It's Elementary!

by Jamie Forrest

The Year I Learned There Are More Important Things Than School February 7, 2011

I think I’ve said this before on this blog, but I’m about as middle-upper class as they come.  Although my parents taught me the value of working hard to get what we want in life, I have never wanted for anything.  I have always had food enough to be a little bit picky.  I have always had clothes enough to appreciate style and good quality.  I have always had the opportunity to participate in at least one extra-curricular activity.  Finally, getting a post-secondary education was never a question…  It was only a question of WHAT I would be studying.

I had never even been exposed to poverty.  I was a starry-eyed 22-year-old young woman wearing rose-coloured classes starting her internship in a high school in northern Saskatchewan.  It was that year that I learned, for the first time, that there are some things more important than school.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I think that getting an education is important; it’s just that for some kids, it isn’t (and can’t be) at the top of their list of important things to worry about.  When I started interning, I was frustrated by a portion of my students who were frequently late to class, often sleeping and lifeless during discussions or work periods and rarely, if ever, completed assignments.  I couldn’t understand why this happened day after day.  I didn’t know what to do except keep talking to the kids and to try and figure out with my co-op teacher’s help how I could help them get through our classes.

About half-way through my internship (about 2 months after meeting these kids) when I had started taking on more of the teaching responsibility, two things happened that absolutely changed my world.  The first was during lunch supervision one day.  I saw one of my students who was in an afternoon class with me.  He often fell asleep in my class.  The day I saw him, he was sitting with a group of his friends but had no lunch in front of him.  I asked if he had forgotten his lunch that day.  He then told me the story of his family.  He had four younger siblings.  He had made lunch that morning, but their family could afford only one lunch per day and it wasn’t his day to bring lunch.  The siblings all took turns bringing lunch.  I immediately offered him my lunch, which he refused.  That day was the first time that I realized that there are some things that are more important than school.

The second thing that happened was an incident with another student.  This was one of the students who NEVER finished anything!  I was quite frustrated with this students, particularly because this student was so smart!  I had many talks with him about “playing the education game.”  It didn’t matter how smart he was, if he didn’t do the work, his marks wouldn’t reflect it.  One day, I made him come to my room during lunch break and complete one of the assignments.  He seemed happy and almost relieved that I had given him that opportunity.  I didn’t understand it, but was relieved myself at not having to fight him about it.  The next day, he asked if he could come back and work in my room.  I agreed.  This became a daily affair.  We chatted, he worked on whatever assignments he needed to do, not just my assignments.  Then one day I couldn’t be there so told him that he wouldn’t be able to use my room.  He told me that was okay, but the assignment I had given would probably not be done.  I asked him why and he finally explained: His father (who was uneducated) believed that by wanting to get an education, his son was turning his back on his family and snubbing his father in the process.  The father had a bad temper and would often scream and yell and sometimes beat him if he did homework at home.  I was flabbergasted.  I was sick to my stomach.  Needless to say, I told my co-op teacher and we made sure that from then on the student had a safe refuge to work.  That just solidified for me that there are more important things in life than school.

Those incidents during my internship have shaped who I am as a teacher.  They have helped me understand that there are most often reasons beyond laziness and lack of caring that students don’t work in my classroom.  Sometimes I forget in the moment, but I think back on my internship to remind me.


Situation – Thanking a librarian January 28, 2011

Filed under: Myself as curriculum maker,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 7:17 am

This week for my class, we were asked to write of a situation from our early schooling experience.  This came to me immediately:


I am a reader.  I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been a reader.  I don’t remember much from before I started Kindergarten, but I do remember going to the public library and coming home with BAGS of books to read.  I lived in Southern Alberta at that time.  Halfway through my year in Kindergarten, we moved to Northern Alberta.  I remember going to my new school and being just enthralled with my new school library.  I was so excited at the prospect of all these “new” books I could read.


As I moved into First grade, I had moved on from picture books and couldn’t get enough beginning chapter books.  My teacher recognized both my interest AND the fact that I was quite capable of reading them.  By Second grade, I had moved on from beginning chapter books to full-fledged chapter books.  However, I had also moved on to a teacher who didn’t (wouldn’t) believe that I could read them.  I remember that when our class went to the library, my teacher would not let any of the students venture outside the “Easy” section of the library.  I was absolutely devastated.  I would cry every time we went to the library.  The librarian just sat, seemingly helpless, watching this situation.  Now, as a teacher, I can see that she likely didn’t want to challenge this teacher while the students were around, but she was obviously scheming…


Finally, after watching this situation for a couple of months, I guess my librarian couldn’t handle it anymore.  She finally asked me to be a “library helper” during the morning recess each day.  I was ecstatic to help!  If I couldn’t take out the books I wanted, at least I could look at them, hold them, smell them…  (book lovers will get that)  However, when I got there, I learned that not only would I be able to help, but the “payment” for helping was that I would be able to sign out whatever books I wished during my working time.

Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of this librarian.  I moved away from that school at the end of fifth grade, but that situation has affected me for life.  Thank you to all the librarians (and teachers) who work tirelessly to get (the right) books into the hands of the students they work with.



From Here to There – Reflections on Curriculum January 23, 2011

Filed under: Class reflections,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 1:50 pm
One of this week’s readings for my class was the following:

Jackson, P. (1992).  Conceptions of curriculum and curriculum specialists.  In P. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of Curriculum Research, pp. 3-40.  New York: MacMillan.

Much of this reading focused on different definitions of curriculum.  There was one particular section that really got me thinking.  This was a very short section that named and briefly explained each level of curricula from planned to fulfillment.  They names offered were: official curriculum, enacted curriculum, delivered curriculum, and experienced curriculum. (p. 9)

The official curriculum is the entire set of course offerings possible from a particular institution.  For example, in Saskatchewan for K-12, this would include every curriculum guide developed and available to teachers.  This is the body of work K-12, every subject area.

The enacted curriculum is the course offerings actually available within a particular school/institution.  This MAY eliminated some of the curricula from the official curriculum.  At the elementary level, this may not include separate languages.  At the high school level, depending on the size of the school, they may not offer courses in all the elective classes.  With further refinement, this may also be boiled down to the course outline or year plan for a specific class; what a teacher actually wants to teach.

The delivered curriculum is that which the teachers actually teach.  This may follow exactly what the teacher intended with their course outline or year plan, but it may also differ depending on time, situation in the class, the students in the class or other circumstances.

Finally, the experienced curriculum is what the student actually takes from the delivered curriculum.  This may be the whole thing or just a small part of it.


I think that the reason this section jumped out at me is because more and more often we are seeing huge academic gaps between our strongest and weakest students in a given classroom.  The older the students get, the bigger the gap gets.  We wonder why, given that the students have had roughly the same schooling experience and exposure.


It is obvious that these students have the same official curriculum.  This is determined by the Saskatchewan government and the local school board.  Especially when it comes to the core subject areas, it shouldn’t matter whether a student goes to school in Regina, Moose Jaw, North Battleford or Rosetown, the students should have the same official curricula.  After that, there may be differences.


However, if a student goes to the same school, the initial enacted curriculum should be the same.  The classes taught in a particular grade would be the same.  They would be decided by the school board or the school administration.  It is also true, though, that the second level of the enacted curriculum may be different.  Once the initial enacted curriculum has been decided, it is left to the teacher to organize said curriculum.  Different teachers may choose different orders of presentation, plan to use different books, media, projects, etc. and even plan to use different people to teach.


This flows directly into the delivered curriculum.  A further separation may occur in the actual presentation of the curriculum.  Some teachers have a more traditional delivery while others have more interaction.  Some teachers choose to use textbooks while others use the inquiry method.  Some of class sizes of 16 while others have 30.  Each teacher brings their own experiences, beliefs and teaching style to the enacted curriculum.  All of these factors can, and do create large differences in what the students are exposed to.


Finally, what the child actually takes of the delivered curriculum, even though they have been exposed to exactly the same curriculum, could be completely different.  Just as the teacher’s experiences and beliefs effect the delivery, so do the students’ histories affect what they experience of the curricula.  It is really no wonder that our students come to us with so many different levels of academic abilities.


Since I really only have control over one level of this curriculum hierarchy, the question to me then becomes: how can I change the way I deliver my curriculum to respond to these differences in abilities and experienced curriculum?  I have been seeking out professional texts that aim to answer this question.  One of the best when it comes to reading is Donalyn Miller’s book The Book Whisperer.  This book underlines the importance of individualized instruction (based on student interests and needs) to teach common outcomes.  It is a must read.  I have two books on my TBR (to be read) pile that have come highly recommended in the area of writing: Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter and Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner.


I am always looking for suggestions of professional reads that take into consideration students’ experiences.  If you have suggestions, I would appreciate them!  I am particularly interested in oral language, math, science and physical education.  Thanks!


Who influenced you? January 21, 2011

This week for my class, we were to create something about a person that has influenced who we are as teachers and as people.  There were a lot of people who have shaped who I am.  First, my parents.  Then, my band directors, my friends, my colleagues, my husband and my inlaws.  Of course, my teachers had a huge influence on who I am.  There was one teacher who had a particular influence on me.  This is his story:



High school wasn’t a happy place for me.  I didn’t really fit in.  There were 125 people in my graduating class and about 100 were a part of the “in” group, at least in my eyes.  I had one really good friend with whom I fought on and off.  The other 23 people spoke to me, but I really didn’t fit in with them either.  I was involved in a lot of things, though, so at least I filled up my time.  But, I wasn’t happy.


One of those activities I was involved with was the SRC.  I was treasurer, a teacher appointed position. The teacher who was responsible for this position was a superhero in my eyes.  He was the math teacher, a subject I was enamoured with.  He even wrote the textbook for our class!  He was tough as nails and wouldn’t budge an inch for marks with students who didn’t try in his class but for those who tried, whether they “got it” or not, he would spend hours and hours trying to get them through the course.  He gave praise where praise was due and without putting anyone down, showed his disappointment where it was needed.  He was the embodiment of these lines from Taylor Mali’s poem “What a Teacher Makes:”

“I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.”

He was also the first person who got me seriously thinking about being a teacher.  I had always said that I wanted to be a teacher, but I had not, until meeting this man, seriously thought about teaching as a career.  As you can probably tell, in my eyes, he was everything that I wanted to be as a teacher.


Aside from his influence on my career choice, he also had a huge influence on my self-esteem.  I wasn’t very happy at school.  (Although I was, thank goodness, part of a great community outside of the school building.)  He knew that I didn’t fit in.  Being the faculty advisor for the treasury position, we spent a lot of time together.  One day he said to me: “You are a unique soul.  It gets better outside these walls and some day you will be cherished for those qualities instead of shunned for them.”  Those words were honestly my saving grace at a time when things were really hard.  They changed the way I saw the world.  They stayed with me for a long time.


Later on, I was telling this story to a friend who was an artist.  She came back the next day with a drawing of a purple giraffe for me.  Accompanying the picture were the words: “Purple giraffe: different, yes, but all the more beautiful for it.”  This in turn became my first tattoo as a reminder of where I came from and of the people who have influenced me.


So, this teacher truly shaped the person AND the teacher that I am.  I thank you M. Eugene Jacques.


Teacher as Curriculum Maker January 16, 2011

Filed under: Class reflections,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 3:54 pm

The required reading for my new class this week was this:

Clandinin, D.J., & Connelly, F. M.  (1992).  Teacher as curriculum maker.  In P. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of Curriculum Research, pp. 363-301.  New York: MacMillan.

My typical way of working through an article is to read it a first time, highlighting anything that strikes me as important, or striking either because I agree with it or disagree with it.  When I finish this, I tend to reread the parts that I had highlighted.  I try to see patterns in the statements I found important.  In longer readings, such as this one, I have found using a tool like Wordle helps me to better organize my thoughts.  I input all these highlighted passages, removing any variations of the words curriculum and teacher as they overwhelmed the final product.  Here is my initial Wordle image:

As you can see, there are some words that just jump off the page: materials, subject matter, students, learner, project, schools, classrooms…  These words convey for me a very closed and traditional definition of the word “curriculum.”  This image tells me that teaching is about students following a prescribed program in order to learn a particular subject matter.  As I mentioned above, this image represents both things I agree with AND disagree with.

I have been teaching for 10 years now.  When I came out of university and got my first full-time teaching job, I photocopied as many pre-made programs as I could find.  My shelves were full of workbooks, textbooks, binders full of worksheets, and anything else pre-made that I could get my hands on.  Why did I do that?  Because that is what I remember my teachers having and that is what my cooperating teachers had during my field placements and practice teaching experiences.  I admit, my first year, I used these things just to survive.  I quickly learned, however, that it wasn’t all about being prepared, having the perfect lesson/unit plan, or what the kids could show me by following “the program.”  The real learning happened in the interactions between the programs and lessons.  It is truly a wonder if those students learned anything at all that year!


So, I wanted to see what would come out when I entered only those statements that I actually believed in:

Learners, stories, experience, together, interaction, constructed.  These are words that more strongly fit my belief about the role of curriculum in the classroom.  Yes, in Saskatchewan, we have common curriculum stating outcomes for students.  However, we also have freedom to construct the journey to these outcomes through interactions with our students.  Danielle Stinson explains this in her blog post Teacher as Curriculum Maker:

“Through the use of Outcomes and Indicators teachers are given a guideline of “Big Ideas” that they are to meet through their teaching, there are not prescribed units that they must follow anymore, allowing the teacher to become a maker of curriculum that meets both the interests and learning levels of their students.”

I was always amazed by the teachers who could plan weeks or even months at a time.  I have difficulty planning more than a day in advance.  When people ask why, my answer is always: “Well, it all depends on what happens today with the kids.  They determine what we do tomorrow as much as I do!”  I always have that end goal in mind, but it is the journey, the living, the creating the HOW that is the strong interaction of the four commonplaces: teacher, learning, subject matter and milieu.


From Sharon Creech January 13, 2011

Filed under: #bookaday,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 9:13 pm

I have mentioned my experience reading Sharon Creech recently.  She has since posted two comments on my blog and today I received a copy of HATE THAT CAT.  I opened to the title page to this:  SO COOL!


Inspired by Creech January 12, 2011

Filed under: Myself as curriculum maker,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 8:56 pm

During my new M.Ed class Monday night, my prof read us WHAT YOU KNOW FIRST by Patricia MacLachlan.  She asked us to think of a place that spoke to use both on the level of HOME and WHAT WE KNEW FIRST.  We later had to share this experience with the class.  I shared the story of my life as a gymnast.  I was a high level competitive gymnast when I was much younger.  I was either at school or at the gym. 7 days a week, I was at the gym until I suffered a back injury that forced me to quit.  For homework, I need to create something that speaks of HOME.  My prof wants a “creation,” anything that speaks to us.  She said it could be a collage, a journal entry, an essay, a story, anything really.  Last week I  finished reading Sharon Creech’s LOVE THAT DOG, and was completely affected emotionally by this book. (You can read the post here.)   Inspired by her free verse poetry, I decided to give it a try.  I’ve never really been a writer, so I would appreciate some feedback on this.

A special Thank you to Alyson and Shelley who helped me polish it up before I felt comfortable enough to post it on my site!

Thanks so much.