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...