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!
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?
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.
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.