Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Japanese, if you please

This week, we've had the pleasure of hosting students from a high school in Kishi, Japan. Unfortunately, this has meant that we were unable to hold our regular Wednesday morning meeting. It is interesting meeting students from other regions, and other cultures. I wonder what these visitors make of our way of organizing instruction? What kind of feedback do they get from their teachers?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Interims - Continued

We continued our discussion of interims this morning.

So, what is the purpose of the exercise? Yes, we do have a legal obligation to report, but if we are doing it anyway, could it be more meaningful but still flexible and manageable? How can we put together a process that helps students learn better (tied to outcomes?), communicates important messages from the teacher (DEW line perhaps?) and answers the questions that parents have (should I be worried or not)?

Does a flexible format or layout create more opportunities for meaningful communication? (ie. Generic or department-specific; checkboxes, anecdotal space, and/or comment lists.)

If we begin with the end in mind, what do we want students, parents and teachers to understand at the end of the process? (ie. What would teachers like to say; what would parents like to see; what would students need to know?) We ended our session this morning hoping that some good suggestions might come from departments as they look for what would make the interim useful for them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reporting "in the interim"

It means "in between" or "provisional": but what is an interim report for?

Some of our time this morning was spent looking at our practice of interim reporting. Of course, it is a requirement in this jurisdiction, but what is its purpose?

We tossed around a number of questions about the "interim", which in turn suggested others:

Who is it for? Is it meant to give feedback to students about what is working well, and what isn't? Is it meant to point out where the student needs to work harder? Is it meant for parents, as an "early warning signal" of impending doom on the report card?

Are we reporting on specific assignments? on learning outcomes met? on units of study completed? Is it meant to describe behaviour, attitude, concentration or work habits? or all of the above?

How do we report? Is it a check mark? a numbered code? a letter (G, S, N, Y, A, B, C+, F...) or an anecdotal remark? How helpful are the kinds of comments we make? "This student is failing this course." "Lovely student." "Good worker." "Must try harder." "Will not likely pass."

As we near "trick or treat" time, it's also interim time. Asking these questions ("What do we hope to accomplish?") might help parents, students and teachers make better use of the exercise.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The changing face of teaching

This morning, our numbers were boosted by two student teachers who joined in on the discussion.

We know “school” don't we?
Everyone knows how to teach, or at least knows how school works, because "we've all been to school." How different is it to stand on the other side of that teacher desk, especially for a beginning teacher? How has the job of teaching changed over the years for those of us "veterans"?

What will schools look like in 5 or 10 years? The pundits keep telling us that it will "all be different" in a decade or so (although the arrival seems to get pushed back every year) but we are seeing a change in our students, bit by bit, as the technology begins to push its way into the classroom. We're seeing more laptops, iPods and iPhones. Students want the topics we cover to be relevant. "Why are we learning this?" is a common refrain. And the answer "because it's on the test" or "because it's in the chapter" doesn't cut it anymore. Dates and names and places are easy to Google. What's more important is how things fit together. It is a continuing challenge to engage students who find that their most compelling course is "Facebook 11".

It is an exciting time to enter education. Think of all the outside resources we have at our fingertips...or at least the students do: Youtube, papers, journals, blogs, GoogleEarth, etc.

Of course, there is a core to good teaching that never changes: teachers who help kids make meaningful connections between ideas and their own lives.

What are the implications for our time-tested routines and structures? We still have the bells, and the timetables and the classrooms and the lunch breaks. Are we rethinking how we approach the subjects we love (English, Science, Socials etc) and rethinking how we teach them?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Improving our Practice "on purpose"

"Schooling by Design" Wiggins and McTighe, Chapter 4: How Should Teaching Be Appropriately Depersonalized? (p. 111)

"Indeed, schooling and reform have been hindered by the view that it is most "professional" if individual teachers decide for themselves how to teach. The result is not merely an inconsistent array of unexamined approaches to instruction (as if medicine were still what any country doctor 200 years ago thought it should be); a more harmful effect is that any critique of teaching inevitably is seen as an attack on teachers."

From "Craft Knowledge: The Road to Transforming Schools" by Deanna Burney (From page 2 of the journal article:)

"Usually, though, craft knowledge is confined to isolated classrooms, where individual teachers keep a tight grip on instruction and student learning. Our education system, quite simply, does not invest in the cultivation and dissemination of craft knowledge. Schools and school systems are not learning communities. But teachers have a right to investments in their professional development as well as a responsibility to reflect on their work, build their knowledge, share it with others, and pay attention to what others are learning. School systems have an obligation to provide the conditions that will foster this learning, because it is the only way we will continuously improve instruction instead of spinning our wheels."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What do Students need?

Wednesday, Dave P. , four McRoberts students and I were at School Completion and Beyond the first in a series of three forums that will be held over the next two years where teams from all nine Metro Districts work on specific projects to improve the quality of students' high school experience. This event brought together students, teachers, administrators and parents from all the Metro school boards. We asked the students what they needed from high school in order to be successful. The answers were heartfelt and powerful.

The tone for the day was set by a group of students via a dramatized presentation that addressed their fears, hopes and ideals for secondary schooling. (They met earlier in the week and spent 2 days preparing for the conference. )

The following clip is from a similar gathering, and the messages are very much like those we saw Wednesday morning.

When asked what they needed from high school, Lower Mainland students told the participants that they want better connections with their teachers, they want to be treated as individuals, they wanted clear grading expectations, they want to address global issues, they want to know "why" they are learning the things that are being presented in class. In fact, many of the issues they raised can be found in this article Imagine a School (PDF) by Kathy Gould Lundy from the fall 2006 issue of Education Canada.

There will be opportunities here at the school over the next few weeks to extend this topic. A first step perhaps is for us as educators to reflect on the needs that the students have identified.


For more:
Imagine a School... making the play
From CEA's 2007 Workshop in Winnipeg, Rethinking Adolescence, Rethinking Schools (mp3 - 23:02 minutes, 23 MB)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"I'll have a large DI with fries."

We've been looking at Differentiated Instruction (DI) for the last few mornings. And our discussions have led us to ask a range of questions:
Is DI an option or a necessity?
Is it a new "flavour of the month"? a bolt-on strategy?
Is it part of best/exemplary practice?
Is it something that teachers are already doing, (even if they are not using the DI label)?

Differentiated Instruction is about how we meet the needs of our students. But what do we mean by "needs"? Here's a list of areas where our students show diversity, where they have a range of needs.* Take a look and see what you have noticed in your classes.

  • Cognitive abilities
  • Confidence in learning
  • Cultural/ethnic influences
  • Gender influences
  • How students value learning
  • Interest in the subject you teach
  • Learning pace
  • Learning styles (visual, spatial, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, etc.)
  • Readiness
  • Socioeconomic and family characteristics
(* From Differentiated Assessment for Middle and High School Classrooms by Deborah Blaz: [Link] PDF)

Which of these areas has become/is becoming an issue for you in your instruction? Which do you feel you address well? What resources are you using to help you meet these needs? What expectations do you encounter?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Used any good "sidewalk cutouts" lately?

As usual, the discussion was wide-ranging and interesting. Some of the ideas that were discussed:

  • Improving student access to technology - the library lab
  • Using the web to support reading through the use of programs like Strategy TutorTM
  • Gathering other teachers' "sidewalk cutouts"
Dave G shared an activity and an insight he had working with his Com kids. Here's his description of the task and his thinking:

In my Communications class, I was looking for a way to assist my non-readers in handling text. While I was setting up a lesson on the habits of effective readers, the plan was to tackle an activity developed by Cris Tovani on reading. The goal of this lesson was to introduce students to how "reading with a purpose in mind" can focus the meaning-making and give context to finding out what is important.

The challenge faced by a number of students in my class is the struggle to engage the text when they spend so much energy and time on decoding. As well, I had in mind the principles Fred brought up last week around how we need to provide for the visual and auditory learners in our classes. So I started to play around with Garage Band and made a recording of the text that students could listen to as they read.

As it turned out, it helped my students in a number of ways. The first benefit was that the whole class was on pace and able to keep up with the material in a relatively equal manner. By being all together, it allowed those who could go ahead to develop their thoughts and make notes, while those who were just getting the main idea to have something to say. It also helped limit off-task behaviour by providing a focus. The kids were also able to go back and listen again as I played the reading several times.

Instead of me saying "read through the passage 2 or 3 times", which most students view as punitive and unnecessary, I was having them hear the text and look at the words repeatedly and either reinforcing the big ideas or connecting in new ways. One other important benefit to this was how it embedded wait time to allow for the different processing rates. We all struggle to build in meaningful wait time and an audio recording that is played more than once provides that crucial time period for kids to connect to content and develop the meaning. And this is just what I have observed in doing this once.

So the question I am left with is how do I set up routines in the class that make this type of accommodation available more often. I want to explore how I could attach these audio files to a website or home page in order to let students access this easily and outside of class. I also want to see how I could do this with longer pieces to text and even novels. Then how could the students use this technology to help with written output - can they make podcasts of their thoughts or lit circles. And in response to Fred's question around planning for the kinesthetic learner, do I have accommodations for them?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Access, Access, Access

"Get rid of the stairs." What prevents a student from accessing your curriculum? Is it something in the design of your lesson? Are we consciously or unconsciously putting roadblocks in the way?

Consider the front entrance of a beautiful building...with no ramps. We recognize that a person who uses a wheelchair will be disadvantaged, and we know that installing a ramp will help that individual. What we forget is that this change will help any member of the public with mobility issues (wheelchair, walker, cane, cast, infirmity, stroller, etc).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL - for an overview, click here.) is a way of rethinking our lessons.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that accommodate learner differences.
"Universal" does not imply a single optimal solution for everyone. Instead, it is meant to underscore the need for multiple approaches to meet the needs of diverse learners. (1)

What are the "stairs" and "ramps" in your program? What hinders or helps all the learners in your classroom?

Thoughts On Teaching For Student Diversity
(Fred Harwood)

Some of you know that I was a guest teacher in a French Immersion math class out at UBC for an hour. I was allowed to teach in English BUT then spent three hours as an FSL Level 1 student as part of the class. WHAT AN EYE OPENER!

(I highly recommend that you spend some time in alternative settings where you aren’t an expert. We forget what it is like to be a weaker student for whatever reason.)

This class in French was an incredible struggle for me. I had 4 years of French in BC high schools 35 years ago but I’ve taught at a French Immersion high school for over 14 years so my ear for French has improved and I’ve seen written output daily. I had little idea of what difficulties I’d have processing the class even though it was on a topic of expertise for me personally – math.

I found when anyone spoke English in my vicinity, I’d gravitate to them naturally and ‘fall into’ that conversation. It was a rest for my brain. I thought of all my ESL students taking a rest by listening (and participating) in their own languages. I thought of the math challenged students ‘taking a rest’ in discussing things off topic that were easier to process.

I also found four big ideas that would have helped me in the French class that I want to do in my own classes to help those who are language challenged:

1. Speak slower - I told one student that I likef his French the best because he spoke the slowest.
2. Use more written instructions - the class instructor at UBC spoke all directions in French and many times I wasn’t totally clear on what to do. I process written French must more effectively by having time to fit things into context and to fill in the unknown words between the known words. When instructions were in spoken French, I didn’t have time to do this well and I was usually lost.
3. Use pictures more - When one student was presenting his idea for his project, I kept thinking, “If only you would have had a picture/example, I could have made sense of your project so much easier.”
4. Make sure the big idea is clear - Another student presented his project which I thought was on “Discovery Guides” and struggled with how he talked about his work. I asked in English and found the topic was “Guided Discovery” – a totally different concept!

One of my resource teacher has challenged me with another big idea.
5. Talk less - many students are just overwhelmed with input and once their brains are full, no more processing is possible.

In our study group we were discussing Universal Design from architecture and looking at the invention of sidewalk cutouts to make them wheelchair accessible. In accommodating for this special need (or diversity) many others benefited. People with baby carriages or strollers, people with difficulty walking and students pulling their huge rolling backbacks all benefited by this adaptation made for another group’s diversity.

I reflected on how my implementation of these five big ideas will benefit more than just the language challenged in my classes. It will aid visual learners with the pictures and written instructions. It will aid those who process more slowly or differently because there will be more wait time to make sense of the mathematics. It will allow for those who chose, or were enabled, to attend to the task at a later time than the majority to get involved. It will reduce the ‘clutter’ that clouds some students ability to see the concepts.

What other innovations or adaptations do you make to help some students? Do these adaptations also help other needs in our diverse classrooms?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching to Diversity

The book, "Teaching Content to All" was the subject of our discussions this Wednesday.

Teaching for diversity; what does this mean?

We read a case study from the book that allowed us to "eavesdrop" on a job interview for a high school science position. The teacher wanted to change schools and spoke quite passionately about his commitment to learning. He also elaborated on his teaching practice: "I'm not afraid to give Fs. Students have to be prepared to work hard. If they are lazy and fail, then that's their problem." The principal challenged the teacher to think about how he would reach out to the wide diversity of learners in his class.

We talked about how our teaching practice. How do we treat kids in so called core courses like Math, Socials, Science? Are there "smart" kids vs "lazy" or stupid kids? How is this handled in other subject areas? In a PE class, there are the athletically gifted on the one hand, and those who need instruction, training and practice: everyone can be successful. In Art, there are the artistically gifted, and those who have not yet mastered the techniques and media. Is there hope, and a place, for those who are not mathematically, scientifically or linguistically gifted in our core classes?

Here are a series of questions that were posed by the book's authors in an article that Fred H and Dave G read this summer. (The topic is evident from the title – diversity.) These are meant to stir our thinking around how we can work better for all students. [Key questions adapted from “Teaching and Academic Diversity” (Lenz and Deshler)]
  • How does teacher knowledge of diversity affect student learning?
  • How have teachers traditionally responded to diversity and the challenge of individualization?
  • What are the “big ideas” that lead to more inclusive teaching?
  • What motivates you to learn? How do you learn best?
  • Describe an experience of being different in some way that made you feel alone or not fully accepted by others. Did you experience accepting as well as non-accepting behaviors from others?
  • Consider how your personal identity might affect how you teach?
  • What are the barriers to building an inclusive pedagogy? What are the solutions? Given the current structure of schools, what can be done?
  • What changes need to be made in schools to promote more inclusive planning?
  • How does teaching more content in less time affect our ability to respond to diversity?
  • Which of the complicating factors are most daunting to you in terms of accommodating learning differences in a classroom?
  • How can understanding the big ideas of a course help students learn content?
  • What does the following statement mean to you? “Curriculum frameworks and textbooks are only resources; the true curriculum is actually constructed by the teacher and students each day in class.”