Friday, 4 April 2014

Co-Constructing Criteria with Students

An amazing group of teachers have been coming together monthly to explore classroom assessment. It has been great to be involved in the conversations as we collaborate and share ideas about how to use assessment to improve students' learning.

Last night, we discussed how to set and use criteria with students. Research strongly supports involving students in the assessment process. Setting criteria with students is a great way to begin involving students. When students understand what the learning target is, and they understand how to get there, learning improves. This holds most true for our learners who struggle (Davies, 2011).

In Making Classroom Assessment WorkAnne Davies shares her 4 step process for setting and using criteria with students. This is a process I have found particularly powerful in my own work, both in working with students, and when working with teachers in setting goals for improving student learning.

The process is:
  1. Brainstorm 
  2. Sort and categorize
  3. Post a T-chart
  4. Revise and refine
We made paper airplanes, and set criteria for assessing our work by using this process.

First we brainstormed a list, and then sorted and categorized. If we were working with students, some of the criteria on the list, particularly around "teamwork" would have to be further unpacked, as some of the language is vague.

You can see how we colour-coded the like-criteria into categories.

While participants went about using the criteria to build their planes, I went about transferring our criteria to a t-chart. As you can see, the criteria needed further discussion and refinement as we discovered that some criteria were either not applicable, difficult to measure, or incompatible with other criteria.

I love the iterative and reciprocal nature of this process as we work through it with students in the classroom. It is messy and takes dialogue, negotiation, and much consensus building. The fact that it is messy, to me, is the best reason to engage in the process. As a teacher, what better opportunity is there to model how we think about and work with multiple perspectives and sources of information?

What are your thoughts? What do you do to involve students in the assessment process? What do you want to try? Who do you have who can help you, that you can reflect on the process with?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Attendance - A Few Thoughts

As a district coordinator for Aboriginal education, I am confronted daily with the issue of attendance and Aboriginal students.

First, I want to state up front, that I do not believe non-attendance to be an Aboriginal issue, per se, though we sometimes (frequently) perceive it as such. Non-attendance, at the risk of over-simplifying, is a symptom of much deeper social and economic inequities.

I understand fully the frustration felt by teachers at the secondary level regarding student attendance. For many teachers, they feel the failure of a student as a failure of themselves as an educator.

As we continue the journey of re-imagining secondary schools, a significant part of that re-imagining has to involve how we measure and communicate student learning. For those students who are often referenced as not attending, what incentives are there to attend, when attending means being reminded of their “failure”?

From our very best of intentions we aim to “catch-up” those students when they do attend, often with little success because those same students lack the prerequisite skills to be “caught-up”. So long as we are stuck in the paradigm of courses and grades, we will be stuck in the paradigm of pass and fail, which, from my point of view, contributes directly to the attendance problem. Furthermore, what consideration are we giving to those students who feel deeply alienated from their schooling, who have checked-out emotionally and spiritually, though they are not physically absent?

Consider an Ontario study (2005) that found students who failed courses early were much less likely to complete school: 89% of students with no failed courses in grade 10 went on to finish within 5 years. That number dropped to 75% with a single failed course, 59% with two failed courses, and 28% with three or more failed courses.

That’s not to over-simplify the issue—as course failure is a single risk factor among many—but designing for differentiation across our schools, rather than just within courses, needs to be on the table.

What about multi-access and asynchronous design? We see such approaches in many of our alternate settings. However, for many of the students who access alternate programs, they have already experienced the "failure" of school. These methodologies need to be built-in, and available to all students, before they experience school "failure".

Perhaps we need a provincial task force on student attendance, with a focus on making attendance a viable alternative to non-attendance for our non-attenders…

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Homework; Eleven Things

I have been tagged three times now in the Eleven Things meme which is making its rounds at the moment. Normally I would have passed on this, but I do intend to become more involved in connecting with educators outside of my school district.

So, thank you to Naryn Searcy (@nsearcy17), who got me first, Starleigh Grass (@starleigh_grass), and DJ Thompson (@ThompsonDanielJ), for thinking of me and tagging me in their posts. It is nice to read what you wrote and learn a few things about you all!

Here's How it Works:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.
Without further ado:

11 Random Facts about Me:
  1. I was in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve from when I was 17 until I was 22, serving first with the 723 Communications Squadron in Halifax, and then in the infantry with the Princess Louise Fusiliers.
  2. Although I only lived there for the first six months of my life, I have the good fortune of having been born in Newfoundland, Stephenville, specifically.
  3. My favourite food above all else is raw oysters on the half shell—the small briny ones, not the big beach ones.
  4. I have never travelled outside of North America, only because I am so darn fascinated with Canada and its endless outdoor adventure opportunities. Someday I will get around to leaving.
  5. We have a family cabin in Nova Scotia where I spend much of my summers, nestled on a hillside above a lake on the same land that my Great Grandfather was born and raised on.
  6. My lovely wife Amanda is studying to become a midwife at the University of British Columbia.
  7. It took me ten years to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree—I wasn’t a particularly motivated student coming out of high-school, but found my stride later in my twenties after nearly a decade of food-service work (a path I have no regrets about, being a rich learning experience in itself).
  8. When given any leisure time, my preferred activity is to hit the single-track with my dog and my mountain-bike. Fortunately, living on Vancouver Island, there are hundreds of kilometres of riding available within easy reach.
  9. Though I have never had any formal education around it, and am completely self-taught via books and You Tube, I love fixing cars and motorcycles. I’ve learned that with patience, curiosity, and a bit of bravery, I can do just about any job I need to.
  10. I have seen the band Wilco fifteen times, the first time on tour for their first album A.M. in 1995. They’ve remained my favourite band for nearly twenty years.
  11. In my K-12 experience I went to eight different schools. My father was a banker, and we moved frequently. I think it has taught me to be highly adaptable, open to change, and able to integrate with new people quite fluidly.
11 Questions from Naryn Searcy @nsearcy17
  1. How do you balance time spent on face to face relationships in your own district vs online relationships?
    • As an itinerant teacher, I spend most of my time in schools with teachers and principals building relationships. The face to face work is my favourite part of my job. I am a dabbler in online relationships, and I am considering this assigned homework as a good first step in reaching out furthering relationships far and wide.
  2. Where do you want to go in the world that you haven't been yet?
    • I just love Canada’s National Parks, but have not been to nearly enough of them. If I could go anywhere in the world, I would like to experience the High Artic in summer by trekking through Quttinirpaaq National Park--along with visiting all of the other National Parks I have yet to visit. That or a beach in Hawaii.
  3. Are you a morning or night person? 
    • I am definitely a morning person. My 6 year old son and I wake up at 6 each morning. When my wife is out of the house and can’t make fun of me for doing so, I have been known to go to bed before 9 many evenings.
  4. What was the last book you read/movie you watched or song you listened to?
    • The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King, which I think should be required reading for anyone working in public service.
  5. In what school/position do you think you "grew up" as an educator (really figured out how you were going to fill the role of a teacher/administrator etc.) ?
    • In Richmond, at Blundell Elementary, teaching grades 6 & 7. I had the good fortune of working with two like-minded educators (another 6/7 teacher, and our Learning Support/ESL teacher) as a highly cohesive team. We planned, assessed, and implemented everything as a team, and put a heavy emphasis on relationship and community building within our classes. Our results were always impressive, and I look back on those years as being critical in forming my opinions and values as an educator.
  6. What is one thing you would miss if you had to leave the community you currently live in?
    • I would miss the easy access to nature that living in Nanaimo provides.
  7. What is the source you rely on most for news about what's going on in the world?
    • I’m a CBC addict. Radio first, then Web, but when I am up late enough, no one beats Peter Mansbridge.
  8. What is your favourite movie and why?
    • I have a soft spot for the quirky and eccentric, and am a big fan of Wes Anderson’s films. The Royal Tennenbaums holds up as the best of the lot, though The Darjeeling Limited is pretty close.
  9. Who will win the SuperBowl and Stanley Cup this year?
    • Patriots (am a fan), Kings (not a fan).
  10. If your son/daughter wanted to enter the field of education right now, would you encourage them?
    • That is a good question, and a hard one to answer. I think it would be a qualified ‘yes’. Qualified by his or her motivation for wanting to do so; lifestyle is a poor reason to want to become a teacher, especially as a child of a teacher. I think that social justice is an ideal motivator for pursuing education as a career.
  11. What is a good moment from 2013? 
    • A good moment is seeing my wife through the penultimate phase of her education as a midwife. It has been a challenging four years for our family, and we can see the end of it now, when she graduates in May.
Passing this onto:
Bloggers and non-bloggers, alike. If you don't, do. If you do, do. Only if it strikes you, though...
  1. Cathal Walsh (@RethinkEDUC)
  2. Judith King (@judithaking)
  3. Silke Yardley (@SilkeYardley)
  4. Tricia Anton (@AntonTricia)
  5. Jon Hamlin (@jonhamlin)
  6. Joanne Allair (@2girlsandpoodle)
  7. Sean Walsh (@Walshy4444)
  8. Brandon Curr (@Brandon_Curr)
  9. Scott Saywell (@ssaywell)
  10. Darlene Crane (@DarleneCrane)
11 Questions for You:
  1. What lesson have you learned from a student that has changed your practice?
  2. What is the best criticism anyone has ever given you?
  3. What is your favourite comic strip?
  4. What natural phenomena do you find most impressive?
  5. If you could only have one book about pedagogy, what would it be?
  6. Cat person or dog person?
  7. What type of tree do you most identify with?
  8. What would you be doing if you weren’t a teacher?
  9. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  10. What is the oldest thing you own?
  11. Have you written poetry as an adult?
Here's how it works:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Expecting the Most of our Learners

Last week I had the good fortune of traveling to Bench Elementary in Cowichan Bay with some of the staff from Mountain View Elementary here in Nanaimo. We were visiting with the intent of seeing the balanced literacy program that has been adopted school-wide based on the Daily 5 by Gail Boushey and Joan Mosher.

In all of the classrooms we visited, we were warmly welcomed, and the teachers and students were eager to have us see the work they were doing. I got the impression that this was a school where everyone was on-board with balanced literacy. There was a common language in and between all of the classrooms around expectations and the intended learning of the students. Underlying that was a strong sense of community and caring.

The grade 4/5 class that I visited was an exemplar for high expectations and differentiation. When we arrived, students were involved in a writing workshop. Kids were writing; conferencing with one another and with their teacher and the student teacher; taking part in self- and peer-assessment; reading model texts; and just generally engaged in thinking. There was noise, there was movement, there was talking, there were pages being crumpled up and tossed in the recycling, there was learning! The expectations on these kids were noticeably high from the moment we walked in the room, and every one of the students were deeply engaged in their work. While chatting with the classroom teacher I learned that there were a slew of learning needs, and that the expectations upon each student were adjusted accordingly, but there was a universal expectation that everyone be engaged, and everyone learn to the best of his or her ability. These expectations were evident in the students' written work, evident in the level of reflective language they possessed, and evident in their knowledge of why they were doing what they were doing--they clearly saw their work as being important.

I appreciate an environment where expectations are high, and where students are given the tools and support that they need to meet those expectations. I appreciate an environment where the core learning outcomes are clearly communicated and modeled so that students know what achievement looks like. And I especially appreciate an environment in which there is a strong sense of belonging, community, and mutual respect so that all students can feel safe and dignified about who they are an what they can achieve.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Building a Classroom Community: Some Things I Have Learned

I am a firm believer that underlying an engaging and effective learning environment is a well fostered, compassionate, and caring community. Community is not something that happens in a school or a classroom by accident or happenstance. It takes careful guidance, modeling, reinforcement, and resilience in the face of frustration. I teach grade 6 & 7 students in a highly diverse inner-city setting, and community-building has been at the core of my practice for five years now. Only now am I truly appreciating the results of our efforts as I prepare to step away from this school to a new context in a new district.

I would like to share a few of the lessons I have learned about building a classroom community:

  • Meet face to face often (at least once a week, when things are working well, more frequently when things are rough or when starting the year).
When I begin the school year, all of the desks are still piled against one of the walls and the chairs are in a circle, so that we can meet face-to-face. We will spend much of the first few days together playing games, talking, processing, and setting expectations (mine and the students'). This is an exciting time, as the grade seven students have become the class elders, and the grade six students appear nervous and shy, especially in the face of a classroom configuration which is quite alien to them. Over the course of the first two weeks we will work in pairs and fours, frequently switching with whom we work so that we have a chance to interact with everyone at some point. The early goal is for everyone to get to know everyone—to not have a 'stranger' in the room. These first two weeks set the tone for the whole school year and are critical to building what will become a caring and inclusive classroom setting. I cannot overstate the importance of the work done in these early days.

Class meetings become regular weekly events as the year progresses. However, as issues arise throughout the year that require dialogue and discussion, we will meet more often as need be.

Two of my go-to resources are TRIBES Learning Communities by Jeanne Gibbs, and Creating Caring Classrooms by Kathleen Gould Lundy and Larry Swartz.

  • Give students a high degree of ownership over the classroom and how it will operate.
For me, one of the easiest ways to undermine the students' ownership of the learning environment is to define the class in terms of myself. We define our group as 'Division 1' and we live in 'Room 13'. I have a strong distaste for the terms 'Mr. Varner's class', or 'Mr.Varner's room', or generally any definition that puts me in the fore.

After that, we define together how the space will be used, where certain things will go in the classroom, how we will sit, and how we will interact. We discuss what has been enjoyable about a classroom for them in the past, and what has been the opposite. We use that discussion to come up with informal guideline for how we will interact and share the space. Most of the guidelines we come up with are carried-forward from the previous year, as the grade seven students will talk about what they liked last year as grade six students in the same class.

  • Trust the process and get out of the students' way.
Building a strong community takes careful monitoring and ongoing attention. However, many of the minor interpersonal issues that arise throughout the year between students can be solved by the students themselves. As I see issues or disputes occur, I will ask if it is a problem they can solve, or if it needs assistance from me to solve—my parameters for staying out of the way being that the problem can be resolved to a mutually agreeable solution, and that no harm will be done. Of course, if I feel that these parameters cannot be met, or if I sense that there is a power imbalance between students, then I will intervene. It has been my experience that middle-grade students, when they know that interpersonal problem-solving is an expectation, and are encouraged to do so, are generally very fair and reasonable with one another.

  • Encourage and reward pro-social behaviour.
We work on the negative stuff. But what really works is noticing and appreciating the positive stuff. We set aside time in many of our class meetings to share a positive thing that someone has done for us over the past week. When we begin this, many students will thank their friends for things, as is to be expected. But as the students come together as a group and they feel a greater sense of inclusion, then the distance that many are willing to acknowledge appreciation often grows. And as the students acknowledge their appreciation further, so too they begin to commit acts of kindness to those not so close. When it gains traction, it becomes a beautiful feedback loop.

  • Actively discuss and promote inclusion with students—normalize.
I have always thought of Kermit the Frog as one of the great role models for leadership in education. Is there a better role model for leading inclusion and diversity than he? I'm not sure there is. Leading the Muppets is much like being a classroom teacher. We have to accept each individual for who s/he is, including all of his or her abilities, quirks, challenges, and idiosyncrasies. We have help students find their strengths, then build them up for who they are. I aim to have the students learn to know one another, because through knowing, we begin to accept each other as individuals. By building inclusion, actively pursuing it as a class goal, we also normalize diversity as a way of life. I am duly impressed with how my class is able to gel throughout the year.

  • Process, process, process.
Talk, talk, talk. James Briton said "talk is the ocean on which all learning floats". Through our class meetings I aim to get students talking about and processing their experiences in class, both academic and social. Processing, meta-cognition, reflection, sharing experiences and stories. These are critical to having the community gel. As students talk and probe and question and share, their understanding of themselves and others grows. They become better aware of their actions in social contexts, of how they learn, and of who they are. These things, as I see it, lead in turn to students being better able to self-regulate their own emotional states, and to better understand and empathize with the emotional states of their classmates. This takes focussed effort on my part to stay out of the way, to keep my talk to a minimum, and aim to only facilitate discussions. Somewhere in the year I hope to be able to observe the class meeting from the outside, and have them student led.

  • Trust in and consult with the experience of the other adults in the room (particularly Educational Assistants).
The most valuable asset in my repertoire of resources has been the amazing Educational Assistants with whom I have shared space over the past few years. These are child-development experts who have come to their understanding of kids and their needs through the best teacher of all: lived experience. I find myself frequently consulting and debriefing my own choices and experiences in class with these invaluable colleagues. We have had our hands full over the years, but the resilience, patience, guidance, and humour of these folk has been instrumental to building up the community that exists at the end of the hall. Know your strengths and build your capacity; having skilled and dedicated individuals on board is critical.

  • Model mistake making, especially how to apologize and make amends.
I am as fallible as they come—I make mistakes. When I do, I own up to them publicly and make amends in the best ways that I know how. I am unafraid of mistakes, because I know that they are opportunities for me to learn, and for me to model to students how to make a mistake and correct it. I have found that because I model humility, that it becomes a part of the culture in the classroom over time.

  • Fall in love with combined grade classes; keep students for more than one year (especially the ones who are tough to teach or who demonstrate challenging behaviour).
I have taught with a colleague at the 6/7 level for five years, and we both agree that it is better for students to have the same teacher for two years. We have each kept our students through two years, and this has had a huge impact on the way that our classrooms develop their sense of community. Because students stay, and new students arrive, we live with a sense of renewal each September, but this is ballasted by a strong sense of culture and continuity. The new grade sevens are eager to share and model the ways of our class with the new grade six students. There is a stability and a fluidity that emerge each September as we renew, reinvent, and share the ways of the class. I hope in the coming years to be able to work in three year groupings, because of the success I have experienced with two years.

This is some of the trajectory I have built up over the years here. My belief in the power of community is strengthened each year as I better understand my role in creating and sustaining a robust learning environment. The most important teachers in this are the students, as they show me what works and what needs adjusting and attention. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Thinking on how we Think About Thinking

I have someone very close to me who holds a university degree, and is currently working on a medical degree. She is one of the most humane, creative, intelligent, and caring people I know. While trying to better understand herself as a learner, she was recently diagnosed by a psychologist as being attention deficit. On one hand, the diagnosis has helped her, as it has given her access to some technology and funding which has certainly been useful for her. On the other hand, though, it has deeply undermined her self-confidence. She has told me that she used to learn in her very disorganized [to me] sort of ways, and they worked well for her—she earned a 3.9 GPA, after all. She felt that she knew nothing else. Now, though, she second guesses herself and wonders, constantly, if something is "wrong" with her.

The short answer is 'no'. And, to me, at least, the long answer is 'no', too.

A particular student I knew could not read in grade 6. For years he was his diagnoses, and did not have the cognitive toolbox to see himself as anything but. When groups of well-meaning and caring adults tell you that you are x, you will likely internalize that over time and act as if you are x. Because of this, he was actively disengaged, frequently absent, and presented a variety of coping strategies to avoid embarrassment. When I had a chance to work with this student, I set out to see past the diagnoses. I knew he could not read. He also knew he could not read. We didn't need to start by reminding him.

For a year we set out to treat him as if he were a kid, not a label. He came around, and rather quickly. The goal was to make him feel okay, a part of the community. He made movies in the computer lab that he could narrate. He gave oral presentations. He made poster-boards at home that his mom could scribe for him, away from the eyes of his peers. We put good audiobooks on an ipod for independent reading time. Reading and writing text would come: once he was ready. About May of that year he came to me: "I want to work on the reading." Progress. 

We worked together to find some things he was good at, and that started the ball rolling. We let him do what he could do. He did it. He felt good. He was happy. Progress.

I tweeted the other day after talking with my medical school friend about her frustrations at the university's lack of understanding about cognitive diversity. Heidi Hass Gable (@HHG) replied and gave me a line that I really like, one that is helping me to reorient again: "let's get him loving learning again. Then we'll know if there's anything to worry about!" 

That line has resonated with me, and is one I think I will utter many times in my career. With so many amazing things in the world to marvel at, and with so many tools to support diversity in thinking, how is it possible that a kid not be engaged in learning something? When we face challenges with a student, our instincts tell us us to find a reason, a diagnosis. First, though, we need to see what really gets them going, what fires them, what they are good at, and work with that. When kids feel successful, they feel confident. Confidence, in turn, sets them up for success. Find the good in people and build them up—raise the peaks and the valleys will follow.