Monthly Archives: August 2012

Flat Learning: Finding Our Way


I started coming to Manitoulin Island as a teen. My parents had built a summer home on Manitowaning Bay, and it became the place the family gathered for holidays and special events. One of the reasons people build or buy out here is because it is remote. Not removed or distant, just remote. You can drive onto the island via a swing  bridge and the nearest city of size is not days away by plane or dog sled, but a mere two hours by car. The word “island” also plays into the sense of being remote; the connotation that being on the island is being somewhere different, maybe even exotic, or quaint, charming, and rustic. That’s Manitoulin. With not a big name franchise in sight, not even a Macdonald’s, Manitoulin can feel like a place frozen in time. Or it did, until last December when the first cell tower went up.

Somehow, for many people, including teachers, the Internet never fully represented connection. It was for research, resources, and email. It was for static activities.  The students, too, did not reach out to the world with the Internet. Sure, they used Facebook, but to chat with each other. But now we have Smart phones, and our world is shifting. Teachers, who once banned headphones and mp3 players from their classrooms, are now considering how to use personal devices in their lessons. This in turn has led a number of teachers to request pods of computers in the classrooms for students who don’t own devices. This in turn has led to talk of dismantling the labs and putting the computers in all classrooms. This in turn has led to a realization that we can no longer teach in the way that we did; that learning is more personal and that it can be more personal.

This is where flat learning starts. It begins with a recognition that technology is a tool that can help us accomplish whatever it is we need to do, whether that is to improve students’ literacy skills, teach them senior physics, or develop their learning skills like collaboration and initiative. Flat learning is about differentiation, too. It’s about levelling the playing field for all learners–those who have trouble making it to school each day, those who need extra time to learn a concept or skill, or those who need to move on, now. Flat learning is about self-discovery and personal engagement; it’s about authenticity. It can answer, “What’s the point of this?” Flat learning is about feeling connected, first with each other. It’s about taking down the walls that surround us in our space, and then connecting with others beyond our space.

And flat learning is about hope. Sometimes, when we live rurally and remotely we can feel cut off from the world psychologically. We can think that this is it, that what I see around me is all that I can have. And no matter how many field trips and extra-curricular events we plan for our kids to show them “what’s out there,”  they always come back here. Flat learning and flattening classrooms is about the students learning to find their way out there from here through the technology that they can hold in their hands.

When I was first married, my husband worked very hard to convince me to move to the island. But I couldn’t live in a place that was so remote–few people, no university, no theatre, no book stores. I would surely perish. We did eventually find our way here, many years later, and earlier this month, I virtually attended a conference at which 11,000 people attended from 117 countries.


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Flat Classroom: Connect and Reflect


Shall we use the Seven Degrees of Connectedness as our guide to speaking about being connected? About the same time I chanced upon Rodd Lucifer’s ( infographic, I came across a blog entry by Steve Anderson that talked about the value of lurking. Steve’s point is that there is power in lurking and taking, at first. We know that all learners need scaffolding, choice, context, and time for the individual learning process. Steve goes on…

“Many say to me they find value in lurking and searching. But the true value was when they took that next step and signed up and added their voice to the conversation. I didn’t have to push. They discovered that on their own.”

Indeed. When we are ready, we will reach out. Certainly, enrolling in the Flat Classroom Certified Teacher (FCCT) course is my way of reaching out. Additionally, I think we should aim to be at various stages of connectedness at the same time to ensure that we are continually learning. In my school district, I am collaborator, friend, and confidant. On #educoach, I am a novice, and at the Edmodo Conference 2012, I was mostly a lurker.

This summer, I set a goal for myself to become more connected. I have been connected to professional sites like Choice Literacy and The Teaching Channel, and I have used Diigo for bookmarking and sharing, but I needed to be more interactive. I logged into an old Twitter account and jumped into two virtual book studies. It felt good, but not great. I needed to participate more fully, but I also needed something concrete to begin writing about. The  #PB10for10 event motivated me to get cracking on a blog. Writing about picture books served as a great entry point for me, and I had a ball! About the same time, I ran across The Global Read Aloud. Now, I had already made a commitment to work with a colleague on a Flat Classroom project, and I had just signed up for the FCCT course, but The Global Read Aloud sounded too good to turn down. So, I joined and have since found two teachers who will join The One and Only Ivan group. This connection led me to the Edmodo community, which in turn led me to participate in Edmodo Conference 2012.

What have I learned?

  • Lurking is a good start.
  • Jump in and learn as you go.
  • Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know…so keep going.
  • Learning is social, so connect.

– See more at:

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To Sir with Love.


Greta Tvys Balen circa 1975

Greta Tvys Balen circa 1975 outside her grade 3 classroom.

Since I come from a family of teachers,  many people believed I would be a teacher, too. But I defended my right to be myself. I vigorously proclaimed to the world that I would not be a teacher, that I did not get the teaching gene.

And yet on occasion something would happen that would make me, for a moment, rethink my anti-teaching stance.

To Sir, with Love (1967) was one of those moments. I was not yet a teenager when I first saw the movie, and the powerful combination of Sydney Poitier and Lulu’s song captured my imagination. Although I have seen the movie many times since then each time appreciating something new about the film, this year’s viewing really struck a chord. Let me set the scene…

Sir, or Mark Thackeray to his colleagues, has taught his rambunctious charges to refer to each other using the formal “Miss _____” for girls and the surname for boys. One day, one of Thackeray’s boys comes to the staff room looking for a ball. The boy encounters the negative and argumentative  Mr. Theo Weston, who is confused by the boys politeness. He mocks Thackeray’s attempts at civilizing these kids. The following conversation ensues between Weston and another teacher, Josie Dawes:

Josie Dawes:  Do you object to being taught manners by one of the boys, Mr. Weston?

Theo Weston:  I don’t expect to be taught manners by those morons!

Josie Dawes:  So long as we learn, it doesn’t matter who teaches us, does it?

We are teachers and learners–we must be both. We want our students to be learners and teachers–they must be both. We are told this is the new dynamic; the current shift in educational thinking and practice. John Hattie in both Visible Learning (2009) and Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) instructs us on why and how we need to ‘know thy impact’. He confirms for us the power of relationships in learning and that the most important feedback is that given to teachers by students. Of course, Hattie’s conclusions are based on his huge meta-analysis, whereas To Sir, with Love comes from a generation that simply believed in the possibility of change and the hope for a better world.

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Pulling it together.

This summer I participated in a virtual book study organized by the gals at #CyberPD– Cathy Mere at Reflect & Refine, Jill Fisch at My Primary Passion, and Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot . The book was Peter H. Johnston’s Opening Minds. Below are my thoughts as the book study came to a close.

My Final Post: August 1, 2012

We are on the edge of something in education, aren’t we? No longer the authority, no longer the sage on the stage, no longer the only thinker in the room. And we will make mistakes, there is no doubt. We do need to figure out what Johnston’s ideas look like for us in our work with kids and teachers and parents. I am currently working as a literacy coach, and so I am thinking about how I speak to teachers, how I listen to teachers, and how I give them feedback. What kind of world do I help construct for my teachers by the words that I use with them? Yesterday, I met with a young teacher to discuss our foray into a global project. We talked, she talked and I listened, or I hope I did. Opening Minds was sitting on the table at my elbow reminding me to be quiet, listen harder, think about the feedback, choose my words carefully, and pushing me to slow down. Breathe girl, breath.

John Hattie’s research published in Visible Learning (2009) provides the evidence that feedback is one of the top ten factors to have the greatest effect size in student achievement. Johnston’s work gives us the ‘why’ of that impact. I need to remember to provide feedback that is positive, not simply praise; on intention, not on getting it right. As a coach, I am always interested in leverage, and Johnston states unequivocally that feedback is “the point of most leverage” (p. 34). And like many of you, I have a son that struggled in high school regardless of my interventions. As parents, we have influence, but teachers should never underestimate the level of influence we have. The idea of ‘yet’ could not penetrate the consciousness of his teachers. He did not fit into the box of the ‘academic student’, and they could not think of him (or any kids like him) in terms of yet. One teacher summed up her response to kids like him in this way, “You can tell what mark a student will get by the way he stands for Oh Canada.” He never heard her say that, but kids don’t have to ‘hear’ our words. They feel them. It is no surprise then that he spent his high school years reflecting back to his teachers what he saw, heard, and felt. This is feedback, too.

My list of quotes and the language that I need to learn to use is similar to the lists that many of my online colleagues have formed. I have posted mine here. I am thinking that I will distill them both down to fit on a ‘bookmark’ that 1) I can have with me and 2) I can reproduce as my colleagues’ interest becomes piqued. (And it will be as they hear me stutter and stammer into this new language!!) I think that this will not happen quickly, rather the language that I need in my work will emerge overtime. I will have to work hard at being patient with myself.

Here are the ideas that surface when I try to talk about Opening Minds in the early days of processing it.

on Opening Minds, first read 

Create space and time for dialogue.
This means
—slow down.
No rushing in with the answer,
allow uncertainty to feed wonder and discovery.
Make room for confusion in conversation.
Give it permission to spur dialogue,

to build collaborative thinking
to create knowledge

Remember that teaching changes worlds.

How will I know?
Listen to the students. What are they talking about?

There is the answer.

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