Sunday, October 28, 2012

What are you learning?

Some former students have up their Saturday yesterday to join our school in hosting a volleyball tournament. These awesome 8th and 9th graders came back to ref. score keep and time keep for us. So of course I took this opportunity to chat with them about how things were going at the junior high school.

A few of them are in a class where a colleague of mine has taken on a largely inquiry based learning approach this year. I've been following his classes on twitter and talking with him through this journey. Everything I've seen so far makes me want to go back in time to retake science 8 and 9.

These kids are tackling big issues. And most of them are doing it well. They are spending their class time working meaningfully with their teacher, and making deep connections to the subject matter.

But when I asked one of our refs what he thought of the process he was quick to say he felt like he wasn't being taught anything. That he wasn't learning just researching. And that a PowerPoint he made wasn't as good a study tool as notes he copied from a teacher. He feels his teacher isn't teaching him.

He then ran off to ref again and I didn't get the chance to ask him all the burning questions in my mind. To have the conversation with him about what real learning is.

But another teacher overheard the conversation. And said "well that's interesting. No one really thinks about asking kids if these initiatives are effective."

And that's when I realized how far we have to go. My colleague and I chatted then for a while about why hat student may have responded that way. What is he motivated by? What us the purpose of schooling? And is producing intellectually capable students who don't trust their own learnings as valuable going to move us forward as a society.

I worry about the kids who want the teacher to tell them what is right. I worry about the citizens they will become if they go through their whole lives assuming authority figures are telling them the "right" answers. That the people they work for, vote for, and watch always have their best interests at heart. I want to know we are unleashing a generation of passionate questioners who trust their own abilities to research and answer their own questions.

So I started yesterday by planting a little seed in the student I talked with. I ended the day asking him if he thought a teacher always had the right answers. He said no, but they usually know where to look. I said and don't you know where to look too?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Calendar Math... Not Just For Kindergarten


Okay so I teach math.  I teach math to 4th graders.  I love them, and I love the little bit of time i get in the classroom each day.  It keeps me current, it keeps me learning, and it keeps me connected with the kids in my school in the best way I know how. 

But yeah math.  Not exactly my first choice to teach, and definitely not my strength as a teacher.  But I like a challenge, and I like the chance to really streach my thinking and learning. 

I am a firm believer that if something works really well in kindergarten, it can be adapted to work in upper grades, and will also work well (maybe better... sorry kindergarten teachers & thank for being awesome i love stealing things from you!).

So here is where my idea for Calendar Math 4.0 was concieved. 
click here to see this full size
I've run this by a few people, one recommended I add in a way for kids to represent the number pictorally.  (can you see where I could put this?)  Any thoughts? Ideas? 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Assessing Assessment

I had the privilege of attending and presenting at the Alberta Assessment Consortium Fall Conference this weekend.  It was a pretty timely conference for me as our school division has moved to an outcomes based reporting system for our k-6 learners this year.  I am excited about this shuffle, and have been looking forward to it for a long time.  Back when I was a full time classroom teacher (not that long ago), I had these crazy tracking systems created to help guide me as a teacher through assessment conversations with my students, toward the reporting system I was stuck with; percentages. I was thankful to spend my weekend with some wonderful people who focus on assessment all the time to help me, and the other members of my district attending think through this shift.  I'm excited.

The Keynote this year was Ruth Sutton, who very clearly discussed the issues with percentage reporting, and ranking style assessment practices.  I was impressed with how she tackled underlying local issues head on.  Standardized testing: "Weighing the pig will not make it grow." The now infamous "no zero policy"  that has taken on a life of it's own in the media she said "don't make the zero a hero." (well actually she sang this but you get the idea)  and that " the public assumption that all students are motivated by failure."  As anyone who has ever been in a classroom knows this simply isn't true.  What a different world we would live in if the human race was simply motivated to "follow rules" and deadlines, or simply do the work required of them because of the possibility of a 0. 

I was excited to hear Ruth talk about how many people nod, and can speak in a limited fashion of their understanding of things like assessment, and differentiation, but really these are big concepts that we are all grappling with the constructs of.  "Assessment, Differentiation, they are one word, but really big stuff."  Our school division has been toying with differentiation for a while, I was lucky enough to have two opportunities to spend time at the University of Virginia with Carol Ann Tomlinson herself to learn about differentiation.  Since then I've had a couple of years to apply this knowledge to my own classroom, and work with my teachers to apply it in all their classrooms as well.  I was happy to hear (what I already knew, but it's still nice to hear an"expert" agree) that you're never done learning about these ideas, you just deepen your knowledge as you go along.

This of course led to great dinner conversations.  "Understanding is like an onion."  was the phrase of the night on Friday as the attendees from my district and I had supper.  Understanding has layers, with each one you get deeper to the core of the onion. 

Overall I'm coming back to school on Monday with my head full, some great ideas to move forward in our reporting to parents, some super helpful templates, and feeling pretty proud that I actually had the chance to present here myself (and didn't faint/puke/shake to death in front of an audience). 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Relationships First

Looking Out The Deep End
From Flickr photostream of Ali Puckett

Today I learned a very timely lesson in relationships.  I'm presenting at a provincial conference with a collegue at the end of the month.  The conference is on Assessment practices, this is important to know.  This is the first time I've ever presented at a big conference like this.  We submitted our handout's a week or so ago after going through them again and again.  I've used many of the slides as handouts for years and I guess i also didn't know how to view them.


Well today I got an email with very timely feedback written in anecdotal form on our handouts.  It was very VERY humbling.  There was one "slap your forehead" mistake (forgot to cite Carol Ann Tomlinson on her DI concept map OOPS!).  There were a few slides that I'm 99% sure I wrote.... but when I was asked to cite them I'm worried that maybe I didnt.  So now I'm having an internal struggle about that.  And one quote from a student from years past that I'm having trouble trying to remember the name of. 

The hardest part of this feeback was the comments on an Aboriginal social studies unit I created when I was a classroom teacher.  I understand where they are coming from, and I understand the cultural sensitivity that should always be used when teaching and learning about other cultures. But I guess being questioned about my level of respect by someone who doesn't know me was a little harder to swallow than I anticipated.  Also being asked how it connects to the curriculum had me a little taken aback.  What do I do?  This is a unit I made by collaborating with the aboriginal liason in my school, also using materials and ideas I was given in a district offered PD session.  I invite elders into my classroom to teach dances, and tell stories, I've work with aboriginal artists to create curricular connections in art.  If these people had asked me about my unit instead of assuming my ignorance maybe i wouldn't feel so bad right now?

I guess the most important thing I learned today is that you can't assess someone without first getting to know them.  When you blindly assess you may not actually know what you are assessing.  Not to mention depending on the kid (or adult) your "timely feedback" may end up setting them back.  I know I'm really rethinking my decision to present, maybe I'm not ready for this kind of conference. To late now I suppose, back i go treading water in the deep end!

Monday, August 27, 2012

My Unsolicited Advice for New Teachers Being Interviewed

I’ve been an assistant principal for three school start ups now.  I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve had enough practice interviewing and hiring teachers to really know what I want to hear in an interview.  Those key things that make a candidate stand out.  

Now to provide some background information to help understand where I’m coming from.  I work in a school district that is young and vibrant, in a community that is very transient.  Our students are always coming and going, as are our teachers.  We don’t get a ton of highly experienced teacher apply for our positions, and for the most part we get a long list of people fresh out of their ed degree’s, or people who have been substitute teaching since leaving university a year or so ago.  

That being said I love hearing our freshest teachers talk about their experiences.  But even some of the most dazzling gems my principal and I have hired faltered on a few key points in their interviews.  Here is my thoughts, in hope that it never happens again.

1. When you are asked about your planning process.....

Please mention curriculum.  How you plan things that align with learning goals.  We love to hear that you begin with the end in mind.  It’s even better if you can discuss your unit planning methods, wether they are UbD related, or some other amazing planning style I’m not aware of yet.  Please talk about your assessment plans, and how you link your lessons plans to those deep understandings you have (or plan to have) for your students.

2. When we ask how you communicate with parents...

Show no fear.  Establishing relationships with the parents of your students will make your job so much easier.  The earlier you can do this the better.  Tell us about how you pick up the phone to make contact with parents for good and not so good.  We’re here to support you.  

3. That silly technology question...

Tell us how you maneuver through social media, and how you can use youtube to enrich lessons.  Talk about how you can’t wait to learn from the students in your class and create an online learning community that extends well beyond your classroom.  I know I know you want to talk about your slick smart board/promethean board skills.  It’s no longer about how you handle technology, but how you open that gate for our students.

4. The classroom management question....

I know sometimes these questions are set up so you think back to that one nightmare behavioral moment we all have that ended with someone from admin needing to intervene because things had escalated out of control.  We’ve all been there.  But thats not what we are looking for here.  Tell me about a time where you were able to turn a situation around.  Talk to us about your successes.  If you haven’t found one yet, then talk us through your reflection of that not so great moment, what are you going to try next time. 

Be innovative.  Tell your interviewer your story.  Only you can.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Differentiation, it never stops

DI doesn't end here.
I just spent most of my day working with a lovely lady from my school district on developing a presentation on assessing diverse learners through differentiation for the Alberta Assessment Consortium (AAC) conference coming up this fall.  I was amazed how even as two professional adults we worked to differentiate this project for ourselves.

The two of us are members of our school districts differentiated instruction team.  We have a bit of a shared history, but haven't really ever worked together on something.  We both have had the privilege of spending two weeks at the University of Virginia working with Carol Ann Tomlinson and her grad students to help wrap our heads around what true differentiation is.

It started when we were asked to present, the entire group was asked and anyone who was interested was invited to participate.  I thought this was a natural next step for myself, and my partner thought is was a good opportunity although it was far out of her comfort zone.  We were the only two who volunteered.  We began by discussing (very briefly) if we were going to work together on this, or divide up the presentation and work solo.

After doing a little bit of ground work on my own, because I like to piece things together alone, we got together today, and magic happened.  We started really connecting and building a truly differentiated presentation, making the most of our strengths, experiences, and worries.  We were able to scaffold the presentation for my reluctant partner, but still allow me to stretch a bit too.  She has a firm background in the philosophical aspects of DI, where I am much more practical, so we were able to play to this balance as well. I left feeling energized and excited about our work.

The best part about this was as we questioned each other, and worked back and forth, we not only were  enriching the DI in our presentation, but also practicing differentiating for ourselves.  Which then led to a nice reflection about how we can instil this idea in our students and staff, to advocate for their own differentiation, but still being open to taking risks and learning outside of their comfort zone as well.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Roadtrips and Leadership

In the back seat with these two all summer long.

This summer I was lucky enough to spend driving across Canada with my mom and dad.  That's right I spent 37 day, and over 8000kms with my parents and we are still talking.  True be told I've found myself kinda missing them since I've been back home.  So I got to thinking about why this worked well, how we did it, and how I could apply this to my school. 

1. It starts with love.

One of our many picnic lunch spots.

So first things first, we love each other. Because of this we started out comfortable talking to each other, and wanted whats best for each other.  Michael Fullan asks us to love our staff, not the hugs in the staff room every morning gushy kind of love but the kind of love that made my family road trip successful.  Well intentioned, honest care for each others well being, and betterment.  It's not just about establishing a relationship but truly finding the thing you love about each person you work with.  Starting from there amazing things can happen, with kids and adults.

2.  Have a plan. Sort of.

New Glasgow Lobster Suppers. So. Good.

When planning this trip we knew one thing.  We didn't know what area's we were really going to like, and what parts of Canada we might just want to drive though.  So we set out knowing one thing for sure, we were booked on the ferry to Newfoundland on July 17th (and if we wanted to we could change that).  With this somewhat of a deadline in place we were able to meander across Canada for almost three weeks stopping for a while in the places that caught our hearts (Ottawa, Quebec City, PEI), and rest for a night in the ones that didn't quite do it (Montreal....).  We each made a list of three or four things that were "must see's" and we honoured each other's lists.  My dad got the Terry Fox Memorial to himself in Thunderbay.  My mom got to visit a whole bunch of restaurants she had seen on the food network.  I got to see the ceremonial guard band, and sit at a side walk cafe in lower Quebec.  But we also got to do tons of spur of the moment things because we were not strict to a plan.  We whale watched in Bona Vista, went to a movie on a super hot day, spent an amazing evening on a red beach in PEI.  We got to see what we wanted to see, but we also were flexible enough to see what we could never have dreamed of.  This is super important to transfer to our schools.  Yes it is imperative to stick to our goals, and curricula, but it is also just as important to be flexible enough to let our students discover places we didn't even know possible.

3. Revel in Moments of Awe

Whale Watching

We were wandering in Bona Vista Newfoundland, when we saw a whale in the ocean.  I thought to myself "oh cool".  My mom on the other hand started shouting "Oh My Goodness did you SEE that!!! Stop the car stop the car!!" So we did, and for the next few moments I got to see my mom transformed.  She was giddy watching the whales breach the surface of the ocean, flipping their tales up as they plunged back down.  She sat clapping her hands gazing in astonishment.  I realized that these are the moments I miss not being in a classroom full time anymore.  The moments of pure amazement kids get when they see something for the first time, or finally get something they've been trying to figure out.  I see it in my staff from time to time but never as raw, and as powerfully as I did with my mom this summer.  I hope to open myself more to revel in my own moments, and savour the beauty of them. 

4. Know what people are good at, and trust in those skills

Mom finding the next hotel.

This was probably the most important thing we had going for us this summer.  We all had a skill set that the others could not have made the trip without.  My dad can pack a trunk like nobodies business (we travelled in their Volkswagen Jetta), without his spatial abilities we would have either ended up not being able to take a small cooler with us and spent a lot more money on food, and cold drinks thus limiting the sight seeing we got to do.  My mom is a research, and administrative genius.  Every evening while we were at supper she was researching hotels for the next night, reading reviews, showing us pictures and then booking the best deal in the next town.  I've got a pretty keen sense of direction and was able to map out the best routes to sight see so we would not waste to much time back tracking etc.  We all fell into our roles and were able to have a smooth trip because we all weren't stepping on each others toes.  Never once did one of my parents ask me if I was sure we should do things in the the order I suggested.  Never once did we ask my mom if she was sure we should stay somewhere, and no one was going to ask my dad why he put a bag here or there.  When we know what people are good at, we need to let them just go ahead and be good at it. 

I had an amazing summer with my Mom and Dad and am so thankful I had the chance to travel with them while they are both still able to.  As usual they teach me so much about who I am and who I want to be.  I'm one lucky girl.