Dear Teens

I see what you’ve been doing. I’ve been noticing it for a while now. Almost weekly you are solving intractable problems that have had adults stymied for years. A cheap way to check for pancreatic cancer. Stopping the spread of germs on planes. Cutlery that scans for bacteria.  A rain and fireproof sleeping bag for the homeless. The list gets longer each time I look.

And what amazes me is that even when you don’t have many resources, you’re re-inventing the world. You’re doing it with scraps from dump heaps and in places where there are few books and only occasional electricity.

I’m envious. You’re just newly arrived here on this planet and yet you seem to see much more than we who have been here for many decades. Perhaps we have become jaded or too resigned to the world we know?

Of course it helps that you don’t have to invent mathematics. Or the printing press. Or the Internet.  With easy access to the collective pantry of human ideas, you are deftly repurposing and reconfiguring what you find here.

And you do this despite what you learned in kindergarten, one of the first lessons in school: stay inside the lines. Luckily for us, you realize that colouring outside the lines can create a completely different picture. It’s outside conventional lines of thought that creative solutions lie. As you are well aware, it’s outside we’ll all have to go if we have any hope of leaving a livable planet for your children.

You’re quite concerned about the state of the planet you find yourself on and so apart from all the scientific breakthroughs you’re making, you’re also stirring change socially and politically in ways that sometimes stuns.

Those of us who are watching you know that Malala Yousafzi is not an anomaly, that there are many like her who refuse to accept the norm as normal for young women.  We know not all 12-year-olds can start an organization like Free the Children but there are many more like Craig Kielburger who want to end social iniquities such as child slavery. We know that First Nations youth are “idle no more” despite their inheritance of a painful legacy. And we know that Victoria Barrett, who is suing the Obama administration, is at the vanguard of youth demanding that something be done to mitigate climate change.

There are multitudes of you with many brilliant ideas but too often those ideas are being buried beneath your boredom and frustration in schools. It was no surprise to see in a recent study by Yale that 75% of you are either bored or frustrated or tired in schools.  It’s certainly no surprise to Sir Ken Robinson who has for decades been urging schools to allow you to be who you are: creative problem solvers.

But despite his message resonating with teachers worldwide, too many politicians insist that you become human calculators, writers of the 5-paragraph essay and memorizers of the information you can access within nanoseconds on that device in your pocket.

It’s no wonder that many of you are tired. I would be exhausted every day if I had to adjust and adapt to a new environment every hour as you do in schools. How do you cope with being in Biology for an hour and then completely changing your train of thought to adapt to French or Physics in the next hour? How do you adjust to the emotional climate of so many different classrooms and teachers each day? The effort must be daunting!

I wish that schools nurtured your creativity instead of punishing it.  I wish that you were given time each day to allow your ideas to gestate. And I fervently wish that public schools were funded as a priority so that you had all the tools you needed to show us what we cannot see.

If these wishes came true for all of you and not just a few, I can’t imagine what you could do.

But I bet you can.

In admiration,

A Teacher

Take the Leap


She had tears in her eyes when she said, “I wish I could teach like you do but I’m too afraid”.

I didn’t know what to say and mumbled something that probably did nothing to assuage her grief as I hugged her.  I’d like to try to say something in response now.

On the long road that led to being invited to Italy to share my teaching ideas, I too shed many tears. I know very well what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the enormity of our task and the impossibility of ever doing enough for every student in our classrooms. And I too have an abject fear of failure.

But what I hold on to when I take that leap into the unknown every time I try something new in my classroom, is my extreme distress at the discomfort so many of my students experience in school,  and my ongoing irritation at the waste of their creativity.

Have you noticed lately how often there is news of yet another discovery or invention by a teenager? How many more could there be if we could stop force-feeding them boredom and instead unleashed their minds to look anew at the intractable problems of our world?

I wonder how many teachers, after hearing Ken Robinson’s plea for us to nurture creativity in schools, take the leap into innovating their teaching practice? Since February 2006 the talk has been viewed over 36 million times and translated into 59 languages but I’m curious about what its impact has been on the critical core of education systems: the relationship between teachers and students.

That’s where the “frontlines” of innovation actually are: the space between a student and a teacher. It’s what I find in this space that motivates me to keep trying to change what happens in schools.

In that space hangs the question each student asks of me: Do you care?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a taskmaster or a laissez faire teacher, a charismatic John Keating (Dead Poet’s Society) or a demanding Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver),  caring comes in many colours in classrooms.  And, luckily,  students are caring colourblind – they’ll take any colour of caring that they can get.

They really don’t need all the technological tinsel promoted during too many professional development workshops. They may enjoy the novelty of it but when that wears off, they’re back to wondering whether you, their teacher, care.

Care is one of those words that can have many interpretations but what I mean does not include unicorns and rainbows.

Caring is pragmatic. Even if I can’t change the entire system today, every day I can ensure that my students, in my classroom, are as comfortable as possible by allowing them to move, to eat, to take brain breaks. I can choose to be aware of what they need as human beings, not as empty vessels to be filled and tested.

Caring is challenging. It requires me to put myself in another’s shoes, to be compassionate, empathic; to see the other, my student, as I would want to be seen. Even when, and especially when, that student is recalcitrant.

Difficult students have been my most memorable teachers because conflicts with them have been the catalyst for my excavation of who I am as a teacher.

This excavation is necessary because it’s where all change, anywhere, begins. From the inside out.

So if we are to change education systems, yes, it’s important that there is political and economic support for change, that there is social support for innovation, and that enough time is also provided for teachers to explore new ideas, but what is most critical of all is that each individual teacher gather up enough courage to override her fears about changing what she does each day in her classroom.

Because change requires courage.

The kind of courage that Brene Brown talks about in another famous TED talk. The kind of courage that requires the willingness to be vulnerable, to risk being hurt.

The kind of courage lubricated by tears.

And, dear colleague, when you’re ready to take that courageous leap, I’ll be there to hold your hand.

We’ll take that leap together.

On time, timelines and timetables

child development

Isaac, my friend Stephanie’s son, didn’t know that he was supposed be walking by the time he turned one. He continued to scootch around on his butt for another year until he decided, 5 days before his second birthday, that it was time to get up and walk. And he did. Just like that, with no warning that that would be the big day. His timing for this feat “late” according to textbook timelines.

Timelines and timetables are ubiquitous in our modern lives. It would be difficult to imagine life without them but we forget that they’re concepts we invented.  

Timetables make a lot of sense for trains and planes. When tons of steel is hurtling along a track or when a metal tube is speeding through the sky, accurate timing of their movement is crucial. A split second mistake could court disaster.

Keeping track of time is also important wherever time is money, whenever it would be a waste of money to spend time on the trivial, when efficiency could produce more profit.

But tabling time in schools only makes sense if we ignore the fact that students’ development doesn’t stick to a timeline. And that we cannot predict the date and time that actual learning will happen.

And even though we know from research that no child follows the textbook timeline for development, we ignore this fact in schools. As Ken Robinson says, we age-batch children in schools as though the date they were born was the most interesting thing about them. We’ve been doing this for so long that it seems completely natural to do so. But really, it’s a strange thing to do.

Another quite strange thing we do in schools is to start school at the same time that the working day starts, as though children’s brains are just machines that can be made to work when the clock strikes 8am. This too seems to be quite a normal thing, but only if you ignore the fact that our students have bodies that follow a rhythm that is much older than the oldest clocks ever invented: a body clock that follows a circadian rhythm.


Like other natural organisms, our students’ bodies respond to cycles of light and darkness, with various biological processes happening at different times of the day and night. When children become teens, this circadian rhythm shifts so that there is a delay to when the sleep phase begins. Instead of kicking in at 9pm, it does so at 11pm.

We also know that teens need at least 9 – 10 hours of sleep each night.

It should therefore not be surprising that teens are so sleepy when they arrive at school at 8am.

We could continue to ignore their discomfort and continue to expect them to be alert at 8:00am to begin “working”.  We could implore them to pay attention at that time even though we know from research that they will be more alert at 10am, when their circadian rhythm switches to processes that increase alertness. We could continue to impose our abstract concepts about time onto the natural development of our children.

Or we can choose not to.

I choose to respond to my students’ circadian rhythms.

After years of feeling awful about trying to get my sleepy teen students’ attention in the morning and in the afternoon, I’ve come up with a way to structure my school day that is an integration of my students’ circadian rhythm and the fixed boundaries of our school’s timetable.

This is how I do it…

I teach in a school of about 1400 students of about 69 ethnicities. The school day is divided into 4 blocks that are each 77 minutes long and that rotate over the course of the semester. So I may see students for a particular course in the mornings for 4 weeks and then in the afternoons for the 4 weeks after that and then back again to the mornings. This switching from mornings to afternoons happens 3 times a semester for each course that I teach.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 7.23.35 PMTimetables at our school are complicated. We have 4 timetable versions running simultaneously. We have students on a 5-month semester timetables and also students who are in classes for the whole school year. Within those broad frameworks, we have the regular secondary school type of timetable where students move from class to class.

But students in co-op classes stay in one classroom with one teacher all semester. And Career Preparation students have half a regular day and half a co-op day.  Both Co-op and Career Preparation students study academic courses and also go out on 6 weeks of work experience in the community.

To accommodate these 4 kinds of timetables and the students going out on work experience, course times rotate through the semester. For example, an English 11 student would have her class in the mornings for half the semester and in the afternoons for the other half.

The first block of the day starts at 8:25am, when my teen students are still in the process of waking up, so we have what I call a “soft start” which means that I don’t strictly monitor any latecomers for the first 30 minutes. The rest of the block is spent on activities that give me a gauge of student learning experiences and progress.

The second block that starts at 9:51am is for presentations or lectures. This is prime time for teens to focus and to concentrate without too much effort. And I take full advantage of that small window to teach that part of the curriculum that must be “delivered”.

After the second block of the day, students have a 40 minute lunch.

During the third block,which begins at 11:59am, students are engaged in team-work activities that include project based learning and experiential learning. Sometimes they prepare presentations or participate in a game or simulation.

The last block of the day starts at 1:25pm with a 15 minute nap or a meditation.  At this time of day, my students are exhausted and overfilled with information being delivered to them. It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles I decorate curriculum content with, they can’t focus on what I’m saying. Having a short nap gives their sleep-deprived brains a boost of energy to work independently until the end of the school day at 2:46pm.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 00.43.16

Back to my friend Stephanie and her children. She wishes that Isaac and his sister Alice (6 years old) could sync their circadian clocks with hers. She often works at night and so sleeping in late is something she’d love to do, if her children would let her. But Isaac and Alice are neither bound by the expectations of what should be happening at 6am each morning, nor the expectations of timelines of development. Whereas Isaac is a “late” bloomer, Alice has jumped ahead in her development.

Developmental timelines indicate that Alice should only be capable of understanding abstract ideas and hypothetical situations when she turns 11 years old. Her mother wishes this was so because then she would have another 5 years of peace without Alice’s sophisticated arguments when she wants to get her way.

A recent example was when Alice was extremely unhappy about the family’s plans to move to New Brunswick. She told her mother that she was really disappointed to have wasted all the time she had invested in making friends here in British Columbia. She didn’t want to start all over again, investing more time in order to make friends in Moncton.

What strikes me most about Alice’s argument is that at six years old she has already adopted cultural values regarding time as a commodity that should not be wasted.

But I also wonder about what happens to children like Isaac and Alice in schools when who they are is completely out of sync with what timetables and timelines expect of them?