Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Thanks and Wishes

I find it hard that to believe that I have been tweeting for 6 months.  What started out as a way to get NHL free agent signings has turned into an education of limitless opportunities.  I wanted to take the time to thank everyone who has the courage to put their ideas, thoughts and concerns out there for the world to see.  I am a better educator because of all of you out there who share your passion.

I am thankful that I work with so many amazing educators in my district who lead, share and support each other, making us one of the most successful districts in the province.  I am so proud of the fact that there are so many of you out there, we are only going to get stronger and better.  I am also thankful to work in the best province with an amazing group of educators.  I am very excited with some of the initiatives of the BCPVPA and the collaborative opportunities that we are creating and putting in place. My wish for the province is that we have 1 minister of education who stays in the position past 2 cabinet shuffles.  Hogwarts had better stability.

I am also thankful for the infectious energy and passion that is coming from our prairie provinces,  You are doing amazing things out there, and even though Saskatchewan robbed us of a Grey Cup appearance, I know that I am a better educator because of your sharing your amazing resources.  My wish is that we continue to find a way to increase the collaboration.  There are so many amazing projects and initiatives in our country that we need to push the envelope and take these ideas to our own provinces and districts.

To the amazing educators below the 49th parallel, I would also like to thank you for your passion. I am amazed at the connections that I have made across the USA.  Thank you to opening up to the world to share.  I am delighted to have made those connections, and don't worry, if I am ever in your city I will not be knocking on your door.   Many of you have a fight on your hands to create the best learning opportunities for students despite standardized testing, RTTP and NCLB.  My wish is that foundations like the Gates Foundation would realize that there are far better ways to improve and support education than the agenda that they are pushing.  (It might be a useful wish that the policy gets changed to No Hungry Child because too many of the most vulnerable and defenseless are left wanting and starting out way behind, the same all across the globe)

The same goes out to all of the amazing and passionate educators world-wide.  I am excited by this passion that transcends borders and politics, geography and philosophy.  Thank you for making the learning for the students a priority in your lives.  To organizations like Kiva and Free the Children who are making a difference in the world, thank you.  You are an inspiration to our students.

The world is a better place, and getting better by the minute because of all of the projects that you have undertaken, the love of learning and the passion of teaching that you bring into the classroom, the creation of opportunities for teachers to be creative, administrators to have flexibility and Districts to have more freedom.  If we continue at this we will get better every day, more doors will open for our children and students, and soon we will have the most amazing generation of learners the world has ever seen.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What is the Role of Report Cards?

When report cards are sent home I always wonder what the reactions will be at the different homes. What conversations will they have? How much money will be given based on the grades, or how much will be offered if they improve? How many comparisons to siblings' or friends' report cards will be made? How long the students will be grounded or what will be their consequences for a substandard report card in their parents' eyes?  There are so many external pressures on our students that it has made me rethink report cards and what their purpose is and whether or not letter grades serve a purpose at the Elementary level.

In my district we are starting the conversation about the purpose of letter grades, are there better ways to report the information and what changes can be made to report cards to alleviate some of the pressure on our younger students.  What essential elements must be maintained in an elementary report card?  What information needs to be in there, and how can it best be conveyed?

I feel that grade 4-7 is a transition time between the parent being the one primarily responsible for taking ownership over the student's learning to the student taking full ownership.  The students need to develop critical thinking skills in order to be able to take on that responsibility.  Parent support is always hugely important, but if the child does not know how/where to make changes in their work, then the capacity for improvement diminishes.  Every child has skills that they need to develop further letter grades can distract them and their parents from what needs to be focussed on.  I am also not convinced that 9 year olds are necessarily mature enough to understand what these letter grades mean, and if they are to have meaningful dialogue with their parents, they need to understand.

Here are what I believe to be some essential elements that need to be in a report card:
  1. What are the student's strengths?  Every student has amazing talents and we need to find ways to celebrate them whether they fall in Mathematics, Athletics, Language Arts or Fine Arts.  Every student should have experienced some triumph in that reporting period. There needs to be something celebrated for every student.
  2. What are some learning goals that the students can work on at school and that the parents can support them with at home?  Parents want to be involved, but unfortunately there are too many who are unsure of what to work on or how to help.  If it appears to be too general then they become overwhelmed and feel helpless.  Focussing on a few goals makes it tangible for the students and for the parents to see how they can progress. This is the same for students who are excelling and for those who are struggling.
  3. Where have they progressed?  What are some areas or improvement that need to be celebrated?  This should be tied into the learning goals.  If there were learning goals that were put into the last report card, has the child met them, are they progressing with them?  Is this an area that requires even more attention than originally thought?
  4. How is the child doing developmentally?  Is the student meeting the expected learning outcomes for their age?  I believe for the most part the parents want to know that their child is doing OK, not where they might be ranked.
  5. Conveying to the parents that you know their child.  If the parent feels as though the child that is described in the report card is not their's, then the rest of the report card becomes moot.   What can you put into the report card that show you know the child, what can you comment on, what personality aspect can you describe?  There is always the possibility that the child behaves differently at home, or that you and the parents see things in a different light, but for the most part they should be reading it and thinking "He/She really knows/gets my kid".
Does there need to be any more information than this?  The report card becomes more individualized, the learning becomes more focussed and the dialogue between home and school becomes easier.  If parents know how and where they can help their children then the dialogue about assignments that come home is richer and more purposeful, the dialogue between the teacher and the parents is richer and more purposeful and the dialogue between the teacher and the student becomes richer and more purposeful.  At the end of the day, is that not what a report card should be doing?   I am not convinced that our current report cards do that.

Now, what should the report card look like? hmmm

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What is the purpose of assessment?

I have been thinking a lot about assessment and report cards lately.  I have enjoyed numerous discussions with colleagues, debating the pros and cons of letter grades, but no matter who I talked to, it always came back to assessment.  What role does assessment play in the classroom?  I believe that this is the fundamental part of the equation that has to be answered before anything else.  I really think we miss the boat when explaining to student teachers what the purpose of assessment is.  Many seem to think that it is principally for the mark book and report cards.

I have the good fortune of being able to interview new teachers for the position of teachers on call.  My most anticipated moment is when we come to assessment.  Many of them will talk about assessment of/for/as learning, and I really hope at this point that they can explain it and not just quote it.  The reason that I look for this moment is that I hope that they are way smarter about assessment than I was when I came out of university. Unfortunately many of them seem to know the words but not what they mean and represent.

I believe that assessment serves 3 purposes:
1) Informs the practice of the teacher.  What is your assessment telling you?  What are you hoping to learn from it?  How are you changing/adapting your approach?  When many students do well are you thinking the test was too easy and I need to bell curve, or Great! they understand the material?  When students do poorly are you thinking about how you need to re-teach the material or are you thinking that this is a weak class?

2) Informs the students of areas of strength, growth and areas that need attention.  When assignments/work/projects are returned to the students, what is it that they do?  Are they pulling out the calculator and counting the points?  Are they critically looking at the assignment, reflecting on what they did?  Are they looking at the criteria and if they disagree with the assessment, are they coming to talk to you with well thought out questions/arguments? Have you spent time teaching the students how to critically observe and think about the assessment?  Do they understand it sufficiently in order to be able to self or peer assess?  Does it tell them that you value their work work, effort and time?

3) Informs the parents of how their child is doing.  When assignments are sent home, are the parents counting the points, figuring out the percentages and telling their child how many more they needed to get right for an "A"?  Is it just the reporting of a result that the parents are signing so that you know that they know how their child is doing?  Are they going over the assignment with their child looking at what the child did well, what are the areas that need attention and where the child has improved compared to previous assignments or areas that need repeated attention?  How much time have you spent explaining the parents what your assessment looks like, how to understand it, what it means and how to use it to help their child?

One of the student teachers we were interviewing had a copy of the Dr Seuss book Oh! The Places You’ll Go! and it made me think about the purpose of assessment.  Is it about where they are going to go and how to get there on their educational journey and putting support networks for their learning in place? Or is it about "Here is your mark, this is where you rank"?

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
by the incomparable Dr. Seuss

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.
All Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is it time to eliminate letter grades? What is the purpose of report cards?

This past spring when my parents moved out of their home of the past 30 years we came across many treasures, including old report cards. I found my old grade 1 report card, which was very different than the ones I now read. It made me think about how report cards have changed, and yet stayed the same. It had about 30-40 line items and a each had a ranking of 1-3, including 2+ and 2-. In looking at this, the respective skills in each subject area were fairly well indicated. This was the same for grades 2 and 3. There were also anecdotal comments to complement the ratings. I do not really remember much about these classes nor how I felt about the report cards. I think for parents, particularly parents who are just going through the school system for the first time, it could have been overwhelming.

So where does this story lead me? What purpose do report cards serve? When report cards are opened, what is the first thing that is looked at, comments or grades? What about work habits, where do those rank? Is the purpose of the report cards to tell parents where their children rank? Is it just a summary of the percentages with a few token comments? If the report card is a communication document, what is it communicating, what should it be communicating?

Grade 4 was an entirely different year. I spent September to December in a private catholic school in France. Was it ever different than anything I had experienced, or would experience again. I remember two reporting periods in that time and everything was numerically scored out of a specific total. Math was scored out of 40, handwriting was scored out of 10. Before we were given the 1st report, the principal of the school came into the class, and handed out each report card to us, after reading out the entire report card in front of the class and commenting on the individual marks. After that, we were then seated according to our marks, the "smartest" kids were in the front row, with the kid with the highest marks on the left and moving right. The desk on the left was the closest to the teacher's desk. The next row was the next highest marks and so on, so the kid with the lowest marks was seated in the back row in the desk on the right. I personally loved it because I was one of the top students and I was determined to be front and left. I cannot imagine how the back right student felt with the stigma of being "the dumbest" kid in the class. This was apparently a fairly common practice because some of my family would recall the radiator kids, the ones seated at the back of the room next to the radiator. You would see the parent reaction when they found where their child sat because they knew immediately where he/she ranked in the class.

As I moved into grade 5 and onwards I began to question some of my marks. The report cards had a few vague comments and were not very informative of what I needed to do to improve. By the time I got to high school I had 1 mark per subject and a single line of comment, 2 comments on the rare occasion. Usually my comments were along of the lines "kind and cooperative", with the occasional "talks too much". I am not sure how informative it was my parents to know what I could do to improve, and I knew it was not really useful to me. I was often not sure about how my marks were generated.

I remember during one of my practicums the teacher was talking about the importance of cutting and pasting. This teacher also told me to write three report cards: a successful student, an average student and then a struggling student. I should avoid as many he/she ad his/her as I could so that I did not have to duplicate too much work. If we are to talk about personalized learning, the cutting and pasting does not really work.

When I began my teaching career I followed the same path as I was taught and that I had observed. I became more focussed on my percentages and commenting on which tests they had done well on or poorly on. I was not commenting on specific skills, the areas of support usually included read 20 minutes per night, review multiplication tables and so on. In my last year of middle school the report card became more of a checklist where we would identify specific learning outcomes that we had worked on and whether students were not yet meeting expectations, approaching expectations, meeting or exceeding expectations. When I looked at the report card it made much more sense than just marks with a few comments.

If grades are a distraction, and are not necessary for any entrance requirements, why have them? Why do elementary student need to be graded? It would seem to me that the purpose of a report card is to report a child's progress. The report card should focus on what specific skills have they mastered, improved on or are struggling with. I realize that meetings with parents are far more informative than a written document, but the written document needs to have value. A single page with half dedicated to letter grades and work habits with a few token comments about the different subjects and a couple of sentences about social responsibility does not really cut it.

Report cards need to change to match the assessment practices that are taking place. Grades and formative assessment do not go hand in hand. If we are looking at criterion based evaluation, problem solving in math, performance standards for reading and writing, then why are we using a system that is inherently based on percentages. At my school and with colleagues we are starting to talk about the possibility of eliminating the letter grades from the report cards altogether, no putting in the letter grades to appease the ministry, simply no letter grades. I believe that there is an appetite for this change, and this change needs to happen.

So now begins a new journey...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why I love Twitter, a conversation about moving away from grades

I am very fortunate to work in a great district, and that I am beginning to establish a larger PLN week by week. The conversation started off with a middle school teacher in my district, Carlan Gallello, asking why are we still grading at the elementary and middle and evolved into a discussion which included myself, a principal, Heidi Hass Gable, my district's DPAC president as well as a principal from a nearby district, Chris Wejr. This is obviously just the start of a conversation, but it is one that needs to occur.

Why are we still grading grades 4-8 in BC? If the role of a teacher is to teach, and the role of the report card is to report on a child's progress, how do percentages and letter grades meet the criteria? A progress report should be anecdotal and explaining how the child is progressing. Using performance standards or something akin, would give a much clearer picture to the parents about how their child is doing, what their strengths in each academic area are as well as the areas that they need support for or to focus more on. Whether the students are an A, B, C+, C, C- student, each student will still have areas to focus on. It would be pretty rare that a student would be entirely in the exceeding category for everything. IF we are using differentiated instruction, adapting curriculum and work to meet their needs, are grades giving a clear picture?

If everything is percentages, then it would likely mean that everything is a summative assessment. It is, in my personal opinion, an ineffective way of communicating a child's progress.When I used to do my math marks by pure percentages, my students became focussed on percentages and test scores, rarely on areas that they needed to develop. I remember there were two boys who were highly competitive who were within a few decimals points of a percentage of each other, in the high 90%. Their first reaction was to whip out the calculator, calculate their percentages, ask about the weighting, and compare. They would then go into their files, recheck the scores and check with me what the overall average was now. The number became the area of attention and not the work. As I look back on it I wonder how I could have been so ignorant. How can the value of a number have more importance than the work itself? Why was the conversation not more focussed on how they could improve, what were their areas of success or comparing previous assignments to see if they had addressed some of the areas needing attention? I was sending the wrong message.

For those who believe in the power of Twitter and would like to demonstrate it to others, you can follow the thread below. Start at the bottom.

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@MrWejr @HHG @remi_collins @datruss Definitely begins with
dialogue between all levels. Someone has to start it, though
22 minutes ago

MrWejr Chris Wejr
@bandlady @HHG @remi_collins @datruss we all know what is
needed but struggle where to start within current structures
23 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins @datruss In agreement there; give me
time to finish LTT, reports, and concert prep and I'm in; it's time
for this convo
25 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@MrWejr @HHG @datruss @remi_collins It's time for these
conversations and time for change :)
26 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@MrWejr @bandlady @datruss @remi_collins Dude - we'll talk
with you anytime!! :)
27 minutes ago

MrWejr Chris Wejr
@HHG @bandlady @datruss @remi_collins into the
conversation I mean... Quite happy at my school! ;-)
27 minutes ago

MrWejr Chris Wejr
@HHG @bandlady @datruss @remi_collins jealous of the
conversations happening in SD43! I want in!
28 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@bandlady @remi_collins @datruss No, Remi's right - Mo first,
then TG. And other pres'
34 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins @datruss Could be; I don't know much
about them
42 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss There's the Student
Achievement Advisory Committee - would be a good place to
ask question maybe?
51 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@remi_collins @HHG @datruss HHG's perfect for that since
DPAC pres; I'd certainly be willing as well
51 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins @datruss Remi, you're an
administrator...1st steps? District's all over formative assessment
right now; perfect chance
53 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@bandlady @remi_collins @datruss Sounds good to me!
55 minutes ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins @datruss For sure, but I'm thinking baby
steps. Like @remi_collins idea of talking to Maureen as well
56 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss Whether he's Minister of Ed
or Premier - isn't either a person you want to influence?
58 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss Oops - I already asked
what he thinks! :) But yes, we should discuss as District - just
59 minutes ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@bandlady @remi_collins @datruss Well, our Minister of Ed
wants feedback - why don't we ask? #justsaying
1 hour ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@remi_collins @HHG @datruss If we were able to shift
reporting to progressive style,I would be in favour of reporting
after every key unit
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady Put clear assessment language
together with how 2 help kids move 2 next level & parents
wouldn't be hard 2 convince!
1 hour ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins I think it needs to be all the way to grade
9, since percentages aren't supposed to be used until grade
1 hour ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@HHG @remi_collins @datruss Will we have this dialogue
before I retire?The kids understand it, why not the adults ie
MINISTRY! Can we pilot?
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady Don't forget that Gr 4 and 5 has to
stop using letters too! I'll help! #justsaying
1 hour ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
@remi_collins I know; so why aren't we changing and using the
performance standard language? Shouldn't we be
1 hour ago Favorite Retweet Reply

@bandladyCarlan Gallello
@remi_collins I know; so why aren't we changing and using the
performance standard language? Shouldn't we be
consistent? #justsaying
1 hour ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
Have I mentioned that I love my District?? Most amazing people
ever! #SD43rocks
58 minutes ago Favorite Retweet Reply

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss There's the Student
Achievement Advisory Committee - would be a good place to
ask question maybe?
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@bandlady @remi_collins @datruss Sounds good to me!
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss Whether he's Minister of Ed
or Premier - isn't either a person you want to influence?
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@remi_collins @bandlady @datruss Oops - I already asked
what he thinks! :) But yes, we should discuss as District - just

replies ↓

remi_collins Remi Collins
@bandlady absolutely, going to take a lot of work and discussion,
much dialogue with PAC and parents, will take time#justsaying
1 hour ago

HHG Heidi Hass Gable
@bandlady Or why not "holy cow!" "Ready for the next step" and
"working on it" - or some variation of those?? #justsaying
1 hour ago
1 hour ago Favorite Retweet Reply

bandlady Carlan Gallello
(cont from last tweet) then we could have comments on how to
improve and support learning; send home after each unit
1 hour ago

bandlady Carlan Gallello
Why do we still assign letter grades for middle school in BC
Would like to see a check

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What should beginning teachers focus on?

We have been fortunate at my school to have been asked to welcome student teachers on a fairly regular basis.  As these beginning teachers come into the school I think back to my experience and what I wanted from my sponsor teacher and what the different principals where I did my practicums did for me.  I enjoy going into the classroom and observing them.  I love the passion, energy and creativity that they bring into the classroom.  As I watch them teach, or am one of the interviewers for the district for Teachers on Call, I think about the qualities that would make me want to recommend them or hire them.  What is it that I expect to hear and that I expect to see?

How well did you get to know your kids?
Do you know what your students like?  Can you look at each child and know what their favourite areas of interest are?  Do you know when they might become anxious?  Do you know what their triggers are?  Did you take the time to get to know them?  Could you tell me which students need more time to do their work because they are slow and methodical versus those who do not understand but are finished quickly?  Can you tell me which ones are bored and acting out because the work lacks the challenge they need versus the ones who are frustrated and acting out because they do not understand the material? A good read is here: Bring Forth What is Within.

If you only know how your students are doing at the end of the unit then there are some serious questions that need to be addressed.  Do you actually know what formative assessment looks like?  It drives me nuts in interviews when I hear that there are 3 forms of assessment, of, for and as learning, and yet when we are discussing what their teaching units look like in the classroom they seem incapable of describing what it actually looked like in the classroom.  I also hear the words rubrics, self-assessment and peer assessment thrown around like candy, but again with very little substance in terms of examples.

Should we not be getting student teachers to be actively assessing on a regular basis? What kind of feedback are they giving the students?  Do the parents know how to help?  Do they know which areas in which the students require additional support?  Do their math assessments only look like Mad Minutes, repeated drill and kill sheets with no real problem solving, no math journalling?  How can you know what your students actually know or do not know if there are only drill sheets being used to assess?  If you do not know what I am talking about, this is a good starting point: Grade Less Assess More.  How are you adapting your lessons/assignments to meet individual needs?  Are you allowing their creative spirits to grow or are you constraining it? Changing Education Paradigms

How is technology being used in the classroom?  Are you using powerpoint the same way my grand-parents used slides?  If it is no different than listening to a boring narrative of someone standing next to the Statue of Liberty in 10 different ways then it is a $2000 waste of time.  Are you using it the same way that your teachers used to use the overhead projector?  Then it is a $2000 waste of time.

When I walk into the computer lab what am I going to see?  Is the computer lab being used as a no-prepping block or is it being used to engage and promote learning?  I have seen wikis being used at grade 2, blogging in grades 3-5.  If there is more that you would like to do, do you know where to go to ask for help?  Is your computer block just typing tutor/basic computer skills and using the computers as a fancy typewriter or are you using it to deepen the students' learning and bringing their learning to life?  If you are more comfortable in this domain than your sponsor teacher, are you willing/able to spend time with them to help them integrate more technology into the classroom?  If you are not sure what this should look like go here: Technology enabled choices, or here: Real World Editing.

Classroom management
Is your classroom management based on punishment/rewards and frequently looking at consequences?  Are the students fearful of stepping out of line as in this example:soccer team?  At the end of the day are you thinking of all of the kids who have sabotaged the lesson or are you reflecting on how you could have engaged them better?  Are all problems based/blamed on ADHD?  Do you stop and reflect when kids are focused and on-task versus when they are not?  If you have noticed a pattern of behaviour, how have you modified your lessons.  Have you changed up the type of activities that you are doing or do you have a few tried and true lessons that you revert to?  Are you teaching the way that you were taught or are you teaching the way that wish that you had been taught?  While there may students who struggle with their behaviour, the majority of students, when engaged, rarely demonstrate negative behaviour.  Working Hard for Smart Teachers Makes the Whole Difference is a prime example of this.  Have you created a community of learners and worked on self-regulation?  Have you worked on modeling the behaviour?

Community Building
The school goes beyond the 4 walls of the classroom, it includes every adult that works in the building. In includes the teaching and non-teaching staff, the parents and the neighbourhood schools (especially the feeder schools).  A vibrant school has an amazing energy to it, and this is because the kids are not just busy but actively engaged at their school and they love coming to school.  There are leadership groups, sports teams, intramural activities and clubs.  There are many adults involved making these activities happen, especially the teachers.

There was a time early in my teaching career when there was job action and there were no extra-curricular activities offered.  The pulse of a really great school dropped remarkably and the students and staff both missed it.  It really changed the climate of the school.  We all understood the reasons why it was done, but we could see its impact on our students.

It is a great way to get to know the kids and a great way for the kids to get to know you as well.  I loved the classroom, but I also loved being in the gym coaching volleyball and basketball, helping out with track and being involved in club activities as well.  It is important to be involved in the school community, because it creates amazing opportunities for the kids, but it also a lot of fun.

Lifelong Learning
How are you furthering your learning after you have completed your teaching degree?  What courses are you taking, what books are you reading?  How are you reflecting on your practice? Where are you looking for answers when you are struggling?  Great teachers never stop learning, never stop reading, never stop asking for help.  I have my support network through Twitter is how I have worked on building my own personal learning network and learning community and blogging (also here) is a part of my regular reflection.  What are you doing?

You are going to make mistakes.  I remember in one of our workshops a teacher saying that the day he taught the perfect day was the day he was going to retire. I know that you are going to make mistakes, what I am really interested in, is when you make mistakes what did you learn?  What did you do?  What did you change?  How did this inform your practice?  Teaching will always be a work in progress because every class you get is different than the one before, every school you will teach at will be different than the one before.  You need to keep reading, keep reflecting and keep discussing.

These are just some simple ideas that only begin to touch on the complexities of teaching and I know that there are many more elements.  At the end of the day you need to ask yourself "Am I the teacher that I wished I had or loved being in his/her class or are am I the type of teacher whose class I did not enjoy because I felt he/she did not care?".  Be honest with yourself.

Other Good Reads:
My 25% Pro-D
Kids do Well if They Can
The Curiosity of Children
My Role as a Teacher
Ted Talks Demystified for Teachers

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why do I blog?

I have been trying to figure out what made me start blogging and I am not 100% sure.  I never particularly enjoyed writing at school, but perhaps that was a result of being limited in what I could write about or just some negative experiences.  It was not until I started my Masters that I discovered that I actually enjoyed writing, although the deadlines were a challenge every once in a while.  It was the first time that I was given license to write about something that I actually cared about or was interested in.  I was reflecting on my practice, with thought and accountability for the first time since I was doing my teaching degree, and as I think of that now, there is something seriously wrong with that.

This is not to say that I was not reflecting on my teaching, but the reflections were more to do with day to day teaching in terms of what worked and what didn't work with individual lessons.  I was not thinking pedagogically, I was not pushing myself to improve my practice.  Eventually I started to join some learning teams and was fortunate to be a part of the numeracy task design team with some great teachers under the guidance of Peter Liljedahl from SFU, and for the first time I was really thinking about my practice as a whole and I ended up completely rethinking my teaching.  The problem here was that I was only sharing my practice with a few people, and only getting feedback from people who all thought the same way, it was like we all had our own mini-cult (who all became administrators).  This would have been a great time to begin blogging.

By blogging I open myself up to criticism, helpful suggestions and accountability.  I know that if I am going to put ideas out there I had better be ready to back up and be prepared to defend.  I have been limiting myself to topics which I am very comfortable with as I begin to wrap my head around this.  I am steeling myself to begin being a model of reflective practice for my staff.  If I am not willing to put myself out there and expose my practice to criticism, how can I expect those around me to do so as well?  I love the ideas put forth in this following blog entry.

For the first time in a long time I am really trying to put together my thoughts coherently for others to be able to reflect on, give suggestions, thoughts and criticisms.  But rather than just an instructor, faculty advisor or sponsor teacher, I am opening it up to the world.  I am trying to move outside of my comfort zone, my school, my district and my province.  I am hopefully going to be a model for the students in my school and my colleagues. I am getting back into the practice of writing about things that I am passionate about and trying to move my practice forward.  Let the journey begin.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Global Collaboration Part 2

For lack of a better way of putting it, this is basically a request for some ideas, links and suggestions about the potential of Twitter.  Over the past few weeks I have been trying to encourage staff, colleagues and members of the British Columbia Principals and Vice-Principals Association (BCPVPA) to use Twitter because it provides an effective communication and sharing tool.  The best part of it is the fact that it is free and global.  In a few weeks I will be meeting with some other members of the BCPVPA to look at effective communication between members across our province.  How is it a collaborative tool?  I guess there are many ways to try and explain it and Chris Kennedy in his post A Recipient in the Sharing Revolution summed it up really well.  A few days after I posted this blog I came across the blog of @Nunavut_Teacher who gave a great explanation of this very point in his post The Power of Twitter: My geographic location did not stop me from meeting these Tweeters!

Much of the talk about the power of Twitter centers around PLNs. Hashtags, such as #edchat, #education and #edtech are quick entries open up potential PLNs.  I am amazed at the world wide wealth of knowledge that is out there, but also the world wide wonder wonder when it comes to education.  When I wrote my post about Twitter I may have had 30-40 people following me (mainly fabulous colleagues from my school district in Coquitlam, BC), none outside of North America and yet if you look at the page views of my blog below you can see the global possibilities that are there in terms of contact with the World.  Last time I checked I know no one in South Korea, Russia, Japan nor South Africa and 1 person in Australia.

Today I had a brief Twitter chat about #Autism with @Grade1 @fiteach @MrWejr  as @MrWejr  was putting out a question about extrinsic motivation (I hear many times about using rewards 4 studnts w/ autism. I don't normally agree w/ rewards - is it diffrnt 4 stdnts w/ #autism? ) and had a number of people respond to it.  None of them live in his city and I was the only one in his province, yet we all have experience with Autistic children and are able to share our experience, strategies and thoughts.  It is amazing how many point of views and ideas that can be generated from the use of hashtags and PLNs.  A parent from his school had arranged for a video conference on Autism and @MrWejr  decided to tweet a few questions and then shared it with the staff and parents present.  They were amazed at what came out of a simple tweeted question.

@MrWejr uses his PLN very effectively.  Just today (a week later from the original post) he sent out another question.  This question was sent out to myself, a principal in China, Alberta, Pennsylvania, and Massachusettes. 5 principals working in 3 different countries discussing the same issue.  We all have different training, experience and school boards but we all work with kids.  Why limit ourselves to our neighbouring schools?  Are we ever going to get better at what we do by always conferring with the same people?

I am looking for examples of this.  If you have written a post on this topic or are able to share an experience that directly impacted your profession as a result of putting out a question via Twitter, could you please share.  I have found many great resources and fantastic articles and have my own personal experience but I am looking for other perspectives as I would like to have something more to demonstrate other than my own experience.  Any contributions would be greatly appreciated.


Below are some examples that I have picked up from an #edchat discussion:

How do we encourage other teachers not online to begin collaborating with peers? #edchat Be role models by doing it ourselves

What are the most effective tools for international collaboration projects? #Edchat wikispaces, skype, Flasmeeting, Animoto

Doing a stu twtr discussion tonite "what is the responsibility of the student" @ 7cnt time. Invite ur stu - use #ohs2010 - #edchat

You cannot understand your own culture completely without understanding it's relationships to other cultures. #edchat

show them the benefits of collab online "work smarter, not harder" #edchat

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day Assembly

I was struggling with how to represent the reason that we make such a point of Remembrance Day.  In my post on Remembrance Day I was comparing my life to that of my grand-father.  the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that this might be the message that the kids could understand in a K-5 school.  Below is what I presented.  Before I get to that, I also wanted to say how proud I was of our school yesterday.  

It was the best assembly in terms of listening that we have experienced this year, we had a huge collaborative effort on the part of 3 French teachers to present Quand les hommes vivront d'amour which was followed up by another great performance of another class which sung Flanders Fields as it was put together by Anthony Hutchcroft. What was really cool about that performance is that our music teacher shared the link last Thursday and the teacher had it ready for our assembly a short 6 days later.

Another teacher, through KidPix, had her students represent what peace meant to them as a slideshow to show before the assembly started.  We were joined by a veteran who was a tail gunner during WWII, who was brought over from the local Legion Home by a parent who works there.  We also had a trumpet player who played Taps and Rouse for our assembly, which was arranged by another family.  It was such a great community effort.  It is our best attended assembly of the year after our year-end assembly.  There were many parents and staff who felt that the message was well communicated this year.

Remembrance Day
There are many privileges that we are able to enjoy because of the sacrifices made by many men and women. It is difficult to explain when our lives are so different than those of our parents, grand-parents and great-grand-parents. I have struggled with how to explain something that I myself have never experienced.  I thought that I would compare my life to members of my family to show you how fortunate we are and why it is important that we never forget.

5 years old – catching snakes is the backyard and going to the park
Dad 5 years old- practicing bombing drills where a siren would go off and he would have to know where to go in case planes would drop bombs on his city
12 years old – going with my parents to buy clothes, having a some choice of what to buy, not being happy with what my mom would allow me to buy.  Would lose clothes fairly often- just like our own lost and found, lots of clothes that kids leave behind
Uncle 12 years old- clothes, material for clothes limited, pyjamas were made from curtains and made way too big so that he could grow into it to save money and materials.  Every clothing item was stitched, patched, passed down, extended.  Nothing was wasted
19 – second year of university, not sure what courses I would take, enjoyed hanging out with friends, playing soccer
Grand-father 19 – part of the French army, fighting, hoping to stay alive
20 – 3rd year of university, trying to decide what I wanted to do career wise with my degree
Grand-father 20- captured by enemy soldiers and spent the next 5 years in a prisoner of war camp, wondering if he was going to be able to eat enough, wondering if he was going to survive
23 – a friend of mine got married, was able to go to different stores to find her wedding dress, try on many dresses until she found the one she wanted
23- grand-mother- wedding dresses and materials were very limited.  She borrowed the wedding dresses from 3 friends, unsewed them, put together her own wedding dress, after the wedding had to take it apart again and resew her friends wedding dress exactly like they were before
25- working, having fun with friends, playing soccer and golf, beginning to realize that I wanted to become a teacher and started planning what courses I would take, spending a lot of time with my family
Grand-father 25- war was coming to an end and the prisoners were being marched for days to come to a point where they were released to France where my grand-father for the first time in 6 years saw his mom, dad, sister and brother and other members of his family as well as my grand-mother who he would marry a few months later
26 – Went back to university to take the courses that I was missing, able to shop at Costco and able to buy what I needed and things that I wanted,would throw away food I did not finish, go to all you can eat sushi, fish and chips (in other words eat too much and then not always feeling well because I ate too much)
26- grand-parents had groceries rationed, only able to pick up small amounts of food.  Everything was eaten, could not afford to throw any food away.  Having just enough to eat, special treat if they were able to have seconds

We live in a time where we have choices and opportunities thanks to the many men and women who have fought to protect our right to be safe, go to school and have choices of what we would like to do when we are adults.  We do not have these memories because of what the many brave men and women have sacrificed for us.  Canada has not had a was on its soil in over 100 years, which means that the Canadian Forces have been going overseas to help provide the peace that our nation has enjoyed for so many years.  It is important that we take the time to be thankful for our veterans so that we can continue to live in peace.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Global Collaboration

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take part in the British Columbia Principal and Vice-Principal's Association (BCPVPA) Professional Development Representative training.  At this meeting were representatives from all around the province, representing 42 different school districts.  Towards the end of the meeting one of the members asked how could we share? Well that is a good question.

There are many ways that we could share, including a privately paid, restrictive portal that only members of the BCPVPA can access or do we do something that is wide-open?  Is there a place for both?  I guess it depends on what is being shared.  If we are sharing ideas, collaborating on projects that would benefit many outside of our group, shouldn't we be sharing this more than we are?  I understand that there can be documents that need limited disclosure, but professional development, templates and information that is beneficial to other teachers and administrators probably should not be restricted to a private portal.

The more we share, the more that is available out there, the more feedback we get on projects, documents, ideas and conundrums and therefor the more the very group we are targeting, the kids, benefits.  Why limit ourselves to a select group in a select area and not open it up to the world.  Blogs, Wikis and Googledocs are just a few examples that are out there.  We are putting laptops and internet connections in classrooms, supposedly to open up the classroom to world, yet we seem to be restrictive is how these resources are used and how the information is shared.  Its almost akin to bringing a kid to Central Park but limiting them to a 10 x 10 foot square.

I feel fortunate to have a superintendent that supports our endeavours and desire to extend beyond the curriculum, and work in a district where there are many amazing teachers on Twitter sharing their thoughts through articles, blogs and quotes.  I feel fortunate that there are many great educators around, but I do not feel that we have even begun to tap into the World Wide Wealth of information.  Is it a resource challenge or a way of thinking that needs to be altered?  I would argue it is the latter.  It is time we changed our way of thinking about how we collaborate and set the examples for out students for their benefit and ours.  So, what is the next step? 

I think this quote from @gcouros (  sums it up: If administrators are truly to be leaders, we need to continuously learn and connect with others to shape ideas.  We are the role models for our staff, students, and community.  You should never ask something of your staff that you are not willing to do yourself.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

How can I remember when they are not my memories

At our school we are starting to plan our Remembrance Day Assembly.  We look for meaningful ways to give the students an idea as to what this day means.  Our school, along with many of the schools in my district, has used a great video by A Pittance of Time by Terry Kelly that does a pretty good job of showing why we have our moment of silence.  For the past two years we have brought in veterans, but many of them are elderly.  We try to explain what this day means and why we celebrate it.  We talk about it, we try to show it and we do our best to make them understand it, even though many Canadians are disconnected from what November 11th represents.  Truth be told, I am not certain that I fully understand it.

My closest connection to what this day means is my grand-father.  My grand-father was an amazing man, someone that I miss dearly.  In the last few years before he passed away I developed a very close bond with him that I will cherish forever.  When I look at his life I am constantly amazed.  He was 19 when World War II started and shortly after was captured and would spend the next 5 years of his life in a German POW camp.  When was I the exact same age I was in University unsure of what I was going to do.  I took 5 years to do my BSc., undecided as to what I was going to do next with my life.  I finished my degree and went to work while I tried to figure out the next phase of my life.

My grand-father and I lived very different lives.  While he was on meager rations of food trying to survive, I was hanging out with my friends ordering burgers and chicken wings.  While he struggled to keep his sanity, I was playing video games.  How can I fully appreciate what he, and other men who enlisted or were drafted into the army, went through, even though I benefit from their sacrifices?  The closest I can even come close to some form of understanding what he lived is watching the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan when you see the Americans landing and being systematically killed.

When my grand-father passed away my mother was going through his personal effects and came across a journal that he kept during his time in the prison camp.  Towards the end of his journal he was describing his journey as he was been marched daily while in the process of being released at the end of the war. I remember my grand-mother describing his release as she went to the train station every day hoping he would be on that train.  She would wait with mothers and wives.  She would hear children asking their mother, pointing to servicemen as they descended from the train if that was their father as many children had never met their fathers.  She went to the train station daily for a week.  The last page of that journal was the day he got off the train and there was one word written, Suzanne, my grand-mother's name.  His 5 years of hell were over and he was back in his country with the woman that he would marry a few short months later.

My brother and I would try to ask questions about the war, but he would never answer them.  One day my brother found some of his old service gear and asked him about them.  My grand-father avoided the questions and then moved his stuff.  I sometimes wonder if he never told us because if he did, he would have to remember what he went through.  I can't even begin to imagine what he went through.

I live in a free country, where I have the freedom to choose my career and walk into stores that sell products that are far from essential but sure make life enjoyable.  I do not have to live on rations as my family did after the war, walk miles to get my limited amount of coal to heat my home nor sell my worldly possessions to be able to feed myself and my family.  I live in a country that has not had a war on its soil in over a century.  I do not fear being persecuted for my faith, having armed men firing their guns in my streets and children are all expected to go to school.  Most of us are 1, 2 or 3 generations removed from anyone in the family having witnessed war.  I give thanks for those brave men and women who have fought to give us the freedom that I enjoy, and am proud of Canada's continued role in other countries trying to afford them the same freedom and choices I have.

I do what I can to help the students understand something I struggle to understand and fear that I won't do a good enough job.  I worry of having a generation of children who live in the richness of our country and do not understand why we have all that we do.  I will continue to do my best and hope that they understand.  I will spend November 11th thinking of my grand-father, the amazing man he was and give thanks that he was able to come home.  I wonder what my students will be thinking on that day.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How can I get mad when I did the same thing as a kid?

A few days ago, a couple of my grade 5s were running towards the playground with a monster-sized umbrella.  Looking at the two boys, I knew exactly what they were up to.  I called out "Don't even think about it!"  They looked at me quite befuddled as to how I knew what they were going to do before they even got to playground.  They were planning on climbing to the top of the playground, probably around 7-8 feet high and see if the umbrella would act like a parachute.  How did I know?  Because I did the same thing as a kid, and truth be told, there was a part of me that was very tempted to join them.

Every once in a while I have a student who has been sent to the office.  They tell me the story and I have to stop myself from laughing, or try to act upset, when in the back of my mind I am thinking "Yikes, I did that around that age", or even worse "that sounds like a lot of fun...".  Of course I would never admit it to the kids in the office, but it is always good at a dinner meeting or two to share the story about using sticks as swords, rolling down muddy hills on your side, running on sheets of ice...

A couple of weeks ago I saw a boy wet a paper towel look skywards and was about to launch it towards the ceiling when I happened to check in because I was hearing some noise.  He looked at me, I looked at him, he put it in the trash, apologized and we had a little chat about respect.  In the back of my mind I am thinking, hmmm, grade 7 if I recall.  I had walked into the boys washroom and saw a ton of toilet paper that had been stuck to the ceiling and I started to wonder if paper towel would stick as well as toilet paper.  Now there was a ton of tp on the ceiling and I have some rather cursed luck when it comes to timing.  I launched it at the ceiling and just as I did the custodian came in and saw me throw it, looked at the ceiling and next thing I know I was talking to M. Talmanis, my principal.  The worst part of it was that my mom taught at my school so it did not take long for her to find her way down to the office to join in the fun or berating me for my lack of respect for the school.

A few years ago I had a kindergarten boy in my office because I had heard that he said a bad word.  Usually this consists of idiot, stupid or something like that.  Occasionally they are harsher words.  This boy had been told by a friend of his brother's that there was a word that he could use that was really bad and that it was fun to see people react to him using it, the F bomb.  When I asked him what was it that he had been saying he told me flat out, which caught me off guard, as usually they will just say "the f-word" and not the actual f bomb.  I asked him what made him say that and he told me the story, again dropping the F-bomb when he came to what he had said.  I told him that he should not be using the word anymore but he said that he had to because I told him that he had to tell me truth.  Got me on that one.  How did I relate? I was 4 or 5 when I found out about that word and loved to write it out to get a rise out of other people as well as writing it around the entire perimeter of my bed to the point that when my parents moved my bed they were greeted by that word written many times over.  My mom likes to share that story with people at dinner, although her reaction at the time was not quite as amusing.

I am not trying to justify the "Boys will be boys" attitude, but rather just share the random thoughts that pop into my head.  Every once in a while I look at many of my more intelligent ideas, some of which I can lay blame on my older brother for encouraging me to do it, others were purely of my own creation.  I deal with them appropriately, but every once in a while, after the kids of left, a staff member joins me and we get a good laugh out of it.

examples of not so great ideas:
1) Hanging out of a second floor window because my brother told me that I could easily jump to the ground and hanging from the window sill and screaming until my parents, who were having a dinner party, came up to pull me back in.

2) trying to climb a tree by attaching a rope to a very large rock and only watching to see if the rock went over the branch and not where it was going to land.  Not sure I ever recovered from that concussion as a 6 year old.

3) Being 15 and hell bent on doing a 360 while skiing meant finding a jump that was around 6-7 feet high, flying off of it, only getting around to do a 180 and crashing in the powder.  Then I would get back up and try again.  Never did do a 360, but I did have bruises 360 degrees around me.

4) Playing follow the leader, as a 7 year old, on bikes while crossing a major street (King Edward for those in Vancouver) and somehow only getting a sprained ankle from when the car hit me.

Is being stupid a right of passage for boys, or do we just become smarter about the stupid things that we do?  It does make it easier to see what is about to happen because, more often than not, I either did the same thing of thought of doing the same thing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson, Creativity and Pole Dancing

I had the great fortune of seeing Sir Ken Robinson in person twice this week.  Every time that I hear him, I re-examine my own actions in my school.  His thoughts on creativity are logical and path that we should be following.  Are we educating our children based on the skills that they will need, are we limiting their potential because we have narrow scopes as to what defines a successful student?

I kept on writing down some great quotes, and he is a master of powerful quotes.  He is
brilliantly funny, and some of his tangential comments are hysterical.  I believe that Sir Ken is person who can discuss the fact that dogs cannot pole dance and link it to education and creativity.  He was talking about the settlement patterns of humans, related to soil conditions, water availability, ports and so on, but that Las Vegas made no sense.  Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert with access to very little water and yet has been amongst the fastest growing cities in the United States.  Vegas was created on different principles then had existed before. Vegas -> Pole Dancing -> Dogs can't pole dance only humans can. 

Sir Ken is better in person that on video.  If you have not yet had a chance to see/hear him, you really should take the time.  Here are 3 links to different presentations that Sir Ken Robinson has done.
 Do Schools Kill Creativity
Bring on the Learning Revolution
Changing Education Paradigms

His views on education are bang on.  We seem to try to fit too many square pegs into round holes with many students being asked to follow the same course loads as their neighbour even if that is not the best path for them.  The time limitations are the same, the school year is the same, the blocks of time are the same.  We tend to use the same material with the same strategies even each year the classes are different and the kids are different.  He used a great metaphor that makes perfect sense:  A farmer knows that what made a successful harvest last year will not necessarily make a successful one this year. Conditions change and as those conditions change, they need to adapt to them.  Why are do many classes seem to be the same year in, year out.  Something else he said that brings this point home was that life is not linear but education is.

One of the more powerful comments that I heard was that creativity is a person's birthright.  Everyone is born with huge natural talent.  He defined creativity as putting imagination to work, it is the power to bring to mind things that are not present.  He showed a longitudinal study that measured creativity as the children aged.  When they were kindergarten-aged 98% scored at a genius level on creativity and as they aged the percentage of students who tested in the genius range decreased dramatically.

He often used the term organic, and linked it to culture, and that creativity was never dead but rather dormant.  He brought up Death Valley, the hottest and driest place in North America.  The reason that he discussed this was the fact that a few years ago it received about 7 inches of rain and suddenly, for a short time, flowers bloomed where they hadn't bloomed before.  I felt this was an excellent portrayal of a child's potential.  If you create the right culture in the classroom or at the school then the students will flourish.  Human resources are like natural resources, they are often buried and you have to find them.

He had an opportunity to work with Sir Paul McCartney and discussed Sir Paul's education.  Sir Paul mentioned that he hated music at school.  He and George Harrison, who attended the same school two years behind him, were both told that they had no talent.  Imagine having two members of the Beatles in your music class and not seeing their potential.  Will this continue to happen as we seem to define at schools useful and useless subjects.  If children are denied the arts and denied the opportunities to express themselves differently, how many other amazing people are we crushing?

As he was talking about the segmentation of the school curriculum it really got me thinking.  He mentioned that creative schools have creative timetables and do not separate everything into chunks.  Let's take Language Arts as an example.  Over the course of the year we might teach students poetry, expository writing, descriptive writing and so on.  Yet when it comes to projects and final assignments, how often is it limited to essay style paragraph writing with limited opportunities for the students to freely express their thoughts?  How many times does this occur in Science and Socials?  Do we allow students to write in verse, put together movies or presentations if they are more comfortable or better able to communicate their knowledge in different ways?  There is as much Art in Science as there is Science ad Art.  Why do they have to be segregated?

Sir Ken said that we are living in times of revolution, where things we take for granted are mistakes and things that we believe to be obvious are false.  We are in a crisis of of human resources where we process people in education with a certain type of role.  Students who are "quirky" tend to be shut down, when they try to do things differently they are told that it is wrong.  They begin to fear ridicule and failure.  If kids spend all day at school doing stuff they're not good at, they begin to feel as though they are no good at anything.

He said that great teachers make everything interesting.  If you are engaged, you do not watch the clock, you lose track of time.  He made reference to Ewa Mataya Laurance

He left us with some thoughts to process.  If the environment of the school/class makes a huge difference to how we feel, what changes can we make?  If being born is a miracle, what are we going to do with that miracle?  Lastly he discussed assessment.  He feels that assessment should be looking at the value and originality of the work under specific and relevant criteria.

We were very fortunate to have our Superintendent at our session as well as the BC Minister of Education.  Our Superintendent told us that he will support us in our endeavours to make this happen in our schools.  The challenge for me now is, what changes can I make to create the very environment that he describes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Waiting for Wolverine

There is so much talk about the movie Waiting for Superman these days and the plight of education.  I think that the title gives an incredible bias to where the film is headed.  I have to admit that I have not seen it, and I am not sure that I plan to.  I chose Wolverine because he is a straight shooter and does not beat around the bush.  He is not a diplomat who tries to say all the right things and responds to criticisms.  He is a fun superhero, but one with a few obvious character flaws.  Superman is nearly perfect in every way, and one who allows himself to be publically chastized.  (This is just a quick interpretation based on my childhood preferences and not really a point that I feel like debating).

There are warts in the education system, anyone who denies that is fooling themselves.  There are systemic issues, monetary issues and performance issues.  This is not unique to education.  Similar documentaries could be made looking at the divorce courts and how some families are ruined because of the processes that are there.  How about we look at Fortune 500 companies who use overseas markets to reduce costs and are in markets with severe human rights violations occur?  Churches with sex abuse allegations? Doctors with malpractice lawsuits?  People have flaws, which means that there is no perfect system out there.

I think that, as educators, we need to get on the soapbox far more often than we do. There are so many outstanding educators out there.  Look at all of the professional learning networks that are being used via Twitter.  They are sharing, questionning, supporting, collaborating.  It is amazing.  This is all happening outside of the typical 9-3 hours that are associated with schools. This is happening during Christmas vacation, Spring Break and during the summer.  Teachers work hard to provide the best learning opportinuties possible for their students.  They carry the emotional burdens of some of the families and the struggles that kids are having.  They look to provide a safe haven for their students and their families that take them away from the abusive or catastrophic situations.  I believe that too many teachers and adminstrators are humble and do not want to have their picture in the local paper on a regular basis, unlike some of the politicians and institutes who believe in bashing education.  Their focus is where it should be, on the school and on the students.  We need to do a better job informing the public of what is happening within the walls of the schools.

There are comparissons being raised and discussed in this movie.  Let's start with an important aspect to consider, the film from what I have read in reviews, has a rather narrow focus.  Secondly, people also need to stop comparing apples to oranges.  Comparing different school systems is difficult at best.  There are circumstances that exist in each school, district, province (or state) and country.  How homogeneous is the neighbourhood, how big is the melting pot of culture around the school and in the community?  How many students are ESL, and how many different languages are spoken in their home?  How many families are struggling just to make ends meet? How many students are coming to school hungry or tired?  Does Finland have the same degree of multicultiralism, immigration, refugees or poverty that exist in our schools?  Do these other nations to which comparissons are made have the exact same social programs as we do?  Are there teachers paid an equivalent amount, givent the same amount of prep time, professional development and are they held in the same regard?  If you don't have an answer to these questions then perhaps you need to do more research before making the comparissons.

The Challenge we face when trying to come up with a one size fits all model is that what works 2 hours north of here might not work in my district.  What works well in a school 20 minutes may not work well in mine.  It is amazing at times when I have conversations with colleagues at all levels just how different our schools are, and this is sometimes with schools that are within a 5 minute drive.  We have a "Think Tank" in British Columbia, the Fraser Institute, that attempts to rank schools according to the provincially mandated Foundation Skills Assessments which are done in February at the grade 4 and 7 levels.  Schools can have similar test scores but the equation that they use can lower or raise it based on the estimated socio-economics of the neighbourhood. Simple factors that can influence the scores are:
1) some kids start the test and then we find out that they are going on vacation and will not be able to complete the test
2) A student who is quite capable struggles with the format or starts becoming anxious and it is deemed to not be worth it for the kid to continue so the test is pulled because a passing result in not worth the damage that it could do to the poor child
3) A teacher uses a kid's identification who was exempted or away to demonstrate how to do the test and then finds out later that the clicking of a couple of buttons resulted in a failed assessment.
4) a school's data is lost and the school is blamed for it so an entire class' results are fails.
Some of these errors can add up to a 10-20 % drop in meeting expectations which can result in a bad score which is published. (These are all real circumstances I have faced or some of my colleagues have faced)

We are letting outside agencies do the advertising for us and many do not appear to be interested in what is working in schools, rather they seem to be focussing on what is not working.  I suppose that I could have my students practice for a few weeks to take the test.  I could put every available adult in there to answer the questions immediately.  I could run a whole bunch of pretests, practice tests, old tests or my own tests.  I could do this and boost my results, but at what cost?  I am not willing to sacrifice my school's leadership programs, Peace Squad (peer mediators), playground leaders nor intramurals.  I am not willing to let go of having social responsibility as an important focus in the school, school wide projects for helping out in the community nor having seniors come in to work with kids at risk or those who just need a friendly ear to talk to.  I will not forgo the friendship skills sessions nor the Worry Dragons meetings that my counselor does.  I believe that kids are happy at our schools because we offer so much more than just the ability to take a standardized test.

We work hard at what we do to create the best learning opportunities and it is probably time that we started talking about it.  Avoid the Superman diplomacy and use a little Wolverine attitude.  Part of me feels like saying that if you are going to criticize my field of work, then perhaps I should start criticizing yours.  Maybe I should start using stereotypes of your workplace, generalizations and make uninformed statements.  Debating is one thing, slagging is another.  Asking informed questions, or questions to become informed leads to worthwhile thinking while repeating something that Oprah said may not be.  Education is an easy target because everyone has been through it and has an opinion.  We do have warts, but unfortunately we cannot just put a drop of liquid nitrogen on our problems and make them go away.  We do need to continue to improve, just like any system out there, and we need to continue to be humble to remember to look at what can be better.  We need to continue to improve the 21st century skills that need to be taught. We can be better and we will be better.

If we want the public to have an understanding then we have to teach them.  I also like to tell friends who make negative statements about schools in general that I did not realize that they thought so poorly of me.  When they attack the school system they are attacking me, they are attacking something that I am proud of, that I believe in, colleagues that I have a world of confidence in and my friends.  Put a face on it, rave about the amazing things that are happening and then maybe, just maybe, we can get that vocal minority to see the world beyond published scores.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Technology brings us closer

I have heard on occasion that people fear that we lose our social connections by becoming too dependent on technology.  I guess that there is a certain element of truth to that, but is it not entirely dependent on the context?  I was watching a video Open and Connected and it raised a lot of good points.  I am going to put forward that technology actually brings us closer.

I am a child of immigrants.  My parents tell the story of my grand-father running alongside the train that was to take them on their journey and he ran alongside the train until he could go no further.  Planes were not as available as they are now.  When my parents came to Canada from Europe they came by boat.  My grand-father's fear was that he would rarely ever see his daughter again.  There would be an exchange of letters, but it would take weeks for the letters to arrive.  Phone calls were prohibitive because of the ridiculous costs.  It was not easy.

When I was younger I would see my French grand-parents about every 2nd summer, and that was with them coming here every once in a while.  I would talk to them every once in a while on the phone for a few brief minutes, always aware of the cost.  Birthday phone calls were a treat and I loved my Christmas calls as well.  I looked forward to the occasions when I could talk to them.  Eventually costs for flying came down so we started to see them every summer, alternating visits.

This is where technology comes in.  About 20 years ago my mom bought her parents a fax machine. Letters were transmitted instantly and letters flowed more freely.  It was great because I got news from my grand-parents much more quickly.  Just a little later when my grand-father was around 75 he decided that the old super 8 style movies that he was making just wasn't cutting it anymore and decided that it was time that he learned how to do digital video editing and he bought his first computer, which came, obviously, with email.  I was in touch with my grand-father so much more than ever and I developed a close relationship with him that I never had before.  Even though he lived 9 time zones away I felt as though he was very close.  Technology is what really allowed me to get to know him.  I no longer had to wait for special occasions to hear from him or wait a month to hear back when I wrote a letter.  Skype was just starting to come into prominence when he became ill, but if not I know we would have been having weekly conversations via Skype.

I am now connected via Facebook with 2 of my cousins in France, 1 cousin in New Zealand and another in San Francisco.  One of my aunts jokes around that I know more about her kids than she does because of Facebook.  I get to see regular updates as to how they are doing, see family pictures and stay in contact.  It allows my parents and my brother and sister to share family pictures much more easily than before.  Don't get me wrong, we talk by phone and see each other on a regular basis but we are much more connected as a result.  If we are online at the same time then we instant message each other and enjoy conversations that we would not normally have.

When one of my colleagues' son was off in Europe working they were in regular Skype conversations.  I found my godfather that I had not seen since I was around 1 because of the internet and I was able to re-establish that connection.  Through Twitter I have established great working connections and have begun to develop an amazing professional learning network.  Technology has brought us closer.  For me technology has made the world smaller and brought me into greater contact with my family and friends.  It has brought me closer to my family which is spread over 3 continents and I am grateful for that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MathMagic and Game shows

I have continued to think about Math homework and the impact that drill sheets can have on math confidence and interest in our students.  Are there alternatives to repetitive drill sheets or questions that could be stimulating for all levels?  Two different assignments that I used to do were Mathmagic and some questions that were done in the style of a game show from France (Les Chiffres et Les Lettres).  The students were still doing math questions, but there was a challenge and a purpose as well as taking it as far as they wanted.

Why Math loves Wayne Gretzky
I would ask the students to tell me which hockey player is loved by mathematicians?
The question goes like this:
1) Choose a 2 digit number, but it cannot be a number with the same two digits (eg 26)
2) Reverse that number (eg 62)
3) Subtract the smallest from the largest (eg 62-26= 36)
4) Add the reverse number of the answer (eg 36 + 63 + 99)
The answer is always 99
The reason that you cannot use a number that has the same two digits is because at step 3 you would get 0.

The 1089 game
Similar question to the Wayne Gretzky question except that it is a 3 digit number and the number cannot be a palindrome (eg 323, 575).  I would take the kids through the steps and then have them turn the work upside down to show me that they have the number and then I walk around the class and whisper the answer to them and walk around and do the same for a number of kids.  The look of surprise on their face when I tell them the answer is 1089 is priceless.  If they do not have 1089 then I tell them they need to double check their work.
1) choose a 3 digit number (eg 367)
2) reverse the digits (eg 763)
3) subtract small from big (eg 763-367= 396)
4) Reverse the answer and add them up (eg 396 + 693 = 1089)
The kids should always get 1089

I would then challenge the kids to try a  few at home to try and prove me wrong.  Extensions that are possible:
1) ask them why palindrome questions do not work
2) Does this work for 5 digit numbers, 6 digit numbers, what are the exceptions...

This is a subtraction game
1) Have the students choose a 4 digit number (eg 4518)
2) Have them put the digits in decreasing order (8541)
3) subtract the reverse (8541-1458= 7083)
4) Repeat steps 2 and 3 with the answer (8730 - 0378 = 8352)
5) Keep going until you get the same answer 2x in a row
8532- 2358= 6174
7641-1467 - 6174
You should always end up with 6174 after a max of 6 operations
The challenge on this one is again to see of they can prove you wrong
The extensions would be 3 digit numbers, 5 digit numbers and if there are rules that need to be applied with respect to the type of numbers that can be chosen.

Les chiffres et les lettres
This is based off a game show from France (Wikipedia YouTube).  The object of the games is to take 6 random numbers and get a randomly chosen total.  You are only allowed to use each number 1 time, although you do not have to use all of the numbers.  You can use addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  I have them start off in groups and share their joint solutions.  We would then take another random set and the kids would try them at home.  The object is to get as close to the number as possible, and the solution is not always possible.
What I like about this one is that to get the exact answer is great, but more importantly it looks at number fluency, multiple operations and all of the kids can do it.  We do it as a game show with prizes in the class and that makes the math fun.

The main point of this is that it does allow me to assess their math operation skills and allows the strugglers to do just a few and those that love math and excel at it have an extension.  The kids can test this on their parents or siblings and makes them excited about math.  It accomplishes the same objective of math worksheets but it makes it interesting, fun and easily assessable.  The conversations that arise from the sharing is rich and the problem solving solutions lead to amazing math dialogue and sharing of strategies.

Parents and kids would sit side by side and test this out.  The usual fights were not there because the students were motivated to do the work to prove that Mr. Collins was wrong and they had huge smiles on their faces if they were able to find exceptions to the rules.  A number of parents commented on the fact that they enjoyed watching their children enthused about math and how much they enjoyed talking math with their kids.

Math homework with a purpose, that allows for differentiated learning, multiple levels and enrichment and the kids enjoy doing it. Something to think about.