aisle.

Interestingly, Thompson will promote the perspective of one doctor who engaged in a study (that has since undergone some additional scrutiny from peer reviewers since it was initially circulated) and claim it as the definitive understanding about trans identities.  She neglects to include all of the other perspectives of doctors and researchers whose work represents other findings.  Take some time to Investigate the differences between the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians.  Thompson’s material comes primarily from one group, ignoring that one is considered the authority on pediatric issues, and the other is regarded as a politically-minded Anti-LGBTQ+ group. Her selection and promotion of resources appears to undergo less scrutiny than the ones used in classrooms, something I consider irresponsible when one is making public claims about complex topics, and claiming to be an expert on things that negate the lived experiences of others, and ignore the professional perspectives of health providers. When it comes to what resources and how they are being used in classrooms, I’m going to defer to the judgement of the trained professionals that step into classrooms to do the challenging work of educating children.

I continue to encourage anyone who wants a rational understanding of what SOGI is and how it is actualized in a classroom to talk to their child’s teacher. It is dangerous to rely on the perspective of someone who cherry-picks her resources, uses them out of context, makes inflammatory and inaccurate claims, and who so clearly polarizes the conversation.  Sadly, the presence of this candidate and the volatility of her platform, will actually distract teachers from the important work they do because we’re going to be busy correcting miconceptions about SOGI that are the result of this candidate’s fear-mongering.

 

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New Perspectives on a New School Year

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As another school year begins, I’ve had a lot on my mind, and I’ve been doing some pretty deep thinking about a few things.  I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of success as a presenter of a couple of topics: particularly “Writing” and “Boys and Learning.”  When I’ve shared stories and examples of what I’ve produced in the classroom, workshop participants have enthusiastically embraced strategies and been open to many of my philosophies and approaches.  Many have commented on my passion for writing and how practical my strategies are.  It has been empowering to be able to share examples and to feel like I was influencing positive change in classrooms I’ll never even set foot in.

For approximately 18 years I’ve been sharing my professional life in online conversations, via committee work, through consultation, as a key-note speaker, and in workshops that I’ve had the opportunity to present.  This has come quite easily and has rarely been controversial.

I’ve been reluctant to embrace some of the social media platforms, and have tended to be hyper-sensitive about what I share, particularly when it comes to making aspects of my personal life and my personal views public.  I’ve worried a little that certain truths might interfere with my professional life or advancement in that regard.  The very idea that something I “liked” or subscribed to, or images or messages I posted could negatively influence the way I’m viewed or whether my expertise might be devalued might seem ludicrous to some people, but it’s made me a passive consumer of social media and not an active participant.  For much of my life I’ve separated my identity as a gay man from my identity as an educator, despite the fact that the two are inseparable.  I worried that my role would be limited to the “the gay teacher” and it would limit my capacity to be remembered as the innovative teacher, or the creative teacher, or the fun teacher.  I feel secure enough in my accomplishments to date, that being remembered as the “gay teacher” doesn’t come with the same negative connotation that it used to.

This post by Chris Wejr may help provide some context for my hesitancy about social media.

http://chriswejr.com/2014/01/22/not-everyone-is-able-to-tweet-and-post-who-they-are/

I don’t know if it’s getting older and being less concerned about how the world views me.  I don’t know if it’s because the world is making some progress and the timing just makes sense, but, lately, I feel compelled to take on an additional role, which is very closely tied to my personal identity.  I want to be more involved in advocacy.

My school district passed a Sexual Orientation / Gender Identity policy in 2011, amidst controversy and opposition from a vocal parent organization.  Their public response made me suddenly feel that I had an obligation to provide students with a different perspective than was being reported in local papers.  It wasn’t because I felt personally attacked by the dialogue that was taking place, but I was genuinely concerned about any kid who sat in a classroom questioning his or her sexual orientation or gender identity listening to the negative messages and the contempt with which certain words were used and not feeling like they could respond or that support was available.  I nervously raised the topic and took those first few tentative steps towards opening the classroom dialogue, well aware that much of the opposition to the proposed policy was coming from within my school’s catchment area.  I was surprised to discover that I didn’t have to say much and that students were relatively comfortable voicing their views and responding to each other.  Our local policy, and now an expectation from the B.C. Ministry of Education that all B.C. school districts include Sexual Orientation / Gender Identity in their codes of conduct has encouraged me to do more.

I’ve had some great success with developing writers in my classroom.  I’ve done some impressive work with fostering supportive environments to engage boys in classrooms.  I’ve shared my ideas and views about these at conferences, in inquiry groups, and wherever I had an audience that was receptive.  Many people know this.

What many people don’t know is that I’ve also been doing some great work with creating opportunities for conversation about the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ issues, and in fostering acceptance of differences in my classroom.  This is a topic that I’m now ready to share with others.  I’ve started to include some of the examples I use to foster this when I teach writing into some of my newer workshops.

Don’t expect an LGBTQ unit plan.  That’s not an approach that resonates well with me.  I’m not keen on preaching what other people should do, but I am more than willing to share stories about the experiences I’ve had and the results I’ve witnessed.  If you are someone who’s thought about exploring these topics and wondered how to introduce them, hopefully, you’ll find something useful in the posts to come.  I encourage you to have the courage to do follow through and start (or continue) the conversation.

I worry that language in district policies will fall short of having a meaningful impact and I want to encourage teachers to create an LGBTQ presence in the resources they select, in the conversations they facilitate, and in the curriculum they implement so that LGBTQ youth and families see themselves reflected in the classroom.  I do believe that there are subtle, relevant connections in a variety of curriculum contexts than can easily be infused into existing lessons plans or units of study.  It is my intention to provide some insight into ways of starting that conversation in classrooms through personal anecdotes, and by sharing some picture books, read aloud titles, and novels that depict LGBTQ characters.

My goal is to make this website a more active resource, with more frequent posts to provide commentary and relevant, helpful resources (particularly to teachers who are hesitant to tackle some of the conversations or are worried about the potential controversy it may inspire in their communities)  on “Writing,” “Boys and Learning” and on “LGBTQ Inclusion.”

This is your invitation to the conversation.

 

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Stack the Deck for Student Success: A Culture of Speed Stacking in the Classroom

The Origin Story

One day, a number of years ago, i discovered an individual set of Speed Stacks in my staffroom.  They had been delivered for promotional purposes, but, at the time, no one really knew what they were for or the potential they held.  They were a set of twelve cups and an instructional DVD that I began to play around with.  Speed Stacks are specialized cups that are stacked in particular sequences.  Participants learn the various formations and patterns and then strive to complete them as quickly as possible.

Quite fascinated by the cups, and how quickly I could master the steps, I took the set into my Grade 6/7 classroom and demonstrated Speed Stacking.  Students, particularly the boys, were eager to get their hands on the cups and to see who could stack the fastest.  I was able to introduce the sport with that single set, and generate a lot of interest.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered that class sets were available through our District Learning Resource Centre.   I quickly signed out the Sport Stacking set, used the instructional video to help students learn the various routines, and a whole new culture of daily physical activity was born.

Maximizing Daily Physical Activity

I was fortunate to have a principal that recognized the merits of Speed Stacking and was quick to approve the purchase of our own school set of Sport Stacks. The Sport Stacking Kit, containing 30 sets of cups, as well as some additional specialized cups, timer, and stacking mat, cost approximately $500.  You can even arrange to borrow a set to determine student interest and try out a Sport Stacking program before investing  in a kit.

Being in a large school with limited access to scheduled gym periods, Speed Stacking was an option to help integrate daily physical activity into my routine in a way that was engaging to students and offered enough challenge to maintain their attention.  You’d be surprised how much physical exertion can be expended with a simple set of 12 cups and a highly motivated mindset to achieve a personal best.   Once students were familiar with the stacking patterns, it was easy to insert a 15 minute stacking opportunity into virtually every day.  If I didn’t have stacking on the agenda, I’d often have students requesting the opportunity.  Some of my most difficult students, and many of the students with behaviour issues were the ones most adamant that we stack.  Stacking activities are very versatile, and can range from individual challenges, pair activities, and team relays.  The Instructors link on the website speedstacks.com will allow you to find resources with a variety of program options, activities and instructional videos.  You can even access a complimentary set for your classroom if you aren’t able to commit to a larger purchase.

Competition vs. Personal Best

Being in an elementary school environment, the word “competition” tends to have a negative connotation and I’ve certainly engaged in lengthy conversations about the value of competition (or lack thereof).  There are certainly situations where competition is unhealthy and destructive, but I would contend that the kind of competition that gets emphasized during Speed Stacking is more in the vein of achieving one’s Personal Best than it is about beating others.  Certainly, there is the thrill of being the individual who can stack the fastest, but you’d be surprised how often the “champion” has been one of the quieter, modest students who surprised everyone, and ended up earning the admiration of some of the more typical “cocky champions.”  It can be a very humbling experience for students, because it’s the focussed, determined student who practices regularly that is often triumphant.  Speed Stacking does require a level of commitment and focus to really successfully master it and end up with impressive times.

Guinness Book of World Records – Stack Up Day / Fostering Student Leadership

In the past several years we have participated in the Guinness Book of World Records – WSSA Stack Up Day.  It is a day, coordinated by the World Sport Stacking Association (WSSA) whereby participants around the world attempt to break the existing World Record for the “Most People Sport Stacking at Multiple Locations in One Day.”  It is an exciting and fun opportunity to practice and share Speed Stacking skills.  Typically, I have had my students become “experts” in a variety of skills, we close off the gym for a day, and they supervise 7 or 8 stations that other participating classes rotate through.  Participants simply have to commit to stacking for a 30 minute period.  

My students regularly buddy up with other classes within the school before the event and do some pre-teaching of the stacking skills.  Even classes who’ve never touched cups are able to participate in the event.  We deconstruct the process and talk about methods that make for good teaching or coaching.  It’s incredibly endearing to watch these Grade 6/7 students take pride in their skills and then to patiently teach younger students to stack.  I’ve watch some of the most challenging boys I’ve ever taught nurture their young buddies, even on occasion sitting behind them, and guiding their hands into the proper positions.  If you are reading this and are in a position to participate in the Stack Up day, I would encourage you to register.  If you are looking to host a similar format of a stations approach, feel free to get in touch and I can forward you with some additional suggestions about setting up and preparing for the day.

Stacks as a Management Strategy

On occasion, I’ve used the cups as a management strategy for students with challenging behaviours.  Ultimately, for students to have the ideal opportunity to participate in stacking and to have the most flexibility for stacking formations, they need to have 12 cups.  With fewer cups, there are still stacking options and they are still able to practice, but they are unable to complete what is referred to as “The Cycle,” a key sequence in Sport Stacking.

During class, students keep a stack of 12 cups on their desks.  When problems occur, they are asked to return a cup.  The key aspect of the management strategy though is that when students are meeting expectations and demonstrating cooperation, they can earn the cups back.  I even allow them to earn extra cups to create a buffer for their impulsive behaviour.  It becomes a very visual strategy to monitor behaviour with logical consequences if they “lose” all of their cups.  Under ideal circumstances, they earn back all the cups and can fully participate in an activity they tend to be motivated to engage in.  Fortunately, to date, I’ve never had a student have to surrender all of their cups, and be entirely unable to participate.

The rewards of bringing Speed Stacking into my classroom over the years have been numerous.  Hopefully, this post has been of some use to you, and has sparked an interest in exploring Speed Stacks with your students.

Have a productive year and happy stacking!

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