Tag Archives: Learning

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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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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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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Letting go of teacher control is not chaos

Today I had to really think about why we integrate technology so well into our program at our school as  I had a visitor who came to observe and ask questions.  He was impressed by the fluidity of the technology use in all the classrooms.  He was impressed with the level of engagement of the students.  We talked about how using chrome books or ipads was not an event at our school but just part of how we do school.  How did that happen he wondered?    I think there aremany of reasons but the main one is pedagogy.  In all things about teaching, all the pieces have to complement each other:  teaching style, resources, assessment, classroom management and technology.  One of the questions that our visitor asked was how did the teachers feel about giving up the computer lab two and half years ago?  My response was that by the time we started to think about doing so, the way we taught had changed so that a computer lab really didn’t mesh with how we were teaching.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher had all the control:  all the students did the same assignment at the same time with the same due date; all the students created the same art project; all the students read the same book finishing at the same time.  And, all the students used the computer lab for the same purpose at the same time.  This gave the teacher a sense of control, and comfort.

As we move toward more student voice and choice, toward a more workshop environment, we find that kids are working on different assignments, at different times.  They are reading different books at different speeds.  They are writing different genres and on different topics.  They may be working on an Ipad, on a chrome book or laptop, on their own phone or in a workbook.  Some students may be using voice to text software.  Some students may have the google document translated to a different language or different reading level.  Students may be working individually or in groups.  A traditional teacher, thinking about this might think it sounds like chaos.  But it is not.

The trick to teaching is not in control but in intentionality.  When you, as the teacher, know exactly what you want your students to be able to know and do then it is easier to allow them to arrive at that learning goal in a multitude of ways.  Your intentionality will lead the way.  It is important to realize, though, that student voice and choice is not the same as “anything goes”.  If you intentionally want students to be able to write a well-crafted and organized paper they may be able to choose the length, the topic and the format.  But, a diorama will not meet your learning goal.

Our fluid use of technology in our classrooms is not because we are tech-savvy (although many of us have become so).  It is because our pedagogy allows for fluidity.  We are intentional in what we want students to be able to know and do and we create an environment in which technology supports those goals.  Had we tried to implement this degree of technology into a traditional teaching practice it would not have worked.  It is not about the technology.  Technology is not a thing.  It is all about the intentional learning and teaching in the classroom.

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Determining Report Card Grades-no easy task

In the olden days, determining the report card grade was easy.  A teacher’s mark book had a collection of grades which were added together and divided by 100 to create an average mark.  What a student did in September counted as much as what the student did in January.  There was no such thing as formative and summative assessment; all assessment was valid and counted.  It didn’t matter if the mark was on a first attempt assignment or a tenth attempt.  Now, as we have learned and researched more about how students learn, we have had to rethink how we assess and assign report card grades.  Good thing is that we are, hopefully, being fairer to students; bad thing is that it is really hard to do.

  • Overall expectations: Report card grades are about meeting end-of-year over-all expectations.  So, the January report card is a “dipping in” to tell parents and students how they are doing about meeting end-of-year over-all expectations.  Instead of thinking of the grade as being an accumulation of meeting a bunch of specific expectations, you can take a broader view about how the student is meeting the overall expectation in relation to the specific expectations.  For example, a specific expectation in language is “establish a distinctive voice in their writing appropriate to the subject and audience”.  If a student had not demonstrated a growth in voice but had demonstrated growth in some of the other specific expectations that lead towards the overall expectations of “generate, gather and organize ideas…” and “draft and revise their writing…”, the lack of voice may not, particularly in January, affect a student’s grade but rather be a next step.
  • Most recent and most consistent. This part is also tricky. Ideally you should have multiple pieces of evidence to support your decision about a grade.  Since the overall expectations are pretty big, all of the assignments and tasks students have been doing all term should contribute towards their understanding of these overall expectations.  At the beginning of the term students are learning and practicing—any assessment data you have is probably formative in nature and not going to inform the report card grade.  Think about learning to drive; you wouldn’t want your first attempts at parallel parking to be part of your final driving test!  However, towards the end of term students should have had enough practice time to be able to demonstrate their learning independently and consistently.  These attempts are more likely to inform the report card grade.  However, if in January, a student produced a product that was not up to his/her regular standard, it should not count against the student.  To be fair, everyone has bad days.  And, some assignments/tasks are richer in scope and may need to have more input into informing the final grade than others.
  • Where does formative end and summative begin???? As much as possible, assignments and tasks that “count” towards the report card grade should have been done independently. If you have a student who always requires assistance to get work done (not prompting but help) then that needs to be factored into the grade.  You don’t necessarily have to decide that a task is formative for all students and another is summative for all students.  For example, if you had students do a “summative” task in late November but found that 25% of your class didn’t do well, it may have become formative for them as you did some more teaching and gave them another opportunity to demonstrate their learning.  Perhaps during the learning stage, your conversations and observations led to you to believe that a student had a solid understanding.  All of his/her assignments and quizzes were fine.  But, during the final assessment the student didn’t do so well.  During a conversation with the student about this test revealed that the student had been nervous and made some silly errors.  The “summative” for this student may not have as much weight.  You have the duty to find out about these discrepancies so that your evaluation of a student is fair. So, you don’t have to be too rigid in which assignments “count” so long as you are using assignments and tasks that were done independently by students.
  • I don’t want my students to feel bad. Unfortunately we have to assign marks and no one likes getting a poor mark.  But, if based on your learning goals and success criteria students are not meeting goals, you cannot give them a level 3 or 4, even if they have tried really hard.  A good way to know you are on track is to do some subject and grade teacher moderation.  A ‘B’ in one grade 8 class should be the same as a ‘B’ in the class next door.  One thing to help students understand the grading system in Ontario might be to say that a ‘C’ grade means that the work is a bit tricky for you but that you are heading in the right direction.  A ‘D’ grade means that the work is very difficult for you but we have a plan to help you.  Discussions around growth mindset might be helpful for your students before you hand out the report cards.
  • The body of evidence: Make sure that when you are assigning grades that you take into consideration conversations, observations and products.  When you are using conversations and observations as part of your body of evidence, ensure that you have written records of this.
  • Professional Judgement: This is the hardest part of assigning grades.  As a teacher your professional judgement is tied to a number of other factors: being planned and purposeful; planning with the end in mind; knowing the curriculum; teacher moderation (so that you aren’t working in a vacuum); and, experience.  It is the ability to assess all of your information for each individual student in light of the curriculum and decide how well that student is doing, at this point in the year, towards meeting the end-of-year overall expectations.

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Feedback is for teachers, too

Last week I wrote about effective feedback and the different ways students might get feedback during the learning process.  This feedback for students doesn’t have to be comments on a paper, a rubric or test scores.

The feedback loop goes both ways.  You as the teacher are also always looking for feedback from your students in order to know what the next lesson is or how to tweak things for maximum understanding or to determine the members of your next small group.  You, too, don’t need to mark work in order to get feedback on how your students are doing.  You probably want to collect two types of feedback.

One kind is very informal and might be called intentional noticing.  These are the many observations that you make all day long about how your students are doing with the learning at hand.  This kind of intentional noticing is not as easy to do as you may think.  At the end of each day you will have been involved in a myriad of discussions and observations with students but may still be unclear as to what you have intentionally noticed.  However, when you are planned and purposeful  in your lesson design, you can also be planned and purposeful in your intentional observing.  For example, you may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the information from the mini-lesson in their work.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the specific vocabulary of the lesson.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are taking risks in their problem solving.  You may be intentionally noticing how they are applying previously learned strategies.  You may intentionally noticing the types of errors they are making.

The same kinds of teaching conditions that you use to help students get feedback will also allow you to get feedback:  small group instruction, little whiteboards or Kahoots, conferences, sitting with groups of students as they work.  At the end of each of those activities, you are thinking, what do I know now about my students that I didn’t know before and how am I going to address those needs?

The other kind of intentional feedback that you get, you will want to record.  You can’t possibly record everything you notice.  However, you may wish to record some specific kinds of information during this learning phase that may add to your assessment record in determining a final grade.  These are the intentional observations and conversations that you have with students that give you insight into their understanding of concepts.  If, in these instances, the information you glean demonstrates an independent understanding of the concepts, you can use this in a summative way.  These recorded observations and conversations can be used in both determining next steps and in evaluating students.  The problem with using non-recorded observations and conversations as part of your grade determination is that you cannot prove anything in case a parent is curious about how a grade was determined.

All this talk about feedback is really talking about formative assessment.  I don’t like the word “assessment” here because I think it misleads us into thinking about assignments, quizzes and rubrics.  Instead you want to think about planned and purposeful teaching and the types of activities you do that help students learn and help you to know your students better.  When your students change and grow and when you make decisions based on what you are learning then you are doing assessment for and as learning.

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8 Ways for kids to get effective feedback – it’s not all on you!

A teacher said, “I just keep thinking that feedback is always me talking to the students about their work.”  As teachers, when we hear the word “feedback” that’s what we think of automatically.  And then we despair that we don’t have enough time to give that kind of feedback to every one of our students about every one of their assignments or tasks.  It is a daunting task.  Certainly that is one form of feedback to students and research shows that when students receive regular and timely feedback as they are learning, they do much better.

Grant Wiggins gives this definition of feedback:

Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience’s reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off. (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx)

He goes on to state that feedback is never evaluative nor is it advice.  It is simply information conveyed about the effects of an action as related to a goal. 

 Dictionary.com says that the origin of the word comes from 1915-20 where the verb phrase “feed back”  became a noun.  Again, it is this idea that information is fed back to you in response to an action.

When I go to the gym and work on the elliptical machine I get lots of feedback during my work out:

  • I can see if I am keeping my pace up and compare it to other days
  • I can compare my pace to how my body is feeling this day.
  • I can tell how far I am going and how long it is taking.
  • I can feel how my legs are feeling and my breathing and if I am doing ok.
  • If my back hurts then I know my posture is off.

All of that information affects my workout.  I make choices to work harder, back off, change something or give up for the day.

In your classroom there are many ways that students can receive feedback about their learning:

  • You can conference with students offering non-evaluative comments about what you understand and what might be unclear in their work. You can ask thought-provoking questions.
  • When students are working on little whiteboards and holding up their answers, you get feedback on whether they understand, but you also offer immediate feedback when you stop to reteach a concept because you notice a lot of misconceptions. This happens, too, when you are using Kahoots, if you stop and explain when the majority are incorrect.
  • When your students are working in groups or pairs they are getting constant feedback from their peers. For example, Jack and Sue are solving a math problem.  Jack says something and Sue looks at him quizzically.  Jack now knows that either his idea is off or he has explained it unclearly.  Both are good pieces of information.  He tries to explain his point again using a different tactic and one of two things happens.  Either, Sue now understands and Jack knows that his original explanation was unclear, or Sue still doesn’t understand and Jack begins to suspect his thinking may not be clear.  They go on in this fashion until both understand.
  • In French class when the teacher asks students to repeat words or phrases multiple times, paying attention to their pronunciation they are getting feedback. They try it out, the teacher says it again, they try it again trying to mimic the pronunciation closer.
  • In PE class when two partners are volleying the ball and the one partner is not able to return it, both students are receiving feedback. The one volleying the ball may not have good enough control to get the ball to the right spot.  The one receiving the ball may need to move or change position in order to return the ball.  When both partners have a goal of keeping the volleying going as long as possible, both are using feedback from the process to achieve their goal.
  • When students can compare their work against an anchor chart, rubric, checklist or exemplar before submitting, they are receiving feedback. They can see if their work contains all the components required and if not, are able to fix the work.
  • When the teacher says, highlight all the places in your writing where you used descriptive words (or periods, or dialogue, or complex sentences etc.) the student gets immediate feedback by seeing to what extent he or she has done so.
  • When a student is involved in an inquiry project in science and has multiple opportunities to test a hypothesis, he or she is getting feedback. If the task is to build a bridge that will hold a certain weight, and the bridge breaks, that is feedback.  When a student is encouraged to use that feedback to figure out what didn’t work and attempt a different design, the student has used that feedback to learn.

Teachers can, in a planned and purposeful way, design their instruction so that students have many meaningful opportunities to receive feedback as they are working:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to try something out
  • Provide students opportunities to talk with their peers about complex and challenging problems
  • Provide students with support as they are working not only after they are working
  • Ensure that students know what goals they are working towards, and are able to see that their efforts make a difference in achieving those goals

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Sometimes the best teaching is to STOP teaching

Believe it or not, grade one teachers do teach students when to use periods and capitals.  So do grade two teachers, grade three teachers, grade four teachers …and grade 12 teachers.  But we are talking about kids, and it takes a long time for many of them to apply the skill on a regular basis.

I take pottery classes.  This same concept happens in the pottery workshop.  There is a new potter sitting next to me and she is struggling to center and throw a small bowl (it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the movie Ghost).  The other day our instructor was reminding her of all the things she needed to do to throw this pot- and then jokingly said…” and the following 77 things, too”.  We talked about how when you are learning a new skill and there are so many things to integrate at once that it is hard to concentrate on all of them at the same time.  Something that the instructor can do without even thinking is so hard for someone just beginning.

The Ontario curriculum is probably too big (if you aren’t from Ontario maybe yours is, too).  The specific expectations are those skills that will lead students to the overall expectations.  They are not goals in and of themselves.  Students do not need to “master” every specific expectation in order to meet the overall expectation.

My new pottery friend does not need to “master” every individual task in order to make her bowl.  Next week’s bowl won’t be perfect but it will be a little bit better.  And every week after that, her bowls will improve little by little.  Some weeks she will stall out.  Some weeks she will focus too much on one skill to the detriment of another skill.  Eventually she will begin to integrate all of the pieces and move onto mugs.  The instructor will say exactly the same things to her every week.  At some point something he says will make more sense than it does now.

So how do these stories relate to the title of this blog?  As teachers we are like the pottery instructor; we know the stuff and have integrated the pieces.  Also, we have thousands of great ideas on how to get kids to know the stuff.  We get caught in the trap of thinking that if I only do this one more activity, this one lesson more, then everyone will get it.  But maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe we need to stop giving more instruction and just let kids try it out.  Maybe we need to be ok with giving a minilesson and some kids not getting it—this time.  Because if we take a mindset that teaching is messy and circular (and recursive) then we know that we will be coming back to key ideas many times over the course of the year.

We want to plan our teaching time so that students have ample time to practice the skills without getting caught in the trap of trying to do it perfectly right now.  We want to design classes that have less teaching and more doing.  We want to be comfortable with letting kids struggle as they integrate the pieces.  We need to remember that we have all year to reach the overall expectations and that when we provide multiple opportunities for students to practice over time, we are giving them the support to integrate everything we’ve told them.

You may be thinking:  But what about assessment?  What about accountability?  What about learning goals and success criteria?  What about getting through the curriculum?  All those things are still in place but we need to think about them all as helping students learn not things to get done.  Stop thinking of your formative assessment as assessment and more like intentionally noticing where your students are at during the learning journey.  You are still accountable but you are remembering that you have the whole year to reach those overall expectations.  You still have a plan.  You are still purposeful in your decisions.  You still have learning goals and success criteria but they are bigger and encompass more learning than just today’s lesson.  And, you will teach the curriculum this way but in a more authentic way because you will be concentrating on your students’ learning of the big and important ideas and not checking off specific expectations.

A consultant friend of mine says “Teach lightly”. I like that image.  Remember that no matter what my pottery instructor says, it is still going to take a long time for my new friend to master the craft.  She needs scaffolding, support, repetition and practice time.  So, when you are feeling overwhelmed and flustered that your students are not learning, just stop teaching so much and let them practice.

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Using Drama and Narrative to Teach Concepts

Here are just a few things that I have seen lately that use drama or movement to help kids understand tricky concepts.  Students like to be up and moving and working with their peers.  Plus, drama can give them a concrete visual that may not be apparent to them on paper.

  • Pat (and probably others but I ran into his class—literally as they were in the hall) had his students pick a pivotal scene from the novel to act out. When students do this they have to do a number of things: figure out the difference between dialogue and narrative; figure out the personalities of the characters; figure out which scenes are pivotal.  They also practice their lines so they end up doing a lot of repeated reading which we know is good for fluency.  Drama in language arts doesn’t have to be a full length play.  Think about how students can turn what they are already reading into drama.  Think about using some plays as reader’s theatre.  Think about assigning students different characters to play and having them have a quick conversation about an event in the story.  Think about having a student be the main character in the read aloud who sits beside you; every once in a while stop and ask the “character” how she or he is feeling.
  • Ruth took over the foyer and had her students being soldiers and superwomen in a growing pattern. Kids were predicting and noticing how the pattern grew. You could give kids a pattern like AABCC and ask them to act it out.  What about acting out x + 3?  Student who can transfer skills from one modality to another have a deeper understanding.  Asking students to act out a math problem before they start will increase their understanding of the problem.  Often students begin to solve a math problem before they really understand what is being asked.  Students may often be stumped by simple algorithms (5 – 0; 33/33; 27 x 1) but when you ask them to tell a story about that algorithm in cookies, then it all makes sense–or sometimes you have to translate the algorithm into a cookie story and then they get it.
  • Cam and Marina (and maybe others) have been working on telling the “narrative “of history. History is often a vague and confusing subject of Acts and Treaties and Wars. Students don’t really understand that all that happened because of real human events.  A simple dramatization of the event increases understanding immensely.  You don’t need props or a script, just place some students, give them a role and have them act out the story you tell.  Get audience participation by asking what the different groups might be thinking or feeling.  Cam has had success by breaking the narrative in to “chapters” so that each set of events is a chapter in the historical narrative.  Students can refer back to an event by looking at the synopsis of that chapter-who was involved and what happened.   I heard through the grapevine that Ken was doing the narrative of particle theory but I didn’t get a chance to see it.  Apparently the solids slow dance like grade 6s and the gas molecules run around like grade 3s playing soccer.

There is actual research that suggests that students learn best through narrative due to our human cultural interest in story.  When you have a confusing or difficult concept then tell a story.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, pedagogy, Readers' Theatre