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.