Monthly Archives: June 2016

Thinking about the first day of school already-or not!

I have posted this, or something similar, at the end of June before, but I always think it is a good time to think about it.  Or at least, a thought for you to tuck away for some time later.

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then my default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Sticky Learning

I recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic but for those of you who like to read….

Tradition and intuition play a big role in how we teach but our observations of student learning and research suggest that we might be wrong.  Traditionally we teach in units:  2, 4, or 6 weeks (albeit they sometimes stretch into 8 or even 10 weeks).  We think that if we teach the kids all they need to know about one subject (multiplication, persuasive writing, levers, time, the colour wheel etc) and give them lots of practice about this one topic, over and over again in a 2-4 week period of time, then they will learn the stuff.  Except, they don’t.  Students don’t tend to retain concepts they only learn once a year very well.

Our observations of student learning show us that this is true.  If you teach fractions, usually taught in a 4-6 week unit in the spring, you know this.  It feels like every year is like starting over.  I’m sure that you can think of many other concepts where the learning done last year doesn’t “stick”.

There is cognitive research that does tell us a lot about how people learn.  Two concepts, spaced learning and interleaving, are well-documented in the research but hold little traction in real classrooms.

We typically teach in a “massed” practice where we teach kids everything about one topic in a short period of time and then test them.  Students do well in testing situations immediately following the learning, but test them a few weeks later and they don’t remember very much.  However, when material is learned spaced over time, retention of concepts is much greater.  This positive effect has been documented in the literature since 1885!  John Hattie, in Visible Learning, listed it as the 13th most positive effect on learning out of 138 possibilities.  You may wish to consider what would happen if you took a big topic, like fractions or division or proportional reasoning, and instead of teaching it all at once, you spaced the learning out over multiple  opportunities over the course of the year.

We have found spacing the learning out to be very beneficial to our students.  For example, instead of our intermediate students reading just one novel over 6-8 weeks (and really, as a real reader, who does that except maybe for War and Peace?) our students read between 6 to 10 novels over the course of the year, spending between 2-3 weeks on each.  They learn all the same skills about analyzing literature, but they have multiple opportunities to practice the skills over the year.  We do the same in mathematics, returning to problems in proportional reasoning, for example, a few times every month instead of in a 3 week unit.

The other piece of research that has huge benefits for learning, but doesn’t really hold much traction in our school system, is interleaving.  We tend to block the curriculum into discrete units of study, studying each topic one at a time:  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division ; OR, fractions, decimals, percent; OR, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, report writing.  The problem, when students learn this way, is that they don’t learn to see the similarities and differences between the topics.  We hope they will make connections, but really it is left up to them to do it on their own.  When we teach like this it is called “blocked practice”.

But if you interleave the learning, you teach similar concepts all at the same time.  A writer’s workshop model allows students to explore a variety of forms of writing all within the context of writer’s craft.  If students were faced with problems in mathematics involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the same time then they would be forced to develop an understanding of how the concepts are related and to know when to apply each concept.

I call teaching in this spaced and interleaved way spiralling.  While provincial and state curriculum  say they “spiral”, meaning that students learn about fractions, for example, once every year, I argue that the spiral loops are too big.  If we tighten the spiral so that students have many chances to learn the big ideas over the course of the year, I think we get to learning that is sticky.

Of course, spiralling is not easy to plan for.  Teachers like their units.  They like to be “done”.  Spiralling the curriculum really requires that teachers adopt a new mindset about curriculum design.  It isn’t easy…but the teachers that I work with wouldn’t ever go back to teaching traditionally in longer units.  Not only do we get sticky learning, but our students are much more engaged.  Every day is a new challenge for them and they have to apply their learning to specific and varied contexts.

If you want to give it a try, think about doing just a bit at a time instead of revamping your entire curriculum.  Try something new; no one will die.

 

 

 

 

 

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Failure is NOT an Option-whose responsibility?

Failure is NOT an option.  I think that our collective vision would be a school in which that was true.  We all aspire to have classrooms full of students who are motivated and committed and do well.  We all aspire to be that teacher-the one that doesn’t have any behavioural problems, who the kids quote when they become famous, who reaches every student (I think I saw a made-for-TV movie about that teacher).

But it is hard.  Sometimes the kids didn’t see the movie.  Some fight us at every turn.  Home life might not be conducive to school attendance.  There may be mental health issues or behaviours that disrupt the learning processes.  Our classes have students with learning disabilities and giftedness; shy students and overt students; calm students and students with ADHD.  By middle school some of our students are discouraged and apathetic about school.

But we still desire to be that teacher, that school where failure is not an option.

Here are some school practices that may lead towards a “Failure is not an option” environment:

  • Recursive/spiralling teaching practice allows us to return to key concepts many times over the course of the year. We don’t expect students to “get” it the first time around but give them many opportunities to master key concepts.
  • Multiple entry points into learning invite students into the learning. Students are more successful when they start the learning at a comfortable place instead of one that is too hard or too easy.
  • Student choice in activities and learning allows for greater engagement. Students can choose their novel, choose the writing topic, choose the geography inquiry, choose their tech build, choose how to express themselves in art, choose chrome books or pencils, etc. Students are more likely to demonstrate grit and determination to succeed when they are engaged in the task.
  • On-going formative assessment helps students to get it right, as they are learning. Teaching is not about completing the task; it is about learning the stuff. Formative assessment ensures that students are learning the stuff.  There’s nothing worse that working hard on something only to find it wasn’t right after all.  Because we give feedback during the learning, our students don’t end up in a situation where they didn’t even know they weren’t doing it right.
  • Scaffolding learning through models, exemplars, anchor charts and checklists allows students to know the expectations before they start. Learning is not a mystery. Systematic use of guided learning with the whole class and in small groups ensures that students move in the right direction and know the learning goals and success criteria (it isn’t about posting them on the board).
  • A responsive special education model ensures that our most vulnerable students are tracked and supported. It is not the responsibility of one person but of all the teachers involved with the student. A collective understanding of the unique needs of some of our students allows for modifications and accommodations to happen seamlessly.   A responsive and proactive use of EAs and the CYW means that we avoid the crisis – most of the time.
  • Grading practices that are fair and about learning not judging.  If it is important enough for us to teach it then it is important enough for them to learn it.  Learning the stuff doesn’t mean that a failing or low grade is ok.  We have to allow  and insist upon retakes and do overs.  We have to give students more opportunities to learn.  We have to provide many chances to try it out before we give the grade.

When we think about a “failure is NOT an option” school environment, we have to think about how do we design our practice for student success.  It would be nice  to think that our belief in “failure is NOT an option” would be enough–maybe a poster or two.  It is easy as teachers to blame kids for being unmotivated and disinterested.   But, it is really about how we design our instructional practices so that students are motivated and successful.

 

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How do you know if your School Improvement Plan is working?

For the last three years, our grade 7-8 school has had the same School Improvement Plan.  We have worked hard to learn about differentiation, student engagement, technology, student voice and choice, small group instruction, assessment for learning and inquiry.  The question staff and school leaders should always have about school improvement plans is whether they are actually making a difference or whether it is just a piece of paper that is handed in to school superintendent in the fall.  Last week we did an activity to decide how much we really owned our School Improvement Plan.

The premise was that if the School Improvement Plan was truly making a difference, then grade and subject teams of teachers should be able to express their practice using the terms of plan.  Chart paper, sticky notes and markers were available.  Pairs of teachers were given a word bank of 11 words from the School Improvement Plan.  The challenge was to create a graphic or schema that demonstrated how the School Improvement Plan was reflected in their practice by using some or all of the words in the word bank.  They were given 30 minutes.  Initially, to be honest, there was some confusion and hesitation.  like with students, I let them be confused for a bit.  But teams quickly became involved in their discussions and creations.  As principal, it was encouraging to see that this was not an impossible task.  All the teachers could easily articulate their thinking.  For the teachers is was engaging and confirming.  They were able to see how their practices have changed over time.

Here is some of the learning that arose from this activity:

  1. It was hard.  But it was engaging work.  It was engaging because all staff have worked hard to own our school improvement plan.  It isn’t a piece of paper but what we have committed to do to create an engaging learning environment for our students (and us).
  2. The teachers  can articulate what they are doing, and why they IMG_0378are doing it, and how the pieces go together. I call the activity “connect the dots”.  It is one thing to try new things.  It is a totally different thing to know why you are trying new things and how all the stuff is connected.  When you can articulate it all, you own it.
  3. We are all doing the same thing differently. I said, “It’s interesting how they are all different.”  One of my teachers replied, “But all remarkably similar”.  The differences are about subject, content, personality and teacher ownership.  The similarities are about culture.  We have created a unified culture of learning that is pervasive across all classrooms.
  4. The teachers aren’t afraid to try new things. They reflect about what is going on in their practice, they try something they think will work better, and then they reflect again. When asked about what had made a difference over the last few years so that they were able to do this activity, many said that it was the freedom to try new ideas.  (I didn’t mention that no one had died yet.)
  5. They work in teams. As I observed the activity there was great conversation about how to represent their thinking but there was no dissention about what to write down, or team members that weren’t engaged.  The teachers obviously talk about their work a lot.
  6. Everyone is in. A colleague asked, “Were there any staff members who weren’t involved?” But the true and honest answer is no.  When you create a culture of learning then that is the culture.  Everyone belongs.  School ImprovIMG_0377ement Planning isn’t the job of a select few or those who want in.  It is the way we do school.  And that was apparent from the work.  One staff member was absent for the staff meeting but saw the posters the next day and came to ask about it.  He felt he’d missed out.  Our two newest teachers worked together and did as well as our more experienced teachers.  When they began at our school in September they were easily assimilated into the school culture.  It just happened.  As principal, I didn’t even arrange it.

We  hung them in the staff room so the conversation can continue.

If your School Improvement Plan isn’t changing how you do school in your building, then it isn’t a School ImprovemeIMG_0379nt Plan.  If your teachers can’t articulate it, then it isn’t theirs.  If they aren’t incredibly proud of how they can articulate it, then it hasn’t really made a difference to them.

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