May 31, 2009

Leaving a Paper Trail

If somebody asked me "what is one thing you need to work on as a teacher" I would probably say assessment.  Most teachers might agree - assessment is a very difficult area.  I was talking with Gary Ball a little while ago about the benefits of PD.  One of the questions among our division seems to be: how do we, as teachers, grow through PD but not be out of our classrooms too much?  I am not sure there is a definite answer to this question.  Well, yes there is.  If we did PD on our "own time" rather than class time...but then there is the question of "do we get paid more?"  Anyways, I am a bit off topic.  I have missed a lot of school this semester, mainly due to PD.  And while I have grown immensely as an educator because of this PD, I feel my classes have maybe suffered a bit.  Gary simply asked me: has what you learned transferred into higher learning for your students.  I responded a most definite yes!  And here is my do I prove it?

One of my flaws lies in feedback.  Translation - I am horrible at handing assignments back in a timely matter.  But flawed as my system may works incredibly well.  I monitor student's progress throughout the year.  I note which skills they have mastered, which skills they are having trouble with, and factors that may have inhibited or encouraged success in the past.  I have regular conferences with my students.  I remember everything they have done and constantly "refer back" in our discussions.  We have an open forum in which assessment and success are constantly discussed.  Yet, when it comes to paperwork - I fail drastically.  However, I am finding that if I do "paperless" assignments (e.g. online learning), I am much more efficient.  So I have started to explore this further.  Although my system does need a lot of work, it at least is starting to achieve what I am aiming for - for the students to be focused on learning rather than grades.  

And I  guess this is a problem that I have struggled with - the way we traditionally think about assessment.  Assessment should not attempt to have students complete assignments - it should attempt to allow students to demonstrate their skills through numerous ways.  The biggest problem I see: grades.  I would rather not give them.  Assigning grades is too subjective and realistically, not meaningful at all.  What is meaningful is an in depth analysis and discussion of student's demonstrated skills.  Teachers focus too much on marks, and so do students.  Again, I don't want students to focus on their grade - I want them to focus on their learning.

Last week I attended a "First Steps Writing" training program.  We were given examples of students work and then told, in groups, to assess and classify students into their writing ability group (based on a rubric).  For the most part our groups agreed - but sometimes we didn't.  While we were doing this exercise I realized something.  This is what I want assessment to look like.  Even assessing in groups, the rubrics were still subjective.  But I believe we did a better job because we collaborated.  I did not take the papers back to my classroom to "mark".  Instead we discussed the student's skills.  It was the collaborative discussion focused on learning that was meaningful.  We did not assign grades.  We simply wanted to figure out what skills students had demonstrated, and what skills they needed to work on.  This is the kind of report card I want to hand out.  And this is the process that we need to use.  Just one more positive aspect to PLC's I guess.  One problem, students still need marks to go to University - I am not sure what to do here.

Final thought: I enjoy using sports analogies for assessment.  Professional hockey players practice certain things.  They, and their coaches know exactly what they need to work on.  They have goals.  More importantly, they receive constant feedback.  They watch footage, they conference, they collaborate, and they either get more or less playing time.  A player always wants his/her coach to let them know where they stand - what they need to work on.  This is what I should be doing with my students.  I need to get my students to, like the hockey player, take a deep interest in their learning...and I need to provide constant feedback.  Which I do.  But I am not good at maintaining a paper trail.  So maybe my problem is not so much assessment, but accountability.  I don't know - your thoughts?  Feel free to be blunt and honest.

May 27, 2009

A Day at the Rink

There is something I have been wondering for some time now.  It is something that I have tried writing about, have had conversations about, and still cannot come to a conclusion.  Everytime I have had a conversation or tried writing about this topic, I could not seem to figure out what I was trying to say.  I guess it's more of a questions - are we really the experts?

What I mean is, are we the educational experts?  Many would argue yes.  We have been trained in the fine art of education.  And our level of expertise varies widely.  We arguably reference ourselves as somewhat of experts.  We throw out names like cabers at the Highland Games.  Everyone knows who the big names are, and what they are doing in terms of education.  

But like I have asked before: where are the students?  Could they be the potential "experts" that we seem to be searching for?  I am not sure if our students know what they want, or need to learn.  I am not sure if they have any answers for best teaching practices or innovative education.  I am not sure if they would be able to help guide education in a much needed new direction.  But then again, I am not sure that anyone has ever asked them.  Sure, we've had brief conversations with them and maybe even included them in a conference or two - but have we really asked them?  Have we asked them on a continual basis?  Have we asked that them to help guide us?  Have we asked them to be educational consultants?  

We could argue that they, unlike us, have not been trained in the fine art of education.  But I think that that might be the beauty of it.  They have not been trained to educate.  We look for ways to teach, they look for ways to learn.  They are the ones who want and need something out of the system.  They are the ones who stand to gain, or lose, from ideas.  Why shouldn't at least some of those ideas be their own?

Don't get me wrong...I love the way that educators are sharing.  And to the extent that we are sharing.  But sometimes I question the dynamics.  Are we sharing what we are doing to pursue higher levels of learning?  Or are we doing it to advance our own names?  I often hear "you should see what this teacher is doing with his/her students!"  And yeah, I usually get excited...but is this the right way to approach it?  Why do we just assume that it is the educator who is doing the amazing thing(s)?  Aren't his/her students doing amazing things as well?  And why do I never, or seldom, hear about the students that are initiating the amazing thing - why is it always the educators?  I had this conversation with Gary Ball today.  He perhaps put into words (better than I could) what I was getting at: "Oh God!  We are hockey parents!."  Do we ever push our students to pursue things they are not interested in?  Sure, but we are getting better.  If a player excels on the ice, does the parent accept (partial) credit?  Do we accept credit for our student's success?

I started questioning our edblogosphere - most of what I read or hear refers to the amazing things teachers are doing with their students, and not vice versa.  Then I came across a blog post by Eldon Germann.  In it he referred to a previous blog post by Alec Couros.  It talked about an unfortunate incident he ran into with sharing photos on Flickr.  There were many comments left and one in particular caught my attention.  Aaron Dewald wrote: "I was in a discussion with my dad about this. He’s 54, I’m 29. He finds it amazing that I’m willing to put pictures of me, my family, friends etc… wonders what the world is coming to. I do it because that’s how I grew up. I do it because I like to connect and share."  It made me wonder once again - are we really the experts?  Our students are growing up in times that we, try as we might, do not understand.  Some of us are on the cusp of these times (regardless of age).  But our realities are different from that of our students.  No matter how hard we try, we may not be equipped to be "experts" of those realities.  Perhaps we need more student experts.  And perhaps we need to listen to them...closely.

And then I finished reading Eldon's blog.  He had shared Alec Couros' topic with his Grade 10 class.  But, rather than share we he had done with his students, he shared what his students had done.  He featured their blog responses on his blog.  It was suddenly no longer about what he had done with his students, but simply what his students had done.  It was no longer about the hockey parents, but the players.  After all, it wouldn't be much of a game without any players.  

May 21, 2009

Sitting on top of the blog bubble

9:10 a.m. - Everyone in the gym can feel the excitement building.  Students quickly shuffle back and forth from side to side.  Suddenly everyone seems to move fluently with the sound of the basketball dribbling down the court - everyone except me, I do not move fluenty.  In comes a student half my size - here's my chance, I go for the block but he fakes to my right.  Luckily I stopped his elbow with my jaw.  So here is the premise for this upcoming blog it building background information.  

Actually, this post has nothing to do with basketball.  I am just thinking ahead and using the elbow to the jaw as a potential scapegoat in case people greatly disagree with me.  What I do want to discuss comes from an experience I was part of a few months ago - E-journalism.  As I have already mentioned, it was an eye opening experience.  Students from different schools working together in a projects based environment with multiple teachers as guides.  This, I thought to myself, is what education should feel like all of the time.  However, something was "off".  Not everything was 100%.  We were covering a conference held for teachers about how to use technology to enhace student learning.  Although I had an idea of why I had an "off" feeling it wasn't until I watched the video featured in my last blog that I realized what was missing - the students.  Well, that's not true.  The students were there.  They were covering the conference.  David Warlick came and talked to the students.  He even hosted a panel discussion with the students.  So why do I say the students were missing?  Read on.

I didn't see any students being part of the other presentations.  Our E-journalism team showed videos during lunch, but we had mixed emotions about the response.  Overall, we felt like teachers in a disengaged class - many people seemed to not be paying attention.  Why do we do this?  Why do we as teachers hold conferences that are really about our students, yet not include our students?  Shouldn't we be listening to them?  Are we the experts?  Are they?  Do they know what they want?  Do we know what they need?  I don't know.  But we sure have a lot of "experts" and most of them are not students.  

Even now I am still having difficulty processing my thoughts.  All I know is that our students were covering a conference that was all about them, about teaching them and connecting with them.  A lot of people at the conference were our "tech" and "collaboration gurus".  You would think that it would be easy for our students to get immersed.  And it was.  And it wasn't.  Like I said, David Warlick came up and talked to our students.  He talked to them for quite some time.  And it was an interesting conversation.  Donna DesRoches was part of our team, and an organizer - but she found time to come up and "visit'.  Gary Ball showed up, so did Ryan Hackl.  Mark Kowalski came and helped us with our Mac problems.  But that was it.  Well, not exactly.  Students set up intereviews with they spent some time with those people as well.  And now I'm no longer sure.  Maybe there was more engagement than I thought.  

I guess it's kind of like my ideas about blogging.  I love blogging, but it's hard.  I mean, why do we really blog?  To converse with others.  To bounce ideas, to collaborate, etc...  But I am finding that it is time consuming.  I love reading other people's blogs.  And commenting.  I love when other people read my blogs.  And comment.  But does it benefit our students?  I think so...most of the time.  We are sharing ideas, and defining them, and redefining them.

But I think that there is a blog "bubble" and this is the part that is hard.  In this blog bubble are the more prominent bloggers.  We know who they are.  They are amazing.  And all of us secretely want to become part of that blog bubble.  But are we running the risk of losing our way?  And what I mean by that is: is anyone else worried that it might not always be about the students, and about education - but rather about us?  Are we focused too much on being in that bubble?

May 20, 2009

The skills they need...

This video was apparently shown at the last admin council meeting.  It was brought to my attention by my administrator.  The first thing I thought was "this kid is awesome".  Then I thought how valuable it was that he was being coached and taught these skills.  Then I was amazed at his message to teachers - here was a young boy telling us teachers what students need from us.  And this seems to be a current trend - I think we are doing a better job of listening to our young generations.  Ideally, we need to mesh experience with fresh ideas.  I love the fact that this young boy was the keynote speaker.  And then something dawned on me.  Despite all the PD events I have been to, I have not seen our students or other young people a part of it.  I have not yet, at any of our "teacher" conferences, seen a keynote speaker younger than myself.  Something is wrong here.  

Anyway, I showed this video to my Social Studies 30 as means to spark a conversation about current education systems.  To be honest, their response surprised me.  They didn't even seem that interested in the message that was being sent.  They were, however, interested in how that message was being sent.  Comments like "this kid could be the next President" were common.  Bottom line: they were amazed at how well prepared this young boy was to address a large crowd, and how fluently and intellectually he did it.  They were amazed at his public speaking and analytical skills.  They wondered about his education - and said that the skills he was learning would pretty much guarantee that he will be "successful".  The bell rang and my students slowly filtered out of my room - and I wondered if I was helping students develop the skills that would ensure their success later on in life.  If I compared the education I facilitate to the education this young boy receives....well, I think I would feel inferior.  

May 11, 2009

NOT Acceptable Use

In my last post I questioned our approach (as educators) to what we believe to be acceptable use (in terms of technology).  Basically, I am not quite sure that we are "on the same page" as our students - that we are missing amazing educational opportunities.  I used an example in which a teacher asked a student in my class to get off youtube.  That teacher was Gary Ball.  Now Gary and I have a great relationship and the example I used was meant to probe into deeper issues.  I used this example because Gary has a firm grasp of technological use and is really an innovative and progressive thinker in terms of technology.  I knew that Gary and I could talk about what happened and use it to benefit future education of our students.  This is one answer - to have collaborative relationships with your colleagues so that you can figure out best educational practice.  Anyway, here is a snippet of Gary's response.

I don't really like the idea of letting every teacher make their own decisions on THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE. The problem is that one classroom has the potential to affect the entire network. One classroom all on Facebook has less of an effect on all of us. We need to be consistent on an issue like this.

Anyways - I think that the discussion needs to continue. The real answer is more bandwidth - but until then we have to find some way to cope with our students educational needs and the limitations of our system.

I found this interesting - one because I didn't expect this to be Gary's response, and two - because what he says has some interesting implications.  Gary's argument is realistic.  He disagrees with leaving it up to individual teacher's discretion for one reason and one reason only - the "limitations of our system".  What we do online drastically affects other classrooms online.  This is because of bandwidth.  If a teacher is giving "free time" on the internet everyday, although that is an issue administration would deal with, it affects everyone.  I talked to Gary and had him clarify his reasoning.  Sadly what he says is true - we need to "find some way to cope with our students educational needs and the limitations of our system".  Now, we both disagree with this, but it is our reality.  What we would argue is that the limitations of our system are also limiting our students educational opportunities.  We need to change this and NOT be okay with it.  I have heard that more bandwidth is high on the agenda for the upcoming year.  Thankfully we are part of a progressive educational division that is in tune with the future of education.  

May 5, 2009

Acceptable Use or Accepting Use

Bell rings.  Social Studies 30 filters out the door.  And I am confused.  Why?  Glad you asked.  I showed my students a program they can use to create their own myths and legends (thanks Donna DesRoches!).  We have been learning about sweatshops etc.. and I thought this online program would be a good way for students to demonstrate their understanding of the issue.  So, we started making an example story together (it really is a cool website, seriously, go check it out...I'll wait) and the enthusiasm level in the room was quite high.  They started making them and I have to say that I wasn't quite prepared for what happened next.  Although they didn't finish, they were doing an absolutely fantastical job!  They were exhibiting a deep, deep, understanding of the issue - and being more creative than I had anticipated.  Wow, either this was a great opportunity for them to demonstrate understanding in a fun and super engaging way or - I am the best teacher ever and their learning is all thanks to me.  Yeah, #1 is more accurate.  Anyway, cool website - tons of potential...I will put up a video analyzing it in a little while.

So I told you that story to tell you this story.  Often, and I know it's hard to believe, learning takes place beyond our control.  Meaning: no matter what we try to "teach", students might find something else to learn.  This happened to me.  Everyone was engaged in the myths and legends lesson.  They were, well you know.  Two girls at the side of the room happened to wander on to youtube while they were creating their sweatshop story. Now, here's where my confusion lies.  Students today are extreme multi-taskers...this we know. And I don't mean like I can pick my nose while driving my car multi-tasking...they can do many many different things at once (like pick their nose and do their hair).  But seriously,  I think this is a huge issue in education.  And you know who's making it an issue - you, me, us.  We have before us a generation of students that can work on several different tasks at the same time and we are not capitalizing on this amazing talent.  We squander their skills. We create policies that ban multi-tasking behavior (no youtube, no facebook, no bebo, etc...) We ban multi-layered learning (no youtube, no facebook, no...), well, we allow it - but only on our own terms.  I know that we are not doing a very good job of being relevant in our student's eyes.  We ask them to operate in ways that don't make sense to them.  When they are at home working on something, or doing learning on their own, they are free to multi-task as they please.  Yet when they come to school we tell them that they are not on task.  But what if they are?  And what if we have trouble understanding this?  Maybe we need to pay better attention to our students.  This is something I have tried to do.  

A while back we were conflicted about our acceptable use policy.  Some teachers wanted to ban social networking and video sites (what, then, is the point of having the internet?), others wanted to police it, others didn't care.  A good argument was made - we are not teaching our students anything by banning them from sites...we need to teach them how to use the internet responsibly.  And I whole heartedly agree.  For awhile I was "get off facebook", "no youtube during class time" etc...  Not because I agreed (which I didn't) but because it was the general policy of our school.  Then we decided to teach them to be responsible - and all sites were open (within reason).  I should mention that we have always allowed youtube, bebo, etc... if it is being used directly for educational reasons.  However, I wasn't quite sure what our new use policy was (and am still confused).  I think that we decided that it would be up to teachers to "police" use.  That internet management is tied in with classroom management.  I am okay with this.  A gray area does exist though. - who deems what is educational?  Next paragraph.

Back to my story, the two girls at the side of the room...remember them.  Well, they're on youtube - I know it and they know I know.  You know how they know I know - because they aren't being secretive about it.  They let me know they're on youtube.  Most of my students enjoy listening to music while working on projects - they know that if it is okay with everyone in the room, it's okay with me.  Nobody had an ipod or mp3 player so they decided to use youtube.  Okay, so right now you might be thinking that "hey, that's not educational".  And you'd be right...on the surface.  What if I told you that music provides a background noise that my students actually think boosts their productivity (seriously, we have had many conversations about how and why).  Well, maybe that's a weak argument.  And maybe there was no real educational value to the youtube music video.  And maybe I should have done what I have done many times in the past and told her to shut it off because it is not related to her assignment and is eating up bandwidth and blah blah blah.  But like I said, maybe we need to pay more attention to our students.  So I listened.  The two girls starting having a conversation about music - more specifically new music; actually, new music videos; actually, which new music videos are the best and why; actually, what makes these new music videos the best and why.  They were talking about camera techniques and all sorts of stuff.  Here they were, sitting in my class - a class that I have designed to facilitate and foster critical thinking and analytical skills, and they were using those skills in a context relevant and interesting to them, on their own!  I pulled up the myths and legends program - can we add audio...yes we can! Sweet!  I learned something too and now everyone is more excited - plus two girls at the side of the room have just exhibited some amazing critical and analytical skills.  All because of a youtube video.  Now I could have told them to get on task - or I could have listened, which I'm glad I did.  My eureka moment was short lived however, when another teacher walked into my room, saw the one girl on youtube and told her to get off because it was eating up bandwidth.  She tried using her analytical and persuasive skills but to no avail.  Plus, she gave some lip - we'll have to work on respectful arguing.  

This has been my longest post yet.  And why?  Well I guess I'm trying to work through my own thoughts - but really, I'm looking for some answers.  The teacher that came into my room was not wrong for kicking the girl off of youtube (other than that he should have realized that I was probably okay with her being on it so in my eyes, there was some learning taking place).  But there is no way he could have known that some learning had taken place - he wasn't there for the background information - which is why I believe a "left up to teacher discretion" policy might be the best policy.   However, as often happens, it became a power struggle.  Now why is this?  Why do students protest?  If they knew what they were doing was wrong or saw it as completely off task they would be less likely to argue.  They probably argue because a) what they are doing is fun and engaging, and b) we are asking them to operate in ways that do not make sense to them.  If they are more interested in something other than my class - why is that?  Is my class boring to them?  Is it not relevant?  How can I use the tools they find relevant to help them learn?  How can I do this while following acceptable use policy?  Ultimately, how do we teach students in a way that best suits them.  Maybe they work better when they are allowed to peruse brief distractions.  Maybe they work better when they have multiple things on the go - maybe this makes them feel more involved and connected (today I had a student facebook chat her friend in another school about how to survive a bear attack because this is the project she was working on for my outdoor ed class).  But here is the big problem - bandwidth.  There is not enough of it.  Especially at our school.  What's it like at your school? Realistically, this is what people use the internet for.  And we can do all the listening and tuning in we want - but if the fact remains that videos and social networking sites eats up too much of our valuable bandwidth....

If our means don't meet student needs, what do we do about it?