Cameroon 2009

Cameroon 2009

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tough decisions (and Nelson Mandela)

I've read a number of accounts of how many decisions a teacher makes in a day - hundreds? thousands?  No question, it's a lot.  You can't get them all right, and if you care, you lose some sleep when you get them wrong.

Now as a principal, it strikes me that the decisions are perhaps fewer (okay, I'm pretty sure they're fewer, simply by virtue of interacting with fewer people over shorter periods of time).  But they're tougher, and sometimes really tough.

Just in the last week or so:

  • intervene with a long term staff member to address concerns?  This is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, and I daresay I care about a lot.  Nevertheless, it's not doing the job if you give free passes.  So far it's not gone where I'd hoped, but it was still the right (and hard) thing to do.
  • does a camping trip go ahead, after a staffer in the park where the trip is to take place let us know that moose hunting is going on in the park?  This trip has been planned for a long time, is important to the course goals and is in many ways a celebration of the learning to date.  Still... talk about a risk/reward scenario that will scare the heck out of you.  (The trip went ahead, and was a great success in the bitter cold.)
  • press ahead with a whole school personnel development initiative that will cost up to $100 000, and which brings no guarantees of success?  No one else in the province is doing it, and we'll need to fundraise for the vast majority of the money.  Nonetheless, there is no realistic downside to the initiative; reservations are tied entirely to the cost, and so if it's good for us and our kids, we'll go ahead in faith.
  • every day, knowing that single decisions on how to react to student misbehaviour can potentially end their school careers, with all that implies.  Further, it's not as simple as erring on the side of being less "strict".  Some students need that firm hand, and some need a hug (real or metaphorical), and they don't carry a sign to tell us which it is.  
And this is where I've been thinking about Nelson Mandela.  I read his autobiography a couple of years ago, and he was quick to acknowledge his failings, and the difficulty he had in making hard decisions.  And how about that decision to come out of prison preaching reconciliation rather than retaliation?  Not  an awful lot of precedents for that, huh?  He changed the world, this man described by both his widow and himself as profoundly ordinary.  There's hope for all of us, and we need to accept that we all change the world, for better or worse, with every decision we make.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Marks don't matter

What follows is the "message from the principal" in our upcoming newsletter.  We need to work hard at trying to help our students and parents (and staff, if you're not "there" yet) to stop thinking of marks as a meaningful definition of student learning.

Here at Ashern Central, we've come a long way as staff in understanding that percentage grades are a silly construct.  We only report that way because of the provincial report cards, and then only four times a year.  Aside from that, we do use a 4 point scale for measuring student progress in learning outcomes; even there, though, we try to frame the discussion around the learning, and not the numbers attached to the summative assessments.

Marks don’t matter.

A strange sentiment to accompany the year’s first report cards, for sure.  Really though, marks don’t matter, not much anyway.  Learning matters, a lot, but marks are a terribly blunt instrument for measuring that learning.

So much of what students learn in a day, a week or a semester goes unmeasured by marks.  The most important things: personal responsibility; caring (for themselves and for others); determination and “grit”; self-confidence; leadership; and many others.  If you’re a student, aren’t these the things that you want for yourself?  If you’re a parent, isn’t this what you want for your child?  These are the things that matter, the things that last, that stay with us for a lifetime.

Yes, we have a responsibility to teach the academics, and yes, they matter too.  Perhaps not as much as we used to think they did, and certainly not if it’s just the learning of facts, in a world that offers us all the facts known to humankind in just a few key clicks.  Even then, though, a single percentage grade to represent that learning?  Really?

As a teacher, I watched students chase marks, and even the very best of them often didn’t care about what they learned.  “What do I have to do to get a 90?”  Not what can I learn, how can I grow, what will make me a better, more complete, more effective and happy human being.  We want our children to become life-long learners, but if grades motivate them now, where will the motivation come from when they aren’t receiving marks?

Our students need and deserve useful, descriptive feedback about their learning.  We know from research that verbal feedback is most effective, and that the relationship between teacher and student is key  to fostering student learning.  This is what we are working on, this is what matters.  Students and parents, when you speak with one another about how school is going, let’s focus on the learning, not on the marks. 

Marks don’t matter—people do.

Monday, November 4, 2013

It starts with the "3"

I received a request from a colleague about how to interpret the meaning of a "4" on Manitoba's 4 point scale for middle years report cards.  One of her teachers had suggested that it meant "above grade level".

What follows is the email I sent in response.  The bottom line is that in our school, we call "3" meeting the outcome (and we assess by outcome, not units or tasks).  The teacher and students need a strong understanding of those outcomes, and they need to know what "meeting" looks like.  With any luck, there are multiple possibilities for demonstrating it, but still...

More to follow about our journey toward outcome-based assessment (standards based grading) soon.

What follows is the report card descriptors.  No mention of "grade-level" at all.

Academic Achievement of Provincial Expectations

4  Very good to excellent understanding and application of concepts and skills
3  Good understanding and application of concepts and skills
2  Basic understanding and application of concepts and skills
1  Limited understanding and application of concepts and skills; see teacher comments
ND  Does Not yet Demonstrate the required understanding and application of concepts and skills; see teacher comments

Like grade level, these descriptors are, in themselves, meaningless.  The conversation needs to change, and teachers need to accept that their interpretations of "good" and "basic" etc. are about as objective as grade level suppositions.  There simply is no objective standard.  That requires definition of the assessment, exemplars and so on, and curriculum documents (thankfully) don't contain those.

That's where it becomes incumbent upon teachers to have a solid understanding of the outcomes they're expecting from students, and what it "looks like" when students meet them.  At Ashern Central, we start from that point, and define meeting the outcome as a 3.  Further, never mind the percentage ranges on the report card, 3.0 = 80% when we convert subject grades to a percentage, which we only do for report cards.  No percentages at any other time, and a shame we have to do it for the report cards.

If 3 = meeting the outcome, does that mean that 4 = exceeding the outcome?  Simply, yes.  The form that takes will vary from course to course, outcome to outcome.  And, it's up to teacher and student to define what that looks/sounds like.

Some examples:

in gr. 7 Math:  The outcome is to determine mean, median, mode and range. 
3 = the student successfully calculates these values from a set of numbers (perfectly?, or 9 times out of 10? - there's the subjectivity of the teacher's definition of "meeting")
4 = the student completes an independent project to collect and collate meaningful data, and then calculate these values, or...
the student goes on to learn about standard deviation, and show a basic understanding of its meaning, or...
the student successfully tutors a peer, finding ways to explain these concepts meaningfully by deconstructing the steps in new ways, or with new examples.

in gr. 5 Social Studies:  The outcome is to describe daily life in early French and British settlements in Atlantic Canada
3 = the student provides descriptions that provide a level of detail prescribed by the teacher (in whatever way, not just tests)
4 = a comparison and contrast of these descriptions, or...
the creation of a performance, artwork, ??? that represents these lives, or...
an analysis (appropriate for gr. 5, of course) of why these lives were different.  Simply, working higher up Bloom's taxonomy in answering the question.

And so on.  Lots and lots of possibilities.

What is a 2?  Again, we try to keep it simple.  It's when the student "gets it", but isn't quite there in meeting the expectation(s) for a 3.

a 1?  It's when a student is really barely there.  Again, as always, a subjective professional judgment.  1 is the threshold, where the teacher believes that the student has a cursory understanding or demonstration of the skill, but only that, no more.

So, it all starts with defining the "3".  4 is an extension of that in some fashion; 2 and 1 lower levels of demonstrating the learning expected for a 3.  We kid ourselves if we thing teachers are ever going to have extensive rubrics for all of the outcomes, exemplars and so on.  It's much more reasonable to ask just for the definition of 3, and work from there.

Hope that helps.  We need to push teachers, and ourselves, to embrace the complexity and professional thinking that goes into assessing grades.  At the same time, we need to keep all of this in its place, and to remember that it's about pushing a learning agenda, not a grade-grubbing agenda, and that's about formative and not summative assessment.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Don't sweat the small stuff??

"Don't sweat the small stuff - and it's all small stuff."

Certainly catchy, and more than just an element of truth to it.  I could get into a discussion of the stuff I consider anything but small; another post, perhaps.

No, this is about my belief that a lot of small things matter, and are worth "sweating".
  • A smile is a small thing.  But a person's face is transformed by a smile.  Smiles invite people in, foster the development of relationships and bonds.  Last spring I asked a teacher to smile more, and her "vibe" is entirely different when she does.  I'm so grateful that she's taken this to heart.
  • Graffiti and other small forms of damage are small things in public spaces.  Yet, left in place, they're open invitations to add more.  They signal a mood of lawlessness, and a lack of caring by school staff.  In the mid 90s, Rudy Giuliani announced an anti-graffiti task force; together with other initiatives, it dramatically lowered the crime rate in New York City.  It's worth reading about.
  • Spelling mistakes, poor font selection; bad posture, weak grammar.  How many job applicants have failed to get an interview, or to be considered for a position, because of one of these "small" things?
  • Please and thank you.  Will anyone seriously suggest these little words don't matter?
  • Being in the room to welcome students to class.  No direct link to the learning to follow, but it can be a powerful opportunity to get to know kids, and form relationships with them.  A few minutes that can matter hugely.
A touch (school-appropriate, of course), an open door, cleaning up after yourself, pretending not to see or hear something (once in a while).  There are so many little things that, ultimately, add up in ways we might not appreciate in the moment.

What do you think are the small things worth sweating?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Too much of a good thing

I followed a link on Twitter to a blog written by someone I take to be a relatively young teacher.  In her latest post, she is lamenting that while she finds Twitter and other online sources of PD to be really valuable, they often also leave her with a feeling of inadequacy.  My own experience on Twitter is that there are a lot of posters who, without likely meaning to, suggest that there is something wrong with others who are not sufficiently "progressive", who haven't yet gotten with the program.  As this young lady says, no grades (ever) and no worksheets (ever) "may" be a desirable state of affairs, but they're not realities in her world at this point.  It's worth remembering that there are a lot of people who have had "the" answer before, and they've been wrong.

I wrote the following comment after her post, and thought to myself that maybe this was my newest post for this blog:

Hi Rachel.

You bet it's tough to do the job that you're doing. It's completely natural to feel the way that you're feeling now, and you'll probably feel like that from time to time, even often. On some of my best days, right after the students left after the last class, I'd slump for a moment with my head on my counter, feeling like I might not have the energy to get up. To say that teaching is enervating and exhausting at the same time is not an oxymoron.

I'm relatively new to Twitter, and only a week into blogging, and can relate to that feeling of inadequacy. I've been a principal now for 4 years, after 26 years of teaching. Still, after what most would describe as a very successful career, I often feel like I just can't do enough, or do it well enough. Many of those you're likely following have been out of the classroom for a while, sometimes a long while, and are forgetting the realities of the classroom - I know that I am. It's easy to present the latest and greatest ideas, and to give off a vibe of, "come on, there's nothing to it" or that you must not care if you're not on board. Remember that they almost surely mean the best, but that may not come through in posts and comments.

Are you trying, in the time you have available, to get better, to learn and to grow? Your blog, what I saw in your work to redesign your classroom learning environment, suggests that you certainly are. You won't get it all right, at least I hope not, because the best learning comes from getting it wrong, then refining, revising or just trying something different until you get it right. But it's not easy, and it doesn't always feel good.

Teaching is not, ever, something done perfectly. As you stated, there are those who should not be doing it, for whatever reasons. The rest of us, though, are doing the greatest work in the world, and will have a damnably tough time seeing it and feeling it on a daily basis. One of my favourite quotes sums up how I see this profession as a way to express my faith in the eventual positive influence we have on the future, through our kids: 
“Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway.” – Robert Henri

Take care of yourself. :)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Foster Parents

My wife and I have been foster parents for the past four and a half months.  There's a bit of a story behind it, but we took in one of our students when a placement for him turned out terribly, and he was placed in a hotel, as too many are.

This young man has FASD and ADHD.  He was fortunate, previously, to have been placed at birth with a foster family who cared for and loved him until his needs became too great for them to handle.  He's a good kid, just turned 18, and knows right from wrong (taught at home) better than he knows the times tables and reading he learned at school.

That's not a slight on the schools he attended.  Rather, it's a testament to the love he received throughout his life, as troubled as it has been not only with the conditions mentioned, but with a number of other health issues.  His foster parents did so much more than feed and clothe him, and send him to school when the time came.  They held and coddled him, were there through all of his surgeries, prayed with and for him.  He was corrected when he was wrong, and praised when he was right.

It turns out that he has a special talent for music, and he received the violin lessons and other lessons that have turned him into a fine musician.  He has a sense of self worth that exceeds what others with his conditions might have had, from this and his other accomplishments.  Last year, he had the confidence to give a presentation to the student body about FASD, and to make the case that it would not keep him from living a life full of worth.  I was, and am very proud of him.

Foster parents, at least around here, are sometimes lightly regarded.  I've heard others intimate that foster parents are in it for the money (it's not that much), and that the level of care provided might just be less than is true in "real" families.  That is so wrong.  This is not an easy job, and that's because it's not a job.  It's a vocation, a calling I think.  After less than half a year, we're played out.  Our boy is moving out into a group home tomorrow, and we wouldn't have been able to go on doing this much longer.  We love him, yet...

It must be a real challenge to take children in regularly, to love and nurture them, and then to have to let them go.  For the foster parents who may rarely, or even never see these children again - my goodness, I just can't imagine how hard that is.  I so admire your willingness to go through that, all of it.  May God bless you for this loving work that you do.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Trusting teachers

As a principal, I really think that teachers don't get enough respect.

The story goes...  The new principal is in the school a couple of weeks before the start of the new year.  As she is moving around the school, meeting the teachers who are starting to come in and prepare, she notices that the supply room is being left open.  The teachers are walking into the room, and coming back out, sometimes with armloads of supplies - paper, pens, rulers, markers, staplers and so on.  When no one is around, she goes into the room and sees that, sure enough, there is no sign-out sheet for these supplies.  Well, this is troubling, but she knows enough not to try to change the situation without learning more.
Wondering who she can talk with, she sees the old janitor down the hall.  She goes over to him, points to the open supply room, and asks, "Are the teachers really just allowed to go into the supply room and help themselves without anyone checking?"  The janitor smiles and replies, "Well, we do trust them with the children, ma'am."

Are teachers trusted to work within the realistic constraints of our school budgets and their own budget areas?

Are teachers trusted to access all of the information we have about the students they work and learn with every day?

Are teachers trusted to try out new ways of engaging students, even if it moves outside the boundaries of any of the traditional models of teaching and learning we're familiar with?

Are teachers trusted with access to the best technology we have, including the social media sites that we might be afraid will distract them from the rest of their work?

If not, how do we reconcile this with the fact that, "we do trust them with the children"?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Overcoming Humility

It's been an interesting past week.

On Monday, a group from Lakeshore S.D. attended a George Couros presentation.  There's a lot to say about that, but one thing that resonated was the assertion that we have a responsibility to share what we know/have/can do, and not just to consume.

This applies online as well as "in the world".  George used the example of posting on Twitter, and not just lurking.

I've thought a lot about this, and have committed to blogging as a part of my personal learning plan for this year.  In the same way as we want our students to write as well as to read, to learn actively and not just passively, we as educators need to incorporate action into our own learning.

I participated in my first Twitter chat last week, #sbgchat.  Not sure that I'm in love with the fast flow of info, encouraging superficiality, but it was nice to make connections with some others, and to be able to offer to share what we've learned at Ashern Central School about standards based grading (or outcome based assessment, as we refer to it).  Tonight, I emailed a few of those contacts with some information and attachments to help spread the word about this practice.

There was also a happenstance professional growth meeting with one of the teachers in the school today.  She happened to be in the building when I was, so we discussed her plan for the year.  She too (as many do) has a lot to offer others, and I encouraged her to "put it out there" through Twitter, and/or blogging or by other means.  She's considering making this the focus of her plan for the year.

It's not easy to accept that one has much to offer others.  Pride may be the root sin of the seven deadly ones, but a false humility is no great virtue.  I owe a lot to all of the others that have contributed to my own learning, and perhaps a way to pay that back is to pass it along as opportunities present themselves.