Visible Documentation

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with some primary/junior teachers for a math PD session.  I asked the teachers to think of a rich task using a concept that they were working on.  Then to select a student who seemed to have some misconceptions about the concept and conference with that student focusing on some appropriate questions to help clear up those misconceptions.   I also asked them to record the conference, if possible.  The visible documentation of the student’s learning was incredible to watch.  We were able to really capture why the student came up with the misconception and see that there was still some level of understanding but they needed some help to completely grasp the concept.  It was great as well to watch the facial expressions of the students to see when they were puzzled by the teacher’s questions or even when the ‘aha’ moment actually came.  Through talks with my friend @avivaloca a chat today with @nobleknits2 I am becoming more and more a fan of that visible documentation.  While watching the video, it also helped to go back and listen again to make sure that we understand what the student was trying to share.  It also help us understand that in some cases  these misconceptions came from learning that the student had about one concept but applied it in an incorrect way to another one.  We were also able to compare the students’ written output with the taped conferences and realised that the students had a greater level of understanding than was perceived by their answers.  What do you think of videotaping your students’ learning?   Do you think that it is a worthwhile activity to use?  Do you use questioning during conferences to help clear up their misconceptions?

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Transforming education – educate our parents about the power of feedback

We keep talking about transforming education but what do we really mean?  Quite a lot of people I know that mention these words seem to be talking about technology.  Using technology to enhance learning.  We also talk about transforming education by giving students more voice and choice in the activities that are happening in our rooms.  I try to do this in my classroom as much as I can.  But we seem to stop short when we talk about transforming learning when it comes to grades.  Yes, we have to use them for reporting but do we have to use them all the time.  We all quote what they say about feedback.  According to John Hattie & Helen Timperley, if used correctly, “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement.”  Research also suggests that if grades are given along with feedback, the value of the feedback is diminished by the grades.  Knowing all this why do we focus so much on grades on tests, on essays on presentations?  Once again, yes I know we have to use them for reporting but we control the mark book until that point.  Don’t get me wrong, most students can tell what level they are based on the feedback given to them but he/she is not reduced to a number or a letter.  If we control the mark book, do the students need to see the marks until the end of the unit?  I don’t wait until the report card period, I tend to share the marks at the end of each math unit.  Who knows, maybe I too am sharing marks too early.  What do you do?  Should students see their marks after each assignment?  We keep saying the parents don’t understand.  Parents want to see marks.  Have we thought about trying to educate our parents about the power of ‘good’ feedback?  Let’s start the journey.  It might take a while, but it is worth it.

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What we should do before we say no to challenges.

2 weeks ago our vp @kkeerybi  issued us a challenge.  No worksheet week.  Wow!! How do you teach without using worksheets or photocopying?  For some people this was quite a challenge.  Note she didn’t say we couldn’t photocopy she just said think carefully about what we were copying.  I took this as ‘before we hit that button think carefully about whether we really need it; how is it going to further the learning of our students?’ This was not the first time I had heard this.  10 years ago when our school opened, our then Principal Kathy Clarke had said the same thing to us.  10 years later we are hearing the same thing.  Since this time, we have spent a ton of budget on photocopying, and lots on technology.  We have bought smartboards for most of our classrooms, overhead projectors; laptops carts; i-pads.  Students use their own phones, iPods, iPads; laptops to help enhance their own learning.

Fast forward to this month.  We finished up writing our report cards.  One of the learning skills areas that we evaluate our students on is Initiative.  The criteria for this category is:

  • acts upon new ideas and opportunities for learning;
  • demonstrates a willingness to take risks;
  • demonstrates curiosity and interest in learning;
  • approaches new tasks with a positive attitude;
  • recognizes and advocates appropriately for the rights of self and others

I am sure that many of us put a ‘N’ (needs improvement) or a ‘S’ (satisfactory) on some of our students report cards.  ‘So and so is encouraged to try harder when he has difficult challenges instead of giving up easily.’  Or ‘name is encouraged to try new ways to share his learning instead of using ways that he has become comfortable with.’  As teachers, do we ever think of using this same criteria to see where we ourselves stand in the learning process?

Then Kristi put out the challenge. How many of us shut it down right away.  Did we think about approaching this new task with a positive attitude or did we immediately get annoyed?    Did we decide to willingly embrace the risk and look for strategies to see how we could make it work?  Did we see that this could be a new opportunity for learning – learn how to use the smartboard better; embrace Google docs and learn how to use it to the best of our advantage?  Did any of us become curious about this opportunity for learning and research ways we could make it work?

My take on this is that we keep saying that we are coaches; we are co-learners; we are learning along with our kids.  We ask our kids to self-evaluate their learning BUT do we as ‘learners’ ever take the time to evaluate ourselves.  Maybe if we did, the next time we are issued a challenge such as this, instead of shutting it down, we will review the criteria for INITIATIVE before making a decision.

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Tests, electronics, inquiry?

I thought about @bgrasley’s post and some of the comments on his post all the way to school and decided to write this one.

To test or not to test.  To me this is your choice, if you want to test go for it.  If you don’t want to then find suitable alternative ways to evaluate your students’ learning.  Yes we have to put grades/marks on our students’ report cards but is a test the only way we can do this or can we find rich meaningful ways that we can also do it?  Can we give them critical thinking tasks; ask them to analyse and synthesize information; find alternative strategies to solve problems; etc? I find the concept that we must give our students tests to prepare them for high school or university a very confusing one.

My students just finished their language and their history inquiry projects.  For history, 32 students out of 35 send me their work electronically – informational posters; letters; diary entries; vlogs; reports; videos, etc.  They were allowed to choose whatever format they wanted.

This week my daughter who is in grade 12 had to choose an article in the news and create a collage to depict certain concepts in it.  She found a program on the internet and used it to create a fantastic collage but to her dismay it would not print the way she wanted it to.  I suggested that she send it electronically to her teacher.  My daughter suggested that this was a no no.  She started to stress our about this collage and wanted to use her backup one,  which printed but was in no way as good as her original.  I pushed and told her to explain to the teacher what happened and if he wanted a hard copy then I would take it to Staples to get it printed off.  Thankfully, her teacher accepted the electronic copy.

My reason for sharing this story is because we have been talking quite a bit about doing students a disservice or not preparing them for high school by not giving them tests but what about the big move by elementary schools to use more electronics in the classroom.  Quite a few high schools I know do not allow electronics in the classroom so what about the disservice here?  Many elementary teachers are allowing students to use electronics to show their learning; they are doing inquiry in the classrooms; they are doing authentic tasks and using a wide variety of strategies for problem solving; there is a big focus on collaboration so are we preparing them for life in high schools where this type of teaching is not necessarily happening?  Already, this year, my students have wowed me with the learning that they are sharing; the types of things that they are interested in learning about; and the tools that they are using to share this learning.   Should we be returning to pen and paper tasks; all kids doing the same activity; the turn off electronics policy when you enter the door?  I’m not sure, but if this is the case then I am more than willing to do my students a disservice.  What about you?

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How do you capture your students’ learning?

Documenting my students learning.  This is a new thing for me.  I started documenting my students learning years ago but nowhere near the extent that I am doing this year.  I used to use a million sticky notes to jot down conversations and observations with my students and at the end of the day would spend some time sticking them in their folder.  I had a manila folder for each student and kept track of my anecdotal notes on them this way.  Did it work for me?  Yes, most of the time.  Unless I lost the sticky note or forgot to put it in.  This documentation helped me to develop observation and process marks for my students.  Over the last couple of years, I have grown to rely on this documentation even more.  At the beginning of the year, I share with my students and parents the different ways that I will be collecting evidence of their learning in my room.

“Evidence of student achievement for evaluation is collected over time from three different sources – observations, conversations, and student products. Using multiple sources of evidence increases the reliability and validity of the evaluation of student learning.”  Growing Success, pg 39.

For some of my students this evaluation style it is quite new, but (thank goodness) I have not received any negative feedback from either the students or the parents.  The information that I gather from my students this way is quite remarkable.  Students who struggled to put their thoughts on paper, can sometimes give me a somewhat clear oral explanation about what they are doing.  I had a group of teachers in my class last month and was pleasantly surprised to hear one of my struggling students using his patterning tiles to explain how he was able to decipher what the rule was and how he could extend his pattern using that same rule.  Talk about an opportunity.  If I had waited for his pen and pencil task I would have totally missed his sharing.  My good friend Aviva and my vice-principal Kristi have encouraged me take my documentation even further this year.  Last year I had moved to taking pictures along with my notes.  Aviva has encouraged me to let the students take the pictures and share them with me, as well as me recording their sharing during our conferences or small group collaborations. She has also suggested that the students can even record themselves.  How powerful would it be for the student to listen to their explanations at the beginning of the unit and then compare them at the end of that same unit, or even the end of the year?  Kristi, talks a lot about the process versus the product, and its relevance.  Why do we devalue the journey it took to reach the end?  Today, in my math inservice it once again came up that students can share their learning orally but struggle to write it clearly.  My questions were:  Do they have to write it down if they can say it orally?;  Why can’t they record their answer and then transfer it to the paper if that is the expectation?;  What about them making a sketch of their learning, taking a picture of it and then a short explanation to show that they get it?  Does math learning always have to be written down?  The new me says no, that is why if you come in my classroom I usually have my phone or my Ipad in my hand.

How do you capture your student’s learning?

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Not testing? Is it a disservice to our students?

I was one of those teachers who was constantly saying “I have to prepare my students for grade 7.”  Or “I have to prepare my students for high school.”  Then one wise administrator suggested what about preparing them for now.  Try getting through grade 8 by using a wide variety of skills that would work for any grade.  So guess what?  I stopped  worrying so much about grade 9 and starting thinking of beyond.  I have always focused on their social skills for life after school but needed to also focus on those skills that could get them through academically as well.  Yes, I don’t give hour long direct tests but we do short quick assessments where they are expected to show me their level of understanding once we have taken some time to complete a concept.  Some might say I chunk my teaching.  We don’t usually go through an entire unit without having at least 5 or 6 quick assessments/exit cards (whatever you might want to call them).  Two weeks ago about 2/3s of my students showed some misunderstanding on one of  our patterning concepts.  I realised that I must have not presented the information clear enough or did not give them enough time to practice.  So we went back, got out our patterning tiles and physically created those patterns so they could see how their pattern was consistently growing.  Good thing I didn’t wait until a unit test to catch this.  We do a number of open ended problem solving activities; we share and discuss solutions; we use real life situations to get a good understanding of why the math concept might be relevant, am I not preparing them for high school?  I try to get them to understand that:

  • there can be multiple answers to a question
  • they do not really ‘suck’ at math, they just have to be able to talk though the problems
  • most of the math concepts that we are studying in elementary school have relevance
  • they need to show working and provide evidence to support their answers or statements
  • they need to develop good deep questions to help gather pertinent information
  • they need to evaluate different perspectives or viewpoints and identify author bias
  • any particular textbook is still subjected to bias from its author (and that’s why we do not have one prescribed textbook in our class)
  • and the list goes on.

If I do all this am I not getting them ready for high school, university and life beyond?  What about the universities (McMaster, OISE; Queen’s) where some of their professors are doing more inquiry based learning and shying away from traditional tests/university classrooms?  Are we not getting our students ready to deal with these types of learning environments?  I strongly believe that my students can sit in a testing environment and still do well because I help them to develop skills that allow them to not only transfer their learning from one subject area to another, but from one learning environment to another.

  • How do you assess your students?
  • Will they be able to adapt the skills you have developed with them from one situation to another?
  • What are some things we can do to prepare our students not only for high school but for jobs that do not even exist yet? (I am still a little scared about this? How do I know I’m doing the right thing?)
  • How can we make sure that we are reaching all students? (Whether we are testing, doing inquiry, etc.)
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Visiting classrooms, what an opportunity!

Having supportive admin is half the battle in teaching today.  I have the privilege of working with two amazing admins @paulclemens5 and @kkeerybi who embrace my teaching style and allow me to try new things.  When I approach them with new things to try I know that they will ask me the tough questions (how does it fit in with the curriculum; how does it meet the students’ needs; are your kids going to embrace it; etc.) but once they see the value I will usually get the go ahead.  They sometimes just give me the go ahead because they trust me as a professional.  They know that I will always try to put my students first.

Today I had the privilege of visiting a school with a principal @ICprin whose thinking is very much like my own principal.  He was willing to open his doors and show us the great things that are happening at his school.  He noted that everyone is not at the same stage but he was okay with that.  We were able to chat with students about their learning, trying new things and things they liked about their school.

Isn’t it a great thing that we as teachers have colleagues (whether in our school, our board, or our province) who we can look at, examine their teaching practices and take away something to make us better.  Everyday we display level 4 work in our classroom and ask our students to bump their work up.  What is wrong with us also having some level 4 examples that we too can bump our work up.  I thank @avivaloca every day for persisting and encouraging me to join Twitter.   I get the opportunity to talk to people like @Lisa_Donahue; @mraspinall; @mrbillforrester; @mrsoclassroom; @MatthewOldridge and the list goes on.  I get to throw ideas at them; get feedback on lessons, units, activities; suggestions on how to do something better.  Yes, I get them to ‘evaluate’ my practice and give me suggestions on how to make it better.  My admin allows me to have visitors in my room to see some of the great things my students are doing and I also benefit from this because they can share with me some of the things they like and would like to take away.  It is a give give situation.  Having visitors from other schools and boards allow me to get feedback from people outside my everyday teaching life.  Most of my colleagues see or know some of the things we do in my classroom but having my students share their learning with people outside our school is a privilege.

Because of my supportive admin, I get the opportunity to make my teaching better every single day.  I get the opportunity to open up my doors to visitors and say please come in; let us know how we are doing.   Not sure if I have told my admin how much I truly appreciate this.  Not sure I have told them how much I appreciate the opportunity to grow.

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Time for parent-teacher conferences

Over the last 2 months I have had a number of meetings with parents for a number of different reasons but I ‘officially’ started parent teacher conferences last week  (report cards went home on Tuesday).  I like to have my students at our conference as it is really all about them and they should be there to have a voice at the table.

I like to ask my students a number of questions about our classroom.

  • What is working well for them?
  • What do they think of the way our classroom is running?
  • Is there anything they would like to change?
  • What do they think of my style of teaching?
  • How do they know that they are learning?
  • How do they feel about not getting marks on their papers?
  • What can we do to make our classroom even better?

I ask students to share their honest opinion with me.  I hope that having their parents there as a ‘safety’ net they will be truly honest with me.  I have always had one or two suggestions of some things that we try.

The last couple of years I have invited my students to share their feelings about inquiry in our classroom.  It is amazing to see their faces light up as they talk about finding out about things that they are interested in.  How is that different from me standing in front of the room teaching?  Their reply: everyone doesn’t have to learn the same thing.  I get to choose something that interests me and someone else can do the same.  One student talked about her language inquiry and that she wanted to find out more about how the laws associated with fast foods in Canada have changed over the last 10 years.  Another student talked about his history and that he was interested in finding out more about the Chinese Expulsion Act.

I didn’t have to try to convince the parents why inquiry was working in our room; their children were the ones doing it.  One student told her mom that she will remember some of this stuff next month because she wanted to learn it and her interest kept her engaged.

Well 12 interviews down, 14 more to go and I still have 9 other parents that I will touch base either by telephone or at a later date.  Yes they are long and tiring but it’s nice to get to talk face to face with my parents.  For some, this might be the only time I get them in the school until graduation.

How do your interviews work?

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How much parent communication is too much?

My teaching partner and I have a grade level website which we update daily.  On it we have every subject we teach and include the lesson we have done that day, most times we include samples of student work and additional websites that the students can use to help supplement their learning.   On top of this I usually email my parents on a monthly basis to discuss how their child is progressing both socially and academically.  I do not do it in the months that report cards and going home.  I also email or call anytime if I have a concern or if the student has done something well that day, that week, etc.  I have called on Sunday mornings to tell parents how well their kid has done on an assignment.  However it upset me when I overheard a parent talking and suggesting that teachers should be emailing parents weekly.  Should I have been annoyed at that parent’s comment?  I have 35 students in my homeroom class and another 34 in a grade 8 math class.  How much time would it take me each week to email all of them?  She suggested that the teacher could send a group email.  To me if I am emailing you to talk about your child’s progress a group email is unacceptable.  Have I sent whole class emails before?  Yes, if I am addressing a whole class issue (or even a large number of students).  But not to talk about individual social or academic progress.  I do know some teachers who touch base with their student’s parents on a weekly basis but shouldn’t that be their choice?  I know of a teacher at a private school who told me that they are expected to email or call each parent weekly so he does 4 or 5 students a night.  When we entered this profession we knew it was a demanding one, so am I being unreasonable in thinking that this is an unreasonable request?  Sometimes I think, the more we give the more people want. Are demands (or expectations) such as these turning our younger generation away from teaching?  My daughter has said she would never become a teacher becomes of the amount of work she sees me doing and she is not prepared to put in the extremely long hours that I do.  It saddened me a bit because I think she could be shutting out an opportunity to touch a number of lives in a positive way. (Please note that I’m not saying that this is the only way to do this.) Parents definitely need to be involved and know what is happening in their child’s classroom but how much communication is too much? How much time should we devote to keeping them informed?  At any point are we allowed to switch off our teacher button?  What are your thoughts on this?

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How do you use process marks?

Today, I had the privilege of teaching a math lesson in front of a number of other adults, including a grade 9 teacher from our high school and one of our consultants.  Students completed a patterning activity using patterning tiles.  I have strongly believed that elementary students need to be doing while they are learning, especially in math.  They need to be able to manipulate the materials and get those visuals that help so many of them better understand the concepts that they are studying.  This is one of the reasons that I like Marilyn Burns & Van deWalle because they provide you with lots of examples that teachers can use manipulatives with.  One of the students was able to articulate how he arrived at his answer but needed a bit of prompting to get a thorough explanation of why his thinking was justified.  During our feedback session this conversation with the student was mentioned as one of the other teachers also had a similar conversation with another student. The feedback then shifted to ‘question of process marks’ and how do we take a student’s thinking, conversations with us and our observations of them and equate them with a mark or a grade?  We know according to the Growing Success document that these are some of the ways that we are supposed to use to gather student learning but how do we do it?  How do we know that my professional judgement on this concept will be the same as yours?  Also how do we go about communicating this to parents if we ourselves are not quite sure how to use it, or what the look-fors are, or what a level 3 or level 4 conversation sound like?  Do I use process marks, All the time.  I see great value in walking around and having those conversations as students are working.  I love to see how some of them who struggle with putting their thoughts on paper can clearly and precisely explain their thinking orally.  My struggle is how do I know that I am doing it right?  How do I know that my teaching partner would assign the same grade or comment to a response from my student?  Are any of you having these same experiences, and how are you handling it?​

p.s.  My fellow teachers were told that the lesson was not supposed to evaluate the teacher but I asked for feedback.  It was great to be able to have my peers assess my lesson and provide me with authentic feedback that I could use to improve the next part of my lesson.


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