Tag Archives: student inquiry

Feedback works, even when it’s unintentional.

Sometimes my best work is not enough to get through to my students. Sometimes the careful planning to scaffold the learning does not lead us to where we need to go. Sometimes the feedback, timely and descriptive, falls on deaf ears. Sometimes we need a little bit of help.

When I returned to the classroom, I knew what I had to offer the students. I knew that I would ask students to own their learning: to think and to make decisions. And that I would build a supportive framework in which they would do that learning.

But they didn’t know this.

They didn’t know me. I had been gone from the school just long enough that all of my students had graduated. When they left, so did that “muscle memory” –that information that gets passed on from student to student about teachers and their expectations, style, and what you could get away with. I knew this was going to happen, and I knew that eventually we would build a relationship that would support deep learning.  But time was not something I felt we had. These students had not yet experienced opportunities to make choices in their learning, to provide authentic feedback to their teachers, to be participants. I wanted these students to graduate “learning ready” and the clock was ticking.

I worked intentionally to speed up the process of trust-building. I told stories about the school, former students, and myself. I wrote blog posts to them and commented frequently on their posts. I chatted informally with them about out of school interests and goings-on.  To no avail. They simply weren’t buying into what I was selling.

Rather, they sat and waited. Literally. With arms crossed and blank expressions, they waited for something familiar to happen. Where was the class novel? The chapter end questions? The grammar worksheets? They knew what learning looked like, and the blogging, self-selected reading, conversations, digital storytelling, researching, and metacognitive work was not it.

When the school invited a few former students to participate in an Academic Panel Discussion, there was about a month left in the semester. The grade 10s and I had not made the gains I had hoped for. Many of the students were still wary of the focus on the process of learning and the idea that they needed to take ownership of it. The driving force behind the Academic Panel Discussion was the desire to provide students with relevant and current information about the transition to post-secondary from their peers. Since we had never done this before, we decided to narrow the focus to university with the goal of repeating the event in the fall for our college bound students.

Our former students spoke to the challenges they faced when they left high school, but they also spent a lot of time talking about what the students need to do while they are in high school to be prepared to go: learn to make good notes, use every opportunity to get feedback on your writing, take risks in writing, read widely & beyond your favourite genre, make reading part of your day, practice time management, make using your agenda a habit, learn how to plan, contribute to class discussions, force yourself to do oral presentations, and participate in extra-curricular activities. No one talked about worksheets, chapter questions, jumping through hoops. Everyone told personal stories of confidence and accomplishment because when they left high school they had the skills they needed.

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I hardly recognized the grade 10s when they entered class later that day. They were smiling and laughing. I could feel a relaxed and positive energy from them. They looked me in the eye and asked questions, they were interested in the lesson presented, they engaged.

What had happened? Well, I think that my current students heard a very clear message from my former students (yes, I had taught every member of the panel and the panelists’ stories made that evident) that the skills they learned in English class supported them well in post-secondary. I think that they heard that they could trust me.

We know how important the student – teacher relationship is. We know that we have to work hard to build the kind of trust for deep learning to occur. We know that this takes time. I also now know the value of getting feedback to my students from others.

What do my students know now?

Learning is growth mindset.

Learning is asking questions about what you’re interested in.

Learning is inquiry.

Learning is intellectual engagement.

Learning is asking for feedback and listening to it intently. What is it telling you?

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In an earlier post, I wrote that everyone in the room that day changed. It’s true. The other teachers and their students continued the conversation in their classrooms that day, but importantly, teachers reported a renewed interest by students in their studies and in their pathway and course selections. The Principal was also impacted by the discussion. He heard a narrative that was positive, strong, and enduring, and that’s a story he doesn’t want to have end.

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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.

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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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