Category Archives: Teaching

3 Great Ideas for Encouraging Growth Mindset in the Writing Process

3greatideas

I am so thrilled to share this post with all of you. Because it’s the first one, I’ll offer full disclosure: 1 of the great ideas is from my wife, and 1 is from yours truly. The topic:

What are you doing in the classroom to facilitate growth mindset in writing?

So, without further ado, here we go!

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– From Allison, an English teacher in New Jersey:

Most students inevitably make the mistake of regarding writing as a product rather than a process, and therefore they often produce poorly edited work and then either ignore or bristle at the feedback given to their product. The most obvious solution to this problem is the use of drafting and revision in any essay to move students toward a growth mindset. Still, thoughtful revision is hard to come by.

To combat intellectual laziness and product-oriented thinking in student writing, one of the more…

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#oneword15…6 months later

 

WHY INNOVATE?

On January 1, 2015 I declared that my word of the year would be innovate:

My word is INNOVATE. But this choice has little to do with technology directly and more to do with thinking about using the curriculum in innovative ways. I want to challenge my understanding, my perspectives, my biases about the curriculum. What does it mean to construct meaning? Communicate meaning? What about to generate, gather, and organize ideas and information? What changes, if anything, when literacies include digital literacies? How might English as a discipline need to be reconsidered?

What I avoided in that initial post was answering the question why? Why innovate? And why did I choose a word that is so closely tied with technology, but not focus on the integration of technology in teaching and learning that is at the centre of so much of the educational conversation today?

I’m an English teacher, and I am not a particularly geeky English teacher either. Like most English teachers, I believe English class offers students the opportunity to engage with and consider deeply the big ideas of our lives through the stories we read. Narratives provide a lens to the world that we may otherwise never access, and that lens helps us to understand each other, which is more important today than ever before. So the study of the narrative structure and stories, which in fact, is all the Ontario English Curriculum asks us to do (“read a variety of texts”) is not the problem.

WHY ENGLISH?

Academic students* are bright, curious, and creative, but that doesn’t mean that they want to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and write an essay. And yet, is there any doubt that the majority of instructors and professors in post-secondary do still require traditional demonstrations of learning from their students?  While I believe that students need to be able to write at length to explore their thinking, I also believe that students must be fluent in digital literacies, so that they can be critical consumers and purposeful creators of digital texts.

This, then, is the current and pressing challenge for the discipline. We can neither abandon the old wholesale nor adopt the new only. We need to innovate: To find novel solutions to this important problem.

mrsdkrebs via Flickr

I let go of many of my certainties: whole class novel studies, literature circles, and lessons from the past. Instead, we choose our own novels to read, we considered various critical perspectives in small groups using the Question Formulation Technique, and we looked for new ways to have conversations about a book that no one else in the class was reading (via Goodreads, for example).  In the academic class, we collaborated to create a Mindomo map on literary theory, designed personal poetry anthologies, and blogged to think out loud about our learning.  In the college class, we considered how our worldview impacts the decisions we make, which led us into an inquiry on ethics. Students’ contributed their thinking (aka research reports) to our on-going wiki textbook: Global Perspectives: A Textbook for Teens by Teens. 

AND?

I pushed myself to push the students to own their learning, to be the designers of it. There was choice in text, in topic, in theme, in approach.  We worked on learning to be learners.

If I were to look back on the type of work I’ve done, I would say that I improved in different ways. If I hadn’t taken a risk to do certain things, I probably would have been way below than I am now.—grade 11

In the beginning of the semester, we covered a lot of things, one of them being: you cannot learn and grow if you don’t fail. During the course of this semester I have had many setbacks and failures, but that’s okay, now that I have recognized these problems I can keep working on them again next year, both in English and in my other courses.—grade 11

We still wrote essays.

Writing my second essay has proved to be better than my first one, which is probably due to my actual liking of the topic. I went into this essay having more motivation to do a good job. I actually wanted to do it. In my mind, it wasn’t me being forced to write about something I didn’t want to. It was me putting my story onto a piece of paper, which to me, is a lot more appealing than the former.—grade 11

So?

Innovation in learning is a process of self-discovery. It’s looking for unique ways to solve the problem of making the learning our own. It’s a journey to yes.

Yes, you can read what you want to. Yes, you can make that video. Yes, you can research that topic. Yes, you can write that rant. Yes, you can remix. Yes, you can Skype that person for an interview. Yes, you can research via Twitter. Yes, your poetry anthology can be digital. Yes, your poetry anthology can be non-digital. Yes…


 

*Although here I am writing about students who will pursue academic studies beyond high school, I do not think that this conversation is just about them. Students who choose to enter into apprenticeships or directly into the workplace also need many of the same literacy skills. 

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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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