Thursday, 1 November 2012

Embracing Our "Inner Weird"

I'm constantly amazed by the amazing sense of humour and enthusiasm that my elementary school students have.  I shared many funny moments with my students as a secondary school teacher, but this unfiltered, class-wide enthusiasm is something new and fantastic!  Our first read-aloud book of the year was Nerd Camp, the story of a boy who goes to a camp for gifted children while trying to convince his future stepbrother that he's cool.  I thought that it was a great way to start off discussions about who we are, being ourselves, and avoiding labels as we began to form a sense of community in class.  I wasn't expecting the level of enthusiasm that would follow!  A group of students began memorizing the digits of Pi because the protagonist did so; this group will now eat up (haha) any math challenge that involves using Pi to solve a problem.  It's awesome and hilarious!  I always say that "Nerd is the new cool" and it really seems to be the case as they proudly declare that they're "nerds" like the protagonist in the book.  I don't know that it's ever going to be necessary for them to know the digits of Pi, but I love their enthusiasm!  One of my favourite discussions that followed Nerd Camp was when I asked the class "What are you a nerd about?" and they shared things that make them become extremely enthusiastic experts: video games, math, reading, dance, etc.

A couple of weeks ago, the class entered the room in one of THOSE moods.  They were silly and quirky and generally awesome, but their energy level was SO high that they were completely unable to focus on anything.  We were expecting a TOC as I had a couple of IEP meetings to attend so, in a moment of silliness, I drew a "Weird Dial" on the board with an arrow pointing toward "High."  I told the class that this was our current level and that we needed to turn it down a little before the guest teacher arrived so that they could focus on the task at hand.  Then, I erased the arrow and placed it between "medium" and "low."  In high school, this might have received a few laughs and (a few eye rolls) before the students moved on.

That is not the case in elementary school.  I am finding that my moments of silliness turn into full-blown class-wide trends for weeks (and months!) after the fact.

They LOVED it!  The next day, a couple of students created this:
I have to admit that I thought their creation was hilarious.  A unicorn is the class mascot so, naturally, "Unicorn Weird" is the most extreme and excellent sort of weird that a person can be.  Of course, I realized later that I may not want to have that up when parents or guests walk in!  "Weird" is certainly not an insult in that context.  Likewise, when we say that students are "geeking out" over a math problem, it's a beautiful thing!  But, to an outside eye or ear, the "geek friendly" language that has developed in our class is probably a little odd.

You would think that I had learned my lesson from that but, less than a week later, I did it again.  A student wrote, "Hi Ms. Jakse!" on the palm of her hand and secretly opened her fist so that I could see it.  I laughed and quickly drew a "finger mustache" on mine then showed it off the next time she looked over.

If you think that things "go viral" on the internet, you've never seen a finger mustache spread through a grade six and seven classroom.  I had never seen a "finger goatee" or "finger unibrow" before, but I saw a few that day!

As we work on community building, I have been really encouraging students to recognize their unique qualities and embrace the differences they observe in one another.  I suppose that embracing my own weird sense of humour, and allowing some silly tangents to run their course, is a good start.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Framing Math Around A Question

While I'm incorporating inquiry in Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science, among other areas, I promised myself that I wouldn't "reinvent the wheel" with math, this year.  I promised myself that I'd follow the text and teacher's guides, while using standards-based assessment, then think about shaking the format up next year.

I can't do anything the easy way, it seems.  In this case, that's worked out well!  I couldn't wrap my head around meeting the needs of so many learners while working on one skill or theme at a time.  So, I decided that I needed to reshape the way I was approaching math.

The night before I was about to being a math unit with my (rather diverse) group of grade six and seven students, I decided that I just couldn't start with a chapter and work through it.  I'd done a basic math assessment and a few other math activities to see where the students were with a variety of skills and was about to start working my way through the text while incorporating some hands-on activities and project-based learning along the way. 

I posed the following question to my students the next morning:
“If we were to create a proposal for a (fictitious) grade 6/7 student lounge at Webster’s Corners Elementary, what would we need to know?  What math would be involved?”

They came up with a list of concepts and I've been guiding them through, adjusting for a variety of levels along the way.  It's been great to have them work through the problem and have a common goal while working at a variety of different levels and PLOs.  They have been engaged with visualizing their own student lounges and this seems to have been enough of a "hook" to get everybody involved.

I guess I've jumped into problem-based learning in math class!

If you'd like to know more, I've posted a few (ok...many!) more details here on our class blog and will hopefully update this blog with a summary of events/activities at some point.  I'm constantly adjusting the "flow" of this project as we go, depending on my students' skills, needs, and interests, so I'm not sure if anything I've done would be useful to anybody else but I'm excited about it and hope to share more later on.  Also, if you know of any similar projects, or other teachers using this approach, I'd love to hear about them!  I'm sure that I've been reading and hearing about problem-based math here and there but had ignored most of it until now!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Creating a Culture of Inquiry

I made a post-it question board for the
first day of school so that the kids could ask
questions anonymously.  This was my favourite.
When I explored inquiry learning last year, one of the big "Aha! Moments" that stands out to me is the concept of creating a "culture of inquiry." This is something we discussed a lot in the summer course I was enrolled in and is something I am trying to embed in my own classroom. Some of my colleagues last year modeled this well and made me realize that, while I was trying to embed inquiry, I didn't think about the fact that its success depends on having questions, deep thinking, and student-directed learning infused in daily activities.  Inquiry isn't a type of project; it is an approach and a tone which need to be set by the teacher early in the year.  This book contains a lot of great suggestions for inquiry-based activities at any grade level.

As I updated the class blog this morning, I realized that I automatically started by listing "activities" from the week. I went back to edit the entry and, below the activities, added a list of the big questions that we discussed this week:
  • What kind of classroom community do we want? How should we treat one another in class? What do we expect of one another? 
  • What makes a good writer? 
  • What can an artifact tell us about a person, place, or time period? 
  • What would future civilizations assume about us if they found an artifact from today? 
  • Where do we see math in the real world? 
  • What do humans need in order to survive? 
This week, I also introduced the guiding question that both grade 6/7 classes will be using for Social Studies, Language Arts, and across other areas: "What makes us who we are?"

I am trying to embed "big questions" into every subject area, lesson, and day in order to begin building a culture of curiosity, big ideas, and good questioning. At the same time, I hope to use these guiding questions to focus our discussions and learning. I would like to use the class blog to keep parents involved in our questions as I hope that conversations from class will carry on at home.

Already, my favourite questions to ask my students are:
  • Why are we learning / talking about / doing this? 
  • Why is this important? Is this important? 
  • How does this apply to life outside of school? Where will you use it? 
  • If something is only useful in school, should we be learning it? 
I feel like these questions are already setting the stage for the practical skills that inquiry learning supports.  As well, incorporating student choice into our introductory activities is setting the tone that I'm not there to be a dictator; I am in the class to support my students' learning.

I can't wait to continue learning with my awesome, little class!  What sorts of activities do you incorporate in order to build a culture of inquiry during the first week of classes?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Confessions of a Shallow Teacher

I remember reading this post last summer and thinking, "Can't I decorate AND prepare for my students?"  Personally, I'd prefer to put a bit of extra time into decorating in the summer.  It's a great "brain break" from freaking out about all of the unknown factors I can't control thoughtfully and calmly preparing for the first week and developing long-term goals as I carefully review the curriculum.  I know there are many phenomenal teachers who are comfortable leaving blank walls for students to decorate, but I am not one of them.  In fact, I feel really shallow when I talk about my love of classroom decorations.  Space and aesthetics matter to me and I like to get things set up before the kids arrive.  There is TONS of space on the walls for my students to make the room their own; I really want the room to be their space as they add art and assignments to the walls, but I absolutely love starting the foundation before they arrive.  I had tons of fun getting ready because this is the first time I've ever had a classroom that I don't have to share!

It's not all superficial, of course!  I blogged about a few of the key phrases I have hung on the walls over here on an inquiry blog I'm contributing to with a group of teachers.  It was really important to me to develop key phrases that students will hear throughout the year.  I'm still debating a couple of things with my writing criteria but, overall, I feel like I have a clear picture of how I will assess and I want students to be comfortable with these.  I probably spent more time thinking about the phrases I will use than I did decorating, but the classroom makeover was still a lot of fun!

I don't like having an enormous "teacher throne" area in a classroom, but I decided to keep a side table next to my desk as it might become a handy place to conference with students or have them work away from their desk groups.



The non-shallow part:

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A New Blogging Adventure!

Photo credit: truenewzealandadventurestours
Flickr Creative Commons
I realize that I can barely keep up with this blog at times, but I hope to be more consistent in the new year.

While I plan to continue reflecting here, I'm really excited about a new collaborative blogging adventure that I will be participating in during the new school year!  Last year, I was part of a small group of teachers who were at various stages of using inquiry in their classrooms.  We didn't start meeting together until later in the year but building a small community was very beneficial for all of us as we thought about different ways to improve our practice.  Due to transfers in the district, we will not all be in the same building next year.  As we are all busy, and even chatting while working in the same school was hard to schedule, we will be sharing our adventures on a new blog this year.  So far, six other teachers have indicated that they will be participating in this.  It will be a great way for us to share what is happening in our classrooms and comment on messages to one another.  As well, I hope that you will join in the conversation as we progress.  We represent different subject areas and grade levels so I hope to call on experts within my Twitter, blog, and real life PLN for input as the year progresses.  I'm always amazed at the power of collaboration in real life and online.  As somebody who HATED group work as a student, it's fantastic to realize how meaningful collaboration can be when structured around common interests and motivation to learn.

We only have a couple of introductions up right now but please consider subscribing or adding us to your favourite RSS feed so that you can stay tuned for more content as the year progresses.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Changing It Up!

Today, I worked on getting
 unpacked and organized!
Can't wait to decorate!
It's been a while since I last blogged!  June flew by and then I spent July taking my first master's course.  It was all about Inquiry Learning, one of my absolute favourite topics!  I learned a lot but, between online discussions and papers, I didn't have energy to blog too.  Since then, I had two "I am not a teacher" weeks (including three weekends, of course!) to decompress before getting started with my new year plans!  I had a bit of a slow start then suddenly became flooded with ideas for my new job!  I'm so glad to have an "always on" PLN through Twitter!  It's great to read your blog posts and articles as I seek inspiration!

I just realized that I haven't blogged about my new job...oops!

After an elementary school practicum, followed by nearly six years working at a secondary school, I'm heading back to elementary school!  As I told my students, there are no scandalous stories associated with the move; I was transferred from my school alongside several other teachers due to my level of seniority and declining positions at the secondary level.  While there is sadness as I think about the staff and students I will miss, I am absolutely ecstatic about this new opportunity!  It feels like many things are falling into place perfectly with this move!

As I continued to learn about about inquiry learning last year, I found myself thinking of ways to include the flexibility of elementary school in secondary school.  I would love to see an inquiry-based secondary model which would include cross-curricular learning opportunities which might include several classes blended together.  I can imagine the benefits of teaching English and Social Studies to the same group of students, for example; so much can be accomplished if a teacher can work on literacy skills through both subjects.  English would work well blended with electives, as well; imagine the dynamic in an English class if students were grouped with others who have like interests and were able to engage in inquiry projects and lit circles with like-minded peers!  Conversations around the BC Education Plan and discussions about inquiry learning had me thinking about changes I would like to see in secondary school.  The more I thought about that, the more I realized that I would love to teach in an elementary school.  As a result, I'm really looking forward to the cross-curricular freedom that comes with the elementary schedule.  We don't have to switch from math to science when a bell goes; if the students are engaged, we can continue.  If we are working on a time-consuming experiment, we can add time to science.  As well, students will be working on literacy skills across the curriculum.  I will be teaching every subject except music so there will be lots of opportunities to engage students in inquiry learning and meet learning outcomes from multiple subject areas through in-depth projects.  I'm really looking forward to engaging students in their areas of interest as we explore the grade 6/7 curriculum together!

As well, I'm excited about spending more time with a small group of students; as I worked on Assessment for Learning practices last year, I couldn't help but feel frustrated by the sheer number of students I needed to speak to as the end of each term neared.  I became overwhelmed at times and, while I made some positive strides regarding assessment, I didn't do everything I would have liked.  I have been reading a lot more about assessment can't wait to get started with this new elementary group!

OK...I can wait!  There's lots to do before the new school year begins in two short weeks!  It's amazing how I feel like I've been simultaneously thinking about and ignoring September all summer!

If any of you in the blogosphere have transitioned from secondary school to elementary, I'd love some tips!  It has been a while so I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, 28 May 2012


I just realized that I've been blogging for more a year, though there have been some significant gaps during busy periods!  Over the summer and through next year, I hope to be more consistent with blogging as I find that it is a great source of professional growth and often connects me to educators I wouldn't meet otherwise.  Through Twitter and this blog, I have been influenced by many amazing educators!

Last summer, I wrote this post on changing assessment practices.  Since then, it has circled through the Twitter world quite a few times, received hundreds of hits, and was recently published in the BC Teachers of English Language Arts journal.  It is a reflection I keep coming back to as I continue to examine my assessment practices and I'm glad that there are others who are asking the same questions.  Without social media, I may have felt like I was one of a few teachers questioning widely accepted assessment practices but, through messages that followed, I realized that I was one of many.  As well, through this post, I explored the dilemma I see many teachers facing regarding "presentation" versus learning in course assignments.  Again, it connected me to other teachers who were thinking about how and why we assess.  It's been great to engage in conversations with others via Twitter and e-mail after posting my rambling thoughts online.  In addition to discussing these things with a small group of AMAZING colleagues regularly, the conversation has extended to include experienced and wonderful educators I have never met.  Technology is pretty great!

While this has been a crazy year, it has definitely been my best year for professional growth.  I've learned that my most significant professional growth always comes through collaboration and discussions.  This year, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers formally and informally through a variety of different professional development opportunities in my school and district.  As a student in high school and university, I always hated "group work" assignments but, now that I am surrounded by people as passionate about good practice as I am, working together is the best experience possible!  It's amazing how my views about group work changed when I began working with others who share the same goals!

I'm happy that I've been able to collaborate, through this blog, a few wikis, and Twitter, with so many amazing educators and look forward to continuing this growth in the years to come!  I'm so grateful for my in-person and online PLN!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Inquiring Minds

Flickr Creative Commons Image
I have fallen in love with student-directed inquiry learning, this year!  I have attempted it in my classroom and, despite a steep learning curve, feel that it is 

I'm equally excited about teacher inquiry and have had many opportunities to see it in action through my role as a mentor with a SFU graduate diploma program.  As well, I had an opportunity to participate in teacher inquiry myself through my school district, this year.  Below is the summary of findings that I submitted at the end of my teacher inquiry project.  I hope to engage in more teacher inquiry in the future as it help me to examine my practice and enables me to model lifelong learning as I discuss my own inquiry with my students.  The conversations which result from teacher inquiry are invaluable.  This year, I have come to realize the value of self-directed professional development.  When I am passionate, engaged, and collaborating with others, I learn far more than I can in any other setting.  I hope that I can continue to create similar experiences for my students as I continue to pursue Inquiry as an instruction method.

Name: Megan Jakse
School: Pitt Meadows Secondary
Courses taught: Social Studies 9, Family Studies 11/12, Planning 10, Leadership 10-12, Foods 9/10
Inquiry Question: Will introducing student-directed Inquiry Learning in my classes enable students to take ownership of their learning?

What did I notice?
Now that I have begun to use Inquiry, I can’t imagine teaching any other way.  I have always felt motivated to run a student-centered classroom, but this style of learning made it a reality more than ever.  As students became involved in Inquiry projects, they were able to take ownership of their learning in new ways.

While I had done a lot of reading about Inquiry over the summer, I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn as I began to introduce Inquiry in my classroom.  Despite the steep learning curve for me and my students, I feel that it was worth the time and effort to introduce this new and meaningful style of learning.  I feel much better equipped to implement Inquiry learning in my classroom in the future.

I expected my Family Studies students to take to inquiry with the most ease, but learned that my older students had the most difficulty adjusting their view of “school work” to incorporate open-ended, self-selected questions.  At first, it seemed that many wanted highly structured guidelines and expectations regarding topics, content, presentation, and format.  Quite a few begged me to give them a question or topic as we worked through the process of developing questions.  It took time to shift their expectations but, by the end of the course, I regularly received positive feedback from students as they understood how Inquiry learning can make learning personally meaningful for them.

I hoped to jump right into inquiry with my Social Studies 9 class but, after realizing that many struggled with some of the necessary skills, I adjusted my expectations at first and worked more slowly toward an Inquiry project.  We worked on a number of inquiry-inspired assignments which encouraged students to form and articulate an opinion using reputable resources.  As the year progressed, students were able to participate in in-depth research and articulate their views.  I feel that skill-building before we took on larger projects helped to increase students’ confidence and, therefore, their levels of engagement in the project.  Compared to my other classes, I spent the most time developing skills with this group; as a result, they became the group whose Inquiry work was most in-depth as the year progressed.  As I spent a lot of time building skills with this group, I found myself wishing that I could work with the same group of students for multiple courses.  It would be fantastic to have them for English 9 and Social Studies 9 so that they could meet outcomes for both courses through cross-curricular learning opportunities.

Some of my Food Studies 9 students are also in my Social Studies 9 class, so I was able to use them as leaders when introducing inquiry learning ot my Foods classes.  There, we were able to do more hands-on activities as part of the research process.  A number of students were curious about the difference between organic and “regular” fruits, so we did a blind taste test to collect data.  We also held a taste test to examine the difference between bottled and tap water.  The hands-on research seemed to make the projects more relevant for many students.  I was excited about the enthusiasm expressed by my Foods 9/10 students during these projects, as they were generally resistant to theory work earlier in the year.  My colleague, Becky, has been using Inquiry in her Foods classes and was a great source of support through the process.

As I discussed Inquiry learning with other teachers who were implementing it, I learned that this is not something which can be done in isolation.  Just as my students supported one another through the process, I benefited from collaboration with other teachers.  Ideally, teachers using Inquiry in the same school would use the same phrases and strategies with students so that they can become increasingly independent over time.  In the spring, a group of PMSS teachers were provided release time to spend two days working on Inquiry strategies together; this was incredibly valuable as it widened my network of support and gave us time to work together on practical elements of our courses.  I quickly learned that many of my colleagues experienced the same challenges and rewards as they began to implement inquiry in their classrooms.  It was apparent that teaching in this way is something which requires time for both students and teachers to adapt and I began to realize that creating

Finally, I have come to realize that Inquiry is an approach which must become part of my classroom culture; some of my colleagues model this incredibly well and I hope to take cues from them next year.  Encouraging questions and curiosity are key as students work up to developing their topics.  As well, students must begin to see themselves as active participants who have a role in developing course content, not passive recipients of teacher-selected information.  It takes time to build this culture within a classroom but I think that it will be incredibly meaningful as I continue to develop as a teacher.

What will I continue to explore?
I plan to use Inquiry learning more in the future, designing courses around the skills and objectives of student-directed inquiry.  I have learned a lot about establishing a culture of inquiry in my classroom and hope to have a stronger start next year.  I plan to continue my own professional development through reading and meetings with colleagues so that my abilities can improve.  Specifically, I hope to improve my ability to engage students in inquiry and guide them through the process of developing questions, selecting resources, and analyzing information.  I am looking forward to a master’s course this summer which focuses on inquiry learning strategies and building a culture of inquiry within schools.  While we developed a couple of graphic organizers during our group sessions, I would like to expand on this and develop a variety of visual aids to help guide learners through the Inquiry process.  As well, I would like to involve students’ families in the Inquiry process, encouraging them to reflect with students and contribute in various ways.  Inquiry helps students to extend their learning beyond the walls of the classroom; I would like to take this farther in the future.

Gathering with colleagues was incredibly encouraging and helpful this year.  The group of teachers who gathered were able to share teaching strategies, struggles, and advice despite representing a variety of teaching areas.  While some of us are likely moving on to other schools next year, I hope to continue to meet with teachers who are incorporating inquiry learning into their classroom as my colleagues are an incredibly valuable resource.  We have a “dropbox” folder to share files from our workshops and resources that we have created; I hope that we can continue to use this in the future to share information.  In the future, I would love to see enough colleagues using Inquiry that we could develop a set of standards for each grade level and use consistent strategies, phrases, and rubrics so that students become accustomed to this.  While we are all in our first few years of using inquiry, there is potential for a culture of inquiry to develop over time.

As I engaged in teacher inquiry, I was able to experience Inquiry learning as a student, not just as a teacher.  This was incredibly valuable for me as I feel it is important to model learning strategies, and my own passion for learning, in the classroom.  I look forward to developing my skills as a facilitator of Inquiry learning and will continue engaging students with Inquiry in the future.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Why I Tweet: A Planning 10 Discussion

I've been exploring internet safety with my Planning 10 classes and, of course, they began to Google me.  A number of them wound up on my Twitter account and wanted to know why I was on there (and how their incredibly uncool teacher wound up with more followers than they have).  I explained how I use my Personal Learning Network to contact other educators from around the world.

The tweet above was based on an activity I'd heard about and am eager to try.  It was "retweeted" by a couple of people and generated several responses with helpful links and information from one person I used to work with and several I've never met.  I'm continually impressed by the power of my personal learning network, and often babble to friends (teachers and anybody else who will listen) about the positive influence that my Teacher Tweeps have had on my professional development, this year.  There may not be many educators in the same school or district trying a teaching strategy but, when a message is passed on to a large network of educators, I learn so much!

My students were incredibly open as they discussed their (good, bad, and ugly) experiences on Twitter but, as I suspected, all of them seem to use it for posting entertaining comments and communicating with people they know in real life.  In informal discussions and during lessons, I assume this and tend to emphasize the importance of interacting responsibly online when students see (or are tempted to leave) inappropriate comments, become the target of bullies and trolls, or begin to reveal too much personal information in a very public forum.  While it is important to discuss these things, I realized that I should also give my students examples of other ways to use social media so that they can develop positive online profiles.

I would love to have students use Twitter for research purposes; they could follow, contact, and potentially interview professionals in a particular field as they research for inquiry projects.  Social media is so incredibly powerful yet, while I talk about my love of Twitter with my colleagues, I feel that I missed out by leaving my students out of the discussion.  Has anybody out there used Twitter as a research tool with students?  We're wrapping up the year now but this is definitely something that I will keep in my mind for future years.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Thinking in Categories: Developing a new "Philosophy of Education" document

Photo Credit: alovesdc
Flickr Creative Commons
When I began applying for positions on various TOC lists across the Lower Mainland, some districts requested a "Philosophy of Education" statement.  I remember making a one-page list full of bullet points and buzzwords, but I don't remember exactly what it said and, after moving twice, have no idea where it went.

While reflecting on the school year thus far, I decided that it would be valuable for me to create another "Philosophy of Education" statement.  (Geek alert: I am assigning myself homework!)  I have many thoughts about education, but find it difficult to be concise; a one-page statement of beliefs might help me to focus my professional goals throughout the year and express my thoughts when conversing with others.  I'm hoping to develop a one-page document which I can paste onto a classroom website for parents and students to access next year.  I have enjoyed discussing my thoughts about education with students but feel that I could do a better job of communicating with parents regarding my thoughts about education.

I would like to categorize my thoughts rather than develop a long list.  My decision to categorize led to a philosophical debate (with myself) about which headings I would use to "file" my thoughts.

I may use the following headings and discuss the following categories:
  • Role of The Teacher
    • This would probably include: inquiry learning, meeting needs of students, flexibility, treating students with respect, student engagement, communication, classroom community, student-directed learning
  • Assessment for Learning
    • This would probably include: regular feedback, outcomes-based assessment, marks based on most recent and consistent work, students actively involved in assessment, peer/teacher/self evaluation, opportunities to improve, conferencing with students, purposeful assignments
  • Professional Development
    • This would probably include: self-directed learning, learning communities with other teachers, power of a PLN, current interests and goals, reflecting on practice, seeking and reflecting on student input
When I was in university, I likely would have included a section about "classroom management."  It's funny how, as a pre-service teacher, I was obsessed with that topic yet it's the part of education that I think about least, now.  I suppose "student engagement" and "positive relationships" are tools which make the need for "classroom management strategies" obsolete.

Am I missing anything in this brief shell of a philosophy statement?  I was thinking of a heading about "community" or "relationships" but I think that would fit under "Role of The Teacher."  That heading is my least favourite - is there something better I could use?

What headings would you use to categorize your own "philosophy of education" statement?  How has your philosophy changed over the years?

Update: I am still working on a philosophy statement that I would want to publish online but, in the process, thinking about my philosophy helped as I worked on my resume and cover letter over the past few weeks.  I plan to have a statement of beliefs on my course website in September.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Student demonstrates effective use of sparkles"

Boston Public Garden "Ducks in A Row"
Flickr Creative Commons License
When I was in school, I would have washed the teacher's car and painted the classroom red if I thought that these activities would result in "bonus marks."  Seriously.  I was the kid at the back of the room who didn't say a word in class but would create a life-sized replica of the Titanic if a teacher told me that it was "for marks."  I never questioned the validity of an assignment.  As a result, I loved receiving long lists of assignment criteria and opportunities to earn "bonus marks" when I turned a poster board into a work of art.

(Sidenote: I'm not that kid anymore.  I use milk a day after its expiry date.  I later and rinse my shampoo, but I don't repeat the procedure.  Also, I have been known to return library books past the due date if I haven't finished reading.  I'm a rebel disguised as a Reitmans-chic high school teacher.)

When I began teaching, I would establish very specific criteria regarding "presentation" as well as content.  I would have described my strict expectations as "clear criteria" but I now believe that I was assessing my students' willingness and ability to follow directions rather than their understanding of course concepts.  It is embarrassing to think that, if a student questioned why he was instructed to use pencil crayons ONLY to create the required images on his poster, my response was probably, "Because it will look nice when I hang them up together."

My thoughts about assessment have changed over the years and, when I begin to envision an assignment, I now ask myself, "Am I assessing learning outcomes or compliance?"

Now that I focus assessment strategies on learning outcomes, not "points" and compliance, I find that my students are a bit suspicious at the beginning of the school year.  In each class, as we discuss their first projects, I repeatedly assure my students that they can present their learning in any format as long as the information presented meets the criteria we have discussed.  We review the objectives of the assignment in detail and students have a clear understanding of my expectations regarding content.  Yet, after giving many examples of ways that students can present their learning, I inevitably hear:

"If I do a Powerpoint, how many slides does it need to have?"
"If I make a poster, how big should the paper be?"
"How many pictures does it need to have?"
"What should my title be?"
"Should I put my name on the front or the back?"
"Is it ok if I don't draw anything?  I can't draw!"
"Will I get extra marks if I put sparkles on it?"

While I answer each question and assure students that their ideas are great, I often feel frustrated by these questions.  For a while, I couldn't understand why my students were so obsessed with inventing criteria for "presentation" when I had clearly explained the assignment outcomes and given them the freedom present their learning in any format.  I began to realize that many students react with suspicion because they are accustomed to receiving specific directions about presentation and receiving marks associated with the presentation goals.  They want to be told how to "please" me and are under the impression that they must have a list of presentation criteria to do so.  As much as I love sparkles (and I really do) I have yet to see "Student demonstrates effective use of sparkles" on a list of learning outcomes for any course I have taught.

During a moment of frustration in September, I began to imagine myself in grade ten hearing, "Present this any way you choose."  I would have hated the teacher who uttered those words (passionately and silently, of course) then panicked and obsessed about how to "please" him or her.  I wouldn't have felt at ease until assured by the teacher that, yes, I could use my incredible HTML skills to build a Geocities website on which I could share my project.  (Yup.  I was that kid, too.)

For some students, "Present this information any way you like" is a much scarier statement than, "If you don't underline your title, create a 6.875mm border around each image, paste three feathers on top using white glue, buy a hot pink poster board the size of a hockey rink, and put your name on the bottom right corner, you will FAIL."  My students do become accustomed to my less structured expectations regarding "presentation," but it is a difficult adjustment for some.  A few students are usually worried that I am not sharing a list of expectations but will suddenly impose strict criteria when I assess their work.  Others are convinced that if their assignment "looks nice" they will receive a better mark than they feel they deserve.  It takes time for students to trust me and understand how and why I assess them the way I do.  As the year progresses, I hope that my students begin to realize that I am on their side, I am not going to "trick" them, and that the way they present their learning is truly their choice.

I've blogged a bit more about my changing assessment practices here and would love to hear from you!  Do you assess "presentation" on assignments?  Are there times when students' assignments should be completed in a similar fashion?  Fine arts courses, for example, likely have presentation-related expectations, but does this mean that all assignments must be similar?  I have to admit that I like the look of aesthetically pleasing displays and rows of similar assignments on bulletin boards; it has been difficult for me to become more flexible, but I find that my students are more engaged and creative when they can present information in ways which appeal to them.  What are your thoughts?