Polar Bears & Student Action with @amckiel

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I was putting together the final touches for a geography assignment I’d planned to present to the students the next morning.  While it was similar to an outline I’d used a few years ago, I decided to scratch it after I read two tweets from  Andy McKiel.

And so I read his blog, Chillin’ with Nanuq for more details.  After travelling to Churchill, Manitoba, Andy was embarking on a life-changing experience – the polar bear migration. In the fall each year, the polar bears congregate along the shores of Hudson Bay so they can go out on the sea ice and hunt seals.  Due to global warming, this freeze-up is happening later in the fall, and the ice is breaking up earlier each spring. The situation has become so severe, that polar bears are now listed on Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Working with Edmodo and scientists from Polar Bears International, Andy would be sharing his experiences from the windows of Tundra Buggy One, via daily live video broadcasts. While this area outside of Churchill is isolated geographically, Andy would bring this issue into our rural classroom outside of Wingham, Ontario, via Edmodo’s webcast. This was a compelling story that aligned with the original project criteria.

And so…project re-write.

The next morning, I started class with one of Andy’s images – a polar bear dangling from a helicopter as it’s being brought to D-20 (Polar Bear jail) in Churchill before being taken to a more suitable habitat.


The students were shocked and disturbed.  They were ready to learn.


After spending a few days reading Andy’s blog and the excellent educational resources at Polar Bears International, the students soon discovered they could help the polar bears by adopting one – symbolically!  As a class of 31, they unanimously agreed to reach the top fundraising goal of $250 on their own.  Due date: November 30.

The following week, when Andy returned to Winnipeg, he Skyped into our classroom to answer many unanswered questions the students had prepared for him.  They were also keen to share their “adoption” plan with Andy, whose blog posts and images had inspired them.

While we know the importance of planning a project outline and success criteria ahead of time, sometimes, however inconvenient it may be, changing those plans leads to an even greater learning opportunity. When we connect our students to narratives shared by inspirational people outside of our classroom walls, our students develop a deeper understanding.

As Andy recently voiced in his K-12 Keynote presentation, “Use your experiences to connect with other people in other places to share learning in meaningful ways. The learning becomes an event.”

“The things that motivate our students, and the things that they remember are the things that are most important to them.”  

We don’t always know how the story will end. Go with your instincts and let the story, with its unknown ending, guide the learning and inquiry as our students connect and learn.

And the proof? Today is November 30, and this group of grade 7/8 students met their goal of raising $250. In fact, they raised $293 on their own. Most importantly, every student participated. Andy skyped in once again to participate in their celebration while my students drank Coke from white cans and ate white donuts. While my students may not remember the themes of geography, they will remember what they did, on their own, to make a difference.  Thanks, Andy, for turning their learning into an event.


Left Foot, Right Foot: Student Advice from @charbeck

Each year I get excited about designing a new math project for my gr. 7/8’s data unit. Last year, Super Mario was our theme. After meeting some inspirational teachers who are also runners at #unplugd11, I had help from @charbeck, @aforgrave and @AlanaCallan as we designed a cross-curricular math project using the students’ running data. The goal however, had to be on improvement. Every student needed to feel some success, whether it was distance or pace.

So each day in September, my students brought their bright yellow duotangs out to the track. As the students completed their run (which increased daily), I called out their time for them to record. Using Cool Running’s Pace Calculator, the students determined their daily pace.

Once October rolled in, we got to our data unit in math. Lessons included how to use Google Spreadsheets and formulas. Finally – I got to introduce the project. I was excited, but wondered, would they be? I got my answer when several students asked, “Can I start this tonight?” And they did.

I created and shared videos on how to create a spreadsheet and how to embed their spreadsheet in their blog. After reading their blogs, it was clear that this collaboratively designed project had met the goal: students were proud of themselves. They were runners. Jacob, Alyssa, Ed

Once the student blogs were posted, they pro-rated their pace to the distance required to run a marathon. Then I shared @charbeck’s results from his recently completed Toronto Waterfront Marathon. My kids were impressed! And shocked…when they found out Chris is also a grade 8 math teacher in Winnipeg. “Does he know Mr. Fisher (my Idea Hive teaching partner)”?

The next day after preparing questions, students had the chance to ask Mr. Harbeck about his preparation, race and recovery via Skype. One of my quieter students, who had recently completed his first 10 k, was jumping with excitement after Mr. Harbeck asked, and encouraged him on his own success.

Chris was humble, humorous, encouraging and inspiring.

After the call, when I asked the students, “What were you most surprised about?”, they shared what they learned from Mr. Harbeck…

The training is more enjoyable than the race.
Marathon running is a mental game broken down into 10 mile increments with a little prayer at mile 30.
Marathon runners have smelly gear and wear socks with an R on the foot (so they know what foot it goes on).
Mr. Harbeck shared his key strategy for completing the race: Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It’s a mental game.

Thank-you to my #unplugd11 inspirational team for helping frame this project where all of my students experienced success.
Thank-you, Chris, for making my students feel so special and emphasizing the importance of positive thinking and setting goals.

Unplug’d 11: 25 kilometres later

It’s been six weeks since the unplug’d11 community said goodbye and we all headed back to our regular lives. But we were not the same people returning to our normal routine. Many of us had formed friendships with people we had never met before based on common passions, and we had experienced an openness with each other that we believed was rare in a classical PD venue.

For Alana Callan and me, it started on a train headed to an off-the grid retreat known as The Edge outside of South River. During a short “exchange seats” format, we were randomly seated with Kelly Power and John Evans.  We were suppose to be talking about….hmmmm….Tom, what was that topic you assigned? Instead, we found our shared passion for running. We were talking about how people connect with educators online, and John discussed how he chooses people to follow on twitter by checking their profile to see what resonates with him. He used running as an example. The conversation that ensued sparked something in all of us which paved the pathway for our friendships. For some of us, it was the encouragement needed to get back into long distance running. It was the conversation where connections were beginning.

During the next 2 mornings Alana and I continued our sharing during our morning runs.  The off-the-grid natural setting reminded Alana of a upcoming opportunity to run a 25 km. trail run hosted by a similar retreat in Mattawa a mere six weeks away. At the time we were nowhere near physically ready, but the conversations and coaching that followed from Chris Harbeck and John proved to be the spark we needed. A genuine connection. Over the next 6 weeks, we trained hard, planned and were motivated by our unplug’d team members. Chris, Andy Forgrave, John and Kelly continued to post words of encouragement as each of us independently worked towards the deadline. On September 24, we completed our goal.

So now we’re in the car driving home writing this blog post on an iPad. Sore, tired and proud, we’re both wearing big grins and reflecting on why this was such an emotional and empowering run for us. For starters, when we met up on Friday, we instantly picked up right where our f2f friendship left off. On Saturday, as we struggled up that gruelling, slimy, muddy wall of a hill at kilometre 18, we both felt Chris, Andy, John and Kelly pushing us on. And I could hear John’s voice in his last tweet. “Enjoy Enjoy Enjoy. Trail running is THE BEST!! It will fly by. Take some pics to share!”

When we finished the race, we knew with certainty that we wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on such a challenge without the unplug’d experience. We wanted to stay connected and saw this as a way to do so with a purpose that mattered.

There were similarities between this experience and unplug’d. At both events we were truly unplugged. As we prepared for unplug’d, we began our connection by sharing our uncertainties with each other. Was our topic worthy? Were we? The preparation for the race was similar. But because of the relationship that developed over those three days at The Edge, we already had the commitment – that was solidified at unplug’d. We knew we were going to get there, and our unplug’d cheering squad knew it too as they regularly checked in with us.

When we left The Edge, many of us were adamant that we didn’t want to lose these new connections, the sharing, the collaboration. For some of us the link is running, ds106 radio and math. Yes, math! Our next project involves a classroom collaborative math project with Chris and Andy’s students using our students’ running data.

And so we wonder, how do others maintain the magic of the unplug’d connection when we all live so far apart?

Unpacking from #Unplugd11

Sitting on the train, on the last leg home, I want to secure the magic of UnPlugd11. It’s nourishment that I’ll continue to reflect upon as I challenge myself in my personal and professional life.

Held at the Edge, a beautiful “off-the-grid” retreat in Algonquin Park, Unplugd11 was a three-day meeting of 37 Canadian education advocates – teachers, administrators, parents, trustees. We all came prepared with an essay and narrative entitled, “Why ________ Matters”, which we shared with our peers for further editing. No internet, no cell service, no devices. We were truly unplugged, but very much connected.

During the group meetings, the layers were peeled back as participants shared successes, stumbles, frustrations, questions, guidance and feedback. We were challenged to travel down new paths, even if they were steep.  Disturbance.  From “Cut the fat” and “Claim it, you’re the expert” to “I love you guys”. We recharged.

On a morning run down the long gravel road, out in the blue Swift canoe, sitting on the dock as the afternoon passed by. These were the settings that framed some of those moments when the magic appeared with these passionate collaborators. It was a place where I finally got to meet my teaching partner, and friend, Clarence Fisher, face-to-face.

Some of the first items on my list as I begin to unpack from the #unplugd11 process:

  • Read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, recommended to me by @Stephen_Hurley during an evening conversation.
  • Dig through the Livescribe instructional resources. First use for me, pencasts to support students in my triple-grade math class.
  • Put apples in my basket (@joevans)! Register & train for the Run-off-the-Grid trail race with Alana Callan on Sept.  24. If we can’t convince @charbeck to be our pace bunny, we’re counting on him for his continued inspiration. Anyone else in?
  • Absorb, reflect and question each message in the soon-to-be-published, “Why ___ Matters” essays. How does each message relate to my students, beliefs, and professional development?
  • Deepen connections with the participants, and other educators who push my thinking, as we continue to take risks in an effort to transform our practice for our students.

My friend, Andrew Forgrave recently wrote about unleashing creativity. “Frameworks and boundlessness need to co-exist. Discipline and chaos can sit side-by-side and juxtapose to make something.” Reassurance for taking risks. Moving forward with renewed confidence, I’ll share the messages that for me, define unplugd11. Thank-you Rodd, Ben and the entire organizing committee for a memorable experience.