Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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What’s the hardest thing a teacher does?

I have always said that assessment is one of the hardest things a teacher does, and I still think that.  But a conversation with one of my teachers this week made me wonder if maybe something else teachers do is even harder.

Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is self-assessment.  Their own self-assessment and self-reflection on their practice.  Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is to be willing to look at their practice, decide it needs changing , and do the hard and messy work of changing how they teach.

I know this is a hard thing for teachers to do, because lots of times teachers don’t.  But I don’t think teachers don’t change because they are lazy or uninterested.  In fact, I almost never meet teachers who don’t truly care about their practice.  Most do.  However, change is scary.  For teachers, a change in practice is also intertwined with a fear of losing classroom control (who doesn’t have the scary teacher nightmare in August?).  Probably the way that the school system implements change doesn’t help either.  One shot workshops don’t work because when a teacher goes back and tries out the new idea, it probably doesn’t work very well at first.  But, there is no support.  The workshop is over.  Or, there is an implication, delivered by the principal or board staff, that this new idea is it, we will all do it, we will all get it right, and that’s that.  Again, there is little support, little deep understanding of the change, and, therefore,  little buy in.

Teachers change their practice when certain conditions are in place, at the school level, that give teachers the support to make changes.  Here are a few things that have worked in my schools to help create cultural changes that last:

  • “Try something new; no one will die”.  I say this often to my teachers.  They made me a sign that hangs on the wall.  We have to support teachers with new ideas by allowing them ample time to muck about and try things.  They need to know that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.  They need to know that as they are trying out new ideas they will be learning, too, not just their students.  They will be reflecting and changing and assessing as they go.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have it all figured out before you start.  Just start trying it and see.  You may have to change your rubric.  You may end up changing what your learning goal was.  You may not get to all your lessons.  You may change direction half way through.  That’s ok so long as you are reflecting about your new idea in light of what are students learning and able to do.  Your students won’t die and everyone will learn something.  Next time you will teach it better.
  • Teachers need to believe that teaching is the coolest thing they do.  Most teachers went into teaching believing this.  When a culture in the school is established that reinforces this “coolness” factor, there is renewed energy in the building.  The easiest way for that to happen is for everyone to think that I, the principal, thinks that, too.  I have conversations all the time with my teachers about teaching.  I talk about what they are doing; I talk about what one teacher is doing to another; I talk about things I’ve seen; I talk about ideas I’ve heard about; I talk about books I’ve read; when I go into classrooms, I talk with kids about their work or I teach.  No one in the building doubts that I think teaching is really a very cool thing to do.
  • Teachers work in teams.  We always work together–in subjects, in grades, in cross subject teams.  Teachers who teach similar things are in classrooms that are next to each other.  Budget decisions are made in teams.  The work of learning about teaching is done in teams.  But, the work is rarely about planning the same thing together.  Teachers do plan together but it is not mandated.  Learning together is mandated but how you teach your class is left up to individual teacher style and professional judgement.  Almost all my teachers teach similarly but I have never told them they have to.  What has been the same is the deep conversations and learning we have done about pedagogy, assessment, teaching practice and student work.  We never have PD by compliance.
  • You need to have and build capacity in the building, and I have to be part of that.  We are all learning to be better together.  We read books, watch video clips, work with consultants and Learning Support Teachers.  We learn from each other.  We consult.  While I have lots of expertise in curriculum, I don’t have it all.  And when I don’t, it isn’t a big deal.  In front of the teachers, I pull out a book where I think we might get some better information.  There are definitely better ways of teaching, and not so good ways of teaching.  There is a lot of research out there to point you in the right direction.  Everyone at my school, me included, knows that we are heading towards the research-based ideas.  We aren’t taking “baby steps”–we are diving in (me, too).  But, if we don’t get it right, well, no one will die and we will figure it out next time.
  • Start with little things you know will work.  When you can offer teachers little ideas that you know will work, and the freedom to try them without fear or evaluation, then it is easy.  Teachers change their practice because it works for the students in their classroom not because the principal is coming to visit or check.  For example, the prescribed posting of learning goals and success criteria in classrooms across the world has not changed practice as we might have hoped.  Why?  The posting alone doesn’t automatically change what happens with kids so it isn’t exciting or fun or cool.  A teacher can post learning goals and success criteria and students can stay the same.  What does make a difference is that the posting means that students are more confident in the learning, and that in order to post, the teacher has done the deep work of being planned and purposeful.  But the posting alone doesn’t ensure those things. But, when teachers find something that does engage their students or helps them to learn better, well, that’s exciting.  So, then teacher practice changes.

We need to recognize that changing one’s own practice is really, really hard.  Teaching is a personal profession.  Teachers want to do a good job and feel successful.  A class of 30 disengaged or unruly students can make you feel pretty unsuccessful pretty quickly.  So, without the right conditions in place, teachers are reluctant to change.  But, when teachers have ownership, the freedom to experiment, someone interested in what they are doing, and the support of colleagues and administration, then it is much easier to give it a try–no one will die.

 

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A Day in the Life of a Student at Your School

A group of teachers was talking the other day about the pros and cons of prep periods at the end of the day.  There was talk about having to be “on” for 4 periods and how exhausting that was.  There was some talk about whether it was harder to teach kids at the end of the day.  And then there was a comment, “If we feel wiped after 4 hours in a row of school, imagine how the kids feel.”  It reminded me of an article I had read where a teacher had followed two kids for two days of high school and done everything the kids had done.  The full article is here: https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

The author, a high school teacher herself, made some interesting discoveries:

  1. Sitting all day long is boring and exhausting.  The author was astounded at how tiring it was to just sit.  As teachers we forget that we stand, sit, kneel, and walk around as we teach.  Mostly the kids sit.  I know that when I go to an all-day PD session, even if I get to change workshops every hour, it can be exhausting.
  2. She found that for 90% of the day students were passively receiving information or regurgitating information: listening to the teacher or other students present, or writing a test.
  3. She felt like she was a bit of a nuisance. By the end of the day the teacher felt that she’d been nagged at all day long.  Even though she personally never got “in trouble” she felt that all day long students were being told to line up, be quiet, get to work, listen carefully and so on.  As well, she heard a fair amount of “sarcasm and snark”.  Interestingly she reflected that as a teacher she probably did the same.

It might be worth thinking about what a day in the life of a student at your school would be like.  I know as a teacher, I was usually engaged. But I was organizing my time, and I tended to love my job.  The author of the article reflected that after her experience she wished she had done things in her classroom differently.  Here are some things that might help to make the time fly at school for kids:

  • Keep teacher talking to a minimum. I usually suggest no more than 7 minutes.  It seems short but it is doable.  Plus, you will feel guilty at 15 minutes which is probably the maximum.  Also, think about student presentations, particularly in the upper grades. What about having students present to small groups?  What about a few presentations over a shorter period of time?  What about kids doing their presentation to a smaller group and video taping it through an ipad so that you can watch it later since you won’t get to them all?
  • Collaboration and working in groups.  When I go to a conference I like to hear others’ opinions.  I also find that when I talk about what I am hearing I consolidate it more readily.  Humans are social by nature.  Sometimes we spend so much time telling kids to be quiet; maybe it would be easier, and more engaging, to give them rich problems to discuss. If I had to be quiet all day long, and work on my own, I think I’d be antsy and tempted to talk (or text) to my friend.
  • Teachers can incorporate a stretch, a quick dance video, a run around the school, some jumping jacks just to get blood moving if they find that there is a pervasive sleepiness in the classroom.  Although we worry about using up “content” time, perhaps 50 minutes of good work is better than 60 minutes of so-so work.
  • Are the tasks you give the kids engaging?  Worksheets are not.  Challenges and problems are engaging.  Try doing the activities you give the kids.  Is it engaging?  Is it fun?  Did you have to really think to do it?  Did you have a real sense of accomplishment when it was done?
  • We all know that a little bit of humour goes a long way. However, I do know that in my practice, particularly by the end of the day, or when I was frustrated, or my head hurt, or my shoes pinched, I could be sarcastic and nagging. The reality is that most kids are not misbehaving yet they probably heard my response to the few.  And I was just one teacher of 5 or 6 they had in a day. Or, in the days when I taught primary, I was the only teacher they had for the day-even when I was having a bad day.

I hope, at our school, that the author would have a more positive experience walking in the shoes of our students.  But, still I wonder.  Is there more we could be doing?  Do we need to rethink the type of furniture we have in classrooms?  Do we need to build in more movement?  Are we reflecting enough on the activities we know are engaging and trying to replicate those?  I don’t believe that going to school should be the equivalent of a birthday party.  But, it should be engaging.  Maybe you should ask your students:  does time fly while you are at school?  When I am engaged, that is what happens.  Usually time flies for me at school and especially when I’m teaching.  The time should fly for both us and the kids.  We are in charge of the time.

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Ten ways to get kids talking so that you aren’t

  • SEVEN MINUTES. If you are talking to your students for more than 7 minutes then you are probably talking too long. Plus, no one is listening any more.
  • Turn and talk. Use this far more than you use question and answer with just a few students answering.
  • Identify the table group that is going to answer the question instead of one student. Someone from group 6 give me the answer…group 4 you are on deck if they need help. (I stole this from Raegan).
  • Ask the question and have table groups discuss it. Ask one student (wearing green, with the longest hair, whose birthday is closest to summer etc.) to put their hand up when the table has an answer.
  • Ask a question. Invite students who agree to stand on one side of the room and students who disagree to stand on the other. Have the groups list their arguments.
  • Ask a question. Invite students who agree to stand on one side of the room and students who disagree to stand on the other. Pair students from the agree side with the disagree side and have them discuss the issue.
  • Ask a question. Ask students to form an opinion line with completely agree at one end and completely disagree at the other end. Have students talk to the people around them about why they chose to stand where they are.  Ask some students to share.  Invite students to change where they are in the line.
  • Little whiteboards. If you are doing a review, have all students answer questions on individual whiteboards not just some students who put up their hands. Not only is everyone answering but you get a quick idea about who knows what.
  • Ask a question. Ask students who think yes to stand and students who think no to sit on their desks. Everyone has to move so everyone has to commit to an answer.
  • Don’t take up work. If the work the students have done is easy to mark, then put up the correct answers and have them mark their own. Never have them mark another student’s work.  It gets it done fast.  If you want to ensure that kids really understand why their answer is wrong, have students pair up and compare answers.  If their answers are the same, assume it is correct (chances are slim that two students would have the same wrong answer).  If their answers are different then they should chat until they agree.  If you need to know how they answered, then you have to mark it.

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John Hattie’s Visible Learning….what might it mean in the classroom?

At our last staff meeting we were looking at some of John Hattie’s work from Visible Learning. Of course some of the rankings surprised us–how could it be that class size isn’t that big a deal?  Or technology?  I have been doing some further reflection to try and capture why his meta-analysis might be important for us as teachers.  It is not that programs or ideas we do are not good for kids—he shows that almost everything works to some degree.  What is interesting is when you start to look at those things that have the greatest effect and compare them to those that have a lesser effect.  It would make sense that we would concentrate our efforts on the factors with the greatest effect size.  Here are my thoughts, in a somewhat random order as it is the end of an extra-long weekend…

  • Creating a challenging and trusting environment matters. Students do best when they know what the expectations are and when those expectations are high. And this makes sense.  We all thrive when we are doing something challenging that we believe we can be successful at.
  • Relationships matter. This makes sense, too. We are going to do our best in environments where we feel a sense of connectedness.  When you can build a sense of community and team in your classroom you create an energy for learning.
  • Knowing what and why you are doing something is important. Then getting feedback on it as you go increases learning and makes you want to learn more. This works for students and teachers.
  • When students have a good sense that they have learned something that matters. We want kids to get it, and know they have got it. That makes for confident learners.  We want to be teachers who get it, and know we’ve got it.  It makes for confident teachers.
  • Knowledgeable teachers provide opportunities for students to summarize, question, clarify and synthesize their learning in reciprocal ways—not all lecture and not all student discovery. Planned and purposeful mastery of the material. And when kids are struggling, teachers can pinpoint the problems immediately, and remediate that problem.

But these high yield strategies are hard.  None of them are just about opening the textbook or the binder of worksheets.  All of them are about teachers who intentionally determine the learning environment of the classroom.  All of them are about teachers who truly believe that the actions they take impact the learning …and when they don’t see learning happening the way they want it to, they try something new.  After all, they know that no one will die.

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Why Spring is the best time to try something new (and no one will die)

One of the nicest things about teaching is that you get a “do-over” every year.  And most us, come the spring, start identifying things we will do better or differently next year.  We have great intentions for September.  The problem is, September is actually a terrible time to try new things in your classroom.  You don’t know your students, they don’t know you, you are trying to establish routines, you need to do diagnostic assessments, IEPs are due (and you don’t know your students), long range plans are due, and the progress report is looming over your head.  Often all of our best intentions go by the wayside in the business of September because we are just trying to stay afloat.  So when is the best time to try something new?  Spring!

April, May and June are the best times to try something new in your classroom because:

  • You have classroom management for this group more or less figured out.
  • You know your students and can predict what some of the challenges of your new idea might be.
  • You students trust you and will forgive any disasters.
  • You have built relationships with them already.
  • You know them well enough that if your new idea doesn’t work and it interferes with some data collection, it isn’t a big deal. You will still be able to write the June report card.
  • You’re thinking about new ideas right now—so go for it.

What might you do differently after the March break?

  • Maybe you want to try using google classroom or an ipad app more regularly.
  • Maybe you’d like to be more intentional with your small group instruction—do you intentionally plan who you will see and the teaching point that you are going to cover with them? Do you track this and write it down?
  • Maybe you are going to structure your period in a more intentional way to allow for more number strings or some vocabulary development or a daily read aloud or some review of previously learned concepts.
  • Maybe you are going to revamp how you give specific and direct feedback to students- regular conferences, as they work in google drive, in small group instruction.
  • Maybe you are going to work on recording more observations and conversations and see how this changes your ability to write the June report card or form intentional small groups for specific skill instruction.
  • Maybe you are going to be more intentional at teaching the specific expectations on the IEP and recording your observations of how students are meeting those expectations.
  • Maybe you are going to increase the number of parent contacts you have both to get parent input on challenges but also to make good news calls.

There are always a jillion things to do.  Pick one thing that you think would make a difference to your practice and try it out this spring on the classes you already know.  You will be able to muck about with it and not have everything come crashing down.  By June, you will have ironed out the kinks and made it part of your practice and then, in September, it won’t be a new thing but just how you teach.

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We LOVE Google Classroom…but is there anything to be wary about?

In the school I work, the teachers have embraced Google Classroom.  We see lots and lots of benefits:  student engagement, integrated technology, paperless environment and a huge cut in the photocopying budget, and many others.  But my job is to provoke critical thinking (my teachers love it when I do that) and so today I am reflecting upon all the positives I see but also ask some questions that may guide us as we move forward with integrated technology.

Here is a somewhat related example.  A number of years ago the smartboard was the tool to have.  And, smartboards can be very cool, interactive learning tools.  But, some of the research that arose from looking at classrooms with smartboards was that teachers  were moving away from small group instruction and collaboration and back to “sage on the stage” type learning because the smartboard lent itself to that style of teaching.

Here’s what I see happening in our classrooms that I love about google classroom:

  • Organization-yours and theirs. In the classrooms that are moving towards “paperless” kids don’t lose their notes and can access their work from any device. Teachers are able to see who has done what, in real time, and keep track of complete and incomplete work.
  • There is no doubt that our students are tech-savvy. They enjoy using the chromebooks to find assignments, interact with the internet, complete online dissections, access texts and materials.  It makes sense to them to use the technology.
  • Timely and immediate feedback. We are learning the value of being able to peek in on a student as they are working, or in the evenings and find out where they are. We can conference the next day, plan a minilesson or even chat back to the student online.
  • Differentiated Instruction. Within the google classroom teachers can upload a number of resources that may meet a variety of student needs. Those students who need the read and write feature can do so seamlessly.
  • Shy students may feel more comfortable. Students who may not enjoy speaking in groups often feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion. They may feel more comfortable submitting work to you for feedback online.

Here are some cautions that might be causes for concern… or not:

  • Would there be a temptation to return to the worksheet or booklet type of teaching because it is so easy to upload the instructions and the task?
  • Might we move away from the real time collaboration because our students are so engaged on line? Is there a need for both?  Do we get different results from different kinds of collaboration?
  • Are we creating too much work for ourselves in trying to give timely feedback to every student, every day? How do we organize it so that we are checking in but it is manageable?
  • Does google classroom lend itself to more individual work? How do we create that balance between collaboration and individual work?
  • While it is great to provide online feedback, is there still a need for face-to-face feedback and/or small group instruction? How do we decide when to do each?

If I invited you to our senior elementary school you would see students using technology in a seamless manner in every class.  We experiment with  iPads, chrome books and personal devices.  Technology is not an “event” but a part of how we do school.   Google classroom is successful in our school and we continue to find new ways every day for it to enhance student learning.  But embracing new ideas is about reflecting critically as well—as we go forward on this journey, are there other cautions?  Are my cautions needless worrying by a 20th century educator?  How will we refine our use of Google Classroom to provide the best educational experience for our 21st century learners?

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100% of the kids, 100% of the time

This week I participated in a webinar hosted by a principal from Toronto, Emma Nichols (http://goo.gl/VtF6ET).  A number of times throughout the webinar she mentioned that their guiding principle was “100% of the kids, 100% of the time”.  Her school is a diverse, inner-city school in Riverside.  I like her motto:  it is inspirational.  It is also over-whelming.  I began to wonder if that could also be my motto and what would that mean if you really tried to reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

The rationale behind the motto is valid.  If you don’t have this mindset then, by default your motto has to be something like 75% of the kids, 100% of the time or 100% of the kids, 75 % of the time, or 75% of the kids, 75 % of the time.  Would you really want to be the parent of the child who fell into the 25%?  Would you want to be that kid? When you start to think about it like that, of course it is true.  But is it doable?  How would a school go about living the motto of 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

Upon reflection I think it is a lot about mindset- if we approach each day, each task, each period, each kid believing that we can reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time, then we might have a better chance of achieving that goal than if we begin the day believing that we can’t.  But as with all great educational ideals, what might it look like in our practice?

  • Understanding and believing in differentiation. Do we always differentiate or do we sometimes say “I’ll just see if they can do this before I change it”.  When designing a learning opportunity do we look at it through the eyes of each of our students?  Does your school’s special education model help or hinder in the support of 100%of the kids?  Is anyone getting left behind?  Do you believe in multiple entry points into learning?  Differentiation is not just giving the kid a B because of an IEP–it is reaching 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.
  • Relationships.  Sometimes it is hard to like 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  I usually can sense when someone doesn’t like me.  I bet kids can, too.  I think that sometimes my frustration may be interpreted by kids that I don’t think they can be successful.  We know that kids who are successful at school feel that there are adults who care about them.  Wednesday wasn’t my best day for that. I keep working on trying different approaches for different kids.  Figuring out how to be firm and consistent and kind and caring to 100% of the kids, 100% of the time!
  • Engagement.  When you look out on the sea of faces are they rapt? Attentive?  Are kids eager to get going on the activities you set out?  Do they feel confident to begin or are willing to give it a go?  School is not a birthday party.  You do not need to “entertain” your students.  However, if you look out, day upon day onto a sea of sleepy faces, I’m not sure your students are engaged.  Do you like workshops or meetings where you are not engaged?  Do you learn in those situations?  Best guess if your students are not engaged is that either you are talking too much or the task is not challenging.  Just because you might remember that school was boring doesn’t mean that it has to be.  And sometimes, I think that we fall into the trap of thinking that it is the kids who have to do the engaging.  But, if they are not engaged that is pretty clear feedback for you about your lesson.  I know that if I am leading a meeting and no one is paying attention that it is not an engaging topic for my staff.
  • Small group instruction. Kids are complex and learning stuff is hard.  The easiest way to meet the needs of 100% of the kids is to teach them in smaller homogeneous groups within a flexible model.  You will never reach all of your students through whole group instruction alone. As you begin to value small group instruction more, you will begin to be purposeful in how you plan for them, intentionally, instead of accidentally, reaching 100% of the kids.

It is a lofty goal:  100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  But most goals worth striving for are lofty.   I know that I will keep it in mind when I am thinking about our more challenging students and reflect upon whether I believe it for that kid, too.

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Triangulation of assessment data-recording observations and conversations

We know that we should be using “triangulation of data” to assess and evaluate students.  We know that we can often find out more about what students know and can do by observing them, listening in on group discussions and through our 1:1 conferences with them.  All teachers know more about their students than their mark book would show.  However, when we want to use that knowledge to help inform a report card grade, we must have evidence that we could share with a parent if needed.  We cannot simply say that we “remember” that their child could or could not do something.

At first glance we might think that recording information gleaned from observations and conversations is going to be time-consuming and onerous.  How do I possibly write down the conversation as I am having it?  Do I have to go home every night and record every conversation I had or observed?

If, however, you have intentionally decided what the learning goals and success criteria for a learning cycle/period are, then recording observations and conversations is easier because it focuses your data collection.  Here are some ideas you could experiment with:

  • You can use a rubric or continuum for learning over time instead of just for one assignment. For example if you are teaching writing, the craft of writing (organization of ideas, voice, sentence fluency, conventions etc) is the same for all writing.  In reading, understanding the main idea, the theme, inferring, understanding character and the author’s style is the same for all texts.  For history you could have  a rubric about identifying conflict and change, and understanding historical perspective.  In French you could have a rubric about pronunciation, using correct grammatical structures and responding to questions.  For all subjects you can identify the big ideas for the subject and assess students on them over time..  When you are observing or conferencing you can highlight where the student falls on the rubric or continuum.  I suggest colour coding and dating each observation.  What is important here is that you are not penalizing a student if you don’t observe something but are able to note what you are observing.  It requires no note taking.  It is like creating a student profile.
  • You could create a check-bric of ‘look fors’ (correct fingering in music; referring back to the text in book club meetings; flexibility in using math strategies; sportsmanship in PE; using scientific vocabulary during science experiments). Over a shorter period of time you would observe students to look for evidence of more specific criteria.  I find that if I break my class lists into groups by color highlighters and then focus on the “blue” kids on Monday I am more likely to use this method.
  • You can record student collaboration by having them use an ipad or chrome book to record their conversation and then listen to it later. At that point you could make anecdotal notes or fill in your rubric or check-bric.  It has the added benefit of keeping kids on task.
  • Instead of trying to record observations of all kids on a given day, decide to sit with one group each day. The hardest thing as a teacher is to observe without saying anything.  It’s easier to take notes when you aren’t talking. Try it and you will find out a lot about your students.
  • At your guided learning table, keep your assessment binder. After you have worked with some students take a few minutes to jot down what you learned.

Not every time you talk with or observe students will you need to record what you learn.  At first you may gather too much or too little data.  It takes time to figure out what the “just right” amount of data is.  However, if when you are looking at your data for determining report card grades and you don’t have any data arising from conversations and observations then you may want to try something for next term that provides you with evidence and accountability.

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Student choice vs. “you are still the teacher”

Sometimes when we adopt new ideas in education, it takes a while during the implementation stage to figure out where the balance is.  Some of you may remember “whole language”.  While the actual research into whole language pedagogy never suggested that phonics was not an important part of reading, the early implementation of the pedagogy got a little messed up.  Once we took the ideas of whole language and developed a more balanced approach to learning, things got better.

As the educational community has moved more towards “student-centered learning”, “learning by doing” and “student voice and choice”, we do need to remember that teachers can still tell kids that there are “must dos”.  It is choosing when and where to implement the “must dos” that is tricky and requires extensive teacher knowledge and professionalism.

Recently my math teachers and I went to a session with Marian Small ( a well-known mathematics guru).  A teacher in the audience lamented that her grade 9 students couldn’t cope with proportional reasoning because they didn’t know their multiplication facts.  Small’s response was:  Teach them.  As a more problem-based math environment is being implemented in Ontario there is confusion about math facts.  And, students who are perfectly capable of knowing them with greater automaticity arrive in grade 7 without that skill.  It makes fraction work very difficult.

In primary language classes across the western world, primary students are encouraged to write long before they know how to spell or use proper capitalization and punctuation.  This is a good thing.  The problem is that at some point there needs to be an expectation that they apply correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization as they are writing.  We get students arriving grade 7 believing that it ok to write without any capital letters, periods or paragraphs until the revision stage.  It is an efficient practice and no writer I know would ever make so much work for themselves.

So we have decided two things:  we will insist that most students learn their number facts and students will write using periods, capitals and paragraphs as they go in the first draft.  It is not a choice.  Students need to know how to do this.  We will see what happens.

It makes me think, however, about when and where student voice and choice should come into being and how we interpret this as teachers.  It reminds me of parenting.  I always gave my children a choice about the pajamas they wore.  I never gave them a choice about going to bed.  In classrooms we want to make sure that we are providing multiple entry points into learning and opportunities for students to express their voice through choice.  But, we also need to remember that we, as teachers, get the big picture.  There are times when we need to have “must dos”; when we need to ensure that students are having the specific opportunities that we know will ensure success.

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Filed under inquiry, pedagogy, Uncategorized