Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teacher Gold

Collaboration: working together in a supportive and mutually beneficial relationship. Friend and Cook

At McGirr Elementary, intermediate and primary teams meet twice a week: once while the principal has an assembly with students, once while students eat their lunch supervised by EAs. The day I went to visit, I got lost in the halls on my way to the meeting, admiring bulletin boards of student work and the Christmas door decorations. When I arrived at the right room, the primary teachers were already gathered with their principal (Jill attends as many of the PLC meetings as she can) and the Assistant Superintendent who had been invited to listen to their reflections on the recent report card implementation. They were well-prepared. They began with what they appreciated about the new report card, followed with what didn't work and why, and concluded with recommendations. Many of their recommendations demanded deeper collaboration across the district, so that we can support each other quickly and share resources (exemplars, comment banks, a quick guide for using the technology), rather than add to our workload by inventing everything in isolation. It struck me that we continually seek answers to our difficult situations "out there," when everything we need is here. We just have to find a way to mine the gold.

And what a gold mine can be found at McGirr! After the team shared their recommendations, we had just enough time to get a run-down on their work. Their team was focussed on increasing student ownership. They talked of the reflection journals they had developed (for thinking about thinking) and the kid-friendly rubrics they designed to allow students to assess their own learning. Their next project is to develop a "writing clothesline," an idea they'd learned about from an Assessment Webcast and had been implemented by colleagues in another school (see the Resource PowerPoint developed by Donna and Tammy). They planned to use the writing tasks from the BC Performance Standards, mark together, choose samples and create a K-3 "clothesline" of samples so that students can self-assess effectively and choose goals based on concrete evidence of "what's next."

It's hard not to simply stare in awe at these women, at their energy and their commitment to work together, to reflect on their practice, to give voice to what matters for teachers and learners, and to learn deeply to improve student learning. As McGirr teacher, Robin, said, "At the end of our PLC meetings, I walk away and say, wow, we're doing good work." Who can ask for anything more?

For more on our PLC series
If it's important
What do we value?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Recipe for Miracles

We are constantly asking - how can we create success for each child? And we continually hit the wall of poverty or learning differences or isolation or fragmentation. We shrug our shoulders and say - what can we do with these children or those teachers? How can we succeed while inequities exist? Ask Coach Stevenson. He's found the answer.

John Barsby is one of the smallest public schools playing football in BC and is an "inner city" high school. On paper, it doesn't have a hope of sustaining a football program, never mind winning championships. At Barsby, it's hard to get kids to attend school each morning; it's hard to get kids to finish school with their Dogwood diploma. But they get up early and stay late to play football. And they work hard! Very, very hard, both at football - and if they want to continue to play football - at school. Coach Stevenson's recipe: relentless support, focused teaching, consistency, powerful goals, positive attitude, a focus on effort - try your hardest! get better each day! - a commitment to "doing the right thing," celebration of success, and, above all, team effort. After their miraculous double-A BC high school championship win on Saturday, quarterback Patrick Doyle said, "This is a team with no ego. We stick together. We play for each other. We play as one."

Imagine if we played as one in our schools. We'd be as unstoppable as the Barsby Bulldogs.

Photo: by Craig Letourneau

Monday, December 6, 2010

What do we value?

Last week we gathered a number of people together to discuss how they built a learning community in their school. As I sifted through my notes and video from the discussion (more on that soon), I tried to put my finger on what I was missing, what the leaders were trying to get across as they tried to answer my clumsy questions. It was only when reading Sustainable Improvement by Coral Mitchell and Larry Sackney (thanks for the loan, Twila), that I realized that I had asked the wrong question. Mitchell and Sackney write, "The question is not 'How will we build a learning community?' Instead it is, 'Who are the people in this community? What do we value and what is meaningful to us? What is disturbing us, and how are we making sense of the disturbances? What do we want, and where are we going?'"

Two things are meaningful to all of us. First, student achievement matters. We are all disturbed when some of our students don't thrive. Second, educators working together can have greater impact on student achievement (and greater joy in the process) than a teacher working in isolation. To work together, we need to value time to talk together. If, as Roger said at our meeting, you agree that "talking counts - us talking counts," then "you shape the environment to make it happen." How you go about it depends on your community. But you get started. Today.

For more on our PLC series
If it's important

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Drop Everything and Work Together

At Bayview Elementary, the educators have made a commitment to find time for teachers to work together. They've found the time where they already had it: all students begin their day with "DEAR" (Drop Everything and Read). During that time, teachers meet while the two student support teachers, Aboriginal teacher, principal and counsellor take over the classes, settling students in for the day, checking in with them, connecting, and giving them the time to leave behind the bustle and chaos of home to transition into their school day by quietly reading. And, of course, at the same time, they are valuing reading and allowing students to do what improves reading most - read!

On the day I visited, intermediate teachers Sooz, Phil, Courtenay and Jennifer jumped into conversation right away. They had just been writing report cards and took some time to debrief the experience (there had been a new format) and to check in about a few students. One teacher related a story of a student who had scored the winning point in volleyball at the last game. The rest of the teachers lit up with the news, for this was a girl they'd all worried about together for years. Sooz leaned over to me as the others learned the details, "We are like family here." You might think - well, what's that got to do with teaching and learning? The teachers didn't examine student work or share strategies or develop a lesson. Next time perhaps. But this time, when they leave the meeting, they'll each touch base with the girl who had a great volleyball game. And that girl will know she's cared about, that she's noticed, that what she does matters. Can you see her smile? Can you picture her doing one more problem during math? Do you hear her shush a friend when the teacher asks for silence? I'm guessing that the impact is at least as powerful as time spent learning a new strategy. Teaching and learning, surely, is built on a network of relationships. And we need to spend time together for that.

For more on our PLC series go to "If it's important" and "Seaview"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How many ways can we work together?

The nice thing about the concept of professional learning communities is that you can configure them in so many ways. The key idea is that we can't learn everything on our own. We need to think hard and often with others. Last week we experimented with a late intermediate mentorship professional learning team. We sent an invitation through principals to the new-to-grade-6/7 teachers to join us to observe in Twila's classroom, debrief and then have some time for their own questions with Twila.

We arrived at 8:15 and Twila passed them a thick package of her favourite things. Eyes lit up. She spoke of things you don't hear about often enough: how to care for yourself as a teacher and how to make the extraordinarily difficult task of teaching thirty or so unique individuals in multiple courses doable. She shared what she called sustainable frameworks - everything from a hand-in zone to the overhead with tasks for transition to four-quadrant note-taking.

We then got to observe a math lesson. Students warmed up by reviewing their problem-solving strategies. My favourite: problem-solving is like rock climbing. You need to look for the footholds and climb bit by bit to the solution. Yes, chimed in another student, and if you just look at the top, it's overwhelming. Don't look up and say you can't do it. Break it down. Another student added: Do little bits so you can find the footholds. Yes, said another, if you look at a climbing wall, you can't know where you'll find your footholds. You have to start climbing. They then started their lesson as they did each day - with a problem using a four-quadrant strategy and partners, while Twila checked their homework (and checked in with each student). After ten minutes, several students shared their strategies on the overhead. They all had different approaches and the rest of the students listened intently and thought hard with them. This was followed by a math lesson introducing a new concept - using four-quadrant note-taking, of course.

Next the grade three buddies joined us for Power Paragraph writing. The room filled to overflowing with chattering children who quickly settled as their teachers began the lesson. The teams were to write a paragraph that began - We love the Christmas season for many reasons. Once again they reviewed their tools: zoom in, transitions, sentence variety, vocabulary. Debbie and Twila modelled the process, writing their own paragraph for students. And then it was the students turn - leaning in, listening, talking, writing quickly - they worked furiously. The lesson closed with three teams reading their paragraphs. Again, the students listened closely to their peers and learned with them. At the back of the room, we teachers leaned in, too, soaking up everything.

We finished with a chance to think further with Twila. My favourite Twila quote: "If something is not sustainable, you will just stop doing it. You only have a limited amount of energy."

We can't learn alone. It's not sustainable. We can't teach alone. It's not sustainable. We need to find ways to work together.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Movember Meeting at Seaview Elementary

PLC Part II - For PLC Part I see If it's important.

Friday, 10:45. It's time for the bi-weekly intermediate teachers meeting. Their students troop down to the gym where the principal leads them in activities. Today it's preparation for their upcoming Christmas concert. Classroom teachers Mike, Shaun, Steve and Jeff (all sporting their Movember mustaches), Student Support teacher Kori and two student teachers meet in the library. Their focus is peer and self assessment. Shaun launches the conversation with his work using learning intentions, stop lights and student reflections. Steve adds to the conversation with samples of some of his criteria and writing checklists for self assessment. He shares one that gives student space to point out what they've concentrated on, so as a teacher, he can pay attention to what a student is focussed on improving. Mike shares some of his self evaluation sheets and how he has incorporated a work ethic four-point scale that student regularly use to self-assess. Jeff shares a reading response workbook that includes a space for parent, peer, self and/or teacher assessment. He's now going to add a column for "sibling" assessment, since a boy came to school yesterday and said his sister read and assessed his response for him.

If you are a teacher, you're thinking - where can I get copies of all these goodies (including the over 100 graphic organizers in Shaun's "toolbox")? But it's not the same. You would just file it. You know you have too many organizers already. But if you worked at Seaview and took Mike's idea and tried it and it didn't quite work, you could pop in the next day and ask a question or see samples. You could reflect on things you tried at the next intermediate meeting and figure out what worked, what didn't and what you needed for next steps. You could talk to Kori about the student with special needs and how you could adapt the assessment tool for him. You could share what you're working on with your principal, so she could incorporate the strategy within the intermediate-wide activities she develops.

We don't need more stuff, more ideas, more resources. We need time to think deeply, to reflect with colleagues, to build a repertoire of what works for the kids we have today; we need a supportive environment, to know we are not alone, to share triumphs and catastrophes, to take risks to change; we need to know that a team will help us, prompt us, join us, plan with us, analyze, figure out.

Is it easy to set up a professional learning community in your school? Not at all! But is there any other way to ensure that teachers are supported, continually learning, sharing and deepening their practice, regularly consulting each other when they have a challenge, and staying current with new research, new curriculum and new tools for learning? I haven't thought of one yet. And until every teacher is supported, I don't know how we can ensure that each child is successful.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If it's important

Suppose you believe the research that the most significant influence on student learning is the teacher? How do you ensure that teachers are supported, continually learning, sharing and deepening their practice, regularly consulting each other when they have a challenge, and staying current with new research, new curriculum and new tools for learning?

If the answer is - we expect them to find their own learning network, join after school workshops or meetings, and attend relevant professional development during the five allotted days during the year - it's not enough. It's not just-in-time, it's not deeply connected to the students they have in their classroom or to the school they are working in, and it demands that the teacher, rather than focus on their students, use precious time to find people to learn with. And it doesn't take into account the life of the teacher. As a mother of five, I attended a minimum of after school meetings. Instead, I went home, picked up children, took them to after school events, listened to their stories, fed them snacks, made dinner, played games, read to them and then - after the last of them was tucked into bed or quietly engaged in an evening activity - I marked, planned, or if I had any energy left, read professional articles. I have colleagues, bless them, who are busy with other kids after school - drama, football, student council, basketball, volleyball, dance. Do we stop providing these services that connect our students to the school community, foster leadership, citizenship and a sense of belonging?

If our answer to professional learning and collaboration is to organize more after school meetings, we are providing opportunities for some teachers. We need an answer for every teacher if we want success for each child. How? Schools in SD68 are doing it! If it's important, we'll learn together to find a way.

First stop: Seaview Elementary

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Embracing Change

Guest Blogger: Cheryl Lloyd is a primary teacher from SD71. Meet her for five minutes and you are struck by her passion for teaching and learning. Where is she now? On Arabian Adventures. Find out about her experiences on exchange in Saudia Arabia at her blog: http://lloydsarabianadventures.blogspot.com.

Educating children is no easy task! The whirlwind of current practices changes at a rate similar to our advancing technology. Students and adults alike are on a nonstop continuum of learning and sometimes as educators, admitting our ignorance is a difficult task. Can we remember back to when we first started teaching in our classrooms? It was not only acceptable, but expected we would ask others for assistance and help as we graciously or ungraciously strung together lessons and units of study. What’s changed? Are we supposed to know everything now with all our years of experience? This is an absurd notion, especially when research continues to reveal new and exciting phenomenon about how we learn.

Presently, one ongoing question revolves around assessment. Should we, shouldn’t we, how often, what assessment tool, what’s the purpose, what do we do with the results, and, do I want to share the results to name a few. Of course we should assess children and use the data to assist and support student learning. Assessments can also be a tool to guide unit planning and even school and district goals.

Over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to once again embrace meaningful professional learning. Becoming vulnerable, asking questions, trying on little bits, teaching others, and learning from others has enhanced my capabilities and confidence. Finding a team of other educators who are expanding their knowledge has been an invaluable tool and wealth of information for me. Assessment practices have been a part of our learning and I now embrace formative assessment, peer assessment practices and summative assessment. I match various assessments for specific purposes.

I desire ongoing professional development and am forever grateful to my colleagues for stretching my thinking, encouraging me to try new practices, and believing in me. I think the process of participation verses the perfect product assists me to embrace the shifting practices in our ever-changing vocation!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I didn't expect to dance

It was the beginning of my smorgasbord of professional learning day. October 22. The day teachers across the province thought and learned together. I wanted to sit in on some of the collaborative working sessions that were happening in our district. My first stop: "Primarily Primary Science Creative Activities." And we warmed up by dancing! A student teacher put us through some moves - the shirt, the bow and arrow, and my favourite - the fist pumps at the beginning of "tonight's going to be good night." The music and movement made us all smile. And I thought - lucky students who will benefit from this young woman's talent. And lucky us to learn from her.

Then we talked science. I learned how these amazing teachers used science exploration with their primary students, how they included family, how they fostered independence, how they deepened scientific understanding and shared the language of science. I looked at grade one science journals with carefully labelled drawings, even down to H20 for the water in a beaker! (I'll get to work on a science page soon to post some of these ideas on our Working Together Wiki.)

I spent much longer drinking up the knowledge and passion for teaching, for science and for learning than I had intended. I left reluctantly and only because I was keen to get to my next stop: the librarians. The conversation, wide-ranging and in high gear when I arrived, tackled 21st century libraries - kindles, multi-tasking and the brain, etiquette in a new age, streaming video, databases and the age-old question: how do we get the best resources in the hands of the most people at the right time? Immersed in conversation, time flew and when I looked up again, the day was done.

I had thought I'd get a chance to sit in with the group sharing strategies for diverse learners and drop by the SmartBoard session and maybe even sneak in to learn some ideas from the group discussing powerful tools for behaviour management and, if I was lucky, to finish the day with the group thinking about assessment in music. So many excellent choices. This district, the province, was humming with learning!

Lately, it seems, we hear so much about what teachers aren't doing right and how to "fix" them. I am simply in awe of how much, despite difficult conditions, teachers are doing so very very right!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can we imagine not keeping score?

Guest Blogger Christine VanderRee is Comox Valley's District Numeracy Lead teacher, supporting classrooms from K to 7. She has always specialized in elementary mathematics education but values her kids and colleagues from Middle School and Intermediate classrooms that she had before this position. Christine is currently working on her Masters of Educational Leadership at VIU and is delighted to be back as a formal student after such a long break from it. She values her time with her family as well as time on the water with their sailboat.

Is there any difference between a rubric with a 4 point scale and percents when looking at assessment practices? Both keep score – a rubric with a clearer picture than the percent but a score nonetheless. As teachers we are obliged to report student progress to parents so we are caught in a number trap. However, typically, especially at the intermediate and then into high school level we provide feedback to students using these same numbers.

School is a constant number game, especially in subject areas such as mathematics. A child might be told that he or she has 73% of the questions correct on a paper. I am no longer sure what this tells the student? It’s a low B. That’s clear, but what can the child really do about the 27% of the missed concepts and how could he/she identify them? Did the student know how deeply he/she understood the work before it was marked? Children, especially older ones, appear to be motivated by marks but I think that we are part of a culture that values the score as we equate that with learning. However, if my goal is to help a child become a mathematical thinker, problem solver, someone who can identify where they are stuck and identify what they need to do next, a 73% is meaningless. I believe that too many of us confuse assessment with evaluation. Assessment, not evaluation should drive our practice. How can we help students achieve an optimal learning experience? By striving as teachers to help our students achieve ‘flow’, I believe that children can get to that place of learning for the sake of learning with the experience as the end in itself. We have a significant amount of learning to do as teachers if we are to ever come close to helping all of our students achieve this. Formative assessment is the key!

Interestingly, my work with the Teacher Leadership program is my first experience with receiving descriptive feedback and not scores as a student. At first I was quite taken back that I didn’t have a number attached to each of my assignments. I have always kept score and have valued those A’s. When I examined my own learning however, I realized that I did know when I understood concepts and had presented my ideas in an appropriate way. I learned to seek clarifications when I was unsure. I began to look instead for the ‘those comments’ of my instructors. They helped me to reflect further on my learning. I studied ‘those comments’ looking for opportunities to explain, expand and clarify. The experience of my learning is what mattered, not a score. I have decades of wanting that high score with me and know that I will need to keep fighting my desire for the number and instead truly acknowledge that it is the learning that really matters and a score will not assist the learning.

The task isn’t just to get something done, it’s to create an environment in which people want to do it. Clay Shirky

Monday, October 4, 2010

We Can Only See With Our Beliefs

Guest Blogger Jennifer Hedican: I live in Courtenay with husband, three kids and one puppy. I currently working as Learning Support Teacher at elementary school. I grew up in Lower Mainland, moved to the Island 23 years ago and love it here. I spent 6 years up in Port Hardy area before moving to Courtenay. I raised my children as I worked part time and as a TOC before returning fulltime about 10 years ago. (The picture is of a sunset taken this summer at Sproat Lake, where we are lucky enough to own a cabin.)

We can only see with our beliefs.
A simple yet powerful statement that directly affects my teaching capacity.

Our beliefs can either lead to a good or a bad school experience for a child, depending on what we, their teacher, believe. Taking the time to understand our beliefs, the unspoken assumptions and daily actions that determine our scholarly practice is an oft ignored practice. Who has time for this when we have 22 primary kids, up to 30 older students, all clamoring around inside our tiny teaching space? We all have subject matter to cover, assessment to complete and meetings to attend!

Yet when we slow down, breathe deeply and look at each student, we see that each one of them has something about them that we need to understand, to connect with, to help move them forward to possibilities of where they might be.

One of the most important beliefs educators must have comes from a growth mindset (Carol Dweck), one which believes in possibilities, sees potential and knows that being wrong can be a good thing. To have a growth mindset, one must lose the notion that there is only one way to learn things, that a child as we see them now will be how they will always be.

I work as a Learning Support Teacher for an elementary school with 377 students. I believe that all students can be successful, but not necessarily only in the traditional school subjects. I believe that the scientist in Grade Two who is reading, talking and drawing about black holes and nuclear matter at a level I can not even begin to comprehend (yet struggles with printing, sustaining attention and completing work) will grow up to discover new things no one ever thought possible and that I can ease his way to that level.

I believe that the child who is still not reading in Grade 2 may some day write us the most poetic novel ever, or sing songs that soothe the soul or teach adults to read.

I believe that every single child I see, every one sitting in a classroom or out in the hallway or in the office, will be able to thrive in the environment that we create for them, if we have a growth mindset.

I want to believe that I can begin slowly to change the mindsets of some of my colleagues about how to integrate and embrace different learning styles.

I want to believe that my colleagues will realize that disabilities only exist in our mind as we make them, not in reality.

I want to be able to effect the life chances of a child who learns differently from me, knowing that it is my beliefs that are more potent than any other component of my teaching.

We can only see with our beliefs and I believe in the positive life potential of every student in our school.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Walking with Wisdom

Guest Blogger Toresa Crawford: I taught in a number of BC and Yukon schools before moving to the Comox Valley in 2000 to set up the Nala’atsi program. My program incorporates Aboriginal cultural projects into the curriculum, providing a positive and welcoming alternative for students who have previously been unsuccessful in school. To date, over 300 grade 10-12 students have enrolled in our program which is housed in the Aboriginal Learning Centre in downtown Courtenay. In my spare time, I enjoy running, painting, cooking, reading, photography and being with my friends and family.

Nala'atsi is an alternate program for grades 10-12 Aboriginal students in the Comox Valley. For the last 11 years we have been closely affiliated with the Wachiay Friendship Centre and the Ni’nogad (Knowledgeable Ones) Elders' Group. Many of our students do not have close connections with their families and/or have lost touch with their Aboriginal culture and customs. One day during lunch, I spoke to the cultural aide about bringing some of our Aboriginal Elders in as guest speakers in our class. We decided that we would start small and chose 5 Elders to be part of the Elder of the Week group. The students took the initiative, and invited the Elders, researched the proper protocol, prepared and edited the interview, took pictures and put together the resulting displays. By the end of the first month, the project had mushroomed and we soon had 25 Elders who wanted to be part of the Elder of the Week program. Having Elders come in provided positive and cultural role models for our students and they often brought interesting artifacts with them giving the students the opportunity to see traditional clothing, hunting and cooking materials as well as a range of articles and photographs. One student got to know about her grandfather through talking with one of the Elders who had been close friends with her grandfather when they were growing up. Many happy hours were spent with this group as they shared stories with each other! Elders found that they could teach students how to weave cedar, make bannock and cook fish and a whole week was spent when the students and Elders made and decorated their own drums. The photographs showing the group singing and drumming was a powerful reminder of how much fun it can be to do activities that involve more than one generation! Over the school year, we have had over 50 Elders interact positively with students in the Nala'atsi program.

One of the Elders, who had watched a student doing a Power Point display, decided that he wanted to learn how to do his own Power Point. Before we knew it we had 14 Elders who all wanted the students to teach them how to use their photographs and make their own Power Point projects. Each Nala'atsi student sat with an Elder and before long we could see beautiful projects developing as they students and Elders worked together. Then ...the Elders discovered that there were sounds that they could add to their pictures and before long the sound of screeching cars, breaking glass, howling dogs and ringing bells could be heard throughout the building!

Another memory; one of the Elders spoke about how he had got his fishing boat got caught in the riptide and was sinking near the Campbell River rapids. As the students listened to his quiet voice, he spoke about radioing in to the Coast Guard while trying to fit a survival suit on to his 8 year old son. The students were on the edge of their seats when he suddenly paused and mentioned casually that a passing fisherman had stopped, pulled he and his son to safety on board his Seiner, and had then taken a video of the sinking boat. Our Elder was quite surprised that our students were interested in seeing the video and to his delight, it has become a favorite with the students ...they’ve enjoyed seeing a real life reality show!

Probably one of the most moving interactions between the Elders and the students happened last year when two elderly sisters came into the school dressed in their traditional clothing, selected music by the Alert Bay singers and then started to dance. As they moved around the room, their frail bodies proudly performed the intricate steps while tears streamed down their cheeks as they realized this was the first time that they had danced together since they had been sent to residential schools. Moving though that was, there wasn't a dry eye in the place as slowly one by one each of the students got up and joined them in this traditional welcome dance.

Lorna Williams in her 2010 Network of Performance Based Schools conference mentions the word Stucum Wi or Walking with Wisdom. Inviting Elderly Cultural Ambassadors who are positive role models into our classrooms will go a long way towards ensuring that we all can walk with wisdom.

Read more about Lorna Williams: Closing the Gap or the Final Nail?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Freeing the Frozen Flow: Thawing our Thinking on Assessment

Mike Copes is an elementary counsellor for school district #71 in Courtenay. His circuitous path to involvement with the school system has included work in Community Corrections and in psychiatric care at Riverview Hospital as well as ten years in residential youth care at the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre where he worked as as team leader, unit supervisor, staffing coordinator and complex supervisor. He has also worked as a Conduct Disorder Specialist and as a Therapist for Child and Youth
Mental Health. His brief flirtations with working as a election campaign manager and as a bouncer at a biker bar were outlying sortees at finding employment self-actualization and should in no way be construed as foreshadowings of his eventual enlistment in the public education system

Drafting a brief response to the August 27-28 session on Assessment for Learning has been a very challenging exercise. The range and depth of information, research results, pinions and ideas presented and discussed gives rise to such a vast array of further thoughts, questions and connections as to render succinct summarization a dauntingly difficult task.

If there was a single overarching theme to the session it would have to be that assessment as it is commonly practiced within the current educational paradigm does not accomplish the goal of accurately depicting the learning that is taking place. Even less does it assist in directing learning toward optimal conditions in either process or outcome.

Of the range of ideas for developing a new direction in assessment which emerged, the two that stood out for me the most were the notion of continuous or instantaneous assessment and the work of Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi on "Flow".

Assessment, to properly reflect and assist in the learning process, needs to take place in a continuous fashion that is intimately integrated with the minute to minute enterprise of learning rather than in discrete, widely spaced intervals. Establishing what students already know at any given point in the learning process is not only important so as to be able to proceed from the appropriate point, it is also essential as a way of building confidence in every learner that there is a pay-off in making effort and taking risks. It is a start in the conversation with students that says to them "you can learn this and here is proof that you have already begun to do so".

One promising example of continuous assessment is described by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi in his research on the subjective internal state he calls "Flow". Csikzentmihalyi identifies a range of mental states which relate to the affective content of the person's experience and the level or quality of engagement or focus on the activity. The emotional states he identifies are apathy, boredom, worry, anxiety, relaxation, arousal, control and "Flow". Which of these states a person engaged in an activity (ie, a learner) will experience depends upon the intersection of the level of skill being called forth and the level of challenge involved. In order to reach a state of Flow, the task must present a challenge that stretches a person to the ordinary limits of his skill level and beyond. Bringing about this mental state while engaging with curricular material in the classroom could be used as a means of creating conditions optimal for learning within a process in which a continual feedback loop - a form of self-assessment - exists for the
learner. The alignment of the idea of "Flow" with the process of assessment has provoked for me a great deal of reflection that will likely percolate through my thinking about learning for a long time to come.

As I write this, I am drawn to consider, for instance, the implications of "Flow" versus non-Flow states for the creative exercise of writing in which I am now engaged. How is it that I so often begin the process of writing so haltingly and painfully, attempting to pull forth ideas and express them intelligibly in an agonizingly slow process fraught with long periods of numb empty-mindedness, only to inexplicably reach at some point a break-through to an effortless flight of prose? Is there a way I can draw upon the much easier and more reliable attainment of Flow in the area of piano improvisation to assist in the too infrequent and hard to reach attainment of Flow in my experience of writing? What happens that occasionally puts me there as I seem to be now? How can I translate any personal insights I may arrive at on entering "Flow" to benefit the students with whom I am working? Questions such as these will need to be reflected upon for some time for answers to emerge. Will they arrive effortlessly when some piece has dropped into place during a rare interval of "Flow", or need to be wrenched forth in the grinding hours of non-Flow states which make up the majority of my waking moments? I can't predict with certainty, but if ever forced to wager on it, I think I'll go with the Flow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Assessment: Purposes and Purposeful?

Bonnie Kemble is currently teaching high school students in Qualicum Beach BC. Prior to this, she taught in middle school in a variety of student support positions. Her teaching career began in the north with adult learners preparing for entry into college, proving that variety is the spice of life!

Curious thing about assessments and the power they can have to alter life choices and courses... In education, as in life, there are bigger assessments and smaller assessments, ones that change life opportunities, and others which change the course of the day. I have come to know both as an educator in the classroom who makes daily decisions about learning opportunities, and as a specialist whose assessments may build a student's permanent learning file, which can in turn create places for students to be, on occasion, and how teachers may come to know them, for I regularly do what is referred to as Level B testing, normally a step beyond classroom assessment. I take this responsibility very seriously, for these higher stakes tests, done carefully, can take on a mystic of their own at times. "ah, this test will reveal that this student is ...(pick your pigeon hole)", yet the testing CAN be helpful even if it is at the same time, rather artificial information about a student's ability to learn. Assessments are limited in the ability to describe how a student learns, or how intelligent the student may be, by the questions that are asked, and so there are times when it is frustrating knowing that the assessment tools I am using, standardized and legitimized, show not the student who is before me, but how well the test is measuring up to a standard set by anonymous others. I participate in it because there are opportunities for supporting struggling learners who meet the criterion set, so on it goes.

Assessment for learning in the classroom seems friendlier somehow, because as an educator, you can change the flow according to what you see and hear from your students who are in the throes of learning. It is responsive, at its best, and useful. Assessment for learning is good teaching, because it relies on relationships and communication to resolve the edges of "I am learning and I am not there yet". It contributes to education as a transaction and transformation in contrast to assessment of learning, which is largely "I transfer to you and you and transfer back to me in as close to a accurate approximation to the original as possible". For me, assessment for learning is a way to figure out what we are doing in the classroom together, and how do we make it even richer? I get to guide the boat, for I am the teacher leader, but the journey is more rewarding when we are all part of the adventure. We will stop, and take photographs, and based on these snapshots, I may decide to speed up the boat, take side trips, continue on, back track, or make a speedier finish so that we can take another journey together sooner, but we will all have a part in the experience.

I was struck, this past year, by two classes in particular that I taught: one a grade 10 Social Studies classroom, the other a grade 12 Geography classroom. The grade 10 classroom, generally, was a livelier place. Students did not have a choice in their to take this course as it is a requirement for graduation, but at this age level, most were still willing to question the teacher, engage in conversation, offer differences of opinion out loud, challenge some ideas about the subject matter (and my teaching of it), and wrestle with if it had any meaning to them as people growing and developing. The life of the classroom was had assessment for learning elements, and lots of assessment of learning standardized practices too (professional development opportunities abound for me as a teacher to work with this mix more!) A departmental final and expectations for "what is usually done" and "what I was ready for" kept me in check, quite frankly. Students too were also quite surprised when practices beyond "read this section, do these questions, the unit test will be on Friday" were tried, and some were a little nervous that I was changing the rules to some degree. The grade 12 classroom was so "schooled" in older practices, it was really tough to break down barriers. "Is this going to be on the test?", "How did I do on the assignment?" were common questions. Breaking it open to ask them what they learned, what might be useful for them to know and how did our study of Geography relate to them were scary questions. I was saddened by how the students relied so much on the teacher to tell them, by way of marks, how much they had learned, and by how little they knew about their own work and how to evaluate it as having worth. I learned a great deal about the end of high school experiences by teaching this group. I can't say I felt overly optimistic about the experiences these students have had through out their formal education. We have a lot to learn as teachers about how to help students be learners: interested, curious, and eager to feed their hungry brains. For this group, they just wanted to get out of school. This was, I suspect, not the same group of youngsters who arrived at the school's doors a dozen or so years earlier. We have better work to do, more enriching work to do, than what we have, as a system, already done. September beckons...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Summertime and the livin’ is easy........

Jillian Walkus is our guest blogger today. Who is she? She writes: I am doing the job I was destined to do. One of most exciting parts of the job is that lightbulb moment- we all know the one- when you see that a student "gets it." Personally, that is so rewarding and has such an addictive quality to it. I have been teaching for 15 years on the beautiful North Island. I have lived in Alert Bay, Port Alice and Port McNeill. I currently reside in Port Hardy, where the ocean is our front yard, with my husband, our two younger daughters. My adult stepchildren live in Campbell River and Courtenay where they are pursuing their work and postsecondary passions. Last summer we brought a soft-coated wheaten terrier home and I relish the daily forty minute walk on my lunch break.

Anyone feel like leaning against my photocopied hand? [See Jillian's strategy here.] I sure do! I survived the first week and if you are reading this not only did you survive, you have managed to eke out a few moments of time at the computer. Congratulations to you!

On Friday I grimaced and confessed to my colleague, "I think I bragged a little too early about how well things were going in my English/English First Peoples 10 class. My lesson today totally bombed! I was asking inquiry-type questions and nobody was answering. Maybe my questions were too hard." Karen, my colleague, smiles politely as I continue on. "I don’t know if this was too new for them. I had to give them a few (too many) prompts. I hope they are not expecting a worksheet and boring old questions! You know the kind. The worst ones--the lower than the between-the-lines kind. I can’t do that!"

[Aside #1 ] I spent good money on Jim Burke’s new book What’s the Big Idea?
[Aside #2 ] I just spent two fascinating days stretching my mind about assessment at VIU and man do I ever have some great insights and new ideas to try.

"On Wednesday and Thursday they were dialoguing, volunteering ideas, think-pair-sharing, relocating to sit with new people. I just know I jinxed it when I told you every single student stood up and read aloud on Thursday."

[Aside #3] Shelley mentioned no opting out so I created a safe lesson where students would feel comfortable to read out another student’s 4 line poem.

Karen smiled again and began to speak. I was prepared to eat crow although my appetizer had already been a steady diet of self-flagellation.

"They’re tired. Everyone is tired."
Don’t you love Karen? It was true! So simple and so true!

It makes perfect sense to me. I am tired. My students are tired. Why wouldn’t we be tired? I think it is important for us to recognize the transition from summer to work. September has a crazy way of sneaking up and disappearing on us. If at all possible take some time to honor and acknowledge the transition. So many times we plow forward at break neck speed only to lose ourselves and our focus. It may surface as the “back to school cold” or the sore back that comes out of nowhere. We have had the luxury of sleeping in & staying up late as well as, reading, eating and drinking whatever we want. Is this why the transition is so hard?

Or is the transition hard because we hit the ground running? Maybe I hit the ground so hard I winded myself. I have decided that my personal goal for this month is to slow down and be mindful. When I am in the classroom, I will be in the classroom-- I will not worry about the next period, tonight’s dinner or who needs to be driven where after school.

There is a difference between physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion. I can sleep to combat the physical; I can be gentle with my thoughts and myself to combat the latter.

Fish are jumpin'....
Right now at the Quatse River the fish are travelling upstream. I watched this on Saturday with my family. We walked the nature trail and picked huckleberries. I enjoyed every second of it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

He who asks questions cannot avoid the answers.

Guest Blogger Shannon Johnston is a teacher with 20 years experience teaching K-12 in Canada and overseas in Japan and the Philippines. She lives on Saltspring Island with her wonderful husband and three active fun kids. This year she is starting a new position in an Alternative Ed school teaching K-3. She is excited about the possibilities of connecting her own recent schooling at VIU in TLCP (Teacher Leadership Certification Program) and SETS (Special Education Diploma) to a unique classroom environment. When not in school, or hiking with her kids, she is a Pilates instructor and Group Fitness Leader as well. She loves being active and alive! She live with the philosophy of Carpe Diem ~ seize the moment! Life is a gift, treasure it!

At the end of the summer, I spent a weekend asking deep-layered ‘Assessment’ questions. I leave feeling inspired and challenged. Will my practice change? Likely- though in small do-able bite size ways. Will my thinking change? Absolutely. The lens I view Assessment with has altered. Really chewing on deep beliefs and values challenged my own biases and personal tendencies. Though some may view this as threatening I actually embrace the idea. I love thinking about my thinking…and isn’t that what we want of our learners? We want, indeed we need, critical thinkers who challenge life and challenge themselves to look at things differently. This weekend has opened that long hidden box of personal values and beliefs attached to ‘assessment’.

As a Type A ‘people pleaser’ I recognize that I give myself value by what others perceive me as…in other words, I try to perform my way through life for extrinsic rewards from others. Recognizing that now and watching my own daughter follow my footsteps in trying to please everyone all the time is evidence that this is not what I want to pass on to her… or to any of my students. What a burden to place on small shoulders. I feel convicted. I want to do life (and assessment) differently. I need to… for her sake, for others and for myself.

Being cognizant of ‘Fixed Mindsets’ as compared to ‘Growth Mindsets’ is the first step. Examining my beliefs and practices in a real way, moving from lip service to heart is gong to take time and effort. Slipping back in to old thought patterns would be easy and natural when the pressures of life and school start back up next week. My goal and hope is that to be ‘aware’ when jumping back into the ‘chaos’ is the first step… and a critical one I intend to do. In my own way this is the ‘desirable difficulty’ I set for myself ~ to continue to think about my own thinking regarding assessment and performance. Thank you for stretching my thinking… and my heart.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What’s So Special About Special Education?

Guest Blogger Brian Worthen is a teacher at Qualicum Beach Middle School where he teaches all general subjects at the Grade 6 and 7 level. Previously, he has taught in Vancouver and suburban districts in SLD,remedial, accelerated as well as ESL. Graduate studies centred on barriers to experimental field studies in the subject of science education.

Students in today’s classrooms reflect what is currently happening in society. Gone are the days of shaping students to be model citizens that have been instructed to uniform beliefs, manners and information. Society of today is rapid, multifarious and dynamic. Family compositions are numerous as are the challenges and stories each child possesses. We cannot even possibly predict what the future society holds for our students in a decade.

With this in mind, it is crucial that many educators consider change. This means distancing themselves from lock and step, uniform, curriculum based lessons and paying more attention to the learning needs of the child. Students of today will need many different progressive opportunities in their avenues of learning. More importantly, they will need to be exposed to a large set of learning tools that they can utilize to confidently navigate in the world that they must contribute to. Teachers may have to consider their role less as an instructor and more as a steward in preparing the youth of today.

When one enters a special education resource room, we are frequently reminded of the manipulatives, media as well as other approaches for the concepts being taught. We ponder the flexibility of evaluation and the various approaches used in order to meet the learning outcomes for the students of these resource rooms. Yet, there are barriers in offering a “regular” classroom these types of tools – large numbers of students with increasingly challenging needs. Other obstacles include the continual assignments of programs by communities and governments that address growing social problems in the community. Then there is the fundraising and the valuable time taken in order to comply with student data requests. These impairments reduce the time that a teacher could utilize in order to concentrate more time with assessment and tools that could be employed to reach more students in the classroom. If this were made possible, perhaps we would see that “special education” is really more general than we think. Perhaps it is what we should all try to achieve?

For many, distancing oneself from a comfortable fixed mindset is not simple. The hidden curriculum that teachers must consider to embrace in their quest to reach as many learners as possible should take into account many practices and systems such as formative assessments, feedback, quick checks, and strategies that reveal to students how they each learn. One should consider replacing the pressure of curriculum amounts with the availability of some degree of choice for the spectrum of learners that sit in the class. Energy directed to stagnant data collection could take meaning with its purposeful rerouting to individual student progress indicating improvement or weaknesses. Personal interviews with portfolio work and self assessment is a continued “best next practice” that can show benefits for learning. Performance vs. Learning or the dialogues over flexibility, clear goals and the balance between opportunity and capacity must be a constant topic whether in the staffroom, parking lot or at the water fountain.

A teacher is the coach in the classroom. Performance can be prefaced by the learning of the skill set. This skill set can be taught in many ways in order to reach all the players. Then, and only then, can the classroom become a place of showing students how they can flourish in the world. The principal, who cannot possibly do school reform alone, must take on the role to advocate for conditions where teachers can be distracted less from management administrivia and interruptions which would hopefully free up time for honing practices in an environment that fosters greater individual student learning needs. However, until some fixed mindsets are weakened, educators hopefully will, in small steps, help each other with the age old adage that stays constant: teachers need to teach.

Photo from Orange42's photostream

Monday, September 6, 2010

We are blessed to teach

We are blessed to teach. To stand in front of a group of people - no matter how small or tall - we need to have a clear sense of our topic. We are forced to think more deeply, ask ourselves harder questions, make our knowledge explicit enough so that our audience - no matter how young or old - can understand us.

Recently I was asked to talk about assessment with a group of teachers participating in the VIU Teacher Leadership Program. Blessings, of course, often seem like curses at first. The more I thought about assessment, the more obvious it was that I knew nothing. As Parker Palmer reminds us, it takes a lot of courage to teach. Like so many of our students we are afraid to reveal our vulnerability. Jane Tompkins writes that so often behind the "performance" of teaching lies fear: "Fear of being shown up for what you are: a fraud, stupid, ignorant, a clod, a dolt, a weakling, someone who can't cut the mustard." We are afraid that a "good teacher" is always right. But we're not.

Why do we think we need to know it all? Why do we believe that we must have the "right answer" for everything? Carol Dweck in her must-read book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success argues that there are two mindsets - the fixed mindset that sees every failure as a reflection of self (I am a failure, pitiful, useless) and the growth mindset that sees every failure as a gift, a challenge, an opportunity to learn more. It's easy to see which mindset we need to nourish in learners. Too often, however, our grading system, our focus on intelligence, our praise of talent, of product, of quickness, of easy accomplishment send the message that unless we get it right and know it all, we fail. And when we fail, we are stupid, slow or at best slothful, rather than someone who is simply still learning.

How can we refine our assessment practices to foster a growth mindset? First, I suppose, we need to begin with us. We need to know that "good teachers" know they don't know it all. We need to open our doors and our hearts to learning together because teaching is far too complex for any one of us to get "right". We are so lucky to have so many people to learn with! This month, the teacher-learners in the VIU Teacher Leadership program have promised to share what they've learned on their journey this year as guest bloggers. In listening to their stories and gathering ideas from their experiences, we can begin to shape and reshape our own learning journey. By asking each other questions, by re-examining our practices against new knowledge, new contexts, new students, by working together relentlessly, we might begin to believe that none of us can get it right or know it all. But together we have a chance. We are blessed to teach, I think, but only when we remember that teaching means we are continually learning.

Friday, August 13, 2010

To Marc

I try to imagine a reader of this blog.

I can't.

Except for one person. My brother. He definitely would have read my blog. He died six years ago today. He would have commented, too, and told people - my sister has a blog - and rolled his eyes as though it were silly instead of something he was proud of. He was the only person who read my final master's paper. I don't even think the professor read it; there was a cursory "excellent work" scribbled at the bottom of the last page. My brother had sticky notes throughout and asked me a number of hard insightful questions, leaning in as I spoke about philosophy and education and psychology and the latest research in literacy.

It's ironic, of course. He wasn't "smart" in school. He got in trouble. The usual stuff. He dropped out in grade 10.

Not long after he died I ran into one of his teachers. She asked about him. He was killed, I said. Oh, my gosh, what happened, she asked, and then I could see her flinch and think - why did I ask? I could read her mind (perhaps I'm wrong): he was probably stabbed in some dark alley while doing a shady drug deal.

His helicopter crashed, I said. Her eyes grew large and she couldn't leave out the incredulity - he was a helicopter pilot! Yes, I said and left it at that. I wanted to say, when he died he was a multi-millionaire, an entrepreneur with multiple business interests who had bought a helicopter and learned how to fly it. And more important - more important to Marc: he was a loving father, a dutiful son, a loyal friend, the kind of brother everyone wishes they had.

He had taken the helicopter in to be serviced - it wasn't running to his satisfaction. On his first flight after picking it up, the engine quit. He didn't have a chance.

He didn't have a chance in school, either. Despite his intelligence, his curiosity, his joy in learning, he was shuffled into the "not yet meeting" part of every class. He didn't learn to read quickly, spelling wasn't his strong suit - but oh, if anyone had paused to know him, they would have discovered that his mind could dance like Baryshnikov. (I can hear him now. He wouldn't appreciate the metaphor. A ballet dancer? What the hell?)

His death was senseless. Someone used a 10-amp fuse instead of the required 1.5-amp fuse. And despite his enormous success during his too-short life, the loss of dignity that he suffered throughout his school years was senseless, too. I can't do anything about the helicopter. But I'd like to find a way to make sure that no one suffers needlessly in school as he did.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Danger of PLNs: More Thoughts

In a must-read article (thanks Ben), William Deriewicz addresses students at West Point on the topic of solitude and leadership. His premise is that solitude is necessary for true leadership. A true leader, he argues, is not merely those "who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place." A true leader (and surely every teacher is a leader - a leader of children) is a thinker. She must not only follow orders but create new pathways; she must not merely do what's always been done, but have the courage and the confidence to stand up for what she believes in, even if it means standing against a traditional practice or what's "popular."

To think, Deriewicz argues further, we need solitude. We need to concentrate on something long enough to develop an idea about it, which isn't possible "in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube." Or scanning your RSS reader. What's more, he points out yet another problem with our continuous stream of information (blogs, news, even the New York Times): "When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now...you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else."

How much more dangerous, now that we can create our own personal "learning" networks and marinate ourselves in a soup of sameness. In my last post, I considered the question posed by blogger Scott McLeod: Should we require teachers to have RSS readers? I'm almost convinced we should ban them. (But not quite. I love my RSS reader.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Danger of PLNs (and other like-minded groups)

The "next best thing" is PLNs - personal learning networks: a network of people with whom you exchange information - in the case of teachers, about professional development, lesson plans, resources, solutions, news. In the 21st century, your network can include the best minds in the world through twitter, blogs, wikis, nings, webinars and more (or at least the best minds in the world who are engaged in the online world). We are a network of learners learning together. Exciting!

And dangerous. It hit me hard when one of the educators in my network, Scott McLeod (note that in the "real" world I would never get a chance to hear the almost daily musings of this professor and guru of educational technology), posted this question on his blog: Should we require school employees to have RSS readers? An RSS reader, just in case you are one of the many people who haven't "kept up" with technology, is a tool that feeds you updates from your favourite blogs, websites, and news headlines.

It's quite possible that the question was merely meant to provoke. My immediate reaction was against the word "require." Why not require exercise? Meditation? Reading poetry? My further reaction surprised me: I realized I'm at least as concerned with the belief that daily reading of RSS feeds - this stream of information from a network we create - is necessarily a good thing.

The first problem is that we surround ourselves with people who think like we do. Scott McLeod has thousands of readers (on Twitter he has 6400 followers), but while all of them (thankfully) balked at the word "required," none of them (except me) suggested that the idea of RSS for teachers was not a good thing. Can you imagine asking such a question in a staff room? Even with a staff of five teachers?

Despite the size of our PLNs - and perhaps that is what makes them most dangerous, since their very size inflate our certainty - their lack of diversity reinforces our biases and encourages us in our ideas, however nonsensical, rather than holding them up to the light of diverse facts, ideas, and opinions. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859, argues vehemently that while there is no such thing as absolute certainty, the very best thing we can do, in order to act on our beliefs, is to hold them up to those who contradict and disprove them. Without the dissenters, we all lose: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchange error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error."

We have swallowed the idea that the Internet has allowed us to finally "have our say," to move opinion out of the hands of the elite and into the hands of the "people." We believe that the Internet is a tool, at last, not only of democracy - but also of diversity. I'm wondering. What if someone in my PLN doesn't agree with me? I get to do something I may have secretly wished to do to the curmudgeonly naysayer on my staff - I delete them.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mathematization of Reading Comprehension (and Love)

Online dating is touted as "the answer" to anonymous city lives: one simply punches in requisite information (height, weight, age, eye colour, religion, work, hobbies) and one's preferences in a partner - and voila - a list of matches is found for you. In a survey of participants in the online dating world, however, Dan Ariely and his team discovered that the odds of finding the "right one" through an online service are not as good as one might expect. Why? Ariely writes, "In the same way that the chemical composition of broccoli or pecan pie is not going to help us better understand what the real thing tastes like, breaking people up into their individual attributes is not very helpful in figuring out what it might be like to spend time or live with them." (The Upside of Irrationality)

We keep trying, of course, to find formulas, to remove uncertainty, to speed up the processes of these "messy" things in our lives.

We certainly keep trying in education. We have a test of reading comprehension. Because we know that kids who can take notes to organize their thoughts, make connections, infer, determine importance, synthesize and so on can comprehend better, this test tests their tools. The reasoning: then we'll know what to teach them. If they struggle to make connections to the text we'll teach "connections." A perfect formula!

It probably increases the odds of understanding and enhancing reading comprehension as often as online dating hits the perfect match. Comprehension (like love) is complex and so much more than the sum of its parts. And it's elusively individual. Ultimately we've only learned how well they can write this particular sort of test and we get some glimpse into their reading comprehension. That's not a bad thing. It's only a problem if we put more weight on it than it deserves - if we believe our story that it's a perfect formula - if we don't have a rich array of data from many sources to make our teaching decisions in our schools, our classrooms and for individual students.

Of course, what we're looking for, rather than this messy muchness, is some perfect diagnosis - a CT scan for learning that reveals the map of a student's weaknesses so we can "fix" them with a series of well-crafted lessons determined by a rigorous and precise formula. But, alas, learning doesn't work that way. Reading comprehension is no more matter of the right tools than love is a function of eye colour preference and similar hobbies. We need, at the very least, in the first place to engage with the text. Or we need, instead, deep purpose. And we need to be able to bring our attention to bear on the text (even if we're tired, bored, angry, confused). And we need the flexibility to read differently with different texts. And so on. Our inability to comprehend (or show our comprehension) of any one text on a particular day could be caused by any of these factors (and others) or a complex combination of them.

I've been thinking lately, that if we spent less time seeking the formula for reading comprehension and more time providing a sea of opportunities, rich experiences, flexible tools, sharing what works not telling what's right, then we might have a better chance of providing each child with what seems in the 21st century, a basic right - the ability to read well.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shredding Motivation

Here's the experiment: each participant receives a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters and is asked to find instances where the letter S is followed by another letter S. Each sheet contained ten instances of consecutive Ss and they have to find all ten instances. They get paid $0.55 for the first completed page, $0.50 for the second and so on - thus for the twelfth page on they would get nothing.

The experimenters, Dan Ariely and his team (read more about this in his book The Upside of Irrationality) set the following conditions. In the first, participants write their name at the top of each sheet. Once finished, they handed it to the experimenter who looks it over from top to bottom, nods in a positive way, and places it upside down on a pile. In the second condition, participants are not asked to write their names at the top of the sheet and when they hand it in, the experimenter just places it on the top of the pile without reviewing it or acknowledging the participant. In the third condition, when the participants hand in their sheets, the experimenter simply shreds it. In other words, the difference in this rather meaningless task is that in the first condition, the participant is acknowledged and her work is not anonymous or obviously meaningless (shredded).

Guess which group completed more sheets?

The participants in the acknowledged condition completed an average of 9.03 sheets, those in the shredded condition 6.34 and those in the ignored condition 6.77. The perhaps not so surprising surprise is that simply ignoring the participants' work had almost as much effect as the more dramatic shredding.

Consider the classroom. Consider how many assignments children do. Some children are continuously acknowledged: their work is read aloud, the teacher says kind things. Some children are rather regularly ignored: their work is mediocre at best and beyond "correcting" them (surely a form of "shredding"), there is little to celebrate. And some children have their work routinely "shredded." Perhaps it's not surprising that over time the motivation of a number of children (in our district 30%) steadily decreases, so that by grade 8 they are lounging in the back row, disengaged, scribbling out the minimum and on the road to dropping out.

What could we do differently so that each child - and the work they do - is acknowledged in a meaningful way?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Closing the Gap or the Final Nail?

Recently I was lucky to listen to Lorna Williams. You can, too, at the Network of Performance-Based Schools website. Her message is critically important as we dash forward, our intentions good, our ideals clear. She says we must be humble, knowing that alone we cannot always see the path; when we walk together, she says, we can help each other see the way. Too often, we are so certain that we see the way, that we can "fix" the world, that we have "the answer." However, if we dare to ask others, especially those we are so keen to "support," if we ask humbly, if we have the courage to listen to the answer, if we are willing to be helped, we might find that all our carefully laid plans and all our excellent ideas that we believed were blazing a trail are taking us down the same old road to the same old place.

Our mantra lately is "success" for each child. We look at our dismal graduation rates for Aboriginal students and with good intention decide that we will "close the gap." Who can argue? Lorna Williams. She asks, what does closing the gap mean? Is it the final nail on our assimilation? Unless, she says, schools are reflective of the knowledge systems of the people who attend, that is what it means. The way that we assess, count success, means I have to be a learner of a very specific kind. Unless school can be places where children can value their own identity, where they can walk in schools and in classrooms and feel they don't need to not hide who they are, we are in the work of continuing to assimilate. Her question to us is: how do we become a bridge that reconciles values that clash? Recently our good intentions have led us to focus on the success of the child. Lorna Williams asks us to reconsider - if the only improvement rests on shoulders of students, not on quality of the experience of what we're constructing in relationships in our rooms of learning.

Her words remind me that we must be relentlessly cautious as we define "success," and "closing the gap," that we are not simply couching old intentions in new language. Let us always remember - and help each other to make sure we never never follow the same path - the mandate of Residential schools: “Their education must consist not merely of the training of the mind, but of a weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors, and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life” (Government of Canada report, 1847).

Image from Daniel Y. Go's photostream

Monday, May 3, 2010

The answer to success for each child

I tell my students, Janet said, that when I first look at a math problem, I don't know the answer. They are always astonished. I let them know that the only difference between us is that I've solved enough math problems that I know I'll be able to solve this one, too, if I stick with it.

And it struck me - that's it! As educators we're always looking for someone with the answer to success for each child. But the answer is that we need to be confident that we can solve any learning "problem". Although, learning is different for each child, in each school, even each day, if we just stick with it, creatively, persistently, using different tools, asking questions, visualizing, building from what we already know, and relentlessly working together - we'll find a way to educate each child beautifully. We already know how. We've done it before. Often.

So the answer is - we don't know the answer, but it doesn't matter. The answer always changes anyway. What's important: we know how to find the answer.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

If we really wanted change, we'd stand at the door with a pill

Recently I attended a day-long symposium, Bridging the Knowing-Doing Gap, with Dennis Sparks and Bruce Beairsto. We had conversations about an idea Sparks writes about, "Individuals and organizations have an amazing capacity to maintain their current beliefs, ideas, and practices in the face of massive, well-intentioned efforts to change them." Why? At the session he referred to the book Change or Die. If a person has a heart attack, the doctor gives a prescription: to continue to live, take this medication, change what you eat, add exercise, de-stress and foster your relationships. What percentage of people, given the option of changing or dying, will change? A meagre 10%. Suppose you make it easy? Just take the pill. What percentage, given this very easy prescription to change rather than die, will opt for change? 20%.

But I've been thinking - it isn't simply that people don't want to change. It isn't even that we need to change how we give prescriptions, or who gives the prescriptions, or when we give the prescriptions. The problem isn't the prescription. The problem is that we give prescriptions and send people back to live in the world that's killing them - a world of friends who gather to drink beer and eat pizza every Thursday night, a fridge full of pre-packaged food, a job with deadlines that don't go away, a relationship that can't be mended by wishing it was so. We might argue that even if we make change so easy that we give a pill for the solution, most still don't change. But what if someone stood at the door and gave them a pill each day? I'm convinced you'd have 100% change.

In schools we continually prescribe change and then send educators back to schools that make it easier to continue unhealthy, even harmful, practices. We have buildings, schedules, reporting procedures, and expectations that are the beer and pizza of the heart patient. We make it so hard to make even simple changes to our practice that it's hard not to suspect that - really - no one wants education to change. We just want to blame others for not changing.

Photo: callme_crochet's photostream

Monday, March 1, 2010

Own the Podium?

I watched the Olympics as often as I could, held my breath for each Canadian athlete, cheered madly for their victories, teared up when our anthem was sung - all fourteen times - and for the endless replays. Yet at the same time, like so many Canadians, I ask if it's worth it. It's a hard question to ask in the midst of our collective euphoria. I don't just mean the money. What I've been thinking about is the message of "Own the Podium." It seems to me that we don't fund athletics so Canada can rack up medals; we fund athletics because it promotes a healthy lifestyle, joy in effort, and the pursuit of excellence, a mindset that transfers - get good at something and you can get good at anything. For those of us watching, the stories of effort, excellence, passion and commitment can inspire us to find our own dream. Yet when people ask, "Has the program been a failure?" I would emphatically argue yes! It isn't a failure because we don't have the most medals. I thought it was a failure when I heard speed skater Denny Morrison, expected to "own the podium," say, after a ninth place finish, I let my team down, my country down. How could he let anyone down when he pursued excellence through rigorous training, giving up much, giving his all? How can less than a second on a given day make him a failure? What is the message to the hundreds of extraordinary athletes who continue to pursue their passion without hope of winning medals? How can "Own the Podium" be a success if we see an athlete as a "failure" who doesn't step onto the podium? Of course, now we are lauding the program as a "success" because, despite the lower-than-expected medal haul, we won the most gold. But I'd argue the success comes from providing much-needed funding. If we believe in continuing to fund elite athletes, then call the program "Own the Dream." Gold medals will follow, but in the second place, only because it's the inevitable result of funding passionate committed individuals.

It might seem like a hair-splitting argument, but here's what I'm what I'm worried about. First, this program is testament to our continued belief, despite overwhelming research against it, that the way to encourage excellence is to reward it. (Did you know that each gold medalist gets $20,000 cash payment, a silver $15,000 and a bronze $10,000?) But, ironically, the opposite happens. You take the joy and passion out of the performance and it becomes work. Worse, I think, collectively we tend to confuse the prize with the goal. It's everywhere. In education, our focus on improving student achievement is the "own the podium" of education: our "gold medal" is improved marks and graduation rates. We acclaim schools that have met "improvement targets." It strikes me that perhaps we should focus on learning, not improvement, not achievement. If we focus on (and fund) what we educate children for - to foster confident, creative, empathetic, joyous learners who contribute positively to our society - then the extraordinary, passionate, exciting, learning that takes place every day in our schools led by educators who give it all they've got - will inevitably lead to improvement.

Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Standing Ovation for Teachers

The math curriculum has changed completely. New text books are required. A new pedogogy is demanded. And secondary teachers have to rebuild their courses from scratch. There is no funding, however, for release time for teachers to work together, to review the new curriculum, to learn the new teaching methods.

So what do our math teachers do? You might imagine that they would close their doors, continue to teach the old curriculum, and wait for a change in government. But they don't. They find funding through the local and provincial teachers union, organize as a local specialist group, and begin to hold monthly meetings after school. (Thanks for doing the legwork, Denise.) I attended the last meeting: they were immersed in reviewing the new provincial exam that they would need to prepare students for, discussing upcoming professional development, and developing a plan to work with their elementary colleagues on an essential learning document to aid transition.

Their commitment against odds doesn't surprise me. Everywhere I go I see educators meeting after school, on weekends, during breaks, and online to think about teaching and learning. What's surprising is that you rarely hear about the daily dedication and passion of teachers. Our eyes tear up to hear the stories of Olympic athletes and their Herculean effort to "own the podium." Daily newscasts extol their virtues. Let's spare a few minutes to think of the heroes in education, their long hours, their commitment to excellence, their dedication to their craft, and their passionate pursuit of improved life-chances for each child in their care. Let's give them a standing ovation!
Image: garryknight's photostream on Flickr

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Not gold medals but glowing hearts

I've spent most of my career in high schools, so I wondered how much help I could be when I was invited to supervise a station at Ladysmith Primary School for their family math afternoon. Don't worry, Anita said, we've trained the grade 2 and 3 students to “man” the stations. You really won't have to do anything.

I arrived at the "Olympic" event and got a participant card - the Olympic logo on a clip secured by a ribbon around my neck - and was steered to my station. There were a dozen or so stations around the gym with various activities suitable for primary students. Mine was a logic puzzle. My tiny student leaders quickly showed me how to help the families do the "event" at our station, how to give the participant a "medal" to add to their Olympic logo clip when they'd completed the puzzle. And they taught me how to be "gentle." Even if they don't solve it, you can give them a medal, they told me. We honour their participation. And don't forget to be encouraging, they added. But don't just give them the answer, they admonished - that takes the fun out of it. Then with that sage teaching advice, they invited me to sit in a chair, because, really, I wouldn't have to do anything - they had everything under control. And they did. I got to watch.

Parents and their children poured into the gym, enthusiastically participating in the math "events" and gathering up their "medals" with glee. At our station, even the smallest child solved the puzzle with Ruby and Maddy's expert prompting and support. You could see the light shine in their eyes when their tiny fingers pointed to the solution - "It's that one!" And Maddy and Ruby's enthusiastic, "Yes! You got it!" was never less than genuine. What was best of all was watching the parents as they watched their children thinking hard in math. And another best - every person in the room could say, "Math is fun!"

The Olympic feat I'd like to point out is something else though. A quick glance around the room would tell you that hours and hours and hours of time was spent to make this magical event happen - everything from planning and designing the stations, training the student-leaders, creating the ribbons, "medals," and signs, ordering tables, setting up the gym, inviting parents. The list is long - surely Anita and her Ladysmith Primary team should stand on a podium and receive their own medal. And they are just one of the schools I happened to visit. Events like this take place in our schools constantly. They connect our parents to our community, allow children to be leaders, and provide educators an opportunity to showcase what's most important for learning. There are no ceremonies to acknowledge this important work; the reward, for those who are lucky enough to see it, is in the glowing hearts of the children and their families.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Do you believe?

Ordering food is the hard part. Close to 100 people are expected, but will they really show up, tired educators at the end of a long day? How many of them will have something "come up"? By the time we started, however, we realized we'd have to have chairs brought in and I began to wish I'd decided on one more platter of cheese.

Over 100 educators arrived in the end - administrators, teachers, university instructors, student teachers - to think together as productive partners in a network of educators - the Network of Performance Based Schools. Our task? To achieve our collective "dream with a deadline": an equitable future with quality outcomes for every learner by 2020. In each network school, teacher design an inquiry question to discover ways to improve learning. In our region, we meet formally three times each year to share ideas, ask question, and learn together. You can see some of our work in progress at our Mid-Island Wiki.

Here are educators deciding that it's "too late to wait," as Peter Senge says, and are working in teams in their schools or, if in their school there is no one to work with, with educators in other schools, and if there is no one to work with in their district, with other educators in our province. They are refusing to work in isolation. They are pushing themselves to think about research-based practice, designing focused inquiry questions to examine their own teaching and learning, and implementing formative assessment daily.

Is it going smoothly? No. It's messy, hard work that forces us to think hard, work hard, redesign the way we do things in schools, test our own preconceptions - and meet together at the end of a long day. But here is gold medal work that makes you want to say, "I believe."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blowing a horn loudly for teachers

Shelley, my first practicum teacher told me, if you don't blow your own horn, someone will use it as a spittoon. For years I thought that my difficulty with self-praise was in part due to the way I was raised ("bragging" was the ultimate sin), in part because I am Canadian (we are defined by our unassuming nature) and in part because I am a woman (as Clay Shirky argues, "not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks"). However, lately I've been thinking that it is also because I am a teacher. Those of us who are drawn to teaching are more modest, less self-aggrandizing. Teachers are "behind-the-scenes" people, coaching, prompting, encouraging, pushing, carrying, cheering. The focus is not on the teacher, but on the student.

The danger, of course, is that we become the spittoon of society. Kids can't read? Blame teachers. Kids can't write? Blame teachers. Kids can't solve math problems? Blame teachers. Kids aren't motivated? Blame teachers. Kids are overweight? Blame teachers. Kids aren't responsible? Blame teachers. And because we are modest, we think, yes, we could do better. And we go back to the drawing board and add more things to our plate: literacy initiatives, numeracy initiatives, healthy schools initiatives, social responsibility initiatives and spend our professional development learning how to "engage" students.

The result? Tired teachers. Discouraged teachers. And teachers who don't feel valued. Yet the teachers I meet daily should be sung about in the streets and have their pictures hung on Olympic-sized billboards. But who will blow their horn?

I've decided to take it up - my Olympic series. Here is my first snapshot. Last week was exam week for secondary schools on a semester system. That means that teachers wrap up their semester, mark final assignments and exams, write report cards, put away the books, files, and materials of one set of courses and start to fill their rooms with a new set. It is, as you can imagine, a very busy week. And if they are teaching Socials 11 or English 10, they also have to mark the provincial exams. There is no requirement to mark them in a certain way. They could mark the papers in their classroom by themselves quickly. But teachers in our district decided to mark the exams in a district-wide process that takes a full day to complete. It begins, actually, the day before when a half dozen teachers volunteer - during this madly busy week - to create anchor papers from the stacks and stacks of written exams. The next day the whole group reads the anchor papers together and agree on how the papers should be marked and why. Then each paper is "blind marked" (neither the school nor the student is identified) and "double-marked" (two teachers agree on the mark). Throughout the day and more formally at the end of the day, teachers reflect on the student work, note areas of weakness, and consider approaches and ideas to tackle those challenges.

This heroic work done during a busy time by exhausted teachers isn't just a good day's work. It's work meant to change the future for children, to improve their life chances, to make success for each child a reality. Three cheers for our teacher heroes. I wish we had a podium and medals to hand out.

Image: Nick-K.'s photostream on Flickr