Category Archives: Teaching

Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs

 crossing the threshold

Will Richardson often thinks out loud about how we need to be getting our students ready for a world in which they will work project to project as freelancers or contract employees. His most recent post is no exception, and I couldn’t agree more.

Let me introduce my 24 year-old daughter. From the ‘About’ page on her fledgling blog FREE WATER FOR ARTISTS:

i hate writing bios. i’m mikaela and i like to dance. i want to create choreography that speaks to issues that affect people. issues around politics, the environment, equity and our emotional well being. i want to create dance that is geared towards stage performances, site specific live performances and for video. i want to expand the dance audience, moving dance from the club or a unit in your grade 8 gym class into a common element in people’s lives.

that being said, i love art. i pay for the music i listen to. i frequent shows of all types. i also delve into the craft world, venture into food, fashion, design- essentially, self expression. i love dogs. i am from Manitoulin Island. my favourite kitchen utensil is the spatula (spatula, not a flipper). i’ve only had one hair dresser my entire life, she’s amazing. i like sports, playing more than watching. i’m a mutt. i’m practical. and i always seem to be working three jobs.

All manner of jobs. Some have been related to her passions. Some have been independent ventures. Some are required to help pay the bills. She is currently a server, a gardener, a freelance dancer, and an entrepreneur.

This is the way it is, which makes the question valid: Are we preparing students for this life?

Many educators are moving toward inquiry or problem/project based learning to connect students’ in school and out-of-school experiences, interests, and skills, and to engage students in the process of learning.

Richardson suggests, however, that problem/project based learning isn’t enough.

Students have to work in flexible, fluid teams, collaborating and adapting as they find solutions and then tackle new problems. They need to be working on projects they care about, projects that have a real purpose in the world.

And he cites NuVu School as an example of a school that is pushing the boundaries of what school might look like.

NuVu School is exceptional. Its ‘coaches’ are highly specialized, the ‘studios’ are equipped with all the resources and materials to actually prototype designs and try them out, and the class ratio is 6:1.

What does this mean?

I think it means that students who go to NuVu can afford to go, which speaks to their socio-economic background and from that we can infer that they have supportive family, access to resources, and freedom from the distraction of poverty.

This is not likely the reality for many students–or teachers. I am, for instance, not qualified to teach at a school like NuVu.

So what does this mean? What is the goal then? What can I reasonably take on?

I think it means that we need to learn from students like Mikaela. How did she cross the threshold from a school system designed to produce 20th century adults to her current reality–the current reality? I believe she is able to negotiate this crossing-over because she is learning ready. She can read and write well, she speaks and listens well, and she is open-minded, flexible, resilient, independent, confident, and hard-working. She didn’t leave high school knowing how to blog or produce a dance film. She had no experience in project based-learning.  And yet here she is doing all of that and more.

I can’t create a NuVu studio in my classroom, but I can work toward getting my students ready for that threshold.

This is very hard work. Project-based or inquiry learning relies on prior knowledge both in content and in skills. My students don’t always have either.

Students in poor jurisdictions with high levels of poverty suffer academically from the get go. They enter school behind their better-off peers and rarely catch-up. Something will be missing. Maybe they’re not reading well enough to do the kind of research that independent PBL or student inquiry demands, or not reading well enough to have experienced the world vicariously, and so students struggle to identify individual passions or burning desires. Maybe they are aware that their written work is lacking, so students are reluctant to share it with a global audience.

This lack of confidence impedes collaboration of any kind which is at the heart of all inquiry/PBL/PBW. Many of my students, say 50%, will not talk in class. They will not ask a question, make a comment, contribute to small group conversation, or make a presentation.

I am stubborn and persistent, and I have high expectations for my students, so we will push through all the above. But the focus is not on PBL per se. Yes, there are learning opportunities that can be called inquiries: students strive to generate their own rich questions; we work in a blended learning environment; and student choice is embedded in many of the learning events.

My main goal is to teach my students how to learn. I want them to know how to be flexible in how they might learn, how to access the resilience needed when the learning gets hard, how to stretch their peripheral vision to include ways of knowing that are not yet familiar, and how to be not just reflective, but metacognitive.

If this, then, is a learning ready stance, and if we can learn anything from the story of one student, then learning ready is beginning to look like the state one needs to be in to learn how to do Project Based Work. And that is an achievable goal.

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#makeschooldifferent

I grew up in a place and at a time when communication beyond face-to-face interaction was limited to the phone. Long distance calling was exorbitantly expensive and so, rarely done. It was hard to imagine being an ocean biologist when the nearest ocean was a thousand miles away. It was hard to believe that you could do anything other what you saw in front of you, and most of the time, there was simply nothing there.

Nothing on TVCreative Commons License futureatlas.com via Compfight

I’m not even exaggerating.

I still live on the edge of the populated spaces in this country where there are no traffic lights, no stores open for evening shopping, and no line-ups for…well, anything. Waiting in traffic means someone is helping that turtle trying to get to the other side or a family of raccoons have decided to cross the road. And yet I don’t have to live on the periphery of  intellectual spaces any longer. I can participate in the most current educational thinking of Ontario, Canada, and beyond. I don’t have to wait for someone else to decide what is important for me to know about teaching and learning. I don’t have to hope that someone will provide me with inspiration for my work. I don’t have to draw on only the local resources to design courses that are meaningful, relevant, and intellectually engaging for my students.

What this does mean; however, is that others in my situation don’t have to either. This has been the challenge, then the difficulty, and now the problem facing me of the past five years. Why are the educators around me not embracing the opportunities offered via the current technologies to grow and learn past where they are physically located? Why rely on Nelson or Pearson solely to teach their students? Why do they think that what they have always done is sufficient today?

This brings me to this…..

MakeThingsDifferent screenshot Fryed

And Donna Fry’s blog is a source of inspiration for me. She tagged me in this post where she enumerates the 5 things that she thinks we need to stop pretending in order to #makeschooldifferent.

Here is my list…

#1.  We need to stop pretending that teachers can do this job alone. We need to recognize that planning time cannot mean that teachers work in isolation; nor can it only mean planning across grade teams. It must also mean having time to connect with educators beyond our four walls.  It means growing our PLN. It means honouring social media connection time as valuable.

#2. We need to stop pretending that all educators are de facto good learners. Tom Whitby has said, “To be better educators, we must first have to be better learners.” Agreed. And this does mean all of us who claim the title of educator: ECE, EA, Teacher, Coach, Consultant, Coordinator, Principal, Supervisor, Education Officer, Program Manager etc. We all need to expect of ourselves first what we expect of our students…to be risk-takers, metacognitive, and ‘learning ready’.

#3. We need to stop pretending that someone else is going to do the work. All educators at every level of our education system must engage in the actual work with students. The days of “walk-throughs” by administration need to end. Rather, administration needs to work in the classroom to remain connected to the ever-changing demands of the teaching-learning exchange.

Instructional rounds conducted by teachers and administration have taken hold in some places and work because they support/model a culture of ongoing learning. I have to believe that that culture is passed on to and/or picked up by the students, too.

There are other examples that demonstrate the importance/value of everyone doing the work. You can see here the Northern Ontario eLCs working with teachers and students of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. Another example comes from a session I attended for preparation work for a new e-learning course where Lori Stryker from the Assessment Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education spoke about her work with teachers and students in classrooms to ensure that the work does not live in the theoretical realm, but moves always to practice.

#4. We have to stop pretending that learning is about isolated subjects driven by content. We need to design learning to be interdisciplinary so that students and teachers can tackle real world needs. This might mean solving real problems like how a school can acquire a new field for outdoor learning and recreation/training, or it might mean developing a program that responds to students’ desire to learn about the traditional life of their people (much like the  Specialist High School Major program in Ontario does). We need to see this kind of learning become the norm.

Frankly, it is becoming more and more difficult to explain to high school students why they need four English credits. They don’t dispute needing to develop and strengthen their communication/literacy skills, but many of them would rather do that work via robotics, student council, or a music business course.

Which brings me to …

#5. We have to stop pretending that only some teachers are teachers of literacy. Everyone needs to be able to speak, read, write, and create really well. Literacy is the set of skills that drives all other content–regardless of discipline. Literacy instruction needs to be built into every part of a students’ day because it is a set of skills that was, is, and will always be needed. Advanced literacy skills ensure that students will be able to think critically, communicate persuasively, and work collaboratively. In Ontario, the work of incorporating/embedding literacy into every grade 7-12 classroom is supported by the Adolescent Literacy Guide and the folks at the Curriculum Services Branch of the Ministry of Education. It’s up to our school and system leaders to make sure that every teacher is skilled at literacy instruction.

Of course, there are more than 5 things to stop pretending. Here are some other voices who have expressed ideas that I would add to my list too!!!

Heather Theijsmeijer

Colleen Rose

Ms. Armstrong

Deborah McCallum

And I would like to challenge my English teacher colleagues  @msjweir@arachnemom, @sarle83, and @danikatipping. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts ladies!!!

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Feedback: Taking the Risk

 

Academic Panel Discussion

On the heels of both #BLC14 and #VLConf2014, where we (those present and those of us who watched from afar) repeatedly heard messages around the importance of understanding what works in education, getting feedback from students to teachers on their teaching, having the courage to fail forward, and finding ways to make our thinking visible, I reflected on my past year and those times when I took the risk to really hear the students. 

Here is one of those times.

The students in the above picture graduated high school between 2005 and 2011. They responded to a general invitation to speak to current students in their former school about the transition from high school to post-secondary.

We called this event an Academic Panel Discussion: The High School University Connection.

We had never done this before, but we needed something to inspire our students to engage in their learning. 

We couldn’t be sure of the outcome. Yes, we provided the panelists the questions, but there was really no way to guarantee that the resulting conversation would be useful/positive/meaningful.  We asked:

1. Looking back to the beginning of your university career, what aspect of the transition from high school to university challenged you?

2. In what ways did the work you did in high school merge, connect, or continue in university?

3. What skills did you learn in high school that you rely/relied on in university?

4. What skills did you learn in high school, but that you later wished you had practised more while in high school?

5. What skills did you learn in high school that you did not use in university?

6. What would you now tell your 16 year-old self to focus on? 

The conversation went on for 45 mins. The feedback was authentic, meaningful, and personal. And everyone listening in that room that day was changed. (More on this in another post to come.)

Would you be willing to take the risk? What opportunity for feedback are you willing to create?

 

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Student Feedback

Teacher: Today we are wrapping up our thinking about learning by creating a visual representation of learning. What word or words come to mind when I say “Learning is….?” One thing that comes to my mind is the idea that learning is a permanent change.  Let’s go around the room and hear your ideas.

In the academic class (or advanced level), I heard  ideas like ‘reading’, ‘hard work’, ‘effort’, ‘on going’,  ‘risk-taking’, ‘caring’, ‘overcoming obstacles’ and ‘exercising the brain’.

From the applied class (or general level) what I heard back was ‘nothing’, ‘boring’, and ‘pointless.’

What does this feedback tell me?

For two weeks both classes were taught the same content around growth mindset, learning, and goal setting. We watched videos about The Learning Brain, we read various articles explaining the difference between fixed and growth mindset, we completed a mindset survey, and we wrote short skits and role –played what growth and fixed mindset language might sound like. We discussed our ideas in small groups and as a whole class, we made notes, and we wrote blog posts.

What else do we need to know about these two classes?

The classes are the same size. Attendance in the academic class is 100% many days, while the applied class is never 100%. In fact, half of this class has already missed three to six days of the first 13 days of the semester. Generally, the academic students complete homework while the applied students do not.  More academic students have completed the required blog posts (writing is thinking) in spite of the applied class having more class time to complete the posts. (For the record, there is one student in the applied class who has no technology available to him at home, and generally, the applied class is less interested in using Chromebooks and various web tools and platforms for their learning. But this is a topic for another post.)

These first two weeks have become an unintentional inquiry into the differences between applied and academic students. Some educators believe that the philosophy of ‘all students learning at the highest levels’ means that all students should be working for academic credits and that it is teacher bias and interpretation of the curriculum that closes doors to those students who are not in the academic stream.

Surely other factors also come into play. What about prior knowledge? What about gaps in the learning created by long-standing patterns of missed school (where they exist)? What about factors beyond the reach of the teacher? What about student choice?

This student feedback tells me that the applied students will need ongoing, direct support in learning to be learners; whereas, in the academic class, we can now weave our thinking about learning throughout the semester.

And it tells me that there is a difference between academic and applied students.

What do you think?

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Mystery Skype: There’s no mystery here.

This past week my ENG3C class participated in a Mystery Skype with another Ontario grade 11 class. There are so many directions this post can take:

  • What happens when you have a PLN…
  • What happens when you say “Yes” to your PLN…
  • What happens when your colleagues believe in the work you do…
  • What happens when the technology fails you…
  • What happens when the students are collaborators in the design of the event…
  • What happens when students are willing to risk themselves to share a bit of who they are…
  • What happens when it’s over…

But, today I want to focus on what happens when we understand the power of technology integrated into our teaching and our students’ learning.

PB260476

We have been using some technology in our class this semester. A wiki that houses lessons, video, and other resources, Google docs, and recently Twitter and Edublogs . Much of this tech integration is straight-up substitution, and although students are enjoying tweeting out learning goals and daily takeaways, and having access to the Internet in the classroom via Chromebooks, the interaction still falls into the ‘fun and games’ category. I cringe every time I am asked if my students are more engaged because of the technology in my room.

In reality, it has taken us months to feel comfortable using Chromebooks, to understand Google Drive, and to incorporate any of the tech and tools into our day. We have not yet had enough experience using the Internet and its products as learning resources. Social media platforms continue to be used strictly for personal use, so bringing them into the learning environment did cause some surprise. And what they did not impact at all was our intellectual engagement with the course big ideas, questions, and materials. There have been no sparks, no meaningful connections, no newly discovered rabbit holes.

When Sarah Le tweeted me about the possibility of running a Mystery Skype with our two English classes with the ultimate goal of having a conversation about First Nations stereotypes, my antennae began to crackle. Here was an opportunity to test the power of flattening the walls, engaging authentically, and creating conversation for learning.  And yet, what underpins all of this is our ability to think…to plan, to predict, to design, to gather appropriate resources, to problem solve, to collaborate, to take risks. This event, then, was not about technology, at least not wholly.

We had plenty of time to get ready for the big day. We had assigned roles, prepped questions, vetted the other class’ questions, gathered some resources, and held a dry run of the event.  The Internet was a bid dodgy, but otherwise, the students felt they were ready. We weren’t. The second the call ended, students began to evaluate their performance.

“We needed to have better questions prepared.”

“We needed to have thought through a strategy to help us figure out where they were.”

“We needed to be better at responding to questions.”

“We need to be better organized.”

“We need to communicate more with each other.”

In under an hour, students recognized and articulated their learning needs; the same learning needs that I have spent the last two months teaching to. The difference? I think their expressions say it all.

PB260486

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Intentional Design. Responsive Re-Design.

Student engagement has always been a big obstacle in the senior grades for all kinds of reasons, many of them having nothing to do with school. And it has always been easy to acknowledge those out of school distractions and life challenges as the reasons why students don’t finish my course or don’t finish well. But research like the Canadian Education Association’s “What did you do in school today?’ sheds light on school-related student engagement issues (social, academic, and intellectual) and explores “its powerful relationship with adolescent learning, student achievement, and effective teaching.”

This is compelling work.

I can no longer be satisfied with the explanations of the past. I need to focus on what I have control over which is my classroom and the learning environment that I create there. I need to be a designer of an adaptive and flexible learning environment to create the deep, meaningful, and engaged learning that I want my students to experience.

This is hard work.

The Design

I began this semester with an idea of building a community for learning with my students, which would support our learning through a student inquiry process. We talked about roles and responsibilities of the teacher, the students, and the room. We brainstormed classroom expectations and created an anchor chart. We reflected on what any of this means to us and our learning. Four weeks in and we are a work in progress. The institutional engagement piece (the active participation in the requirements of school for school success) is missing for many of my students, and that work, which must and will happen, will take more time than one semester and will occur in more places than just my classroom. But what did emerge from the discussions and reflections was a deep concern by some students about the design of the course. They were feeling queasy about the taste of student inquiry the first few weeks of school offered them.

The Redesign

They are right to be feeling uncertain. I am too. But because I am a risk-taker and a seasoned learner I am willing to jump into the unknown and to mess around. For many of my students, that leap is too much all at once. I needed to redesign the learning structure to meet the students where they are  and to lead them to where they might be able to go, and in so doing, I came face-to-face with what ‘adaptive and flexible’ really means. On the spot, I needed to offer my students pedagogical choice. I typed up a note with a brief synopsis of my intentions and laid out three (simplified ) pedagogical choices: the Traditional English Class approach, the textbook driven approach, and the student inquiry approach. I asked them to choose one style that appeals to them, create a pros/cons           t-chart to confirm their choice, and express their choice in a letter to me.student letters 2

 

Student Choice

Surprisingly (or is it?), the three groups are the same size. In some cases, friends stuck together, in other cases they did not. The textbook group (for the record, I have never used a textbook in English, but they do exist in my building) cited the appeal to working independently as the reason for their choice. The traditional English group cited familiarity as their reason, and the inquiry group is the risk-takers, excited by the promise of personal exploration. This week, students will be physically grouped by their pedagogical choices and we will begin. I do expect a lot of shoulder checking to happen. Students know that they can switch groups, and their curiosity about what the others are doing will be peaked.

The Challenge

The goal, regardless of the pedagogy students tap into, is that each student recognizes his or her own shifts in learning, that the student becomes self-aware of the learning process, and that he or she can draw upon the tools and strategies needed to be successful. The challenge is to continually work towards creating the conditions in which all students can be intellectually engaged. Next weekend, I am attending EdCamp Design Thinking in Toronto, ON, where I hope to learn the skills I need to have to move this work forward.

This is exciting work.

_________________________________________________________________

References

Willms, J. D., & Friesen, S. (2012). The Relationship Between Instructional Challenge and Student Engagement. What did you do in School Today? Research Series Report Number Two Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

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Building a Community for Learning

Yesterday,  a student asked me for help setting up a reflection page in the class wiki. As I sat beside him, he muttered, “I need to get some work done. I need to get marks in this course.”

I bit my tongue.

I am working very hard to build a community for learning in my courses this year. I really want to say that “we” are working hard to build a community for learning, but that isn’t the case…yet. In spite of establishing a consistent framework for the learning that embeds student choice and minimizes the teacher’s voice, considering the roles and responsibilities of the student, of the teacher, and of the room, and generating our community expectations for all the usual things like leaving the room and helping each other, the reality is that students are too deeply entrenched in the institutional side of education to actually be active participants in their own learning.

There are students for whom the game of school is about grades, increased opportunities to access higher education, and garnering a certain cachet as a top student.

Although Ontario students aren’t racing for the top, they are playing the game of school as well as any of their southern peers. Here you can listen to Kourosh Houshmand, a grade 12 student with the Toronto District School Board in 2012-13, being interviewed by The Agenda’s Steve Paikin. In response to the question, “How well do you feel that this public school system has prepared you for whatever is going to come next?”, Houshmand replied, “If the future consisted of life-long membership in the national regurgitation academy, then I’d be greatly prepared (22:35).

There is another game of school going on though that has nothing to do with high marks or the honour role. This

Learning Community Expectations

is the game of “just tell me what to do, so that I can get this credit.”  You can see that game embedded in the “expectations” the students generated.  In spite of small group discussion around some alternative classroom/community expectations (mistakes are signs of learning, take initiative, be actively involved, bring passion, engage) only those all too familiar rules that teachers list in their classes from grade 1 to well, this is grade 11, made the list (as the holder of the pen, I added “Take Risks” and “Practice Self-Regulation”).

What’s the next step?

To continue the conversation with the students in whole class setting and in one-on-one conferences. To lead them to intellectual engagement through the inquiry process, and yes, for some, through the newly acquired classroom technology. To have the students regularly write from a metacognitive stance. To provide them with lots of timely and constructive feedback. To continually look for ways to help students ask  themselves”What do I need to learn next?” rather than to ask the teacher, “What do I have to do next?”

 

 

 

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