Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Pout That Made Me Smile

Photo Credit: Heidi & Matt
Flickr Creative Commons
Yesterday morning, the power was out across Pitt Meadows and was not expected to return for many hours.

Result: No school for students.

As I drove to my school, I stopped at an intersection next to a nearby elementary school and saw a big sign announcing "No School" so that the parents of the wee ones wouldn't have to stop their cars to inquire.  I waited as a group of students and parents crossed the street and, in an instant, I saw something that made me smile.

An older elementary student was approaching the school with her father and I saw her eyes meet the news on the sign.  Her entire face immediately dropped as her lower lip produced an absolutely fantastic pout.  My immediate thought was, "Awwww...poor kid!"

As I parked my car two minutes later, I began to think how awesome that little moment was.  She was sad that there were no classes.  She had been genuinely excited about going to school.  How great is that?  I had to tell a few colleagues about the adorable moment I'd witnessed.

I recently started working as a mentor with an SFU Field Program and had the opportunity to visit a cohort which hosted Chris Kennedy last night.  This evening, the cohort that I will be working with hosted Grant Frend.  While discussing changes in the education system, both educators mentioned that studies show a drop in engagement as students age.

This glimpse of elementary school and sessions with leaders in education, of course, made the tiny wheels in my brain start turning.  I wonder:
  • Were any of my students disappointed to miss school?
  • What makes secondary students excited about school?
  • Are the results of the study accurate?  If so, what are we doing about this?
  • Students are generally excited to return to school in September.  How can we "bottle" that excitement and bring it out year-round?
  • How much of this drop in engagement is related to adolescent development?
  • Why are instruction, assessment, and reporting practices so different between elementary and secondary schools?
  • Do longer classes impact student engagement?
  • Do students feel more pressure from parents, teachers, and the outside world when they hit secondary school?
  • Do students feel disconnected when they have eight teachers?
  • Do students feel disconnected when they have more classmates?
  • While I try to increase levels of engagement in my classroom, am I doing enough?  What else could I be doing?
I have no answers.  Only questions.  Give me your wisdom, dear colleagues.

Monday, 14 November 2011

My BC Education Plan Wish List: #2 Equal Opportunities For All Students

As I read through BC's Education Plan, I had some questions, concerns, and ideas which I will be working through on this blog.  Through "The Plan," I see room for incredible growth and change in our education system as this plan has the potential to allow me to guide students as they become self-directed, lifelong learners.  I also have concerns about good theory being poorly executed and an education system which cannot afford the tools and support necessary to make the plan successful.  I find some elements too vague, some alarming, and some exciting.

Wish List Item #2: Equal Opportunities For All Students

All students must have the opportunity to be successful learners in and out of the classroom.  In BC, schools are no longer permitted to charge class fees for supplies.  While it appears that this provides all students with the opportunity to have equal access to educational opportunities, that is not necessarily the case.  Some students have, and will continue to have, advantages that others do not.  While that is a fact that cannot be completely changed, I am concerned that BC's Education Plan has the potential to widen the gap between the students whose families have money, time, and ability to support their learning and those whose families do not.

In order for the plan to be successful, students will need equal access to technology.

Many critics of "The Plan" have indicated that an emphasis on mobile devices and technology put children at a disadvantage if their families cannot afford the technology.  There is a misconception that students must have their own mobile devices in order to participate in personalized learning.  Vague descriptions of personalized learning are responsible for this, as many members of the public are under the impression that "personalized learning" is synonymous with "learning from a computer program."  (That is a blog post for another day.)  If "Personalized Learning" takes the form of self-directed inquiry learning guided by a teacher and impacted by classmates, regular desktop computers could suffice if schools are equipped with enough.  Of course, if learning is going to occur beyond the walls of the classroom, the education system must help families obtain internet access and purchase home computers.

As with any item of monetary value, there is also the potential for the "haves" and the "have nots" to be visible in every classroom, as the type of device students hold will demonstrate what each family can afford.  This is an issue impacting every school which encourages students to bring devices to school and is one I watch with interest.  I do not believe that we should ban devices because some students don't have them, just as I don't believe that we should ban expensive shoes when some students can't afford to keep up with trends, but the education system must ensure that all students have access to the tools they will need to learn.  As educators move toward skills-based learning, rather than memorization of content, students will need functioning devices to access information.  When we allow students to demonstrate their learning through alternate formats, they must have access to technology if they wish to present their learning through online forums.  Parents need to access the internet if we plan to communicate with them online.  If the Ministry of Education is introducing an education plan with an emphasis on technology, is there is a plan in place for those who cannot afford the necessary tools?

As technology is integrated into schools, with or without "The Plan," I have begun to wonder if students who are bound to a lab are segregated from those who can afford personal mobile devices simply because of mobility.  Groups of students with laptops may choose to congregate in a cafeteria or open common space during their free time while those who need computer access from school may be bound to libraries and classrooms in order to access computers.  Is this something that we will begin to observe in the future?  Have you observed this in your schools already?  I'm curious about how availability of technology impacts students' ability to interact with their peers.

In order for the plan to be successful, students will need equal access to elective and alternate learning opportunities.

Currently, students in BC can receive external credits for a variety of activities, including dancing at a high level, competing on a national team, and driver's training.  When I see that BC Education will "better recognize learning that takes place outside of the classroom – like arts, sports, science and leadership programs – so that students are fairly acknowledged for this work," I assume that these types of opportunities for credit will be expanded as BC's Education Plan is implemented.  This raises a few concerns regarding equality for all students.

In many cases, this is a form of privatization of education.  Parents pay an outside agency for drivers' training, for example, and students are given credits toward graduation.  Those who cannot afford these activities, or who do not have time to complete them, do not receive the credit.  At present, a student can graduate and have a full secondary school experience without earning external credits.  I am concerned, however, that BC's Education Plan will increase the number of students whose parents pay to supplement their education and have the time to support outside activities.  Giving students credit for these programs is not necessarily a bad idea, but it could have a negative impact on those whose families do not have the resources to support high quality extracurricular achievements.  If an increasing number of students receive credit for external activities, elective course options may decrease.  In our current system, many elective courses do not run due to insufficient enrollment.  I am concerned that if large groups of students receive a significant number of credits outside of school, the process would be streaming those who cannot afford "out of class" activities into in-school electives.

Questions which remain:
  • If half of the students take Elective X at Company X, will the school be unable to offer the elective to other students, due to insufficient enrollment?
  • How would continuing to reduce elective course offerings impact school culture?
  • Would some students resent being unable to afford or find time for external credits?
  • Will students continue to take elective courses in school once they have obtained enough credits to graduate?
  • Is increasing opportunities to receive external credit a plan to reduce teaching blocks, and therefore jobs, in our schools?  (Yes, there is personal bias here.)

In order for the plan to be successful, students who have limited family support will need alternate opportunities to share their learning.

I love this line from BC's Education Plan: "Parents must also be involved in planning their child’s education and then helping them to achieve success. In partnership with their children’s teacher and their child, parents will play an important role in supporting their child’s learning."  The image of parent and teacher working as partners as a student learns is fantastic and we have the technology to allow parents to view digital portfolios, communicate with teachers, and view students' projects as they learn.

While this will be beneficial for many, we do need to ensure that there is support in place for students whose parents and/or guardians are not involved in their education.  I would hate to see a student dread school because his/her parent did not fulfill an obligation, attend a meeting, or assist with a project.  There are a number of barriers which could keep parents and guardians from being active participants in education; all educators have seen examples of these.  Partnering with parents is a fantastic idea but I hope that this aspect of The Plan will be a flexible one so that teachers can discretely omit this part for students whose families are unable or unwilling to be active participants in their education.

Blog Series: My BC Education Plan Wishlist
#1: Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

Sunday, 30 October 2011

My BC Education Plan Wish List: #1 Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

With the arrival of BC’s Education Plan, conversations have begun about what this is going to look like, and how we could possibly implement this in our schools.  I have been thinking a lot about issues which need to be done well in order for this plan to be a success.  I fear that good theories may be used for bad practice if this plan is not implemented with care, thoughtfulness, proper funding, and consultation with teachers.  Appropriate class sizes will be vital as well if students, parents, and teachers are going to have opportunities for detailed dialogue about students’ progress and goals.  There are many questions about how this plan look.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to individually address a few items which are on my "Wish List" for BC Education.

Wish List Item #1: Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

I have been reading a lot about technology and family involvement as I browse through online conversations around BC’s Education Plan.  As a result, I am concerned that there will be movement toward having all teachers post grades online using spreadsheet programs which average out assignment scores to provide a final mark.  These programs are popular because they appear to be modern tools which give parents a clear picture of student progress throughout the year.  I do not believe that such programs are the most effective nor innovative way to assess.  The perception (and often the practice) with online spreadsheet programs is that students earn “points” for each assignment they complete.  In some cases, students earn a point for each correct answer they give on an assignment/test/homework all year long and all of these points are totaled and averaged for a final percentage grade.  We should not be punishing students for learning more slowly by averaging marks throughout the year, but should be teaching them that improvement is possible and helping them to identify areas of personal strength and weakness.

Our job as educators should not be to rank and sort students based on average marks.  Rather, we should identify key skills that students should master and assist students as they build these skills.  As a result, percentage-based marks on secondary school report cards should be abolished during this education reform and online spreadsheet programs should not be used to determine final grades.  The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is to place a child’s mastery of learning outcomes on a 100-point scale.  Are there really 100 different "levels" that students can achieve, overall?  In primary grades, students receive anecdotal reports.  In intermediate grades, students receive letter grades without percentages.  I have never heard a good explanation for the difference between a mark of 82% and a mark of 84%.  Not to mention that percentages do not tell parents areas in which their children succeed and struggle.  I understand that letter grades are desirable to parents, universities, and would be necessary if students transfer out of the province, but percentages are not necessary and promote obsession with numbers and statistics, not meaningful learning.  I have never heard a primary student ask, “Is this for marks?” or “How many marks is this worth?” but those are common questions in secondary school, even on the first day.  Let’s teach our students to learn so that they can improve specific skills, not for points.

As I wrote in a previous post, I do not agree with the spreadsheet/averaging method of grading and have moved toward a more holistic view of assessment.  BC’s Education Plan appears to provide an opportunity for portfolio-based assessment.  I am not opposed to posting feedback for parents and students online, but that feedback must be meaningful, clear, and leave room for students to improve later on.  I would prefer to provide anecdotal feedback to students and families during the term and discuss letter grades at the end, when clear progress has been documented through the development of a personal portfolio.

Information I have read about BC’s Education Plan seems to promote more flexible assignments; it appears that students will meet learning outcomes through activities, assignments, and research on topics of their choice.  I have been blogging a bit about the interim reports I am preparing and believe that it would be possible for somebody to develop software which allows teachers to quickly and easily enter specific learning outcomes and students’ progress with these.  My interim reports are works in progress, but I can visualize how more detailed online reports could look.  With an outcomes-based software program, parents, counsellors, and administrators could log in and see how students are doing with key concepts, but know that these are “in progress.”  Students would know that just because they are “minimally meeting expectations” in September does not mean that they will not be “fully meeting expectations” in June.  Teachers could update students’ individual profiles as they demonstrate their ability to meet specific learning outcomes, and as they demonstrate improvement.  This could occur at different times of the year for different students.  Final reports would be based on students’ most recent and consistent work, not an average of points from a spreadsheet.  Ideally, students would develop personal goals and track them on the same program, allowing parents and teachers to support these goals.

As meaningful assessment and personalized instruction require more interaction between teachers and students, I would like to see smaller class sizes established alongside the implementation of BC's Education Plan.  This is necessary so that teachers would be able to regularly conference with students about their progress and provide them with opportunities to build skills.  As a teacher who tries to conference with students about their projects and marks, I can say that I do not currently have time to meet with each student as often as I would like to, nor do I have time to have in-depth conversations with all of my students when I do meet with them.

I have MANY more thoughts, both positive and negative, about BC’s Education Plan and will add to this "wish list" another day.  What are your thoughts on assessment and reporting under this new plan?

My Related Posts:
5 Years Later: Assessment
If you could design a report card, what would it look like?
Continuing The Reporting Experiment

Related Posts from Others:
Death of A Grading Program
Giving Grades is The Easy Way Out
For The Love of Learning
Grading Dependence
The Case Against Grades

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Continuing the Reporting Experiment

I received a lot of positive feedback on my previous post about reporting during the job action.  Thank you for the tweets and e-mails linking colleagues to the post.  I'm glad to see that I'm on the right track with these thoughts about reporting.  I remain determined to use this job action to report in a more meaningful way now that I do not need to spend time with BCeSIS.  As I did in my previous post, I would like to note that I am communicating with parents using methods approved by my union, and am not breaking job action guidelines.  I have absolutely no desire to "work around" the job action and, while I have not been accused of doing so, feel that it is important that I clarify that here for those who are getting conflicting reports in the media about what teachers are and are not allowed to do.

Since my last post, I have decided to send out interim reports ASAP due to what I have seen in the media and an increased number of parent e-mails.  (I'm glad that parents are checking in, by the way!)  I want to assure all parents that their children are still being assessed during the job action.  It is also important to clarify that the first term does not end until the beginning of December, so this is an informal "check in" like the one we would have had at parent-teacher conferences last week.  As this is informal, these interim reports will not include a grade but will provide a look at how students are doing overall.  I am going to print these reports, copy them, and fill them out as I conference with each student.  In December, I hope to type comments directly into reports, as stated in my previous post, but I won't have time for that with these reports.

After my previous post, Denise e-mailed me a rubric template that her school uses.  I loved the rubric idea and designed my own to include in these interim reports.  I decided to use three categories: "Not yet meeting expectations," "Meeting expectations," and "Fully meeting expectations."  I had originally added "Exceeding expectations" but realized that, after seven weeks, not many students are yet exceeding, but they will be by the time the term comes to an end.  For the purpose of an informal check-in, I think that three categories should be fine.  Thank you, Twitter for connecting me with helpful teachers I've never met in real life!

At the top of the interim report, I am including a letter to communicate with parents that this is an informal report, that I will provide a grade at the end of the term, and that I will definitely contact them sooner if I have concerns.  It seems that there is a lot of miscommunication about assessment during job action, so it seems wise to communicate with parents as soon as possible so that they know what to expect from me this year.

I had a great conversation with my Family Studies class about assessment, this week.  (More thoughts on how I assess here.)  They really like the holistic assessment style that I am using; some were in classes with Matt in past years, so they were familiar with the style.  "It's more fair" was the common comment I heard.  Holistic assessment IS more fair!  Why would I average a mark out if a student learned something slowly, then mastered it later on?  Some were anxious about marks for university entrance, so I am including a note about grade 12 marks in interim reports going home to grade 12 students.  Some students wanted to know if I am allowed to send these interims and report cards, or if I am breaking the rules.  I hadn't realized that the perception may be that I am breaking with job action by sending reports home.  As a result, I edited my interim report drafts and included a statement about the job action and the fact that our union has encouraged us to continue communicating with parents.  I'm so glad that I talked to my senior students about this as it helped me to clarify the perceptions of students and the general public.

Below are my interim report drafts.  Please feel free to provide me with feedback and suggestions.  I'd love to hear from you before I make these "official" next week!  I have linked to them in Google Docs format so that the most current version will be published below as these are still in draft form.  I am still working on the wording in the various boxes and will likely revise all of them before Term 1 reports are issued in December.

Please note that the format doesn't look great because these are "published" Google Docs, not PDF files.  They look a lot nicer in MS Word.

Family Studies 11/12 Interim Report Draft

Social Studies 9 Interim Report Draft

Planning 10 Interim Report Draft

Foods 9/10 Interim Report Draft

I have not yet developed an interim report for my Leadership 10/11/12 class yet, but will likely be sending a letter and a copy of the course outline home once I have finished this project with my other courses.

Monday, 10 October 2011

If you could design a report card, what would it look like?

Flickr Creative Commons
Image Source
Though BC teachers are not producing report cards this fall, we have been encouraged to communicate with parents regarding student progress.  At first, I was frustrated by comments from the BC Teachers' Federation which stated that teachers would continue to communicate closely with parents.  I love it when parents check in with me about their child's progress, and feel that it is vital for parents to be involved and informed about what is happening in the classroom, but felt overwhelmed by the idea of communicating with 200 parents without a formal report card.  While an elementary school teacher may be able to speak to parents as they pick their children up, and compose a short e-mail at the end of each term, reporting to parents is much more challenging in a linear secondary school.

As job action continued through September, I began to think of a number of concerns:
  • How can I report to 200 parents, without using the online spreadsheet programs which are not suited to my assessment philosophy?
  • Should I only respond to the parents who contact me by phone or e-mail?
  • What will I do if I get 150 e-mails and 50 phone calls?
  • Will I have time to respond if 45 parents request a meeting with me?
  • Can I trust students to accurately report their progress to parents after student-teacher conferences in class?
  • Are parents aware that, if I have a concern about attendance and progress, I will contact them?  (I have already exchanged e-mails with a number of parents and will continue to do so when concerns arise.)
  • While I love the idea of sending a few positive interim reports home, and try to do so each term, will I have time to do that this year?
  • Are we supposed to rely on the fact that a large percentage of parents will not contact us, therefore making our reporting time more manageable as we meet with parents, return phone calls, and respond to e-mails?  If so, is it good practice to ignore the parents who do not initiate communication with teachers?
While I like to inform parents about student progress throughout the year, I do not use grading programs which allow parents to log in to review marks, as I don't want to perpetuate the idea that assessment is simply giving points for correct answers and averaging them out over the term to determine a final grade.  I blogged more about my assessment philosophy here and this article also explains my feelings about these programs.  I use spreadsheets to track assignments, but do not base final marks on averages throughout the term.  Marks are based on the student's most recent and consistent progress.  When I have concerns, I send an e-mail or make a phone call to a parent.  On occasion, I mail written interim reports.

When report card season approaches, I often feel frustrated because, while outcomes-based assessment is being promoted by a number of well-regarded education professionals, and district-based pro-d sessions, it is much easier for teachers of 200 students to enter numbers into BCeSIS, choose a work habit, and insert a generic comment.  Why isn't there a program which provides us with the opportunity to send parents meaningful assessment and class updates, without the "spreadsheet" format?

After thinking about my questions and concerns, I realized something HUGE.

The BC Teachers' job action has provided me with an opportunity to report on student assessment in any format of my choice.

Why didn't I think of this sooner?  No BCeSIS!  No deadlines!  No obligation to post 200 percentages at once!  This is awesome!

While I have the opportunity to add attachments to formal report cards when they are issued, I have never had the time to consider this option as I always feel swamped with other tasks around report card time.  With no formal report card deadlines, I will have the flexibility to issue more meaningful reports over a longer period of time.

It is important for me to note that these reports will be for teacher, parent, and student use only and will not be sent to administrators, in accordance with BCTF job action guidelines.  My union local has confirmed that letters from teachers, checklists, percentages, and letter grades may be sent to parents as long as they are not completed on official school forms and do not look like report cards.  It is not my desire to undermine the job action.  Rather, I am taking the time that I would have spent using BCeSIS (a reporting program I dislike) and using this time to create a more meaningful and effective report.  In the spirit of the job action, which reduces our involvement in administrative tasks, I feel that this is an appropriate use of time.  We have been encouraged to continue communicating with parents; in this case, I feel that parents will receive better communication from me than they did before job action, as I am not spending time creating formal report cards using a soon-to-be-extinct reporting system.

Our office staff is still mailing out paper interim reports, and job action permits us to send these, as well as e-mail updates to parents.  I am now planning to send home paper (or e-mail) interim reports, created during term conferences with my students.

Here are a few things I would like to incorporate as I design these interim reports:

1) The reports will not include percentages.

I hate percentages.  Student A has 82% and so does Student B.  On paper, they are "equal" but, in the classroom, each brings unique strengths and experiences unique challenges.  Both may receive a mark of 82% and a "Good" for work habits, but this does not sufficiently explain their progress.  As well, what is the difference between a mark of 73% and a mark of 76%?  I have no answer for the question and have never heard one that satisfies me.  "BCeSIS averaged the mark to 76%" is not a sufficient answer, in my opinion.

Through the current reporting procedures, we have conditioned students and parents to expect percentages in secondary school.  Why do secondary report cards need to differ so much from primary comments and intermediate letter grades?  (That's a question for another blog entry!)  While I would prefer to issue "gradeless" reports, I realize that parents and students will want to see some sort of report of progress.  As a compromise, my interim reports will include a letter grade, but no percentage.

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I did choose to include percentages in reports at the end of December, simply to avoid receiving 200 e-mails asking, "What is his/her percentage?"  I also worried that the lack of percentage would be perceived as "lazy teacher during job action," not a shift in assessment philosophy.  That said, students seem to be responding well to the idea of holistic assessment, as they know that they can improve throughout the term and year.  I realized that this helps them to see me as somebody who is helping them to move to the next "level," not somebody who is constantly judging them and holding mistakes against them.

2) The reports will involve my students.

As I had already decided to use portfolio-based assessment this year, these interim reports will be completed in conferences with students.  At the end of the conferences for each class, I will proofread, press "print," and take the reports to the office to be mailed.  If I have time, I may e-mail some of the reports home to save paper.  As I always do, I will need to plan my lessons carefully so that students are engaged in self-directed activities during grade conferences.  Students will be asked to fill out self assessment forms, which will give students a chance to think and articulate their views prior to our meeting.  I find that the self-assessment forms help us to focus our conference discussions and save time, particularly in larger classes.  I hope to do this again around mid-February.  While I would like to report in this format more frequently, I have a feeling that time will not permit it.  As I think about this, I am beginning to think that reports prepared during student-teacher conferences will be more meaningful, and more enjoyable for me, than a few hours with a cup of tea and BCeSIS.  I will be able to include comments from students' self assessments in the reports.  (Thank goodness I can type quickly!)

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I was able to do mid-term conferences with students in most classes but, by the time those were over, it was getting close to the end of the term.  I prepared reports based on my conferences, written student self evaluations, and updated student work.  Next term, I hope to spend more time conferencing with students. The conferences themselves were very valuable; a number of students communicated things that I wouldn't have learned otherwise.  It's amazing how many students have experienced test anxiety in previous years and are willing to share that one-on-one but might not admit it in front of the class.  More knowledge about my students has helped me to structure my courses.

3) The reports will inform parents about what is happening in class.

Parents will be directed to my course website so that they can view the course outline.  As well, I will include a short paragraph for each course, regarding current and upcoming activities.  This is more in line with the elementary school format, but I like it.  Parents often comment that they don't have any idea what their teens are doing in school.

As well, I will mention that, if I have concerns about a student' attendance and progress, I will contact home more frequently.  I don't want parents to feel that they are being left in the dark by job action or that their child may fail a course without any warning from the school.  I always communicate with home regarding absences and academic concerns; this will not change but, without formal reports, it is more important to let parents know that this is the process in my class.

Parents will also be invited to e-mail me if they have questions or concerns but, after receiving these written reports, I hope that it will decrease the number of meetings requested and e-mails received.  While I love communicating with parents, I need to consider the time involved if each parent requests a phone call or meeting and hope that issuing these reports will be a proactive way to address concerns about teacher-parent communication during job action.

4) The reports will focus on achievement of key outcomes and concepts.

I'm not sure how I will format this yet, but I like the idea of including a few key concepts or skills from the term on each report.  I might include a "Fully meeting expectations," "Meeting expectations," etc. checkbox beside each.  (Elementary school report cards seems to be closer to my preferred format.)  I have to consider the time involved, but I do love the idea of explaining where the grade comes from, using a few key learning outcomes, rather than simply inserting a percentage into BCeSIS.

**OCTOBER 2011 UPDATE: I created a rubric for four of my five courses.  Drafts are posted here and were tweaked and edited as the term progressed.  I am finding it a long and time-consuming process to create the "perfect" rubric but I have to accept that this is a process and hope to have a high-quality report by the end of the year.

As I continue to think about my "ideal" report card, I wonder if I am creating an unnecessary, time-consuming project for myself, but I am excited to give this reporting system a chance.  I can conference with students, and create reports, in one or two courses per week.  A lack of formal deadlines allows me to spend more time reporting on a course, if required, and reduces the "end of term" assignment completion rush I typically see from students.  I think it will work.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, or samples for me, I would love to have input from other teachers.  Our Term 1 reports would have been issued before Christmas Break.  I am hoping to finish with this project by the end of November, at the latest, and will post an update when it is complete.

I would also love to figure out a way to update parents electronically, without composing 200 separate e-mails.  I have a few ideas, but would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions.

Update: The next part of this adventure is described here.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

How do you discuss Remembrance Day?

With Remembrance Day just over a month away, I have begun to brainstorm ways to address it in my classes.  As the generation of World War II veterans decreases each year, students have a limited personal connection with the wars of the past.  On occasion, I do have a student with a personal connection to a current member of the Canadian armed forces, which brings a great perspective to the discussion.  This year, I would like to take a break from our Social Studies 9 unit on the French Revolution and encourage my students to reflect prior to Remembrance Day.

A few years ago, I brought in some poems and songs to discuss with my English 9 class.  I included a few poems by Sassoon and Owen, among others.  We also listened to "Fortunate Son," as I have fond memories of dissecting the song when I was a student in History 12.  Finally, we discussed the controversy about Jack Johnson's "Crying Shame."  Students often think of Remembrance Day as a holiday to remember veterans in past wars.  "Crying Shame" was a great way to get them thinking about war today and where modern warfare may head in the future.  We discussed the various wars, and the poets' attitudes toward war in general, their country, and the cause they were fighting.  The class was really engaged in the activity and we wound up spending the entire class talking about the poems and songs.  Freedom of speech and ethics in war were big discussion topics.  Students began to think about the concept of hating war, but believing in the cause that soldiers fought (or are fighting) for.  They were challenged to think about what causes and circumstances would cause them to go to war.  We talked about the impact of previous wars on our quality of life and the wars occurring in the world today.  The students and I shared stories about people we know who fought in, or were impacted by, World War II.  A 75-minute class was definitely not enough once students started asking BIG questions and discussing their opinions!  This was a great opportunity for students to see poetry as a practical form of expression, and analyze its impact.

How do you address Remembrance Day in your classroom?  Do you change the way you address it, depending on the topic?  Do you find that discussions have changed as time passes, now that fewer students have surviving relatives who fought in World War II?

Friday, 30 September 2011


I love using stories, short film clips, and case studies in my classes.  Telling stories makes everything more relatable to students.  Discussions flow much more easily when students have people to identify with as we discuss broad concepts.

Typically, around the Terry Fox Run, my fabulous Planning 10 colleague and I talk about the Terry Fox Run with our classes.  Then, we show this clip and ask students to write reflective journal entries.  I am always touched by some of my students' stories and reflections.  This year, my Leadership students and co-teacher took on organization of the Terry Fox Run.  I decided to take the opportunity to put some Planning 10 work on display and had the students create posters, in lieu of journal entries, responding to the prompts, "I am running in the Terry Fox Run for/because/in memory of..."  Students didn't have to put their names on the front and were able to make their examples general or specific.  We developed criteria as a class and the students developed high standards.

It's always lovely to end a busy week with pencil crayons.

Once they were on display in the hallway, the stories of their classmates served as powerful reminders to students as the Terry Fox Run approached.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

My First "Foods" Blog Entry: Musical Foods

The other day, the amazing Becky sent me a video to kick off our breakfast unit...

I had been thinking about YouTube videos and songs that I could use class, and the Sesame Street clip is brilliant!  Everybody loves Grover!

As a "musically challenged" individual, I tend to limit my singing to three places:

1) The car (This occasionally provides entertainment for colleagues who commute along the same highway.)
2) Church (As a courtesy to those around me, my volume depends on the volume of the band.)
3) The kitchen (My songs are usually themed to the food I'm cooking...and those who want to eat don't mock the chef.)

On occasion, I change the lyrics of a popular song and sing a few lines in class, but it never lasts long.  I'd prefer to avoid ending up on YouTube under "tone deaf teacher."

I am teaching Foods for the first time, this year.  As I was flipping through Foods 9/10 recipes provided by my fabulous colleagues, I began to think of the songs I associate with many of the ingredients.

For example, I was looking at a recipe for breakfast burritos.  In my kitchen, any meal which requires these:
Sidenote: I LOVE Trader Joe's!
Results in an off-key rendition of this:

Banana waffles are in one of the binders, as well.  Any banana-related recipes cause me to re-write and sing the words of this song:

As I thought about it, I realized that my list of cooking songs goes on...and on...and on.  Fresh herbs are great, but breaded chicken isn't perfect unless I'm singing "Shake your chicken!"  (You're judging me right now, aren't you?)

While I'm not willing to perform any of my cooking songs in class, I think it will be fun to play themed songs for different recipes and units.  I might play songs on cooking day as the students start, or as they enter on demo day and have them guess what we're making.  If a food is traditionally eaten in another country, I could find some international music to accompany meal time.  I used to love using songs when I taught English and will definitely be using music in Social Studies.  Why should Foods be left out?

The wheels in my mind are turning...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

"I was on Facebook when you were in diapers."

Grade 10 Student: Ms. Jakse, are you on Facebook?
Me: Yes.
Grade 10 Student: WHAT???  REALLY???  That's so weird!  HEY!  SHE'S ON FACEBOOK!  Teachers shouldn't even be allowed on Facebook!
Me: Actually, it was invented by university students, for university students, when I was in university.  Maybe YOU shouldn't be on there.  *grin*
Grade 10 Student: You're so weird.  *pause*  Can I friend you?
Me: No.

Grade 10/11/12 Student: Ms. Jakse, are you on Facebook?
Me: Yes.
Grade 10/11/12 Student: It's SOOOO weird that there are teachers are on Facebook.
Me: I was on Facebook when you were in diapers.
Grade 10/11/12 Student:  *laughs* Yeah, right.  Can I friend you?
Me: No.

Grade 8 Student: Ms. Jakse, you're on Facebook, right?
Me: Yes.
Grade 8 Student: It's kind of weird that there are teachers are on Facebook.
Me: I was on Facebook when you were in diapers.
Grade 8 Student: Oh, really?
Me: No, I'm just kidding!  Wait.  You guys are thirteen.  That means you were in grade three when I joined Facebook.
Grade 8 Student: Yeah.
Me: Hmm.  Guess the diaper comment isn't funny anymore.  In a few more years, it will be too close to the truth.
Grade 8 Student: Can I friend you?
Me: No.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Summer Nights: The "Back-to-school Nightmare"

You have a job!  You're teaching Extraterrestrial Invaders 8, 9, and 10!  Be careful!  They bite!
Classroom background image from here under the Flickr Creative Commons license.
I occasionally have a ridiculous work-related dream throughout the school year.  It's always hilarious to wake up thinking that my dream-self has created something fantastic: "Yes!  I should turn all of the desks SIDEWAYS!  Why haven't I thought of that before?"  Fully conscious, I see how the "idea" from my dream could be problematic but, for a brief and glorious moment in the morning, I am convinced that I am quite brilliant.

As September approaches, any work dreams I may experience take a bizarre, negative turn:

It is the first day of school.  I have one year of experience under my belt and have just been assigned a new teaching position.  I am a secondary school Spanish teacher.  I try to explain to the Powers That Be that I don't know more than a hundred words in Spanish, but they tell me that it's enough.  They remind me that I lived in Mexico for a couple of months.  They say I'll be fine; it's "only beginner's Spanish," after all.  As I enter my classroom, I see the worst thing I could imagine.  Occupying ten desks are the Mexican exchange students I taught during my ESL contract the previous year.  They tell me that they are taking Spanish so that they can improve their grade point averages.  My anxiety heightens.  Not only am I unqualified - and unprepared - I am now teaching a language I don't know to native speakers.  As I begin to teach, the Mexican students mock my poor accent and correct my Spanish.  Suddenly, the class erupts into complete chaos.

The scenario above is a summary of one of my first back-to-school nightmares the summer after a temporary contract ended.  It doesn't take an expert to tell that I was feeling nervous about the upcoming school year.  I didn't yet have a position and wasn't sure what the new year would bring.

Honestly, as a few more back-to-school dreams appeared over that summer, I thought that I was losing my marbles.  What kind of person has anxiety-filled dreams about a job they enjoy?  Apparently, a lot of people do.  After talking to other teachers, I have come to realize that some of my most calm and experienced colleagues have a series of dreams and nightmares as September approaches.

When we are awake, teachers look forward to the fresh start that September brings.  We have grand plans to implement and new lessons to try.  I have enjoyed a wonderful summer, but am feeling positive about my new classes and new students.  Still, these pesky nocturnal visions usually begin to creep up between the end of July and the beginning of the school year, intensifying as the first day of school approaches.  Fortunately for me, and the other teachers I have spoken with, the dreams seem to disappear once the year actually starts.  I am always happy to discover that my students are lovely and my classroom floor is not covered with six inches of shoe-destroying water.

I have swapped stories with other teachers a few times over the years and we always have a good laugh about ridiculous dreams centered around the career we enjoy.  Do you have nightmares as September approaches?  I'd love to hear your stories!

Friday, 19 August 2011

5 Years Later: Assessment

I remember feeling pleased with myself as I posted spreadsheets full of marks, several years ago.  The essays had been graded, missing assignments had been assigned zeros, and my the students would be able to check their progress in anticipation of the upcoming "marks cut-off day."  I occasionally heard a student exclaim, "Argh!  She's giving me 36%!" as he or she examined the spreadsheet.  That sort of comment always frustrated me.  I was not "giving" the student 36%.  Rather, he or she had not submitted assignments.  I began to realize that, for some students, the grade on the spreadsheet was the grade that they identified with; they did not see opportunity to improve, but they saw their own "failure" in the course and, therefore, my failure as a teacher.

I am definitely not the same teacher I was five years ago, nor am I the type of secondary school teacher that I thought I would become.  I hope to include a few reflections over several blog posts, as I look back at where I came from and where I hope to go as a classroom teacher.  The most significant shift in my thinking is in regards to assessment.

In most elementary schools, grades are determined holistically.  Teachers assign letter grades based on the most recent and consistent work from the student, formal assignments, and informal observations.  I was very comfortable with this in my practicum in a grade five class in Port Moody.  For some reason, I began teaching secondary school with the impression that secondary school marks had to be entered into a spreadsheet.  Perhaps the presence of BCeSIS had something to do with that.  I agonized when a student was at 47% in my spreadsheet.  If a student who consistently achieved Bs bombed a quiz, I entered the mark into the spreadsheet and let it "bring the mark down."  I gave students zeroes if they didn't turn an assignment in, not considering whether or not the student had already met that particular learning outcome.  Like most teachers, I made exceptions for students with extenuating circumstances, or moved a 72% to a 73% so that the student would have a B, but I wasn't as flexible as I could have been.

My thinking has shifted significantly over the years as I have intentionally moved to more holistic assessment.  This happened through conversations with my friends and colleagues Matt and Michelle, as well as a number of professional development sessions, including one from several Rockridge Secondary teachers who use "numberless" assessment in their classrooms.  I have come to realize that assessment is not about entering numbers into a spreadsheet; it is about determining the strengths and challenges that each student possesses, and identifying areas for focus and change in the future.  While many students, educators, and parents find it preferable to see a spreadsheet with marks, I do not believe that this is the best way to assess a student.

This article discusses assessment in a way that resonates with me; I have thought back to it often.

In all but one course last year, I didn't post spreadsheets on the wall; rather, I discussed marks with students throughout the term.  I still track marks in spreadsheets for easy recordkeeping, but the spreadsheet does not determine the student's final mark; I do.  Though I have no data to support this claim, I am convinced that students are more likely to turn in work when I tell them that they have three missing assignments than they are when they see three blank spaces on a spreadsheet alongside a disappointing grade.  Something about seeing a grade in writing gives the impression that it is final, even if we are mid-way through the term.

When I posted marks, I could tell that some students turned in "enough to pass," but not enough to succeed.  Conferencing with students has enabled me to increase my students' achievement and motivation.  It also allows me to discuss alternatives with them, if needed.  Instead of letting students feel satisfied with "zeros" and "enough to pass," they are occasionally told that I can't assign them a passing mark until these key learning outcomes are met.  As I move toward "counting" summative assessment, and leaving formative assessment for practice, this becomes a concept which must be understood.  I do consider the formative assessment for some students, but summative assignments generally demonstrate greater mastery of learning outcomes.

Below are a few questions which were asked of me, or I asked of myself, as I explored the rather daunting topic of assessment:
  • What would the student's mark be if I had made that assignment/test/quiz worth twice as much?
  • What would the student's mark be if it was worth half as much?
  • Why did I say that the assignment was "worth" 10 marks?  Why not 15?  Or 20?
  • What learning outcomes am I trying to assess through this assessment?
  • Has the student met those learning outcomes in another way?  (For example, did the student participate actively in the discussion but struggle with written work?)
  • Can this student meet those learning outcomes in another way?
  • Why am I counting formative assessment "against" a student?  (For example, if a student struggled with a concept early on, but has now demonstrated that he consistently masters the learning outcome, why do I include poor marks in his assessment?)
  • If I consider the student's achievement and mastery of course concepts overall, does the percentage in the spreadsheet reflect his or her ability?  Why or why not?
  • What is the difference between a mark of 80% and a mark of 82%?
Considering the students' overall achievement, and leaving room for them to redeem themselves is not "letting them off the hook."  It is allowing them to learn and meet outcomes at their own pace.  It is holding them accountable for learning outcomes, rather than allowing them to avoid work by "taking a zero" on the spreadsheet.  That is definitely not something that I'd have said five years ago.  I strongly believed that students needed to be held accountable for missed work through zeroes rather than insisting that they meet the learning outcomes.  I believed that all students should complete the same assignments according to the same criteria.  As my assessment becomes more flexible, my students have more opportunities to succeed and, in turn, learn more.  They don't learn anything about course content from a zero.  As they see success, I see their level of motivation increase.  A student who sees that he or she is capable of success is more likely to try in the future.  As well, when I say things like, "I haven't received enough work from you to assess your understanding," it seems more reasonable than a row of zeros on a spreadsheet which scream, "You're failing!"  This places me in the role of a coach, helping the student to develop a plan to meet learning outcomes, not the role of a dictator who says that they have failed simply because they did not try.  Asking students to develop a plan for assignment completion puts the onus on them and shows them that the course doesn't disappear when they choose to avoid it.  I hope to continue my shift toward portfolio-based assessment in the upcoming school year and have further discussions with students about how I assess and why I am making these choices.

This shift in assessment is not an easy change to make.  Many students and parents want to see spreadsheets.  I was one of those students, so I understand this desire.  I am working to communicate more with my students about the fact that assessment is not like a video game; the goal is not to earn enough "points" to receive specific percentage.  Rather, my job is to assess their strengths and areas in which they struggle and help them to develop a plan for future growth.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

No Hablo Espanol

My lovely home in Oaxaca
When I began my teaching practicum, somebody told us that there are two kinds of teachers: those who loved school and those who hated school.  I am in the former group.  I always enjoyed learning and mastering new skills.  As a typical "eldest child," I also enjoyed the praise and affirmation of achieving success in school.  I had a fairly positive experience as a student, so a challenging semester in Mexico was incredibly valuable to me as a teacher.  I had the opportunity to learn what it is like to be in a country with limited language skills. It is difficult to fully explain the feeling of incompetence that I possessed most of the time, but I truly believe that every teacher (every Canadian, really) should experience life in a country in which they do not understand the language.

Walking into town.  This is the "tourist area."
I arrived in Mexico with a semester of introductory Spanish, a two-week church trip to Costa Rica, and this as my only experience with the Spanish language.  I was teaching ESL, so I wasn't worried about the language barrier in the classroom because we were teaching in English.  For some reason, however, I assumed that eating Mexican food would be my greatest challenge and didn't consider the language barrier as much as I should have.  The food was outstanding; my Spanish was not.

My PDP classmates and I were placed with separate homestay families in the same area of town.  We spent eight weeks living in the city of Oaxaca and, while the town square was heavily populated with English-speaking employees and tourists, we lived further north in a "real" neighbourhood. After my first meal with my Mexican homestay family, I knew that I was in over my head!  I also realized that I needed to become comfortable with incompetence, and accept that I would not master the language in eight weeks, something which was not easy for me.

When I got into the shower one morning,
this little guy was peering down at me.
I encountered several "cucarachas" and won.
I quickly learned that I preferred to spend my time with my English-speaking classmates.  We would see our fellow teachers and Faculty Associate at our practicum placements and in seminars during the day.  After dinner with our homestay families, we would often get together for coffee in the evenings.  I looked forward to that time, as well as any excuse to spend time with them on the weekend.  My homestay family was very nice, but I couldn't have deep conversations with them.  I might be able to describe my day or compliment the meal they had prepared, but that was about it.  I realized how much I crave deep, meaningful interaction with others.  I also discovered escape and avoidance were generally preferable to perseverance.  Logically, I knew that I would benefit from hard work and "sticking it out" but I really needed to escape on a regular basis.

At cena, a larger meal held around 3:00pm, I spoke Spanish with my homestay family and listened to their conversations.  An hour of that completely exhausted me, even if I understood the conversation.  It is difficult to explain how struggling to communicate can be physically exhausting, but it really is!  I always excused myself for a "siesta" after that.  In lieu of a nap, I usually listened to English music, read, wrote in my journal, or watched Law and Order on my bedroom television.  I desperately needed to hear English.  A break allowed me to recharge and continue conversations in the house or in the community.  While I always enjoyed "study breaks" as a student, this was the first time that I really felt that I depended on them.  I do not like allowing students to wander the halls but I really do understand why some need a quick break when learning a difficult concept.  Sometimes it is avoidance; sometimes they simply need to recharge.  Both reactions are natural and, when I notice a student seeking escape from the room or a task, it allows me to check in with him or her in order to break the task down or further explain a concept.

I don't have one of these, but Trader Joe's
carries some fantastic handmade corn tortillas!
Throughout my time in Mexico, there were many times when I was completely uncomfortable and out of my element.  That was a wonderful thing.  I learned to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and was able to have a tiny glimpse of life as an exchange student.  It allowed me to have more meaningful discussions with my students when, a short time later, I accepted my first temporary contract as a high school ESL teacher.  When I think of the challenges I faced at the age of twenty-two, I can't even imagine how young students feel when they come to Canada on exchange.  I also don't know how new immigrants deal with the fact that they have made a permanent move.  By the end of my time in Mexico, I was able to engage in basic conversations with strangers and my homestay family, but I was certainly glad to return to Canada in time for Christmas.  I honestly don't know what it would be like to move to a new country permanently, but a tiny glimpse into this experience significantly impacted me as a teacher and as a Canadian when I encounter those who have made a life-changing move.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Your PLN begins in PDP

Goodbye Dinner With Our Homestay Families
In the spring of 2005, I applied for the January, 2006 module of Simon Fraser University's Professional Development Program for teacher training.  This one-year program is required for certification as a BC teacher.  It was my first application and I knew that if I was admitted, I would be ecstatic.  I also knew that it was a competitive process and that I may have to apply again for the September, 2006 program.

Unexpectedly, I received a letter that summer stating that the September, 2005 International Teacher Education Module had spaces available.  The program required additional tuition for travel and would enable me to live in Mexico or Trinidad for 10 weeks while completing my "short practicum" and SFU seminars in international schools.  With the prospect of finishing my degree a semester early, and having an incredible international experience, I decided to send in a letter of interest.  More than a hundred other prospective applicants did the same thing but, for some reason, I managed to secure one of the two available Mexico spots right away.  I am a "planner," so it was rather unlike me to decide in July that I would be doing something different in September, but I was ecstatic!  I fired off a mass e-mail to my friends, and began preparing.

My participation in the Mexico PDP module was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as a prospective teacher.  The group of sixteen student teachers, our SFU Faculty Associate, and her husband, were amazing.  Our teaching preferences ranged from kindergarten to grade twelve, and our backgrounds and personalities were diverse.  Despite obvious differences, we worked well as a team and supported one another personally and professionally throughout our ten-week trip away from home.  We have continued to provide professional support to one another as some "elementary trained" teachers began teaching at secondary schools, and vice versa.  Through job cuts and layoffs, many have changed grade levels and have been able to turn to PDP classmates for advice.  One of my fabulous PDP classmates was recently a guest speaker in my Family Studies class during her pregnancy and after the birth of her son.  I love having guest speakers and the kids adored her and her little guy.

On a personal note, quite a few of the women I met in that program have become good friends.  The group isn't able to get together often, but we do manage to catch up for lunch or dinner on school breaks, and the occasional wedding, and have Facebook to keep us connected in between.

I love getting together with those ladies and hearing what is going on in their lives and careers.  Often, teachers become focused on socializing with colleagues within our own schools and districts.  It is incredibly valuable to hear what is going on across the lower mainland.  It never ceases to amaze me how a conversation with an elementary school teacher can shape my practice in secondary school.  It is also interesting to compare and contrast policies and procedures in different schools and districts, giving us a better sense of education province-wide.

After eight weeks in the city of Oaxaca, we arrived at the beach!
The connections formed in university have been incredibly valuable to me personally and professionally and I wouldn't trade them for anything.  I strongly encourage prospective teachers to take the time to form lasting connections with classmates.  We had more "bonding time" than most PDP students, as we were living in Mexico together, but it really is important for all prospective teachers to get in the habit of having a coffee with a colleague from another district or grade level.  Even if we teach different grade levels and in different communities, I always benefit from chatting with my fabulous PDP classmates.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

On Homework

I would love to see my students complete school work at home because they are excited about a topic they are studying or because they have a strong desire to improve their skills.

It's my blog.  I can dream, right?

In recent years, I have adopted the philosophy that if a student is using his or her time wisely, it should be entirely possible to meet learning outcomes within class time.  Additional time may be required for the student to review, exceed expectations, or make up for missed classes but, overall, my students should not have homework.  I try to assign a number of "in class only" tasks each term, giving me the opportunity to really observe and guide my students as they learn and make adaptations, as necessary.  Some assignments, usually multi-day projects, may be taken home if students want to spend extra time on them.

Please note that, in the paragraphs below, I use the terms "assignments" and "work" to describe a variety of assessment practices.  My draft on assessment has been sitting on this blog nearly as long as this entry on homework but, for now, know that "assignment" is not synonymous with "worksheet" in my mind.

A few thoughts to contribute to the ongoing discussions about homework online and in schools:

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that a "good teacher" assigns homework.  It seems that these people generally expect all students to be given the same homework, regardless of their progress in class.
Homework is mistakenly understood as a necessary component in a serious, academic course taught by a strong teacher.  The quantity of homework, however, does not correlate with the quality of a student's learning, nor a teacher's instruction.  I have memories of completing dozens of math problems long after I had mastered the concept.  Likewise, there were times when I could have benefited from extra practice not required by my classmates.

Homework needs to be personalized and motivated by the student (or family) in order for it to be meaningful.
If somebody had made this statement five years ago, I'd have thought they were nuts.  Some students require extra practice or review, but these requirements are not the same for each.  I now believe that extra practice, review, and studying must be completed at the suggestion of the teacher but with the student's active acknowledgment that this is a necessary assignment to improve upon skills.  When students are truly engaged in a project, they may choose to work at home; I think that is fantastic and strongly encourage that.  When students are motivated to improve skills, with the guidance of the teacher, they take ownership over the activity.  They will become equipped to succeed as they face future in-class assessment opportunities.

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that homework is acceptable if it is work that the student has not finished in class.
I agree with this, in part.  Some students require more time to complete work; why should they be "punished" for requiring more time to meet the learning outcomes for a particular course?  As well, teachers do feel that they need to "move on" and not leave other students waiting for the next assignment while a minority of the class finishes work.  My issue with this philosophy, however, is cases when students choose to waste time in class, then choose not to complete the homework.  The student still has to complete the assignment, and the teacher will find him/herself sending interim reports and reminding the student about the missing work.  This seems like a lose-lose situation to me.  While I do not assign homework, students who miss class then procrastinate end up having to do some at home.  I was commenting to a colleague that I wonder if some parents think, "That Family Studies teacher assigns a lot of homework" when, in reality, the student may have fallen behind due to absences or issues with time management.  I feel that the "It's homework if you don't finish in class" philosophy is only viable if the teacher holds students accountable for class time, as much as possible.  It is amazing how quickly students begin to work when something is "due at the end of class."  I am able to ensure that students have completed work to the best of their ability, while making adaptations and modifications for those who genuinely struggle.  As well, I want to see some work completed in front of me, even if extra time is required; allowing students to take every assignment home can lead to concerns about academic honesty.

If work is completed out of class, I do not know whose work I am assessing.
I am neither willing nor able to assess plagiarized work.  Period.  Dealing with plagiarism is unpleasant for all involved.  I spend time at the beginning of each year reviewing the school's code for academic honesty yet, on several occasions, I have received an assignment completed by Wikipedia's finest contributors, or another person who is not enrolled in my class.  It seems unwise to allow every assignment to go home unless I have a good sense of the student's current achievement and have observed the assignment in progress.

If work is being completed at home, I do not have the opportunity to differentiate assessment.
If a student genuinely struggles with written work, for example, I have an opportunity to reduce the assignment requirements and perhaps discuss another method of presentation.  I can make adaptations for any student, whether or not a ministry coding has been assigned, but must see the student in order to do this.  Students who genuinely struggle may also feel frustrated and choose not to complete an assignment or may feel motivated to cheat.  It is for these and a variety of other reasons that I designate several major assignments "in class only" each term.

Students have other interests, hobbies, and commitments.
While I began by mentioning that some parents and students expect homework in rigorous courses, others do not and see value in engaging their children in a variety of activities.  Many senior students are committed to jobs, babysitting, athletics, or volunteer positions after school.  Secondary school students should expect to spend some time dedicated to review and practice several days per week, but lengthy homework projects are challenging for many.

If we want to create lifelong readers, reading should not be a chore.
The last time I taught English, my students completed about 85% of the assessment activities in class, allowing me to adapt assignments as needed.  I told them that their homework was to read books of their choice, and gave them silent reading time in class in order to "hook" them on reading.  It was my desire to make English "homework" something they enjoyed, rather than a punitive or unnecessary exercise.  I told them that I was not going to install cameras in their homes to supervise this reading, but that reading would improve their skills in class.  I have no way of knowing if I succeeded in encouraging these students to read but hope that they left with a more positive attitude toward reading and school in general.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Social Studies 9: A New Adventure

I will be teaching a block of Social Studies 9, next year.  It will be my first time teaching this course and, after a bit of inspiration from a variety of sources, my brain is full of ideas!  I love the content for Social Studies 9; it's full of revolutions and adventure!

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts about next year:

1) I hope to build on research, paraphrasing, citation, media literacy, and academic honesty skills throughout the year.  Wow.  Re-reading that sentence bores me.  I have fun plans to integrate these key skills into the course and feel that these are vital to students' success in this class and throughout secondary school.  Research goes beyond a Google search and critical thinking requires more than paraphrasing an article.  I am excited about using these important tools in my classes and seeing the students move from guided practice to independent research.  A huge focus will be on critical thinking and synthesis of information, rather than activities which require students to simply "read and regurgitate" the information.

2) Building on the aforementioned skills, I am planning to incorporate a major inquiry project on life in early Canada.  Students will research and present the information in a manner of their choosing.  This will occur after I have introduced the skills required through more teacher-directed lessons.  It is my hope that I will be the "guide" as students tackle this project.  I hope to have them choose their own inquiry questions and conference with each student/group on a regular basis to ensure that they are on track.  I've been able to spend a lot of time thinking and reading about Inquiry Learning through my courses and am excited about beginning.

3) Students and staff often complain that 80-minute blocks are too long; I hope to break up the time by adding 15-45 minute geography lessons at various points throughout the year, rather than teaching a geography unit at once.  I have other plans to break up the blocks, as well.  The classes are long but I think that we can make good use of the time.

4) As a big fan of historical fiction, I plan to incorporate stories throughout the course.  I happen to be reading The Bride of New France at the moment.  (Interestingly, I put this book on hold at the local library before learning that I was teaching this course.  I love the course content!)  I have learned that secondary students are never too old for a "read-aloud" and think it will be fun to use sections of the book to bring a different perspective to some of the course content.  I am looking for other content-related novels or short stories and would love recommendations!

5) Aside from classes being too long, one consistent comment my grade eight students made last year was that high school teachers assign too much homework.  (They didn't have homework in my Health and Career 8 class, of course, but they were struggling to adapt to the homework in secondary school.)  I have become a big fan of in-class assessment and hope that my students will have little or no homework if they are using class time wisely.  They may need to review key concepts at home, but specific homework will not be assigned.  (More thoughts on homework coming soon.)  If a student genuinely struggles, I hope to work with him or her to make adaptations which will allow learning outcomes to be met and frustration to decrease.  This, of course, depends upon the individual student's strengths, challenges, and work habits.

6) Problem-solving activities are also in my mind.  A couple of colleagues have mentioned that they tried role-playing games in Social Studies and this is something that I would love to implement.

7) I have several field trip ideas.  Part of the curriculum involves art and culture.  I would love to take students to the Vancouver Art Gallery for a tour and/or to the UBC Museum of Anthropology.  This would probably occur in the spring so that students would have enough background information to maintain interest.  A number of variables affect this plan, but it is in my mind now.

8) A number of colleagues have been kind enough to e-mail or give me their resources for the course.  I have received many ideas and materials that I hope to use throughout the year.  In the past, my amazing colleagues have been wonderful at mentoring and providing resources when I find myself teaching a new course.  This year has been no different.  I walked into my room one day to find a gigantic box of worksheets and sample assignments on my desk.  I also received e-mail attachments, handouts, and other resources during the last week of school.  I feel really fortunate to be working alongside so many fantastic teachers and look forward to picking their brains as the course progresses.

9) I just realized that I should add a bit about technology.  If you know me, it goes without saying that technology will be a part of my class.  As usual, I plan to use a class website, post assignments online, and engage students in online discussions and debates.  I've learned about a few new tools which I'm excited to use.  Webquests is a fantastic website to encourage critical thinking about history.  This is one that I'm excited to try with Social Studies 9!  As well, students will be using a variety of online tools.  I've been recording interesting links on a separate page and presentation tools which I've used, or hope to use next year, are included there.  I want to pick a few tools for each class and teach students to use them well, rather than constantly spending class time on instruction.  That said, I will be encouraging students to try different tools on their own and will likely provide a brief introduction to each.  A Google account, of course, will be a requirement for every class I teach.

Of course, Social Studies 9 won't be complete without this video and others from the HistoryTeachers channel:

Monday, 4 July 2011

Missing In Action

What do teachers do in the summer?
Go to the park to see Shakespeare plays, of course!
Canada Day 2011 at Bard on The Beach
I am never short on words, nor opinions, but this blog has become a neglected one after a rapid start.

Somehow, blogging was lost in a June filled with final assessments, marking late assignments, report cards, graduation ceremony duties, yearbook delivery and distribution, moving classrooms, meeting with colleagues, and collecting resources to look at over the summer.  (Somewhere in there, I also had an action-packed life outside of school!)

My "Tweeting" has not slowed, however.  Blogging requires time to sit and process, while Twitter allows me to regurgitate thoughts from other people with ease when I have a moment or two to sit and read.  The iPhone is a beautiful invention.

I love the online network of teachers and administrators which has formed through Twitter, but can't help but feel like a sad, little parrot as I re-tweet brilliant thoughts from others but have none of my own to contribute at the moment.  I imagine that others see this and assume that I'm the sort of person who would sit at a dinner party nodding and exclaiming, "I agree!" as those around me participate in intelligent discussions.  I assure you that this is not the case.  If you invite me to dinner, I will come prepared with a collection of conversation starters such as, "Eww!  Are they serving us fried slugs?" and "Lemme tell you about what I found on the skytrain yesterday!  You don't have a weak stomach, do you?"


I was going to keep putting off a blog entry until I had something to say but realized today that, for me, June-itis is part of the teaching experience.  The cure, of course, is fabulous summer fun.  I hope to be back to blogging fairly soon with some reflections on the past year and goals for next year.

Now, it is time to head out and enjoy some more of this beautiful sunshine!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Google Calendar: A Geeky Teacher's Best Friend

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: I LOVE GOOGLE!  A few years ago, I had no idea that Google was anything more than a search engine but it really does so much more.

Google Calendar has completely changed the way I prepare for classes and organize my personal life.

As with all of their application, Google has an excellent selection of help articles online for those interested in trying Google Calendar.

I use one calendar for my personal life, one for school bell schedule and meetings, and one for each course I teach.  Events on each calendar can be made visible or hidden with one click.  It's been a few years now, and I don't think I'll ever go back to a pen-and-paper calendar!

Here are a few of my favourite features:

1) A calendar and daybook I can organize at home, at school, or on an iPhone
I wouldn't have admitted it publicly before, but I was ridiculously excited to receive my first "real teacher" coil daybook.  The excitement wore off, however, when I realized that I prefer to organize a month, not a week, at a glance.  I also realized that I would have to lug the large book back and forth each night if I wanted to prep at home.  Now, I use a different Google calendar for each course I teach.  I can enter a lesson "title" which is visible from the "month at a glance" link.  Notes, website links, etc. can be pasted into the "event details" section.  I love having the ability to see my personal and work commitments in one place.  It helps to reduce double-booking at school and at home.

2) The ability to "share" the calendar
This is ideal for teachers.  Last year, as I was able to share the calendar for one course with a colleague who had never taught the class before.  He was able to see what my class was doing each day, at a glance.  A calendar can also be made public and published on a school or class website.  For non-teachers, the ability to share is still beneficial.  At home, a Google calendar can be shared between spouses and with older children, allowing the entire family to know what is going on.  A large calendar in a kitchen at home or staff room at work is only useful if people are at home when making plans.  The beauty of this technology is it allows everybody to view events and changes instantly.

3) Easy changes with drag and drop events
My daybook was always a mess!  (I feel like this is turning into a script for an infomercial!  I should insert an image of a sad teacher with a daybook full of scribbles for added effect!)  A messy daybook really bugged me, though.  I would mark down an appointment, meeting, or lesson plan, only to change it later.  If a lesson took longer than expected, I found myself erasing and re-writing plans for a week or more.  I am really flexible with my planning and adjust lessons and activities often, based on the students' understanding, level of interest, and the time required.  It's really helpful for me to plan things out, then drag and drop as I adjust my plans.  I love seeing a visual layout of a month, term, or year as I adjust and drag plans to different dates!