It is quiet around here…

Wow I can not believe it how long it has been since my last post. There has been so much going on in my world as a district helping teacher for Surrey Schools and graduate student trying to wrap up this MA degree. I have a ton to share and I often write blog posts in my head driving to work…there must be an app for that? I talk, it records, pulls perfectly aligned media to go with the text it creates from my words…bam! This would be my dream app. In the meantime I am here to say, stay tuned. I am adding a link to my Ignite presentation at ERAC in Richmond BC this year to prove I have not actually been hiding under a rock. My presentation at the Learning Forward Annual Conference in Vancouver BC with Jordan Tinney and Robyn Thiessen was another highlight of the last few months but alas we did not get that one on video. I wish you all a wonderful New Year full of goal setting and dream catching!

 

 

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Embracing BC’s Transformed Curriculum Part II: Building Classroom Connections with Drama

“In drama education students learn how to be actors in the real world.”

O’Connor, 2010

I believe that sharing and reflecting will be key to a successful transition so I am going to start the process here. My intention is to make my initial plans and share my thought process so that it may help others consider where to start in their own planning. In addition, I welcome feedback to support my own reflections and consider new possibilities. I believe that the cycle of planning-sharing-reflecting-refining I discussed in part one of this post will produce many valuable and authentic samples of the transformed curriculum to facilitate a smoother transition for many teachers. It is definitely out of my comfort zone to share something at such an infancy stage but we have to start somewhere I suppose.

Comfort zone

Going back to my early days as a grade one teacher, planning usually involved going to the IRP and deciding what content I would like to cover in term one. With a big idea or larger concept in mind I would search through the exhaustive list of PLO’s for each subject and try to choose a cohesive group of outcomes. From here I would plan units and lessons to cover those particular learning outcomes, and once assessed, move on new ones. Although I often changed the learning outcomes as the term progressed, I could complete a significant amount of planning before I even met my class. It was a straightforward approach to planning, however, as the years went on I found my pre planning to become more and more a waste of time.

Planning takes the opposite approach with the new competency based curriculum. Rather than use the curriculum to choose discrete learning outcomes I can start with those big ideas and make the curriculum work for me. More importantly, I can make the curriculum work for my students.

Where to start? In September I want to provide learning opportunities that will foster a classroom community where everyone feels safe and respected. I also want to engage students in activities where I can begin to assess and plan to support their emergent literacy skills. This is my springboard and from here I will choose a few big ideas to guide my planning. Unlike prescribed learning outcomes, the big ideas are broad and abstract. My goal as a teacher is to provide learning opportunities that deepen students understanding of the big ideas which in turn become their springboards for further learning.

Below is an example of a learning map that I have created for the first week or maybe two of grade one. In the past I found that I resisted going off course when I had spent a great deal of time organizing a series of lessons. Learning is not a sequential event, and as facilitators, teachers must be flexible and adjust plans to meet the needs of students. Therefore, I have shifted my thinking from lesson or unit plans to a learning map. This way I know where my destination is (big ideas) and why I am going there (core competencies), but I also know there are multiple ways to get to that destination. There are also many stops en route where I can check in to make sure I am still going the right way, backtrack and adjust where necessary (learning intentions, content knowledge, curricular competencies).

Note: Although I left my classroom six months to accept a Helping Teacher position in my district I am describing this learning map within the context I was previously teaching. As part of a district initiative to align assessment practices with 21st century learning (my blog post Let the Learning Come to you describes this journey) I was not using summative report cards to communicate with parents. Through digital portfolios I communicated student learning frequently with parents and focused on the documentation of learning in authentic ways.

Learning Map Initial Phase:

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For my Getting into the Groove of Grade One map, I have pulled Big Ideas from Arts Education and from English Language Arts:

  • The arts connect us to others through shared meaning
  • We construct meaning in the arts through looking, listening and creative movements
  • Listening and speaking builds our understanding and helps us learn

Why did I choose these three? I believe in the power of relationships and I want to build connections between the students and with myself as soon as possible. Academics are on my mind at the beginning of the year as well. Literacy is a social practice where meaning making happens in multiple modes and I want to start supporting this as soon as possible.

What types of learning opportunities do I want to provide? As this is the beginning of the year I want to incorporate games and activities where the students can start to feel comfortable as a group. I also want to support emergent literacy skills by engaging the students in authentic multimodal activities. My intention is to use drama as a teaching methodology and build foundational skills necessary for literacy development. Research suggests that incorporating drama based activities in literacy events will have a positive impact on student learning (Baldwin & Fleming 2003; Cawthon et al. 2011). There will be multiple learning opportunities beyond traditional literacy. We will be learning drama skills, supporting social development and much more. This is the power of the new curriculum in my opinion. The content has not gone away, teachers now have the flexibility to use that content to access deeper levels of understanding that foster important life skills and life-long learning. There is also more freedom to authentically integrate learning areas such as drama and literacy.

If you have not explored the possibilities of drama and literacy there are a lot of resources available. In Teaching Literacy through Drama, Baldwin and Fleming address the expanding definition of literacy in the 21st century and provide practical suggestions for building meaningful literacy connections with drama-based strategies.

Okay back to my planning. I have my big ideas and I know what type of learning environment I want to provide. Next on my map is a collection of warm up games and activities (I will describe the activities at the end of this post). While I do believe learning should be fun my purpose for these warm ups are still guided by my big ideas and will be valuable insight for me as I move ahead. These games can be introduced one at a time and then used throughout the year as a warm up to any learning activity or as a body break. They will also introduce my students to some drama skills that we will use in the next phase of our learning. They are a true win-win. The students will have fun and start to build their skills in various areas and I will gather my initial assessments.

I list the learning intentions as ‘possible’ because I believe these should be created with students. This is where planning has shifted significantly for me. Where I would plan out lessons with very particular details before I now organize the framework and fill in the gaps with my students in real-time. Reflection and checking in with students is an important part of the process. Once a few of the warm up games have been introduced stop and invite the students to suggest reasons why we are playing them. This can be a group discussion or ideas can be shared and written down. Share your expectations with the class and encourage their participation in creating I can statements. If this is a new concept students may only come up with one or two ideas but it is important for them to participate in the process. Depending on how much time you are spending on the warm up activities it may be a good time to introduce some drama vocabulary such as mime when playing Pass the Invisible Object. Any opportunity to build children’s vocabulary will support their emerging literacy skills.

Rather than formally assessing learning outcomes consider using this time to engage with your students and carefully observe. I listed some of the questions I might ask myself but it really depends on the context. In my classroom I compile artifacts of learning such as photos or notes with digital portfolios. This allows me to quickly capture learning as it happens and collect evidence over time. I believe this is a particularly valuable tool with learning areas such as drama where so much learning is in the process and it is such a personal experience for each student. As these warm up activities are an introduction to drama and some of the first group activities we are participating in, they can provide a valuable starting point to document a child’s growth. Although we are working under the umbrella of the same big idea and learning intentions every child will not exhibit the same strengths and struggles during these warm up activities. Encourage students to set a goal for themselves at the beginning of an activity. If you are playing Gibberish for example some students may want to focus on waiting for their turn in the conversation while others may want to be brave in trying new sounds. Although drama games provide multiple opportunities to support learning it is important to honour the process for each individual and never overwhelm a child by setting expectations outside of their comfort level.

Although the core competencies are a blog post or two themselves, I will quickly note why it makes sense for me to have them as a continuous arrow across my learning map. I am always looking for demonstrations of the competencies. As the ultimate goal is to see students building proficiency and employing the core competencies in their lives, they are an integral part of all learning areas. Documentation of the competencies can be reflected within descriptive feedback. For example, “during the four corners game Emma communicated her thoughts in a respectful way with her group.” Student self-assessment and I can statements can also be used to illustrate a competency. For example, after playing Spider Web students can draw and or write about the experience. As many grade one students are not writing at the beginning of the year this could be done with a big buddy or using an app such as Explain Everything on the iPad where they can record their voices. When students tell about their experiences they are employing communication skills. I believe drama activities coupled with the opportunity to reflect on the process will provide many authentic opportunities for students to demonstrate skills and abilities associated with the core competencies.

Once the students are comfortable with the warm up activities and we have established goals in the area of drama and or literacy, move on to phase 2. Comfort in the warm up activities is important before moving on to more complex drama strategies in part two. Continue observing and documenting learning as it happens and adjusting activities to meet the needs of all learners. At this point in my class where I communicate student learning frequently with digital portfolios parents would also be involved in the process. They would know that we are intentionally using drama strategies to support literacy development and where appropriate they would be supporting their child in their goal.

Learning Map Secondary Phase:

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The activities chosen for this phase are intended to build on the skills practiced during the warm-up activities and to build a deeper understanding of the big ideas through the curricular competencies. During an appropriate time share expectations and purpose with students and collaboratively create learning intentions. Although assessment is ongoing and informs the next steps I will briefly describe how I might use a wordless picture book and drama strategies to build classroom connections and support emergent literacy skills. I am sharing these activities through the lens of formative assessment and how they might inform my decisions for future activities and the possibilities for pedagogical documentation. Although a variation of Four Corners is used in this example multiple warm up strategies may be necessary at various points. These activities would likely occur over two or three days.

Hook/Initial Engagement

Gather students in a circle and reveal a box of large colourful chalk. Ask the students to pretend they are a famous artist who specializes in magnificent chalk creations. People from all over the world come to see your chalk art. Ask students to close their eyes, or look down, and picture their famous chalk art in their mind. What did they create? What colours did they use? Give students a few moments to imagine their artwork and them invite them to share with the person sitting next to them. Ask for a few students to share with the group.

Warm-up: Four Corners variation to match theme

As students move between corners ask them to draw something with an imaginary piece of chalk when they arrive at their new corner. When corners are chosen by the person in the middle ask students to reveal what they drew as they make their way to the center. As the game continues encourage students who are out to guess (inside their heads) what others are drawing as they arrive at their new corners. Notice how students move between corners. Are they moving independently of their peers? Are they safely following directions?

Book Introduction & Predicting: Chalk

Chalk 1Chalk 2Gather students for a shared reading of the book Chalk. This is a wordless picture book so turn the pages slowly and give students time have a good look.

Stop part way through the book and ask students to guess what the boy is drawing. Ask students to use their bodies to describe what they think the boy is drawing. Model some examples by using arms to make a circle for the sun or standing tall with arms straight up like a tree. Notice students who are hesitant to participate or copying others in order to support them in future activities and recognize their growth when they begin to participate more and feel confident to share their own ideas. Are the students making reasonable connections?

Soundtrack

This is a great activity to encourage focus and using imagination to create stories. It will also actively engage students in viewing the book as they will need to pay close attention to the pictures. Start from the beginning of the book as ask children to imagine all the sounds they might hear if they were inside the book. Work on the first page together and practice the sounds along with the students. Create a criteria for the soundtrack by asking students about an appropriate volume for responses, matching sounds to the pictures in the book and so on. Gradually release responsibility to the students as you turn the pages so that they are making the sounds independently. This is a good activity to assess self-regulation. Notice students who are being silly or struggling to focus. This is an opportunity to set a goal for the next activity.

Hotseat: Interview/Reporter Style

Turn to the page where the boy draws a T-Rex and discuss the trouble this started for the other children. In pairs (as this is the beginning of the year I would likely pre-determine pairs) students will take turns as reporter and ask the boy about what happened. Model the activity by asking for volunteers to play the role of one of the other children and take on the role of the reporter. Teacher in role is an effective strategy for engaging students and creating authentic learning spaces where “much of learning takes place along the journey, while we explore” (Belliveau & Belliveau 2015).

As groups work throughout the space circulate and observe. This is a good opportunity to recognize students’ strengths and struggles working in a small group. Are they taking turns and listening to each other? Are they asking questions that make sense within the context of the story? Rather than walking around with my clipboard and assessing students on a prescribed learning outcome this is when I circulate and document things that will be meaningful to support a particular students goals or help to create a new goal. During this activity consider the final tableaux activity and notice if groups need to be shuffled. Notice students who are comfortable asking and answering questions who may be able to encourage less confident students.

Retell the Story Tableaux

Materials: chalk, space to draw or large paper, photocopies of Chalk

Ideally the students can use real chalk to draw scenes from the story. Otherwise large pieces of paper will work. Ask students to recall the beginning, middle and end of the book. Think-Pair-Share is a good strategy to give everyone a chance to recall the story. Tell students that we are going to retell the story with our bodies much like we used our bodies to show our predictions about the story. Again, as this is early on in the year I would pre-determine groups and consider combining pairs from the previous activity. At this point create a criteria for the tableaux with the students and generate I can statements. It may be helpful to ask them “if our parents came in to see our work what would they expect to see?” “What are the important parts to include?” The criteria can be very simple, for example “in our scene everyone has a part to play and we worked together respectfully.”

Each group is given a photocopy of their scene and asked to decide who will play each role in the picture. Circulate and observe how groups are choosing. If groups are struggling stop and give suggestions or ask a successful group to share their strategy. Give students time to practice creating their scene. Are students who were previously hesitant to express themselves with their bodies more comfortable? Check in with any students who struggled with self-regulation during previous activities. Remind students about the criteria as necessary and look for opportunities to document growth. Once students can successfully recreate their scene provide chalk for them to draw. Gather students at carpet and ask each group to share their scene in the sequence of the story. Invite participation in the assessment process by asking the audience to think about the criteria while their peers share. By taking a picture of each scene with an iPad the students can view their individual scenes as a digital book.

Debriefing and Assessment

Review the many ways Chalk was read and understood during class activities. Ask students to share their favourite activity? What parts were hard? Read the I can statements and ask students to self-assess. This can be done by providing a paper version and asking student to put happy or straight faces next to each statement, or during a teacher-student conference.

Drama Activities

I learned about many of the drama strategies from David Beare and George Belliveau at UBC during my summer coursework. Thank you to David and George for your excellent leadership. For a great list of drama activities check out drama notebook.

Spider Web: In a circle pass a ball of yarn while holding on to you piece. To learn names say your name out loud as you receive to ball. At the end everyone places their part of the yarn down and stands to see the created spider web. A good entry point to discuss how we are all connected and live in the classroom as a community

 Four Corners: One person stays in the middle while the class seperates among four corners. Corners can have numbers or names to go with a particular theme. Invite students to move to another corner in some way (tiptoe, skip, like a monkey, like the wind etc) the person in the middle points to one corner and everyone in that corner is out and gathers in the center. There are many variations to this game.

Pass the Clap: In a circle one person starts the pattern of clap lap, clap haps, high ten neighbor, that person then repeats the pattern and claps their lap, hands and then on to the next person. Everyone must pay attention so they know when it is their turn. If students master this you can add on a reversal option your students return the high ten to make the clap go the opposite direction

 Group Stop: Students move throughout the space. Using music to set the pace may be helpful for younger students. When one person stops (anyone can stop at any time) the group follows and tries to bring all movement to a hault. Once the entire group is still anyone can start again by moving and others follow suit.

 Name & Action: Go around the circle and have each student say their name along with an action one at a time. Everyone else repeats the name and action.

Pass the Invisible Object: In a circle ask students to imagine they are holding a ball, a bubble or any other object. Invite them to think about what it looks like and feel like. Ask them to pass their object to a partner or choose one object and pass the imaginary object amongst the circle

 Stomp: Standing in a cirle start my stomping your left and then right foot. Once you stomp your right foot the person next to you picks up the pattern, left stomp, right stomp and the pattern continues along the circle.

Gibberish: In pairs students practice having a conversation in gibberish. Invite students to consider they are from another planet and have their own language. Their partner will respond as if the understand. Encouage gesture and changes in tone and volume. Model and provide initial sounds for hesitant students

 Soundtrack: While reading a story invite students to create a soundtrack by saying all the sounds they might hear if they were in the book

 Hotseating: One Students act as a character from a story while peers ask questions. This can be done in pairs or in a whole group setting. There are many variations.

 Tableaux: Students make a still image with their body to represent a scene.

Works Cited: Part I and II

Anderson, M. (2012). Collaborative understanding: Ensemble approaches in drama education. In MasterClass in drama education: Transforming teaching and learning.

Baldwin, P. & Fleming, K. (2003). Drama and literacy. In Teaching literacy through drama: Creative approaches. London: Routledge/Falmer, 17-31.

Belliveau, G. & Belliveau, S. (2015). Teacher in (a) role: Drama in the elementary classroom. In Carter, M., Prendergast, M. & Belliveau, G. (Eds.) Drama, Theatre and Performance Education in Canada: Classroom and Community Contexts. Polygraph Book Series. Canada.

Cawthon, S., Dawson, K. & Ihorn, S. (2011). Activating student engagement through drama-based instruction. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 7(1). Retrieved from: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/6qc4b7pt

Digital Images

Comfort Zone: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/vujraZVYrzU/maxresdefault.jp

Chalk: http://clc2.uniservity.com/GroupDownloadAttachment.asp?GroupId=20199656&AttachmentID=1668946

World has changed: https://virtualschooling.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/bc.jpg?w=400&h=345

Embracing BC’s Transformed Curriculum: Thoughts from Drama Class

Embracing the Transformed Curriculum Part 1: Thoughts from Drama Class

Drama is itself multifaceted and can be used to develop children’s expertise across a range of literacies. Literacy is not simply the ability to read and write, but encompasses all aspects of communication and understanding.

Baldwin & Felming 2003

bcedplan-med1Education in British Columbia is undergoing a significant shift and in September teachers may have the option to implement a renewed curriculum. According to the Ministry of Education “transformation in curriculum and assessment will help teachers create learning environments that are both engaging and personalized for students.” Does a renewed curriculum mean we are starting everything from scratch? Absolutely not, meeting personal student needs and providing engaging learning environments are already a significant part of effective teaching. The transformation is simply aligning what we know and already do with the curriculum and learning that is communicated to parents. The transformed curriculum is less prescriptive and allows teachers to tailor the learning opportunities they provide to meet the individual learning needs of their students. Although content knowledge is still important it is no longer the driver for instruction and planning. Through learning area content teachers build capacity for a deeper understanding of key concepts and facilitate growth across cross-curricular competencies that will foster life-long learning.

Although this sounds great I know many teachers are wondering how to make the transition? Especially since the curriculum is so new that there are limited instructional examples. In part 2 of this blog post I will describe my thought process in planning with the transformed curriculum as a guide. This is my first attempt mapping out the learning opportunities and assessment practices aligned with the renewed curriculum and since examples are scarce this makes me a bit nervous. There may be parts I have misinterpreted and I am sure I will overlook something. However, there is no innovation without taking risks and making mistakes. I believe in learning by doing (I was recently reminded of how powerful this process can be). I also believe in the power of collaboration and invite feedback. Perhaps if we all find a place to start, share our thoughts and allow others to reflect and refine plans to suit their particular context, the curriculum documents will begin to fill with instructional examples?

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My Starting Point and Inspiration

This summer, as part of my Masters Degree, I participated in an intensive, one-week course, titled Drama, Literacy & Engagement. Honestly I choose the course because I liked the idea of completing my second elective and having most of the summer free from coursework. The word engagement also peeked my interest, as I strongly believe in the power of intentionally engaging students and empowering them to take an active role in their learning. After reading several articles on drama as a learning area and a teaching methodology, I realized how closely aligned the course content is with my teaching practice and beliefs about education. I did not anticipate how much the course would act as a springboard for my thinking about planning and assessment under the framework of BC’s Transformed Curriculum.

IMG_0896This image summarizes some of the key points I appreciated from the articles. Although I created this image as part of my first assignment I thought about it often during the course and how much the concepts and ideas parallel those of the transformed curriculum.

It was a powerful week where I found myself truly emerged in the experience as a learner. As teachers begin to transfer their practice to align with competency-based curriculum and explore meaningful assessment we will need to do just that; welcome the opportunity to learn with our students. What better way to do that than experience learning from the lens of a student? For the majority of the course we fully engaged ourselves in drama strategies and became part of the instructors’ carefully scaffolded lessons. Although we learned about some technical aspects of drama instruction, practiced and debriefed micro skills and even contributed to a group performance, the process was honoured and contributed to a rich learning experience. When we did take time out of our role as students to listen to a brief lecture or presentation we were grateful for the break and very engaged in the content. I was impressed by the pedagogy modelled and opportunity to be part of a diverse community of learners where I could see first hand the possibilities for personalized learning.

As with the vast majority of classrooms, our class was composed of a diverse group of learners with a wide range of skills, interests and comfort level. Rather than impose a set of expectations or learning objectives we were invited to set our own learning intentions, have a growth mindset, allow for vulnerability and take some risks. ~ A great approach to any new learning experience, like a renewed curriculum for example. There was no summative assessment to reflect our progress or level of participation during the week. There were no written responses due during the week or a test about the various strategies we explored. So how can I claim this was a rich learning experience? How do I actually know any learning occurred within such a diverse group? How can I measure the quality of my own learning? I ask these questions because I am interested in how this experience translates to a classroom where we have a responsibility to report on student learning.

In a society where technology is ubiquitous and information can be retrieved almost instantaneously, it is no longer about the answers. Learning is reflected in the questions and the dialogue. During the week of my drama course I watched and listened as my peers, and myself, constantly posed questions and shared insights about not only the content we were exploring, but also about the process we were engaged in. Conversations about personal connections to a particular exercise or discussions about how a technique might be adjusted to a different context continued over lunch and even after class. This is the level of engagement the more flexible curriculum is designed to activate. Although research suggests drama strategies activate student engagement (Cawthon, Dawson & Ihorn, 2011) and I have used many drama activities in my teaching practice it was inspiring to actually experience it for myself.

Again, I draw a parallel to the renewed curriculum and the transition teachers are faced with. Learning by doing, collaborating, sharing and reflecting. This will be my implementation plan and a framework for the learning opportunities I offer my students. In part two of the post I will describe what that might actually look like in a classroom.

Consider the Possibilities

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I love feedback. I truly and genuinely appreciate it when someone challenges my thinking and causes me to reflect on what I believe and the actions I choose to take. Last week I spoke to over sixty educators about the innovative changes the Surrey School District is implementing around learning and assessment. This is a topic I am very passionate about and my enthusiasm was quite obvious. After the presentation I was impressed by the positive feedback I received through conversations, emails and tweets. It is wonderful that I was able to inspire and motivate so many teachers looking to shift their practice. The most enlightening conversation I had, however, came yesterday from a teacher attending an inquiry meeting with several colleagues where I was asked to speak about ePortfolios with FreshGrade. This particular teacher approached me and asked me “is it always so positive, are we only assessing the good things kids do, what about the disruptive behaviour?” He went on to share with me that although he enjoyed my previous presentation he and several other male teachers (he said it, not me) felt I was only promoting how we can more effectively showcase a child’s growth and did not speak to tracking a child’s limitations or poor behaviour. Okay, this is a valid point and an issue facing many classroom teachers. I went on to explain that I believed in the initial phase of a powerful shift such as replacing summary reports with ongoing collaborative ePortfolios, focusing on the positive is more engaging. Furthermore, opening communication with parents in a relevant and timely fashion will give teachers the ability to relay whatever they feel is necessary and significant.

This conversation has caused me much reflection, and from it, I am more compelled to make the shift (my term for transforming the learning experience for every student through personalized ePortfolios built on formative assessment). I am more motivated because I see the possibilities so clearly and they are incredible.

Consider a world where students are not following a dated, generic list of prescribed learning outcomes that may or may not have any relevance for them.

Consider a world where we do not take a population of curious, playful and engaged humans and force them through the funnel of school where they are told what to learn and by what time in their life to learn it.

Consider a world where we foster each individual for the gifts they bring and encourage them to take ownership in their own education.

Consider a world where students are given options, choice and their individual interests are respected.

Consider a world where we do not judge a persons worth and ability by how they compare to a peer, a world where children actually want to learn because they are not stifled by stress around grades and tests.

Essentially consider the possibilities if we, as teachers can actually do what we signed up for when we chose this career. It took me many years to realize there was a possibility beyond what I thought I had to do. The report card template was just part of my job and I did not question it for years because I did not realize there were other options. I am so thankful that we now have options with the research and technology to support it.

As a teacher, I will not be proud and feel like I did a good job if all of my students become doctors and lawyers. I will be proud if all of my students help to create a world that is better than the one we live in today. There are many teachers who have established classrooms based on the considerations above. I wonder how many behaviour issues they are dealing with? I believe that if we open the doors and support our students in a way that lets each of them feel successful we will significantly decrease classroom behaviour. Is it possible that an off task child is simply bored and frustrated, could it be the task and not the child? We are living in a dynamic and fast paced world. When the classroom is the exact opposite, what do we actually expect? So I invite all teachers struggling with significant behaviour and lack of interest to consider the possibilities, work towards making a shift and see what happens. I believe the change will be profound, not only for students and parents but for teachers as well.

paradigm

Let the Learning Come to You

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Is it possible that we have been going about this teaching thing all wrong? In our genuine attempt to help our students learn are we in fact a roadblock to their success?

After teaching grade one for the past 9 years I have been given a new opportunity and find myself on the other side of the classroom door. I now have the freedom to take a step back and consider what we are doing in our classrooms and the impact this has on our learners. What I have seen in Surrey after just one week as a Helping Teacher, is a dedicated community of teachers who are working incredibly hard yet missing exceptional opportunities in their classrooms everyday. I am not suggesting teachers do not notice these opportunities, they are just working too hard, doing what they believe is their job, to capitalize on them.

A key question must be addressed here? What is our ‘job’ as teachers? The answer will be different depending who you ask of course. The union, administrators, parents and even our students likely have a different opinion. I am interested, however, in what an individual teacher thinks. Actually I am interested in more than what they think. What do individual teachers truly believe is their purpose? What drives your daily decisions and guides your practice? This is a key consideration for all educators as we navigate though the significant challenges we are faced with in our classrooms and the various changes that we are constantly encouraged to make. Furthermore, what we believe is often undermined by our desire to do our job as seen by others. This is where I believe the missed opportunities occur.

I invite all teachers to step back from the unions description of our job, from the prescribed learning outcomes and from anything that clouds whatever it is that guided your career decision in the first place (now, I do not like to impose, but I just have to say, that if kids did not factor somewhere in that decision it may be time to consider a career change). For me, I believe that my role is a facilitator of all things good, anything and everything that will help formulate a world that is better than the one we live in today. I want to help all of my students believe that they are powerful in making a difference and pursue their best life possible. And here lies the quandary for me. These beliefs prevent me from teaching the way our current system is designed. Although my role may be to provide a roadmap for my students and guide learning intentions, I can not justify teaching to an exhausting list of prescribed learning outcomes established almost twenty years ago. Thankfully I am employed by a forward-thinking district and I no longer have to, I can capture previously ignored opportunities and let the learning come to me in authentic and meaningful ways. Moreover, I can share learning and my observations, in real-time, with parents and involve students thanks to advances in technology and digital platforms like FreshGrade.

The Surrey School District has launched a pilot project titled Communicating Student Learning where participating teachers are encouraged to explore innovative ways to replace the current summary based report cards. I eagerly jumped on board and chose to explore an electronic avenue with a web based program called FreshGrade. Finally I was free from the confines of dated, generic, prescribed learning outcomes and stifling report cards. Honestly the feeling of a weight being lifted was almost tangible. I am a hard worker and always thought I was doing best by my students. My job was to choose from a list of learning objectives, plan lessons, teach, assess and repeat. And by repeat, I mean term after term, year after year. The results for my students were okay. I think most of them learned and no one ever complained. The issue for me is that okay and most are just not good enough anymore.

Having the freedom to trust myself as a professional educator and make decisions in my practice to support my students as unique individuals has revealed a plethora of opportunities I have been missing all along. Well, I have seen many of them, I have just not recognized their potential in truly supporting the individual learning needs of my students. All my years of planning and then watching my students for evidence that they understand one narrow concept blinded me to so many amazing things.

Okay so let me share a few examples to make this revelation, which was quite astounding for me, more clear. My grade one classroom this year was a very busy, social and creative group. From day one they constantly asked me to share structures they built or games they had created during free play time (basically my version of centres) or recess break with the class. Although social and creative times are an essential component of the primary classroom we do have an extensive number of learning outcomes to cover and often we simply do not have the time to accommodate such requests. Feeling less pressure this year to cover learning outcomes by a deadline I was able to give my students more sharing time and adjust not only our day plan but our entire learning path. The amazing result was when the learning just came to me, unprescribed!

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We all gathered around as a student shares what he built. I am not distracted by timelines or what I will be teaching next and just fully engaged in the moment with my students. By the end of this sharing session I have become aware of this particular students interests and extensive knowledge of penguins. As he explained the blocks he taught the other students about habitats and needs of living things. His classmates asked interesting questions and I was able to assess who my curious students were and who would need support to ask questions and share ideas in the future. I did not plan this lesson. I created the space for learning and simply took note of the variety of knowledge and needs showcased. From here I guided discussions and collaborated with my students about what we wanted to learn next . Needs of living things is actually part of the grade one curriculum yet it was not my intention to introduce it that day or that term but my students were fascinated. They wanted to learn more, how counterintuitive is it to put that engagement on hold and follow a predetermined plan?

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There are many PLO’s related to cooperation with others, respect for school belongings and social responsibility. As teachers we often create wonderful lessons and walk around with our notepad or clipboard and assess who is meeting expectations. An alternative, and one that I have found much more time efficient and rewarding is to be engaged and aware and take notice of learning as it happens. Let the learning come to you. I took this picture as I watched three 6 year old students complete their class job as a cooperative and responsible group. Again I was not following up on a lesson about treating school property with respect, I saw evidence that these particular students meet that expectation and I captured it.

While participating in this pilot and collecting evidence of learning by building ePortfolios I continued to plan lessons to address learning intentions. I am in no way saying we let go of learning objectives or teaching plans. I am simply sharing my experience of loosening the reins and being open to the possibilities that creates. Teachers are often the only adult in the room with up to thirty students and simply can not do it all. For example, my students worked on a letter to Santa where we set our criteria for what meeting expectations looks like. As with most classrooms I have students of varying abilities. My intention when I walk around to check in as students work is no longer specific to that criteria alone. I have established the criteria with them to provide direction and now I want to be in the moment and truly observe what my students are showing me. For some of them I may see a great example of working independently to meet the criteria and make a note or take a picture. For others I may notice an awkward pencil grip or struggle to write neatly on the lines. Perhaps I notice someone is finished very quickly and ready for a challenge. Essentially all those things we notice as teachers and know are important can be captured and become part of that particular students future learning intentions. If you give yourself permission to guide the learning of each individual child rather than focus on checking off the same learning objective, at the same time, attached to the same lesson, for every student you create the environment for everyone to find success and establish the next step in their journey. All the notes scribbled in a book or on a sticky note that teachers make could become that students new learning objective from that lesson, these are the things we should include in our conversations with students and parents.

I realize that this type of assessment and data collection may not be as straightforward as a list where we can put checks or numbers, in fact it can be quite messy at first. The learning will not come to us at the same time from all students. I empower all teachers to let this be okay. Consider the possibilities. Try on the belief that our job as teachers goes deeper than conforming all students to have the same knowledge base and skills by a particular age. When I consider my own children I do not want their learning journey to be comprised of checks and numbers charting how they measure up to some preconceived idea of what they should be at a certain age. I want them to be in a space where multiple learning opportunities are facilitated and their individual needs and interests respected.

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Returning to the student mentioned above who has a strong knowledge base and interest in penguins. How can we capitalize on this interest to facilitate growth in multiple disciplines? He is hooked and engaged in this subject area. Is it really my job to create a new lesson for the whole class to build his writing skills, presentation skills and so much more? He is involved on his own accord, why would I push him out and take lead of what he learns? Why would I limit his learning to grades where Penguins are part of a science unit? The answer now is that I won’t. It does not make sense to me to teach the same thing, determined decades ago, every year. I am committed to facilitating learning in a way that builds on individual needs and interests. Teachers and students are doing amazing and wonderful things and it is time we celebrate that hard work. I believe we can transform education through assessment to make this learning visible and valuable and I encourage all teachers to take a risk, get a little messy and enjoy the learning as it comes to you.

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Alternative Reporting

I always dread report card season. I do not find it to be a terribly difficult task, actually after eight years of teaching the same grade it has become quite easy. The issue for me, as I am sure it is for many teachers, is how to summarize the progress, highlight strengths and make meaningful suggestions for future learning for each of my unique students in one small box? Do parents actually read the report card and have a discussion with their child? Do parents or students feel informed in a way that would benefit future learning? I honestly do not know but I have never been satisfied with the current reporting system as a parent or a teacher. This year when my children brought home their report cards for their first term in grade two and one respectively I realized how much our current reporting system falls short.

Although my son has always been a very bright and curious boy, school has never been on the top of his favourite activities. He would much prefer to be fishing or exploring the world around him, as is the case for many boys. Learning to read was a struggle for him and although he made a good effort it would take two years of LST support and getting eye glasses before he was reading at grade level. The first few months of grade two he worked incredibly hard and we saw wonderful progress. My daughter on the other hand has always been incredibly studious and like many girls loves to learn. She started her first term in grade one reading and writing well above grade level expectations. Before opening their term one report cards I asked my kids about what they learned. My son was able to talk about reaching new reading levels and learning to read and spell new words. He was quite proud of his progress and rightly so. This changed after we opened the report cards. After comparing all the ‘approaching expectations’ boxes checked on his report to the many ‘exceeding expectations’ checked on his sisters he was very frustrated. Although I read the comments highlighting his progress he was left with the impression that he did bad and his sister did great. The reality is that my daughter really did not learn anything. This is not a reflection on her teacher but the reality that she entered grade one already meeting the prescribed learning outcomes. My son learned a great deal and made excellent progress yet this was not reflected in the report card. Again this is not about his school or his teacher rather it is, in my opinion, the result of an inadequate reporting system.

This is the reason I decided to take on the opportunity to formally report in a different way in my own classroom. I teach grade one at Pacific Heights Elementary in Surrey, BC. I am privileged to be part of a forward thinking school district and thankful for the freedom to explore a new approach to connecting with and informing parents. As my first attempt I decided to host a student led conference during the school day and I am thrilled with how successful it was.

Although student-led conferences are not new this was my first experience facilitating them during the school day and using the experience as a means to report student progress. The first step for me was to let my parents know that I was interested in sharing their child’s learning with them in a new way. I had no idea if parents could or would commit to spending 30-45 minutes of their day in our classroom. I had a discussion with my class and they all agreed that bringing their parents to our classroom was a great way to share our learning. I drafted a letter and sent it home. The next day 15/21 students returned the notice with a commitment from their parents. It was amazing to see how excited the students were to return this notice to me. Within three days of sending the notice home I had a commitment from all of my parents. The kids were absolutely thrilled! The last notice I received was from an ESL student who shared with me that her parents were nervous to come as they did not speak English. I talked with the student and her older sister and explained the concept of students leading the conversations. I was very touched by the enormous smile on her face when both of her parents, who had never been to our classroom, showed up for the conference.

Parents were invited to come to our classroom in the morning, after recess or after lunch. It was nice to know in advance when to expect parents so students could be prepared. I booked our school iPads for the day and organized my students for a day of independent work with our literacy and math centres. I really wanted to give parents a glimpse into grade one and make this a very natural meeting. With the class functioning as per usual when they arrived, parents could also see how their child works in a class setting. For me a few moments watching their child move about the room or work at a table is much more meaningful than one sentence about work habits on a report card. When a child’s parent arrived at the door they would stop what they were working on, greet their parents and take them on a QR code scavenger hunt visiting five stations throughout the school with their iPad. I decided to use QR codes and iPads to make it more fun and highlight some of the students skills using technology. Some of the stations asked students to share projects on their iPads or take pictures of completed tasks.

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I had five stations set up: science, math, language arts, physical activity and student choice. Students randomly scanned QR clues until they had taken their guest to all five stations. Once completed they found me, returned their iPad and I gave them a 3 stars and a wish form to fill out with their parents and with my support if required.

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The science station was an example of a typical grade one activity where we might make and test predictions. At the fitness stations students demonstrated some of the yoga poses and exercises we practice as part of our daily physical activity. The final station was a student choice activity. The day before the conference students were invited to choose what they would like to share. Most students wanted to share their scrapbooks and poems duo tangs. As part of this stations students invited their parents into our classroom. Yes I had parents floating in and out of the classroom all day while students went about their learning. It was not as distracting as one might think, the student leading a conference would simply walk their guest around and show them our classroom. Everyone else went about their business as usual. This was a great way for me to see how articulate some of my shy students can be when they are surrounded by the comfort of family. A favourite moment was watching one girl have her parents sits criss cross at the carpet at she rang our chime and taught them about mindful breathing. It was very interesting to see what parts of the classroom or activities students were excited to share.

At the math station I simply placed the various games we play at Math Centres and invited parents to play one with their child. It was incredibly informative for parents to see the value of dice and card games in building number sense. I connected with parents at this station to answer questions and ensure they understood their child’s understanding of the math concepts we were learning. Students also shared various math apps and math projects on their iPads at this station.

As Language Arts is so critical in grade one I included performance standards and other points of reference for parents at this station. I think that as teachers we often forget that most parents really don’t know what it looks like to be reading or writing at grade level expectations. The feedback I received from parents was very positive and the opportunity to compare their child’s reading level and writing abilities was much appreciated.

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Overall I feel that the student led conference was an excellent way to involve parents and students in the reporting process. I feel that parents left much
more informed than with the traditional report card. This process was informative for me as well as I observed students with their guests. When I sent report cards home I did not fill out the comment box but simply referred to the student-led conference. I did attach the prescribed learning outcomes as I honestly did not have time to adjust them this term. In the next term I intend to look at an alternative to the exhaustive list of PLO’s. Many of my parents have thanked me for the experience and were very happy to have student-led conferences in lieu of a comment box. All I know is that this was my first attempt at something new and I am very pleased with the result. The only problem I have now is I don’t know if I can go back to the old way of reporting. There are so many ways to make assessment meaningful, to involve parents and to engage students in their learning journey, I am excited for the possibilities.

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