Cameroon 2009

Cameroon 2009

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Literacy starts with listening and speaking

A couple of months ago I read an article by Richard Allington in the ASCD's Educational Leadership: October 2014 entitled "Reading Moves - What Not to Do". 
In one part of the article, he references "the need for literate conversations".

Thinking about those "literate conversations":  I wonder how much of the difficulty for struggling readers originates in a paucity of oral language prior to ever learning to read, and then throughout the years that they're developing as readers.  How much more difficult it must be to make meaning of text (really just oral language committed to a secondary, visual form) when a child hasn't had the opportunity to "decode" anything beyond a trivial level of meaning in the conversations they've heard from birth.  This lack of oral fluency, and listening "fluency" (if there is such a thing) must translate into difficulty with the written word, I'd think.
In the latter part of the article, the author advocates for "turn, pair and share".  Okay, fine, if the children are capable of doing so fluently, intelligently.  What if they simply haven't the facility to do this well?  Repetition without a means of development can't reasonably lead to significant growth.  This is where modelling - students having an opportunity to repeatedly hear two (or more) literate people have a discussion - might be significant, and damnably difficult to create in a one teacher environment.

There are 6 identified language arts (here in MB, anyway).  Reading is the one we virtually obsess over; writing the poor sister who gets attention when we notice that she's being neglected.  The other four starve, really.  There may be speaking and listening in school, but I have no sense that we work very hard at actually improving these skills in classrooms.  Viewing and representing, sure, when we think of them; and at that, my uninformed observation is that we feel almost "clever" by including them - "Look how progressive we are by having students draw, create posters, create other visuals, record their voices, etc."  Is reading really the most central of the visual arts?  I don't think so; that centre, in my view, is the speaking and listening that we evolved to do.  Perhaps that's what we should be focusing on first with our struggling, nascent readers in K, 1, 2.  Help them learn to speak and listen with verbally rich language first, then indulge them in reading.  And maybe that isn't even an "either-or" proposition, but rather a choice of emphasis about which needs must come first.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Averaging grades? Just stop.

There is simply no acceptable reason to average a student's grades earlier in a course with those received nearer the end.

Every student deserves multiple chances to demonstrate his or her learning.  This may be through two or more different assessments that assess the same outcome(s).  It may also take place using redos/retakes of the same assessment (the teacher may require acceptable evidence that the student has undertaken subsequent learning before the redo).  It's not always easy, but it might also involve providing the student with an alternative form of assessment - better yet, that alternative is suggested by the student.

In either case, how can a teacher justify averaging the student's earlier "on the way" evidence of learning with later evidence that the student has progressed?  No matter how you slice it, that's punishing the student for not learning fast enough.  Why would we care if it takes a student 2 weeks, 5 weeks or 15 weeks to learn something?  What matters is that they get there.

Let's address some practical issues that might get in the way:

  • Most importantly perhaps, common "grade books" encourage or practically mandate averaging grades throughout a course.  So?  If the practice is wrong, it's wrong, and while these grade books may be a practical barrier, they're not insurmountable.  In an earlier post, I published a spreadsheet that we created and use instead of a traditional grade book.  We'll share with anyone who'd like to contact me.  In addition, though we didn't find any stand-alone software that didn't automatically average throughout a term, our division is moving to PowerSchool as our student management software next year, and we understand that the capability to sidestep this averaging is built in.  If it's not, we'll sidestep that and find another way.

  • This leads to accepting the role of teachers' professional judgment in determining a student's grade.  If it's not by averaging, how do we determine a student's final standing for a particular outcome?  The answer is to trust to teachers' judgment.  This determination should be based on the most recent and most consistent demonstrations of student learning.  It should "triangulate" that data with the teacher's conversations with the student, and with observations of the student's learning outside of formal summative assessments (though these latter should be primary determinants).  There should be no "math" involved in determining a student's learning for an outcome.  In determining an overall grade for a course, these outcome by outcome judgments will be appropriately weighted and combined to give that overall grade, but that's the only occasion for using math in grading.
  • Administrators, are you uncomfortable with relying on teachers' professional judgment?  We put teachers in charge of students and their learning every day.  If these teachers can't be trusted, then we need to take responsibility for that, work with them to improve, and/or find better teachers.  We also need to acknowledge that teachers influence grades, profoundly, every day in their teaching, and every time they create an assessment toward that grade.  Teachers can move grades 10, 20, 30% or more up or down simply by changing the assessments themselves. That's silly, but it's true, so let's not put teachers in a straightjacket, even if it's sometimes of their own making.
  • Percentages - how does a teacher exercise that judgment to pick a number between 0 and 100 to characterize learning?  The answer is that they don't.  We use a simple 4 point scale (again, described in an earlier post, and based on the province's report cards).  3 if the outcome has been met as prescribed, and 4 if the student exceeds the outcome or is extraordinarily proficient.  2 if the student has a "basic" but not yet all the way there level of learning, and 1 if it's just somewhat acceptable.  0, or better, "not yet" is used as a placeholder only, not a grade to be averaged.  We only convert to a percentage twice in a semester, for the sake of the report cards, and then only by provincial mandate.  No reasonable person can say they can discern the difference between 76% and 78%, and let's stop pretending that we can.
  • What is the role of a final exam or other form of final assessment?  Well, it's a great opportunity to give a student that one last chance to demonstrate learning, if we do as we should, and assess each outcome separately from every other.  Our senior math/sciences teacher gives the exam to students in pieces, one outcome per piece.  Students choose which outcomes will comprise their final exam  in advance, as they know where they stand at all times in their learning, and choose these outcomes based on those which can stand to be improved upon.  This way, students are not required to reassure the teacher that they have learned that which they have already amply demonstrated.  They get to focus on the learning that is most important at that point instead.  Also, the final exam/other has no set weight.  Why should it?  Suppose a student has struggled with trigonometry throughout the course, has a breakthrough and "gets" it, and proves that on the final exam.  It doesn't make sense that this should only count for 30 or 40% of the final grade.  The student has learned it, as surely as the student who got it right from the beginning, and should be credited fully with that learning.

There's more, of course, and we're all getting at it in our #sblchat's and other forums.  There are a ton of good resources for learning more, online and in print.

The bottom line is that I don't believe this is really open to debate.  If we are averaging students' grades and giving significant weight to early-on demonstrations that they haven't yet learned something, then we are at fault.  That's not how it works in the "real world", so let's just fix this practice, once and for all.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I'm struggling...

  • with the dichotomy between those (of us) who push for child-centred reform in education, based on children's interests and passions; and those (of us) who remind us constantly of the reality of difficult, disinterested students who seem to remain so despite the best efforts of those teachers.  A year of Twitter has led to a ton of growth, but also significant frustration with those (of us) who sometimes preach without having to practice.  Humility in the presentation of alternatives to traditional paradigms is needed to prevent a hardening of position when teachers try out new ways of doing things, only to encounter unacknowledged difficulties.  Suggesting that "this will solve all your problems", even if it's not stated explicitly, sets others up for failure when success is hard to come by.
  • to reconcile the huge promise of new technologies with the realities of insufficient funds to provide equity between students, and to provide consistent access, training and so on.  Also, there is the seeming disappearance of students almost right into their devices during breaks, lunch, and any other downtime they have.  It sure feels like something human is being lost, even as I myself have experienced the potential of learning with others from around the world. I know there are answers, and have some faith that we'll get to a better place with this, but it's scary sometimes as we're going down this road.
  • to understand how staff (and not only teachers) who are no longer in this business, this vocation to make a positive difference in the lives of our children can continue to occupy a position that others would so gladly embrace, if only they were only given the chance.  It isn't necessary to be actively toxic to hurt our kids: it only takes a lack of caring, not spending time with them or being available to them, not doing the unseen preparation, to cause harm.  To be sure, there are a majority that are absolutely wonderful, often (mostly?) unsung.  It's also true that life sometimes gets in the way, and we (administrators) need to support staff through those times until they are ready to resume a wholehearted dedication to the welfare and growth of our students.  But, some have chosen, consciously or perhaps even subconsciously, to see the education of children as a casual pursuit and effort, saving their best for the rest of their lives.  That's just not good enough, not for this vocation, not for our kids.
  • and other things - perhaps another post.
We (I) know that struggle is a part of the bargain in caring.  It's a good thing.  But it's not an easy thing!

Friday, January 24, 2014

SBG / SBL Post 4 Course Outlines

Fundamental principles of backward design and outcome based assessment dictate that teachers, students and parents should all have a common understanding of the outcomes in a course.

To that end, teachers have been asked to follow a common template in delineating those outcomes, and how they will be assessed (both formatively and summatively).

That template is provided below, as well as a completed example.

SBG / SBL Post 3 A Markbook for SBG

This third post on SBG / SBL is one page from a spreadsheet we created to support real outcome/standards based assessment.

In the spreadsheet, each student has their own page.  The master sheet is where we have the formulas, of course, as well as being where teachers enter both the particular outcomes for the course, and assessments they use to gauge student learning.

Note that we acknowledge that not all outcomes should be weighted equally.  This weighting is decided upon by the teacher, consulting the course curriculum document(s), of course.

Most importantly, grades assigned both within the spreadsheet, and at the bottom of the sheet are based on the teacher's professional judgement.  At the bottom, these assignations emphasize most recent/most consistent demonstrations of learning, and may include consideration of a student's conversations with the teacher, and observations made by the teacher outside of summative assessments. (i.e. triangulation of the data)

I'm afraid you'll likely have to zoom in on the page in order to better see some of the detail.

Underneath the spreadsheet page, you'll find an admittedly rough guide for teachers to assign the provincially mandated percentage to the 4 point scale grade the spreadsheet calculates for the weighted outcomes.

It should also be noted that we will often engage in credit recovery for students who have a failing grade at the end of the course.  Yes, a final grade may be failing due to not completing assessments (a behaviour, not a reflection of learning), but we will work to remediate the behaviour (and the grade) even after the course is completed and reported upon.


SBG / SBL Post 2 Presentation to parents

This second post is a PDF of a presentation prepared for parents, including our parent advisory council.

 It contains much of the same information as the flyer in Post 1, but with some more detail and, of course, a different format.


SBG / SBL Post 1 Mail out flyer on assessment

After a few #sbgchats and #sblchats, some folks have asked whether I'd share materials we use here at Ashern Central School. 

We're certainly more than willing to share, so rather than just doing so person by person by email, I'm posting PDF versions of some documents that we've used.

This first post is a flyer that was mailed out to parents prior to implmentation. It contains "the basics" of what we were planning.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sunshine Blog - Musings

Happy New Year, Bonne annee tout le monde!

When Lori (@LoriEmilson) nominated me to do this today, I read her own sunshine blog post, and can totally agree about how easy it would be to procrastinate in responding.  Of course, the solution is to just get to it, so here goes:

The protocol for a sunshine post:
  • Acknowledge the blogger who nominated you.
  • Share 11 facts about myself.
  • Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger created for me.
  • Nominate 11 bloggers to respond to your questions.
  • Post 11 questions for them.  

And now, 11 facts about myself (in no particular order):
  • I do enjoy golf.  It was fun when I was bad and getting started.  It was fun when I got to be reasonably good at it some years ago.  And it's fun now, when I get fewer chances to play and am definitely seeing scores going in the wrong direction.  A golf course is a wonderful playground.
  • I've been blessed with some opportunities to travel.  Six continents visited, and one to go (Antarctica).  Less of it in the past few years, with the principal's position sucking up so much time and energy, but it's all good, as they say.
  • I tweeted a couple of days ago that I'm the luckiest guy in the world.  It's true, you know.  That's a decision, a frame of mind, an "attitude of gratitude", and I'm so lucky to have learned that from the people nearest and dearest to me.
  • We have four budgies.  You wouldn't think anyone could so love a few little (relatively unresponsive) birds as my wife does, but how wonderful.
  • I have "adopted" family in a lot of places: an adopted little sister in Japan; an adopted big sister in Cameroon; an adopted daughter (in the picture above) in France, and so on.  Barb and I couldn't have our own kids, but I've adopted all of the kids in my classes and now the whole school every year, even if they don't know it.
  • I'd have bet big, big money I'd never have a Twitter account or a blog.  Glad I didn't bet that money!
  • I'd also have bet that I'd never switch to Apple technology.  I'm still not convinced that it's all that in terms of usability, but the retina display on my too expensive MacBook - gosh, I love that!
  • Like Lori E., I drink too much coffee.  Unlike Lori, I've no plans or desire to cut down on my "heavenly nectar of the gods".
  • At the age of 40, I decided to learn to speak French.  After two stints of French immersion (in Quebec and in France), courses at l'Alliance Francaise and grade 11 French with our own school's French teacher (during my prep time that year), and endless hours on my own, I'd never have believed anything could be so hard.  And totally worth it.
  • As an introvert, I'm so grateful for having found a profession that calls me out of myself and brings me into daily contact with wonderful people.  I treasure the quiet, re-energizing time that I have, but am very glad that it's not all of the time.
  • Life's priorities should be simple: faith, family, work/vocation and then everything else, and in that order.  I've never heard a convincing reason why it should be otherwise.  But oh dear, I've got some work to do in getting that right!

My replies to the 11 questions that Lori posed.  Please forgive me if I've prattled on!:
  1. It's cliche I know, but Christmas would be my favourite holiday.  There's so much that's wonderful about those two weeks (for students and teachers) - family gatherings, time to relax, the music, the food, the improved moods (of most, anyway).  It's just a happy time.  Mostly, of course, it commemorates the Incarnation of God, and that becomes more and more mind-blowing to me as I get older.  I heard a beautiful rendition of the song, "Mary, did you know" on Christmas eve.  Imagine, giving birth to God Himself!  
  2. The professional book I'd recommend most right now, though there are so many good ones, is "Mindset" by Carol Dweck.  It's a relatively easy read, and could be shortened by not reading chapters not directly connected to education.  The ideas, and the research behind them re: growth and fixed mindset are simultaneously good common sense and really quite uncommon.  I've reflected a lot especially on the damage that undiluted "fixed mindset" praise can do to both children and adults.  Focusing on a growth mindset, and the tie-ins to a host of the other research such as that related to good descriptive feedback is so important to the work we do in schools.
  3. My first teaching job was as a grades 7 - 12 science teacher in Lundar School 31 years ago.  It wasn't easy, but it was nice to have company as one of six first year teachers in that smallish school.  We all made a lot of mistakes, and we always had others around who were scrambling alongside one another to get ready for the next day and just survive that first year grind.
  4. I won't say it's my favourite website, but I do like checking in on the comic strip Dilbert every day.  For a number of years we had a succession of weak leaders in the school, and I'd take consolation in laughing at the pointy-haired boss's all too familiar foibles.  It's even funnier now that I am the pointy-haired boss!
  5. Not a fan of New Year's resolutions, but I am constantly striving to simply lead a better, more giving life.  A few years ago we had a young gal from France living with us.  That's her in the sunset photo of the frazil ice at Steep Rock.  As an exercise, I asked her to describe members of her family and ours with a single English word.  I was pleased when she used "wiseness" (wisdom) for me, but admit that I'd have preferred how she described my mom - "love".  That's what I aspire to; the actions that make up giving love to others.
  6. Best teaching quality?  Jeepers, that might bespeak a lack of humility.  Nevertheless, I'd say that it's related to the concept of servant leadership.  I know that my job, especially now as principal, is to serve and support everyone else in the school, in big ways and small.  They are expressly not there to serve me or to follow me, except insofar as that following is earned.
  7. I had a great lesson from students about 7 years ago on the subject of faith.  I was the teacher advisor for our school's social justice group, and we were putting on a Sunday evening concert called "Imagine" in the spring.  As of that Thursday morning, we'd sold something like 24 tickets, and I was ready to call it off; pushed for that, in fact.  Kailey Knapp, a student who was the group's real leader, insisted that it would all work out, that tickets would sell at the last minute, and that I just had to accept that.  All 200 tickets sold in the end, and the evening was a great, inspiring success.  I like to say, "Kailey's faith kicked my faith's butt", and it did.  I try to be more faithful now, even when it seems irrational.
  8. Best trend in education?  I'd say it's the recognition that we need to put everything we're currently doing up for consideration.  There are, or at least should not be any sacred cows.
  9. It's not a past trend that's disappeared yet, but I'm glad that we're coming to recognize that grades are the furthest thing from a motivator for our kids to learn, in the deep ways that matter.  Our grading practices need a lot of reform, and I'm so proud of our school community for the changes we've made, teachers and students, in leading the way here in Manitoba.
  10. Movie or book?  Book, 19 times out of 20.  It's rare that any movie can do justice to a book that it's based on.  That doesn't make the movie a poor effort; they're simply fundamentally different and have different primary purposes.  I'd wager that people do a lot more thinking and reflecting after reading than from seeing a movie, but I'll grant that a good movie can be great entertainment.
  11. The (first) retirement dream is an easy one.  I want to, feel a need to go and live in Cameroon for a year or two.  I've been there three times, have adopted family there, and feel a part of those communities.  Now to convince my wife that this isn't crazy!

Now, 11 questions for those I'm nominating:
  1. If you could only leave your home province/state for one more trip, ever, where would you go?
  2. If you had to pick up and leave your home province/state and go live somewhere else, where would that be?
  3. When did you feel most proud of the work you do, and what made you feel that way?
  4. When you were in school, what was your favourite subject, and why did it resonate with you?
  5. What sport/activity do you think you're really pretty good at, and don't mind saying so?
  6. What sport/activity do you wish you were much better at?
  7. Favourite food to cook/bake/prepare (and if it's KD or something similar, be honest!).
  8. Sunrise or sunset, and why?
  9. Someone has come in and handed you $100 000 to invest in your school, or other place of work. How would you use it?
  10. If you could speak one additional language fluently, it would be...
  11. If you could play one, or one more musical instrument, it would be...

And those I'm nominating are:

Joanne Coote  @izzie65  
Krista Byers  @ms_kbyers
January Bain  @JanuaryBain
Shelly Wright  @wrightsroom
Phil Taylor  @ptaylorsjr
Erin Klein  @KleinErin
Angela Maiers  @AngelaMaiers
Miles MacFarlane  @milesmac
Derek Oldfield  @Mr_Oldfield
Joe Bower  @joe_bower
Jim Hoddinott  @HoddinottJames

To those I've nominated, please forgive me for doing so.  There really is no compulsion to respond, of course.

This was interesting, taking a little peak inside my own head, with a little help from my 9 year old nephew.   :)

Thanks Lori, and Dana Corr (@dcorr1).