Friday, January 21, 2011

Public Ed vs Real World

As the conversation around the elimination of awards and letter grades continues, there are many people who decry the changes because we are not preparing the students for the "Real World".  Most of the comments were along the lines of "In the "Real World" there are winners and losers so why are we sheltering them from that "reality"?".  The callers on the talk radio seem to feel that young adults think that because they put in the effort that their work should automatically be appreciated in the "Real World".  Based on the arguments offered, apparently you don't get the praise and recognition from your employers unless you are the best of the best in the "Real World".  The one sidedness of the comments was surprising, but it got me thinking.

Are there winners and losers in some aspects of life? Absolutely.  There are people who are going to be offered jobs and those who get the thanks for applying letters.  There are people who are going to get promoted and then those who will be fired.  Top sales reps will get awards, top actors will get awards, top athletes will get awards.and so on.  There are people who will see those people getting the awards and the cash bonuses and will push themselves.  To deny this is foolish, but for how many more does this have little or no impact, or even worse, the complete opposite effect. 

So what will happen in schools, if honour roll and awards ceremonies are removed?  How will this impact the students?  I feel that it would not have a significant impact nor be detrimental to the students' learning.  Many secondary schools now do awards on separate nights, so often the general student population are not present to see the awards being handed out.  There are many students who aren't motivated by the awards.  If they are motivated about their learning intrinsically, they will put in the time regardless of whether or not their name goes on a plaque.

If it is crucial to celebrate the best of the best, why is a "B" average celebrated?  Does this not water it down?  How was a "B" average deemed the cut-off point? If we are to truly recognize the top students, let's eliminate all those who do not have straight "A"s in every course they take.   No "B"s allowed.  Period.  Why is this not done?  Because we want all students to be encouraged to give us their best.  The top students will be rewarded with scholarships, university entrance letters and choices of post-secondary institutions.  Those whose grades are not as high have a limited choice of post-secondary institutions.  If the students are unsure as to what they want to do when they graduate and were only motivated by letter grades, what are they going to do once they graduate?  What becomes their motivation?  I doubt that their employer is going to return a document that they have worked on with a letter grade attached.

Another question to deliberate is how many of those students have tutors? How many of those students have parents who have the ability and the confidence to help them with homework?  How many other students could achieve that level of academic achievement if their home circumstances were different?  What if they did not have to go and pick up their younger siblings, feed them, help them with their homework and then go and work a part-time job to help the family put food on the table?  For some students, a C+ represents an amazing achievement.  For others, it is an incredible achievement that they even made it to school.  I have seen students who in grade 6 are waking themselves up, making their own breakfast, walking for 30 minutes and getting to school on time while watching some of their peers getting dropped off in 500 series Mercedes Convertibles.  I am blown away every time I see those kids in my class and in my school being an active participant and I am going to find every possible way to recognize that.

Whenever I am out with friends and we talk about our various work environments, recognition and praise seem to be a big part of the satisfaction of the job.  Those who do not enjoy their work tend to comment on how they are working hard and not being recognized for it, their boss takes credit for their work, does not even know who they are or only talks to them when there is a problem.  Those who enjoy their work usually comment on how much they appreciate the fact that their boss acknowledges their work and effort, that they take a personal interest in their lives and that they are approachable.  Why would kids be any different?  People, as a general rule, like to be acknowledged for what they are doing, adults and kids alike.  The praise must be authentic and not contrived.

Self-assessment has also been questioned.  Why do we let students assess themselves?  Because it is a crucial life skill to have.  Learning how to critically look at your own work and be able to identify areas that need improvement and strengths are essential in many jobs.  Learning how to look at someone else's work and  identify areas that need improvement and strengths are also essential in many jobs.  This is not the teacher passing the buck, there is a lot of interaction, teaching, modeling and dialogue that has to be in place for this to be effective.

The last point that I wanted to address was late work, as that was another point that seemed to come up a lot.  Yes, it is true that many teachers accept late work.  Yes it is true that fewer teachers are penalizing students who hand in the work late by reducing the mark.  Students receive 2 marks on a report card, one that is supposed to represent their knowledge and understanding of the material covered and another that represents the work habits.  The letter grades are supposed to be a reflection of how well a student understands the material being covered, not a due date.  When there are issues with work that is continuously late there are meetings scheduled, plans set up and regular updates given to try and change it around.  We meet with parents to try and determine if there is a root cause for the work not being done.  Are there issues that we are not aware of at home or at school?  More often than not, penalizing a student for late work does not motivate them, in their eyes it often justifies why they don't bother.  Many students who are struggling with their homework or assignment completion are kept in at lunch or after school.  Sometimes it is arranged that they will be dropped off early on some days in order to get additional support.  There are consequences given when the work is late, but it should not be reflected in the marks.  The key is support and working with all partners to have them improve their work completion. If they have poor work habits then they receive an "N" for their work habit mark.

I guess it comes down to a philosophical perspective on the role and purpose of school.  Are we to be a sorting system where we continuously rank kids and in one form or another and tell them what their place is in the school?  Most people would agree that seating kids according to their marks is very damaging, I saw it firsthand when I went to school in France.  Why do it on a grand stage?  We are there for every student from the most gifted to the most challenged.  Our goal is to find that inner spark, that inner passion that will move that child to give us everything he/she has.  Our responsibility is by the time they leave the school system we have given them every opportunity to be the brightest, shining light they can be, that they have developed as deep an understanding of all of the curricular content as possible and are the best citizens possible.  For every child this is going to be different.

The students are already ranked and sorted in every competition out there whether it be track or debating, writing contests or basketball, Verbathon or other academic challenges.  Those that strive off of competition have many opportunities to do so at school and outside of school.  We see it every lunch hour, but we also see students who are reading quietly, skipping with friends, taking care of the school garden or picking up litter to keep the school grounds clean.  Knowledge, understanding, respect and support are a school's responsibility.  If society determines that there is a need to rank and sort once they are outside the school system, then that is society's choice.  When students leave school hopefully they are confident, independent young adults with the ability to think critically and are self-motivated.  To me these are essential skills for the "Real World".  If gold stars, A's and awards are the only things motivating them then we are in trouble.

Friday, January 7, 2011

If you want to eliminate letter grades, what do you need to do?

We are in the process forming a committee in our district that will be re-examining report cards at the intermediate (grade 4-7) years, with the initial starting point of the conversation being the elimination of letter grades at the elementary level.  I do feel that letter grades should be eliminated at the elementary level.  I do not feel that you can change assessment practice without changing the reporting practice.  But can you have this conversation without discussing assessment?  Can this conversation be had without involving parents? What kind of information needs to be presented and how would it need to be presented?  How long will it take to change it over?  Is it possible to overcome the emotional/cultural/historical values of letter grades and reporting formats?  So many questions to ponder when looking a major philosophical shift in reporting practices that have existed for decades.

We had a very good first discussion pondering the first steps that need to be taken.  An important part of the discussion was about the fact that there is an emotional attachment to letter grades that needs to be addressed both inside and outside of the school setting.  We can all think of letter grades that have impacted us emotionally in a very strong way.  I remember when I got a C- first term of grade 11 Chemistry (I learned that I might actually have to study).  I was sick to my stomach and preparing myself to go and do my French Military Service in order to avoid a very uncomfortable conversation at home.  The C- that I got in 3rd year genetics was the happiest C- in my life as I managed to pass the course on the first attempt, unlike roughly 50% of my classmates.  These letter grades mean different things to different people depending on the circumstances.  For some they are a driving force, for others they result in crippling anxiety.

Parents are used to letter grades, they understand, or they believe that they understand what the letter grades mean.  They usually only remember getting letter grades, and tend to not be able to recall what their earlier report cards would have looked like.  They remember the conversation that they would have had at home with their parents, and they remember the incentives and/or the consequences of those letter grades.  There is a degree of comfort in the familiarity. Many teachers are used to letter grades as a means of communicating the varying degrees of academic success of the students to their parents.  This means that a significant shift in thinking that will be required should we change our reporting practices.

Assessment practices also came up, with a large emphasis on their importance in changing our reporting practices.  Is it possible to change the culture around the report cards without changing the culture around assessment practices and communication about the assessment?  Can changing the way we report change assessment practices? If we are to come up with a different reporting system, what needs to be considered?  Is it possible to retain a previous reporting system that was based on an entirely different methodology of assessing?

Part of the reasoning behind the elimination of letter grades is that assessment practices do not match up with letter grades.  Formative assessment is supposed to be a significant piece of the puzzle. How are students progressing?  What have they learned from the feedback?  Also, in my opinion, the assessments are not meant to be averaged out.  If you are a true believer of formative assessment, then the September/October assessments are teaching tools, not measuring tools.  A December report card should be reflective of where the student is now and include comments on how they have progressed based on the feedback.  The students should be able to self-assess quite accurately because they have been actively involved in their learning.  They should be credited for learning from their mistakes, not punished for having made them.  The parents should also have an understanding of the assessment strategies, philosophies and purpose so that when assignments come home they know what the feedback means and have an understanding how to support their child's learning.

This means that there is a significant educational/information aspect that needs to be included.  Presentations to parents about the language that will be used and what it means are key.  If parents understand the rationale and terminology, they are more likely to support it.  There will also need to be an important investment into professional development in order to ensure a common understanding of the philosophy behind the new reporting ideology within the school system.  Trust is also going to be an issue.  Trust with the parents as well as trust with the staff.  How is this going to be better for the kids?  How is this going to be better for communicating a child's progress to parents?  How is this going to be more effective for the teacher?

Will focusing on performance standard language and assessment practices be sufficient to make this change?  Any suggestions as to what are the next steps we need to take?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who will be the "heroes" in 2011?

It is hard to believe that it has almost been a year since Vancouver hosted the 2010 Olympics.  As the year 2010 came to a close the Olympics were on all of the Canadian top 10 news stories of the year.  The transformation, even for a short time, of our city, province and country was amazing.  The sea of red and white in downtown Vancouver was awe inspiring.  It was a once in a lifetime event that I will always remember. 

I wish we could hold on to those emotions and the amazing stories that came out of it.  For two weeks students were focused on the amazing feats of athletes who, more often than not, competed for the love of the game.  While the 2010 Games did open up with the tragic death of the Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili, it also opened up with the determination of the Georgian Olympic team, marching in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in black armbands in honour of their fallen comrade and receiving a standing ovation as they entered the building.

The first Canadian gold medal was won by Alex Bilodeau, who immediately went and embraced Frédéric, his brother with cerebral palsy.  He demonstrated great humility in those interviews when he was the golden boy of our nation as the first ever athlete to win Olympic gold on Canadian soil.  He could have gloated, he could have bragged, he could have behaved in many ways and yet when asked about his struggles and challenges, he minimized them in comparison to his brother's.  Rather than talk about himself he talked about his admiration for his brother, and how his brother was his inspiration.  He also donated his winnings from the gold medal to Pediatric Health Centres for cerebral palsy and encouraged other athletes to do the same as well.

Joannie Rochette's mesmerizing performance after the sudden death of her mother was one for the ages. I doubt that there were many dry eyes after her performance and the emotion she showed following the conclusion of her last skate was heart-wrenching.  The strength and determination that she displayed was breath-taking.  Clara Hughes, as inspirational a Canadian athlete as any, won another medal in these games. She is the only Canadian to ever win medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics and is tied for the most medals ever won by a Canadian athlete.  She was instrumental in the 2006 games for promoting Right to Play, becoming an ambassador for the organization and donating her winnings to the cause the she trumpeted and had many other athletes follow her example.

There were many other amazing performance by Canadians such as Lauren Woolstencroft winning 5 gold medals in paralympic ski events, Brian McKeever who became the first athlete to be named in a Winter Paralympics and Winter Olympics team in the same year, although he was not chosen to compete on the final roster for the cross-country ski event during the Olympic Games.  He dominated his events in the paralympics with his brother as his guide, but his times would have allowed him to compete in the Olympics. His challenge, as a legally blind skier, would have been to ski the course without the aid of a guide.  To be top 50 in the world where visual clues are critical to a good time because of slopes and turns is an outstanding achievement, and competing against others who do not share that same affliction is impressive to say the least.

While many will remember the golden goal by Sidney Crosby, there was so much to celebrate from these games in terms of character, perseverance and generosity.   There were many amazing examples for children of all ages to appreciate.  Our students showed the same enthousiasm for all of these athletes as many of the Tweens did when Justin Bieber came into town.  Something I came to realize this year is that the students are amazed by many feats, they just need to be exposed to them.  We had the opportunity to invite a Canadian Paralympian from the Beijing games.  She was a torch bearer for the Paralympic torch and the students were very excited to meet her.  She commented to her mother later that the kids made her feel like a star. Many of the students were talking about how cool it was to meet someone who went to the Beijing games.
 When we invited a veteran to take part in our Remembrance Day assembly, the kids demonstrated incredible enthousiasm when greeting his as they left.  What this taught me was that we need to do a better job of introducing positive role models to our students.  We have amazing people in our communities.  There are many children looking for someone to emulate and look up to.  While it is difficult to compete with the tabloids, TMZ and other celebrity-afflicted media, we can help them identify with those who give back to their communities hopefully instead of those who become prima-donnas, and expect everything to be catered to them and seem to only take from the community.

There are many ordinary people doing extraordinary things in our communities.  We have amazingly talented kids in our schools and our school communities.  I need to do a better job of finding them and introducing them to our students.  We can either present them real heroes or let media dictate that the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Charley Sheen, Kanye West, Brett Favre or Lindsay Lohan are the ones to emulate.