Lessons learned from AISI
The Zen of AISI

June 22, 2011

John G. Diefenbaker High School, Calgary

Reprinted from Ten Years of AISI: Impact on Teachers, Schools, and Beyond, by Jim Parsons and Kelly Harding

Teaching can be a heads-down, focused job. Teachers carry work home night after night—grading, lesson planning, worrying about student discipline, caring to help students whose life situations are complex and difficult and who seem to be falling through the cracks, trying to find the right assessment. This very complexity can weigh on their heart and soul. Heaviness can lead to cynicism.

Given all this, what teacher would want to—when given a chance—engage in more teacher talk? Well, Calgary’s John G. Diefenbaker High School teacher Brenda Heater is one of those teachers. And Cycle One AISI began to make all the difference.

AISI funding created the space and Calgary math teachers working in a math professional learning community (PLC) initiated the change. As Brenda notes, “The beautiful thing about the Cycle One AISI project was that it was placed in the hands of math teachers and we worked on what was needed in our classrooms.”

One of the first AISI activities was to survey teachers to see what they thought they should do. What projects should be created? What does the literature say about assessment or project-based learning? What was happening in the math world that teachers should know about? What should math teachers do to keep up with the best and the brightest curricular ideas? In retrospect it seems such a small thing, but Brenda is still astonished by it. “We went to lunch together—during the school day! We were treated as if we were professionals and our work mattered. We felt valued.” Then, as she tells it, the math teachers formed a professional learning community. “We—the whole group of math teachers—would get together and just think pedagogy and assessment—things we never had time to talk about because there was no time in the day.”

These conversations with other math teachers changed Brenda’s teaching and her life. She started to make major changes in how she theorized about how her math students learned. New questions and ideas began to emerge. “It started to open possibilities—things were not so concrete—it nudged me away from certainty about how things should go.” She was learning and growing herself. And changes in her teaching and thinking carried past the first Cycle One of AISI into Cycle Two. Fortunately, the ability to create projects that fit school needs remained, and teachers took advantage for their own professional development. She remembers that, during the second AISI project as a learning leader at Lester B. Pearson, “We had 20–25 first- and second-year teachers each year. Our principal realized we needed to focus on new teacher mentorship.” AISI allowed that work.

As the learning leader for math at her school, Brenda was fortunate that AISI enabled Calgary teachers to spend time engaging leading educational thinkers. Tim Skuce was doing work in the interpretive realm. Teachers worked with Sharon Friesen, cofounder and president of the Galileo Educational Network (now an associate professor in educational leadership at the University of Calgary), and Olive Chapman and Joe Towers (U of C), who pushed them pedagogically. This was an opportunity for Calgary math teachers to think about education differently.

As she reviews her history with AISI, Brenda sees that the changes she made and the growth she experienced were about math curriculum, as well as teaching and learning about life. She notes philosophically: “Teaching is about who you are and who you are becoming in the face of the young.” She adds: “As I grew in my thinking, I was overcome with an incredible sorrow about what I had been doing—then I became angry about having been locked into a system of thinking that made growth difficult.” For her, the Zen of AISI was that the AISI projects interrupted her slumber. “It impacted my way of being—not just in the classroom, but everywhere.” Brenda began to engage a bigger question. For her, the question “Who am I?” was about “not just who I was in front of kids—but how I saw the world? What else needs to be interpreted in the world?” As she tells it, “I learned to write and think differently than I did before.”

Brenda is thankful for AISI. Before AISI began, she admits she “was always searching.” But, the answers she found “were strategies and bandages; things that felt flat without the reasons to do them.” The changes began 10 years ago, but she describes them as “on-going—the whole notion of discourse and pedagogy has completely shifted.”

Change is never easy—especially, it seems, in math. The culture and tradition of math and math teaching has, for years, been stagnant. Making changes has its difficulties—even students often fight the new ways of thinking in math. Brenda notes, “We have been schooled in math—it is about doing and procedural.” But, for her now, math is more.

Brenda expresses her faith that “Students are subjects and not objects.” She is still growing as a math teacher and must, as she characterizes it, do a “dance of hypocrisy between what I believe and what I have to do.” Even with huge growth, the life of a teacher can be a struggle. What does AISI have to do with this “struggle of being?” She explains, “You want to live a certain way as a math teacher and a person, and this seems at odds with what is being presented to you.” But, “Thank God for the Some-of-the-time.” Some of the time, her math classes “just sing.” For a teacher, there is nothing more Zen-like.


Glenbow Elementary School, Cochrane

Reprinted from Ten Years of AISI: Impact on Teachers, Schools, and Beyond, by Jim Parsons and Kelly Harding

Teachers at Glenbow Elementary School in Cochrane meet once each week to plan their Cycle Four AISI projects. The goal is to create a “Big Project” that will one day immerse the entire school for seven weeks. The year before, Grade 4 teachers and students used Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to construct a project that covered the school’s entire curriculum for seven days. As any good action research team would do, those teachers met afterwards to discuss the success of their work and the learning of students to see what worked well and what they could improve. The entire curriculum trek moved teachers through an action research process that took them from creating, and assessing, their own curriculum and pedagogy. As one Glenbow teacher said, “We talk about it—try it—and figure out why it works.” Is there a more straightforward definition of teacher-led action research?

But building curriculum and assessment is not the only professional learning Glenbow teachers take from their AISI projects. During projects—which, in effect, are weekly embedded professional development—they grow professionally in many ways—one step at a time. The day I visited Glenbow School, I watched two AISI teams working. I witnessed teacher collaboration in action. Professionals were

  • reading and vocabulary-building as they discussed their book club selection;
  • growing in professional theory-building: teachers reshaped and translated the work of other educators into what would work at their own school; and
  • practicing leadership.

Such collaboration has a multitude of positive effects on teachers’ lives. Obviously, there is the natural improvement of teaching skills and curriculum design (both ways) as teachers with 30 years of experience and first-year teachers work together in teams. The Big Projects that emerge are integrated units that cover their students’ curriculum objectives in social studies, science, and language arts in their design and structure. Each is planned for Year Three in the AISI cycle and planned on AISI time—one hour per week. Each Big Project is grounded in the theoretical and practical work of educational thinkers—in this case Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design. And, each one was planned as a collaborative venture by a team of people who, in their work, engaged a classic action research problem with the grassroots collaboration and just-in-time assessment one might expect from this ongoing venture.

Perhaps what impressed me most as I watched the teams meeting was the deep theoretical understandings and personal professional growth that had its genesis in what seemed like a simple activity of template creation and translating other educators’ work to their own practice. In this seemingly simple activity, team members were working to establish a common language, common vision and common values in patient, progressive and professional ways. It was a patient activity. One teacher said: “This year, we are just working to get our heads around some of the reading in the area.”

The teams I watched were focused, on-task and moving toward goals (and no administrators were present). “The administration doesn’t sit in on every meeting.” Instead, teachers with experience work with teachers with less experience. As the teams noted: “We learn from each other.” One teacher said about the teams, “I don’t feel like I teach alone anymore.” Another said, “You cannot believe what other teachers bring to the table.”

In this one AISI project, centered in a school with 400 children, teachers are growing in their professional learning; teachers are becoming colleagues in the strongest of ways; and teachers are embedding personal growth into their work—one practical and theoretical step at a time. This elegant and patient professional development occurs as teacher-led teams work towards what they simply call “Big Projects.”

Oh, by the way, Glenbow School’s support staff creates and works on its own AISI project. They, too, are gaining valuable professional learning.   

Also In This Issue