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?