Viva La Revolution! With Special Thanks to Jo Boaler
“Viva la revolution.”
A statement written by Jo Boaler as she signed an article I had written for the Fields Institute in Toronto about incorporating low floor, high ceiling tasks into my Grade 5 classroom. Viva la revolution… the words circled around in my mind as I tried to find coherence and alignment with my thoughts, feelings and experiences as an educator. While I was determined to be optimistic, I was somehow unsettled. I had been teaching elementary school students for 15 years and within that time I had been in different system roles working with the Ministry and as an instructional coach with the Board, before completing my Master’s in Education in 2015. In just over a decade, I had grown more than I could have imagined, proudly becoming equal parts academic and educator, absorbed by the idea of research-supported practice and knowledge mobilization. For the first time in my career, I felt like my eyes were wide open…. on the precipice of something.
I was ready to change the world – to take on the system, notorious for moving at a glacier’s pace or like an iron ship trying to make an about-turn.
Although I was not entirely sure of what it was, in my gut, I knew it was something important. I was committed. Passionate. And so certain that if people knew about the decades of research that existed in change leadership and education reform, they too would share the excitement of what education could be. I was ready to change the world – to take on the system, notorious for moving at a glacier’s pace or like an iron ship trying to make an about-turn. I felt certain this change had to happen at the classroom level and that if I could deliver on the “how to,” others would surely take notice.
Armed with my understanding of research, policy and curriculum, I began my journey of self-reflection and exploration in a junior classroom with 30 ten-year-olds – who would become like family by the time June rolled around each year – a hazard of the job on all accounts. In September, I began by transforming the learning space entirely, removing all the desks and replacing them with standing tables, stationary bikes, old painted tires complete with large pillows and a beautiful cafe style workstation that faced the floor-to-ceiling windows of the sun-drenched third-floor classroom. Surfaces were covered with whiteboard paint so they too became an active learning space. There was no front of the classroom and the role of “teacher” was fluid and flexible as students called me “Alison.” I helped guide them through their self-discovery of the world, building up their strengths and carving out unique next steps in their learning.
Next was program. I abandoned any notion of a schedule, or learning blocks or “X” number of instructional minutes per subject, in place of just good teaching and learning. I had read too many studies concluding that less was often more. Less minutes of mathematics instruction could mean better mathematical achievement when paired with happy kids, with physically active kids, less sitting in desks, less pencil and paper, less of the endless work that seemed to embody the traditional concept of “school.” The standardized math delivery plan and 3-part math lesson were replaced with spiralling the mathematics curriculum in what my good friend Teri Lantange coined as “Strand-a-Day.” Five math strands in the curriculum, five days in a week – we would do one strand each day of the week for the entire year. This would later transpire into a Ministry-funded K-12 research project supported by the Knowledge Network for Applied Educational Research (KNAER) Math Knowledge Network (MKN). A professional learning community driven by research and facilitated by classroom teachers – the first of its kind in Ontario.
I took my lead from Sugatra Mitra, Ken Robinson, Michael Fullan and Jo Boaler, working diligently to align research and practice with real kids in a real classroom setting. Endless hours were spent building relationships with experts in education including Dragana Martinovic from University of Windsor and MKN, Ron Lancaster from OISE and David Cameron and Christine Corso from People for Education who were, and always have been relentless in their support and encouragement. Everything that happened in those four walls, and most of the time beyond them, was grounded in research and driven by student voice. Creativity, citizenship, democracy, fluidity of power and “big thinking” teaching and learning became our focus.
Our classroom community bond was imperative and each day I poured into my students the physical and mental power we could create by moving as one, being as one in mind and body. What ended up happening was something I have never experienced in my career until that point. During outside free time, daily physical activity, recess, my class moved as a team. Together they created endless imaginary games, or built snow forts or role played from their favourite books – always as a team. They moved as one unit, inclusive, united, undivided. The community had become theirs. Something that they valued and cherished long after I had released it to them as their own. It became how they interacted, how they learned and how they moved through their days. Together.
Viva la Revolution! These are the moments! But when I stopped to look around – it was just me and my kids. Just me, as I watched my students make these incredible mathematical connections across disciplines, 10 year-olds comparing linear and quadratic equations, debating with each other over how to create an expression for a mathematical problem they had just pulled apart. Just me, as I saw the meaning of team come together and transpire over days and months. Just me, as I watched my spec. ed. students disappear into an academic community of their peers because, with each other’s support, learning disabilities became invisible. Just me.
These moments – I have come to learn – are some of the greatest gifts in a career as an educator and also some of the loneliest. The Revolution is real. But it exists in the “like-hearted” and in “the promise of public education” and in a “virtual team” that is often separated by time and space and walls and buildings. It lives in the excitement we carry inside, bottled up until we almost explode with joy the next time we sit beside people from our “tribe” at conferences and over cups of coffee. It lives in the willingness to challenge the status quo and ask questions when questions aren’t really meant to be asked. It lives in the courage to be us, unapologetically, for the greatest concern any organization should have is that its most passionate employees will become silent.
So for those of you out there like me, I want to say – I believe in you. I am proud and humbled and honoured to stand beside people like you. YOU! Are doing exactly what you are meant to be doing. Each moment and each day, because without you, I am not sure who I would be. Reach out. Hold your head high while you hold the invisible hands of those who travel the same path elsewhere. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t really alone, just away from your team until next time we meet. We are all still here. Find inspiration in the old and new, the dated and the innovative. That is what we do and do it well indeed. Breathe in. Breathe out. Viva la Revolution.
Follow her on Twitter @ABoehmeCootes.