“One kind word can warm three winter months.” ~Japanese Proverb~
Like our wild and varied winter weather, the past few months have brought challenges, and many questions. In the midst of these events swirling about; weather and otherwise, we have remained focused as a school community on the well-being and learning of each of our students.
This past Friday the staff spent part of the day reviewing our School Improvement Plan; working together to identify some key areas for us to focus on over the rest of the school year. To start the day off, I shared a short video, produced by the Dalai Lama Centre, titled Educate the Heart. The two minute video, embedded above, speaks softly about the importance of educating both the mind and the heart.
It’s true that schools are usually seen as places where children develop their academic skills and talents; however, while not diminishing the importance of these capacities, equally important is the role that schools plays in helping our children develop into caring and thoughtful citizens. It is a given that in school and in life; we will face conflict and challenges. As a staff, we are committed to supporting our students in this area.
We provide our students with opportunities to lead in these areas with programs like our student Conflict Managers, Lunch Monitors and Reading Buddies. We invite community partners like the York Region Police and Covenant House in to share experiences and expertise through the VIP and outreach programs. Our students also benefit from the many parent and family members who bring their time and talents right into our school as volunteers, School Assistants and School Council members. All these are important, but there is more to be done.
Later on this month each of our students will bring home their first term report card. As you read through the report with your child, we hope that you will have the opportunity not only to celebrate the learning that they have accomplished since September, but also the growing they have accomplished in the Learning Skills.
After all, if the world now expects each of us to be life-long learners, then these learning skills may be better thought of as living skills, essential for our students to become the people we all wish them to be.
“…however puzzling and illogical a child’s responses might be, they arise out of some sort of internal logic, which every child develops to make sense of the world and language.” Marie Clay
I snapped that photo a few days ago while I was observing our Reading Recovery® teacher, Dee Marshall, conducting a lesson with one of our grade one students for a group of her Reading Recovery colleagues. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but Dee and our student were actually on the other side of a two way mirror and were not able to see or hear us as we observed and discussed the lesson while it was being taught. In Reading Recovery® parlance, this process is called teaching ‘Behind the Glass’ and it is one of the key components of the ongoing professional learning for these highly skilled reading intervention teachers.
In our district, York Region, we are fortunate to have (and remain committed to) having a Reading Recovery® teacher in each of our schools. It is a big part of our focus on helping our kids become confident, skilled readers and writers and supporting our teachers in their inquiries to further develop their understanding of effective reading instruction and an important part of the continued positive results our district has seen in the area of reading.
How does one little program have such an impact, you may wonder? The strength of the program lies in the simplicity of it. Over a 4 month span of time the teachers work with individual students on a daily basis for lessons that last 30 minutes. Within the lesson the teacher observes the student reading and writing, gathers on the spot assessment information and provides instruction specifically targeting the student’s areas of difficulty; tracking the student progress and providing follow up and support for the parent to put into place at home.
As beneficial as it is for young readers, the Reading Recovery® program is also integral in adding to our professional understanding of how children learn to read. The professional learning structure for the program requires that the Reading Recovery teachers work together to observe their teaching, share their observations and assessments and document this learning for other Reading Recovery® teachers. Lastly, this expertise is shared with our staff, from Kindergarten to grade 8.
As a classroom teacher I made it a regular habit to observe Reading Recovery® lessons to deepen my understanding of how children learn to read and improve my practice as a reading teacher. As a principal observing these lessons continues to be an important part of my learning and leadership.
Though I applied as a young educator; I never served as a Reading Recovery® teacher. I think my principal at the time knew all too well that my high activity level and tendency to move about might not make me the best candidate to perform a role where I would be working in a small room with one student at a time. We are fortunate to have a great teacher in this role at our school and I was delighted to have the chance to sit in and watch her at work.
Yes, there is a lot of attention being paid to the things that may not be going on in our schools these days, but it is important for me to continue document and share the many things that are still going on in our school~ especially the important classroom teaching and learning that forms the foundation for everything we value as a school and community.
“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as they demand thinking; learning naturally results.” John Dewey
The traditions and culture of education are deep and resilient across all grades and subjects and it is often a challenge to overcome the inertia of the “we have always done it that way” stance. In a program such as Kindergarten, this can be even more apparent. Quite often, the practices and approaches applied in K programs are seen as sacrosanct and part of the canon that can not be overturned or challenged. This is exactly why I believed that the addition of Full Day Kindergarten to Ontario’s schools would be a great opportunity for creative disruption.
Along with a revised curriculum that adresses the need for developmental learning, inquiry and authentic documentation of learning came the creation of a partnership between Early Childhood Educators (ECE’s) and Ontario Certified Teachers (OCT’s). These two forces, along with the investments made in program resources are serving as the catalyst for some rich learning, for kindergarten students and the educators who work with them. An example of this?
A few weeks back I was engaged in a conversation with one of our Park Avenue PS FDK teams (@BrewerBerryman1) on the challenges they were facing with structuring their learning environment in a way that would allow them to better document the student learning using the iPads we had provided. This is a classic teaching problem of practice; we are so busy teaching, we don’t have the time to observe and assess what the students are learning.
We were fortunate in that we have an FDK team at a neighbouring school that has done some detailed work in this area; and @TechieAng and @KimberCoombes were more than happy to open up their classroom for an observation and reflective conversation on how they were managing this challenge. We observed how, in this class, rather than wait in a large line up the students entered the classroom with @KimberCoombes (the ECE) in small groups as they arrived, unpacked and then headed off to the learning centres that were set up around the room. Over the 10 minute entry time (prior to and after the morning bell) all 27 students followed this process calmly and with varying degrees of independence. During this time the OCT and ECE interacted with students, providing prompts and gathering assessment data. It wasn’t until 28 minutes into the morning (I timed) that the students were called to the carpet for a whole class learning activity.
That was about a month ago. Over the past few weeks I’ve been peeking into @BrewerBerryman1′s class to see how their efforts are progressing in making this change of practice; the photo above is evidence of their efforts. The day starts with much more focus and calm, students are interacting with each other and the team has lots of time to gather assessment evidence to inform both their lessons and the practice they set up at the learning centres. The students have responded positively to the defined autonomy that this entry routine provides.
It is also worth noting that this is also evidence of the impact of collaborative, inquiry-based learning between professionals, through face to face interactions, Twitter and blogging. It was the reading Angie’s tweets and blogs that our team had their curiosity tweaked in the first place and this collaboration is continuing as they carry on their inquiry along with @TechieAng and @KimberCoombes.
So I have two questions related to my leadership as a principal: How can I continue to help our teachers re-examine traditional practices? (like starting the day with ‘carpet time’) and How am I supporting the use of joint work through face to face and online networked interactions to help our staff structure and guide their own professional inquiries?
For me, it is important to remember each of us, when given the chance and choice, will choose to learn; we were born that way.It is also important for me to note that this is one example of how our staff are working to make inclusion, inquiry and innovation the foundation of our school culture as we move forward.
“ You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” -Ansel Adams
It’s a well known in our family of five that I’m the fifth best photographer; the last resort in any situation that requires a picture. In reality, if we still used film, and not digital cameras, it’s likely that the only time I would actually be trusted to hold a camera would be if it were safely stored in the camera bag. We have two nice DSLR cameras in our home; one belonging to @techieang and the other to our 16 year old son Peter.
There was no chance that I would be bringing either of those cameras with me to Montana this week for the Discovery Education Network Summer Institute (#DENSI2012). No. Chance. Period.
So, I grabbed the Panasonic Lumix DMC from the bureau, found some batteries and a 4GB card and headed off to Bozeman. I was aware that I’d likely be some serious photo masters among the group but rather than be fearful of this I thought I might pick their brains and try to learn a few things about photography. On the bus ride, I was fortunate to sit with @jeffwhipple, who knows a thing or two about taking pictures and, as it turned out, the folk at DEN invited professional photographer (and Montana resident) Daniel J. Cox to join our group on our excursion to Yellowstone National Park and he led us gave us a little workshop on the nuts and bolts of good nature photography. Between these two kind mentors I headed off the bus ready to roll.
Here’s what I learned:
Proportion and Balance ~ just like we need to use a balance of evidence, tools and approaches when creating a learning environment, balance and proportion is a critical component of any photo. Photos are representations of light, colour, textures and shapes, the ‘rule of thirds‘ presents a framework for the photographer to account for all of these elements and look at the image as a whole, and not just the central focus of the image.
Feedback Counts~I learned that almost every digital camera has a feature called a histogram in the display settings. I had actually seen this feature in the past, but had no idea what it was there for. It turns out that the histogram provides a graphical representation of the light spectrum in the frame. Moving from left, the black, to the right, the white. If a photo is skewed too far in either side of the spectrum, then the image will suffer. This feedback allows the photographer a set of real time data to improve the photo. That is so much better than finding out the photo was not very good after~sort of like how on-going descriptive feedback is much more useful than a mark at the end of a unit or task.
Tell the Story/Trust the Tool~ Dan shared that, in his professional opinion, the quality of the equipment we have access to today is incredible. The technology of modern digital camera is such that the Auto Settings address the light and shutter speed issues as the photo is being taken, allowing the photographer to focus on the subject or story they want to tell with the photo. We have access to lots of technology in our classrooms, but do we focus too much on the way it works? Or, instead to we think about how we can use the tools to tell the stories? I wonder about that…
It was a good learning day and I feel a little more knowledgeable as a photographer. Earlier in the day, Dean Shareski, Shelley Wright and I had been talking how adults use their hobbies the same way that children often use play, to learn in an optimal learning environment. I think that the habits of mind that we learn at play lay a neural foundation or framework for all learning. Learning is something that is constant, persistent and pervasive, it is what we do, at work and at play.
We get so weary, taking fish off hooks
It’s not as effortless as it may look
~Fight~The Tragically Hip~
It’s encouraging that the topic of assessment, evaluation and reporting has become a hot topic of conversation across Canada, even if the catalyst for this was the issues around the Edmonton high school teacher who was suspended for failing to follow his district’s policies. After 35 years of teaching, with what were likely lots of great moments, our colleague from Alberta will likely have this issue define his career~which is really too bad.
Teachers are so much more than number-crunching mark machines. We have interests and hobbies, strengths and weaknesses, families and real lives (and we don’t, as my grade 1 students once believed, sleep at the school). Teachers are also members, as James Stigler reminds us, of the only profession where one does a 20 year apprenticeship before one ever decides to become one. In addition, we carry out our craft under circumstances where we work with parents who send us their precious children and all have experiences with school; the double whammy of blatant self-interest infused with home-grown status as education ‘experts’. No wonder assessment, evaluation and reporting ties so many of us in knots and steals our precious sleep.
With all of the debate, rhetoric and reminiscing swirling about, there are two observations I have to share about the events of the past week:
My first observation is that we have to work on improving the consistency of practice in the area of assessment. For the past 20 years, classroom-based research and meta-anaylis of research studies have supported the use of assessment for learning; specifically the use of descriptive, formative feedback, rather than numeric scores, to improve student learning and motivation. In spite of this, we still have a wide range of assessment beliefs and practices, many of which represent an ad-hoc mutation of assessment for learning with more traditional practices, all based upon teacher preference or practice knowledge. This is confusing to students, confusing to parents (who are inclined towards the traditional practices they knew) and confusing to the public in general. Has. To. Change.
My second reflection is that our pre-service, induction/mentorship programs and school principals will have to increase and intensify the programming and supports they offer in the area of assessment and evaluation. In my role as a school administrator, previously as a pre-service adjunct professor, even going back 2o years to my own beginning; a constant pattern has been the struggles that new teachers have in the area of assessment, especially assessment for learning. Often, the challenges and stresses of teaching (which is, trust me, an incredibly stressful job) lead teachers to revert to what they knew, and not what they know, about assessment. In order to maintain positive parent relationships, assessment for learning~which is complex and difficult to explain~is sacrificed in favour of the old familiar numbers and marks. Has. To. Change.
In the blogging world, chat rooms, talk shows and on Twitter, lots of opinions have been shared, but to quote the wise philosopher Anonymous, “With out data you’re just another person with an opinion.” The research is clear and compelling, assessment for learning is the most effective way to improve student learning and is particularly effective with struggling and at-risk learners. Our professional standards of practice require us to use best-practices. Not knowing how, or choosing not, to use assessment for learning in our classroom practice can no longer be the case; this has to change.
News outlets across Canada have been cycling through the story of the Edmonton, Alberta high school science teacher who was suspended, supposedly because he was in violation of the district’s ‘no-zero’ policy. These stories almost always whip up the fervor and saliva-rich rantings of that element of society who advance the canon that everything we do now is ‘just plain wrong’!
As Alfie Kohn pointed out in his essay, Feel-Bad Education, there is an unfounded belief out there that children are lazy, unmotivated dullards who require a myriad Dickensian responses to make them learn: “More! You want more!
Without knowing him (and I apologize if I offend) but my feeling is that our colleague in Edmonton is no more a hero, as some have said, than a doctor who refuses to treat his patients- and then blames them for not getting better.
Public schools are places where adults who have been trained in child development, pedagogy and curriculum are given the job of helping children to learn. The teachers who reflect upon their practices, strive to adapt and grow and learn along with their students- they are the heroes. And we have many more of those teachers than we know- lets make sure we blog and tweet about them.
” My dilemma is that I don’t know how should I grade/evaluate them? Actually, no, that’s not the issue. The real problem I’m having is that I just don’t know why I should.” ~@royanlee~
My son Ben and his two classmates discovered the reality of film work this week, realizing that a HUGE number of stills need to be taken to make the 30 second stop animation PSA they are creating in their grade 8 class (all @techieang and I could do was smile, well perhaps there was some smirking and cackling in there as well). But, the kid who ‘hates homework’ spent over an hour working away (with 2 or 3 more hours to come this weekend) and all we could hear was the sound of purposeful chatter, laughter and lots of meaningful productive talk ‘flowing’ from the dining room.
Later that evening I read @royanlee’s post on the struggle he was having with assigning a grade to the wonderful film work that his students had completed and the powerful, reflective writing they had created in response to their works. It reminded me of the short tribute film to Holocaust survivors that a group of grade 8 students created when I was still in the classroom. After viewing it I told them my tears, and the tears of their classmates, were worth more than any mark I could possibly give; they made us notice, they made us care and that is the point of creating something. Whether it is a film, a poster, a piece of writing, all I ever asked of my students was to create something that would make an impact. These were the ‘success criteria’ that were shared in my classroom (and the ones I now share with the teachers I’m leading).
I’m more interested in having our students make a mark than get a mark, and so are they. So, lets be genuine with them. Push them to create great stuff about important ideas and students will not only rise to the challenge, they will be able to articulate what they have learned and why it matters. Do this, and don’t cheapen it with a mark. Share your descriptive feedback, offer a genuine response. Let them know that when it comes time to write the report card you’ll turn the great things they have created into a grade and all they have to do is keep creating things~the wonderful thing about people is we actually do great things when we are given the chance, a purpose, feedback and an audience. After all, look at all of us bloggers.
This entry has been cross posted at connectedprincipals
Self Determination Theory research has consistently demonstrated that more autonomous forms of motivation are associated with a host of positive outcomes from greater academic performance, creativity, and persistence, to enhanced learner wellness.
Like most educators I look upon high stakes testing not unlike the way passing drivers examine an roadside accident scene; with a mix of dread and fascination. Standardized tests repel and and compel us at the same time and create a great deal of bother and busyness before, during and after the administration.
As a school administrator I have some clear legal responsibilities for overseeing the administration of these assessments in our school. I also have the opportunity, through my role, to try contextualize this and make it more of a process and less of an event~ not unlike the iconic Irish police officer who says “Alright now, nothing to see here, move along.”
Thanks to some very smart people, like Daniel Pink, Richard Elmore, John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and Alfie Kohn, there are a few things I’ve learned about this whole ‘testing’ thing that guide my work now and inform my decision making:
-Externally administered standardized tests will never change teaching practice and improve learning for all students: Elmore likens the belief that tests can ”change practice’ to pushing on a string. The external forces do not have the capacity to change what is actually learned in classrooms because this is a function of teaching and learning, which is a complex set of internal, school and classroom based set of relationships (teachers, families, students).
-Teaching, not testing improves learning: Hattie, Black and Wiliam, through their meta-analysis of impacts and influences identify the actions that lead to student success (and neither involve external testing). They speak to the enormous impact that formative assessments or feedback and teaching quality have on student learning. Both aspects are internal, teacher determined factors and Black and Wiliam’s research points out that effective, teacher designed formative assessments lead to success on all measures- including standardized tests.
-When it really matters sticks and carrots don’t really work: The work of Pink, Kohn and the Ryan & Weinstein article quoted at the top confirm that the achievement of complex and challenging tasks (and what is more complex than teaching and learning) is an internally-driven, relationship-based process that is actually sidetracked by external pressures such as reward programs or sanctions for non-performance. Over the past 15 years; in every jurisdiction that has administered, shared and publicized the results of schools performance there has been a pattern of rapid increases, followed by a stall or decline in the results, if the carrots and sticks worked wouldn’t we be at maximum achievement rates? It turns out that the rewards people (students and teachers) value are autonomy, purpose and mastery (Pink).
What, then, do we do as educators in the face of these external pressures? Learning about, and putting into practice the insights and findings of the researchers listed above has been a big help to me. Strong, internal accountability networks and systems that weave teachers with teachers, teachers with students and families and students with students are essential; not to eliminate the external accountability tools (like standardized tests) but to contextualize and regulate them. The capacity and resources needed to determine student wellness and success are inside the building, are we determined enough to make this a reality?
- Photo: http://peterharrisonphotography.smugmug.com/
- ” The beginning of adolescence seems to mark the abrupt end of artistic development in terms of drawing skills for many adults. As children, they confronted an artistic crisis, a conflict between their increasingly complex perceptions of the world around them and their current level of art skill.” Betty Edwards
I have a confession, for most of the 15 years I spent as a classroom teacher I was a less than effective teacher of the arts. I had two coping strategies that served me and, I rationalized, my students well:
- - As a grade 4-6 teacher; find a colleague who would swap with me (usually and stereotypically my art for their physical education)
- -As a grade 1 teacher; find a colleague who would ‘share’ her arts plans with me in exchange for housework (the ‘colleague’ being my wife)
- Either way the solution was ideal for me. In spite of the fact that the chorus of Harry Chapin’s Flowers are Red echoed around my head, chastising me, I forged on. It met my needs and allowed me to focus on the things I really valued and was passionate about as a teacher. It’s not that I didn’t care about the arts, it’s just that I didn’t care to invest much time into learning how to teach the arts.
- I left the classroom to work as a consultant for a few years and worked with some incredible people and learned a great deal about the importance of ‘personalized and precise’ teaching (credit to my friend @CarmelCrevola). My time as a consultant was brief and 3 years later I found myself teaching a grade 7/8 class at Jersey Public School in Keswick…teaching the arts…to my own class…with no grade partner (or wife) to rescue me.
- The first few weeks of my arts teaching are summed up with this quote from one of the students; “Mr. H, for a teacher who is so good at every other subject, you just suck as an art teacher.” The sharper the truth, the cleaner the cut. I decided to face, head on this challenge by reflecting upon a few key insights:
- -There was a pretty good chance that along with the talented artists in the class, there were a whole lot of kids in our class who were just like me. That being given…
- -I didn’t need to be an artist to teach it well, I just needed to foster a climate where we could inquire and learn together the many ways we could learn how to create art. And I wasn’t that isolated…
- -There were, actually, thousands of teachers who were eager and willing to share and collaborate with me (online) but I would have to mediate these collaborations to ensure that the work we did was personal and precise to our classroom.
- These pre-Twitter collaborations occurred through emails and downloads from various forums, web hosts and blogs. And they opened me up to the diversity of ways we can use tools to create art. As a group of learners we talked about things we wanted to learn more about, or things we wanted to learn how to create and then we set off on the web to find ways we could accomplish these goals. Along with paint and paper and glue, we made use of media tools; photography, film shorts, graphic tessellations accompanied by music using word processing applications, we made art!
- I now know that, just as is the case in mathematics, we do a great disservice to our students when we teach the arts as a set of steps to be demonstrated and followed, like a procedure. The arts afford us an opportunity to incorporate two essential habits of mind, the habits of inquiry and creativity. In classes and schools where these habits are fostered, the students, and their teachers, develop both the development of the skills of art and life. I also know that student well-being, in the social, emotional and cognitive domains improves when students engage in learning tasks that foster creativity and involve inquiry.
- I’m grateful to the teachers who put their ideas out there for me to learn and I’m grateful to the amazing content that museums from around the world have archived for us to draw upon. Mostly, I’m grateful to that group of students who, rightly, demanded that I apply the same level of professional practice to my arts classes, as I did to my history, math and English classes.
Photo credit: Peter Harrison
It’s elementary and high school graduation season and, as the end of June approaches, engravers all across North America are hard at work grinding out an endless array of brass plates and trophies, all in the name of ‘celebrating excellence’.
The presentation of awards at graduation is an important cultural component of the graduation ritual we have crafted in our schools. For most schools awards represent a statement of acknowledgement for the ideals that schools are supposed to represent; academic, athletic and artistic achievements. The process seems innocent and wholesome enough, good kids getting their time in the spotlight, receiving a well-deserved and public acknowledgement.
But is this ritual necessary? Does it add value? Or, does the presentation of awards just confirm the reality that, for many schools and school systems, those that have much, get more (and those who have little, get less). This condition is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect; the expression that success tends to breed success is based upon a reference in the Gospel of Matthew in Christian Bible.
I think that the main purpose of public education is to counter the Matthew Effect. Public schools exist to develop literate, thinking citizens, the more of this type of citizen we have, the better off we all are – that’s what I believe. I also believe that, along with literacy and critical thinking, we also need to develop students who can work together; an essential skill now more than ever (and one that will only grow in importance). Is there room for individual awards at an event that is purported to celebrate the accomplishments of a class of students?
As an administrator and former grade 8 teacher, I’ve given out many awards. As a student I even received a few awards; but as my thinking evolves I’m not so sure that this is the way to go. Aren’t the accomplishments and growth of each child worth celebrating? I think of the challenges that some of my students have overcome, the types of things that just don’t show up in a mark book.
I wonder if part of the work we are doing to create 21st schools to support 21st century learners should include abandoning the 20th century ritual of ‘awards’.
I know I’m going to hear from both ends of the spectrum in this one