March 25, 2009

Shop Class 101

So I had more to write about on my last blog but...well, frankly, you are more likely to read two shorter blogs than one long one, so I guess I got you good sucker! Anyway, is exciting. And I don't mean like sit around the table every now and then or drive in your car pool and talk about students collaboration...I mean like authentic, learning centered, high energy, task oriented collaboration. And I must admit...I am a bit selfish. Yes, this ejournalism project was a wonderful experience for "our" students (meaning all students involved, we became a team and those students involved became our students...see last blog for more). They were given an opportunity to connect with students from other school cultures, which was huge. But it was also a wonderful experience for me, as a teacher. I really enjoyed working with teachers that I do not normally work with. And sure, it helped that these teachers just happened to be energetic, enthusiastice and great at what they do. But equally as important was why we were working together. We had a reason to work together, and that reason was to ensure student success. And then it hit me, why don't we do this more often?

I don't just mean why don't we do projects like this more often, I mean why, as teachers, don't we work together more often for a reason? And this lead to a couple of discussions with a couple of my colleagues earlier today. There is no reason that we cannot get together and solve problems. Let's take rural education for example. It's no secret that rural schools lack resources. It would be nice to have a shop in every rural school in Saskatchewan, but let's face's probably not going to happen. Now, we can sit and complain about this and tell the division office that they need to give us a shop...or, we can get together with other rural schools and the division office and figure out how we can our give students "shop" skills. As my colleague and I were discussing this we started talking about what the outcomes would be - perhaps building shops in central and accessible locations; hey, we could even tier students - those who knew they wanted to enter the trades upon graduation could receive intensive programming and those that just wanted to dabble could recieve less extensive training. Boom, two teachers, standing in a hallway for 5 minutes had already started trying to figure out how we could solve this problem. Imagine what 20 or 50 teachers could accomplish. How long would it actually take to come up with real solutions? I think you know the answer. Then why aren't we doing it?

I guess sometimes it is just easier to complain and do nothing. And in the past I have been a culprit of this, but from now on I am going to try to be less of a culprit. And in the future I will probably be a culprit of this...but I will be conscience of it and hopefully wake the hell up. I have sat with other teachers and said things like "well, we have an attendance problem", or "other schools don't have our problems", or "our school is different". Well, let's be honest and call it like it is, this is all bullshit. It is just a way to complain, pass the buck, and not do anything about it. I was looking for someone else to solve problems that I did not know the answer to, and it's okay to not know the answer, but it is not okay to do nothing about it. We need to start realizing it is our responsibility to work together to solve any problems we may have. Take an issue I have hear a lot about: the division is supposedly cutting 1 teaching position per school for next year. Now, if we believe that this is not a good thing, we need to get together and discuss it...and come up with solutions. And let's realize something: an "us" vs. "them" mentality is harmful...we know this. The "division" is not against student learning. The "division" is not different from "us". We are all educators; we are all here to make sure all students learn and succeed. I guess I just realized that although I am a relatively new teacher, I had already slipped into a rut of thinking that certain problems were beyond my control...but in reality - they are not. All we need to do is collaborate in a meaningful way. Sure, there are things that we cannot change...but let's focus on the things we can.

Get on the bus!

I recently attended the Emerging Learning conference in Saskatoon. I went as part of a division created Ejournalism team that had students cover the who's who and what's what of the conference. While I was able to sit in on some sessions (Yay David Warlick), my emerging learning came from being part of a truly collaborative environment

19 students, 6 teachers, 1 Learning Consultant, and a whole lot of collaboration. Wow, what an experience. So, here's what it looked like. Students were given tasks of covering sessions (taking notes, pictures, and video), writing blogs that conveyed their interpretaions of those sessions, making videos, making slideshows, giving presentations, conducting interviews, and much much more. I was amazed at the collaborative and learning centered environment that emerged. Students were given and task and whoosh...gone - they went and did it. And they did it very well. A student had a problem and whoosh...another student went over and helped. A student had some free time and whoosh...they were over asking what else they could do to help. 1 student went down the water slide and whoosh...all of the other students followed.

Now we could say that these particular students were amazing, and believe me...they were - and believe me...we said it. But was that it - was it enough to simply say that these students were amazing? And the answer my friends, is no. Something else was taking place; and it was somewhere between downing my last cup of luke warm coffee and watching students text and facebook their friends about what they were doing and telling them to "check our our website...NOW!" that I realized what that something was. I was witnessing in real life, the shift in education that we are all looking for. Students did not get in trouble for "playing with their technology". They did not get told to "sit down and do their work" when they were up and moving around. And perhaps this is because they were working. Because they were focused and driven and involved and engaged and interested and, well...learning. Or perhaps it was because they were involved in a task oriented, team driven, collaborative, supportive, and open environment. And perhaps it was because yes, they were given tasks and jobs to do...but they were also told to have fun.

There are several things that I cannot stop thinking about. First and foremost, is our students. And when I say our students I do not just mean our students at Cando. I mean our in we are teachers and these are our students. Yes, we need to take ownership of our students in our classrooms, but we also need to take ownership of all students in our school...and maybe, just maybe we need to take ownership of students.

Maybe I am not explaining myself "good enough" (that's for you Ruth!). The students involved in this project did not know each other. Most of the teachers involved in this project did not know each other. Yet we came together and created a wonderful educational utopia like environment of learning and collaboration. The question: why was this project so successful? The answer: because we worked collaboratively and made student learning our main priority. So to you PLC nay your face! But seriously, isn't this why we became teachers? To feel like we are a part of something great? To feel like we are truly making a difference in student's lives? And to feel, well, to feel excited about learning...and to share that enthusiasm with others? If not, I feel sorry for you...because we are finally "getting it". We, as an educational system, are finally catching up to society. Yes our schools are out of date. Yes we need to be more relevant in terms of what young people's lives are really like and reflect what is really important to young people. But we are getting there. To use Anthony Muhammad's analogy...we have started the bus. Are you on it?

March 15, 2009

Damn Trains

One of the last speakers I heard at the PLC conference in Phoenix was Robert Eaker. He talked about what it means to "be" a PLC. His words, I believe, summarized the challenges of becoming a PLC community...but they are challenges worth tackling. Just as Anthony Muhammed suggested at our division PD event, Eaker stressed that we as the educational community need to move away from traditional school thinking. At the heart of this is the shift from teaching to learning...we need to focus on learning rather than teaching - an idea that is at the heart of PLC's. He emphasized this point by stating that what we teach and what students learn are sometimes two very different things (he showed some funny slide examples but I cannot remember them...they must not have been too funny). He then ran over to Rick DuFour and bumped chests...not really but that would have been exciting.

Eaker asked if we ever wake up feeling energized and refreshed only to be "beat down" later by wave after wave of criticism and negativity. His point? The road to becoming a true PLC community will be bumpy...and I don't mean like highway #4 bumpy, I mean like 100th street in spring time bumpy. Like lose your car in a pothole bumpy. But that's okay, really... what we need to do is move from knowing to doing. In other words, first we have to change our ways of knowing. We need proper training - we need to immerse ourselves in the ideas associated with PLC and educational shift, and we need to do this in a stimulating way (may I suggest attending a conference in Phoenix headlined by some of the biggest names in educational shift?). Once we change our ways of knowing we then need to change our ways of doing. However, simply "doing" is not enough. In order to achieve the much coveted true PLC environment we need to enter a state of simply being. That is, we have to "be" a the point of not thinking about it. Sounds easy.

Eaker then went on to say that the work is far more important than the label. Actually, it is often counterproductive to "label drop". Have you ever had anyone in your school attend a conference on something new only to come back and drop a bunch of new terms and not actually convey anything meaningful? Eaker said that this happens all to often. He said that we need to be a PLC, don't worry about terms (e.g. SMART goals)...don't emphasize buzz words - people tend to think that new things are a fad.

But PLC's are not a fad. We already do PLC's...and have been doing them for years. We build common assessments, we align our curriculums...we just do not do it on a deep basis and most importantly, a routine basis. He suggested that we stop focusing so much on accountability of the "sticky icky", (e.g. year plans, lesson plans) and focus on making PLC culture a routine part of our school atmosphere. He also commented on placing to much importance on teacher's feelings. We need student learning to be our main objective. For instance, when trying something new instead of asking "how do we/you like it?", ask first "how is this affecting student learning?"

Finally, he talked about "teaching to the test". He had a unique perspective...and gasp...I do not agree with it. He said there is nothing wrong with it. He used a Tiger Woods analogy. Tiger practices the things he will need to do in a tournament. He also practices on the courses he will be playing on. Nobody would ever accuse him of cheating or imply that what he is doing is wrong. Then why do we say teaching to the test is wrong? Students are simply gaining skills and practicing those skills. However, that's all fine and dandy assuming that the test is curriculum based (which it most likely is), relevant to student's cultural background (which it most likely isn't), and will not be used for purposes of rating or in any other harmful ways. Whenever I think about large scale assessment I always think of my farming friend from high school. He was a farmer, he was going to be a farmer and that was that. He sometimes had trouble in math (especially on standardized tests). One day I was helping him haul grain. He was figuring out how much room was left in the bins (with advanced geometry), how many bushels he had taken off of each field, what the wheat was running, and how much fuel they had burned through....all in his head...and fast! I told him that he was doing math far beyond what we were learning in school, why wasn't he getting better marks. His response...those tests talk about trains (e.g. if a train leaves this station at...) and cylinders (e.g. if you take 1/3 of a cylinder...) - what the hell do I know about trains. In other words, if the math questions had been worded within an agricultural context he would have been getting far better marks. Too bad standardized tests can't achieve this. And that's why I like the idea of teacher made common assessments being the most important.

March 5, 2009

An Example

Here is a video that does not go well with my last post! Our intern from first semester had to make a video for his class. He chose the topic: "Are Teachers Stressed?" Apparently we are...keep in mind that much of our demotivational and cynical behaviour was deliberate. Well, that's our story and we're sticking to it! Note the part where I talk about PLC's (e.g. I think they're garbage). Oops.

Are Teachers Stressed?

Leader don't need to be inspirational?

Timothy D. Kanold: Becoming an Authentic Learning Leader: Whatever you Do, Inspire me! Sounds exciting right? Well, it was. This was one of the last sessions I went to and perhaps the one topic that I was most familiar with. i am a huge believer in motivation, positive energy, and inspiration. However, Timothy asked the audience how many people believed that their leaders must be inspirational and about 50% raised their hands (I raised two...and my feet). I was surprised by this...but apparently leaders do not need to be inspirational. Many teachers that I talked to saw it as a trade off: if someone is inspirational then they are probably not organized, or disciplined...etc... I am not sure where this type of thinking comes from. Anyway, Kanold said that people will work better for an inspirational leader.

Kanold then offered administration some advice: he urged to hire based on character first, then competency and committment to the cause. He basically said that we should hire teachers based on the type of people they are above all else. And really, this makes sense. When we think of the type of staff we want to be a part of, it is based on characteristics (an energetic staff, motivated, respectful, dedicated, etc...). Kanold then had us turn the mirrors on ourselves, and I urge anyone reading this to do the same. Do you create a positive emotional energy every time you walk into a room? If you are honest with yourself, this can be a tough question. Everyone has those mornings when they walk into their classroom or into the staff room and that's about it...we just walk in. We don't enthusiastically greet others. We don't smile. We don't give high fives and bump chests...well, you get the point. Although Kanold talked about different types of energy (motivational, relaxed, depressed, and angry) he also acknowledged that teachers have it tough because we are expected to be motivational all the time. Holding yourself at a high positive energy will only burn you out, but that's why you need a balance between school and home - you need that relaxed energy in your life. Besides, the type of energy you share drastically affects the school atmosphere, and wouldn't you rather be part of a high positive energy atmosphere? The other interesting question he asked was: would you love to be lead by you? E.g. would you love to be in your class, or be a staff member if you were principal etc...? Finally he offered us this "test"

Symptoms you are slipping into quadrants 3 & 4 (angry and depressed)
  • Chronic sense of never enough time
  • Increased irritablity
  • Constant physical tension
  • Pre-occupation with self and failure to notice others
  • Loss of sense of gratitude and joy
  • Talking fast and completing others' sentences
  • Fatigue - tired all the time
  • Poor listening skills and failure to engage with those closest to you

Not exaclty ending on a high note, eh? But nonetheless, something to pay attention to.

What to do on Monday?

Now that I am no longer in Phoenix and back to the ol' routine I can once again close my door and teach...pretending that the PLC conference never happened. Just kidding Tammy. Actually, one speaker did touch on this aspect: this conference I went to was by far the best professional development event I have ever attended. It came at the perfect time for me (I give credit to my administration and division for recognizing this "timing"). For one, I was under the assumption that PLC's were a waste of time...boy was I wrong. Secondly, I am only beginning my teaching career and am still figuring my belief system Timothy Kanold said of himself earlier in his administration days: "I did not yet know what I truly believed". Not only did this conference provide an in depth and optimistic look at PLC dynamics, it also helped me solidify some of my own pedagogical beliefs. However, as one speaker asked, what happens on Monday? I attended this conference by myself...which actually was kind of a bonus because it allowed me to focus entirely on the conference and the learning that was taking place...and not on the plus 31 degree weather or getting rid of my farmer's tan. But one thing I am struggling with is what happens Monday? Sure I can talk about what I learned and share with others the ideas that I encountered...but what will I do about it? How will I implement it? I honestly don't know...change takes time and as mentioned earlier, we need to first create the conditions to change. I guess the most obvious answer would be for our division to hold a conference just as this. I am not sure how economically feasible this would be...but I know that we would see positive change occurring at an unthinkable rate. This conference inspired a great amount of enthusiasm within imagine that enthusiasm on a division wide scale. Anyway, I am going to continue writing this blog, it helps me work through the ideas floating around in my head. However, for those of you who are interested in what the "professionals" had to say and could do without my blabbering, I have three speakers left to cover. One of them is coming to North Battleford very shortly...and just so you know, he was amazing!

March 2, 2009

Veggie Wraps and Southern Accents

So Fullan went over his time limit...oh well, he must be Canadian. It was off to lunch for some more pink mustard (won't get fooled again). However, the joke was on me...Chicken and pesto...I wonder what this wrap is like? The lady beside me, sensing my curiosty, leans over and whispers: "It's really good" it's some big secret that she has just let me in on. It must be good. Well, although it was good, like the pink mustard, it wasn't what it appeared to be. Pesto yes, Chicken no. And I am not one to eat vegetarian wraps...but I did anyway - after all, this conference was all about trying new things.

After lunch we heard Lisa Carter speak. Her Southern type accent had everyone's attention right off the what she was saying was pretty interesting too. She started by stating that meaningful change makes a difference and has a positive impact on student learning. She offered encoragement by saying that we must change what we now, for right now we are doing the best based on what we know. And this is one speaker said "I have not yet met a teacher that wakes up every morning and says 'I can't wait to get to school and make everyone's life miserable'". We are teachers because we want to be...because we see it as a chance to make a difference in this world. As Timothy Kanold would later say: "we are in the most important profession...we have the most power to enact change...politicians may try, but we have the most power to make drastic changes in society". I have to say that I agree with Timothy 100%...and based on what Lisa was saying - we need to make sure the changes we put forth are positive ones.

So, knowing that teachers truly do want to make a difference and impact the world in a positive way what do we need to do to ensure this happens? Well, as Lisa would explain, we need to create conditions to support our new ways of knowing - that is, we need to create conditions that support what we know and foster positive change. For example: some schools have said "we are now a Professional Learning Community - here is your team - here is time to do it - go forth and do good things". Obviously this won't work. When these PLC groups get stuck they are asked "what do you need to be can I/we help you?" Although the intent is there the conditions are not. If these groups knew what they needed to be successful, then they would already be successful. Lisa said that schools instead need to ask themselves "what conditions will we create to make sure things are supported and successful?" And yes, this is as easy as it sounds...but in a collaborative environment the answers to questions such as these come easier.

Finally Lisa talked about TIA (no it does not stand for "This is Africa", but rather - "Total Instructional Alignment"). What is that you ask, well pay attention. Total Instructional Alignment refers to vertical, rather than horizontal planning and makes a whole heap of sense (sorry, the Southern accent must have influence me there). Anyways, the first idea to wrap our minds around - and one that is really at the heart of PLC's - is collaborative planning. So rather than planning all summer by ourselves wouldn't it make more sense to plan collaboratively with teachers is similar positions to our own. One: it would cut down on our workload and two: it would ensure that classes are aligned. She offered this story as an example: two teachers were teaching the same grades of elementary school within the same school. The Social Studies curriculum had two units two it: one was on the global community and the other was on Tenesse history. Now these teachers never really planned together and as a result, did not know when the other one was teaching each unit...which would have been okay except... A new student showed up and had already taken Tenesse history. Since neither one of them was teaching the global community in the second semester, that student took Tenesse history twice. Granted he did very well on Tenesse history for the second time...but because their instruction wasn't aligned, he missed out on the unit on the global community.

But wait, she offered more. What if, instead of only planning horizontally (e.g. with other teachers from the same grade, we planned vertically as well [e.g. with teachers from grades below us and grades above us])? She said that this is what we need to be doing - we need to be planning with the teachers before us and the teachers ahead of us to ensure that our curriculum objectives are lining up. As a simulation, in a staff meeting we could have teachers sit at "vertical" tables and put a standard in front of them. Teachers would then need to come up with a way that they are going to meet that standard. Basically, we need to ask ourselves "do I know what the teacher before me and the teacher ahead of me are teaching?" If teachers from 3 different grades, for example, wrote about a curriculum objective that is similiar in each grade (e.g. knowing the difference between fact and opinion) each teacher may have different expectations for that objective (e.g. simply knowing the difference between the two, identifying the differences between the two, and demonstrating in writing the many differences between abstract and factual ways of thinking). See how students might get "lost". It is in most cases, not a logical progression of the skill. And why not? Well, the answer is simple: the problem lies with the system, not the people doing the work.

Although I know that you all probably "get it", I'll just hammer it home. TIA is simply making sure that what we are teaching, what we are assessing, and how we are teaching it is congruent from year to year. The focus is on natural (and we define natural) progression and improvement). Traditional ways of planning are focused more on the teacher (it is up to the individual teacher to interpret objectives and plan for classes) whereas TIA focuses more on the student (what specific skills will this student gain year to year, how will he be taught, what will he be assessed on etc...?) She also said that vertical conversations can start occurring right away, but the conditions first need to be created in order to ensure that we
become vertical planners.

Can I just say wow? I never thought about planning in these terms before. Some of you probably have...and some of you probably are (I'm guessing elementary because they always seem to have their &#*$ together). Whatever the case, I see this idea as extremely important to promote our "learning for all" motto.