This semester two of my classes are part of an innovative project here in WRDSB called the English Digital Learning Project. The project is designed on the ideas of student voice and choice and collaboration.
I love this model as it fits in with my pedagogical beliefs that we should be focusing on our students and their individual interests and even though some of my students felt a bit of apprehension and skepticism about this as “English” class. Now that we are almost half way through the course, I’ve had what I consider to be some major successes.
At parents’ night this past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of talking to some of the parents from those classes and the comments were overwhelmingly supportive of our program. I had a number of parents tell me that their son or daughter was enjoying working in the blended environment and that they appreciated that cell phones could be used for educational purposes not just entertainment. I also heard comments that about students feeling more organized since all their work is digital and in one location.
The most amazing success, however, came in the form of a thank you from one set of parents. They explained how their child is really enjoying working digitally, but more importantly, is loving reading again. The student has also used reading as a means of connecting on a deeper level with the parents and I’m definitely excited that the student is loving reading, but I’m happier that the student has a closer relationship with the family because of reading.
This is by no means a blog post to pat myself on the back. I really just wanted to express one of the unexpected and wonderful outcomes from teaching with this model.
So today is the yearly literacy test for grade 10 students in Ontario and as in the previous two years, I am again thinking about the effect this test has on my students. In my current timetable, I have three classes of grade 10’s so almost every one of my students is writing today and I can’t help but think about how this test goes against every aspect of my pedagogical beliefs.
An idea that I’ve really been trying to promote this semester is that the importance of that learning is not in the finished product, but rather in the journey to the end. We’ve spent much time working on skills related to the English curriculum which involved many opportunities to practice, get feedback, and redo, but the literacy test doesn’t allow for this model. Sure, I engaged in the preparation activities and spent some class time giving the students strategies to be successful on the literacy test, but for a test that determines if they can graduate or not, this model goes against the idea of formative and summative work which is how we are expected to teach here in Ontario.
Where is the feedback? Where is the focus on learning? When the results come out, all the students know is that if they don’t hear anything, it’s all good. How can they grow as “literate” individuals if they don’t get any feedback? Descriptive feedback is so important in our board and how can we in good faith offer this test without providing the opportunities to make mistakes and redo their work? (other than taking the test a full year later or taking the OLC course.) It really bothers me that we are being told to teach with this rich pedagogy in place but yet we turn around and have to administer this test every March.
It also bothers me that this is likely the last year that students will be writing a paper and pen test as next year the plan is to have it be available online. I feel for the students writing this year’s test as in school we don’t accept hand written summative tasks and yet that is the expectation with the literacy test (for most students).
Finally, I have the best interests of my students at heart and spend a lot of time thinking about how I can reach and help each individual student and this test is a one size fits all model. It takes away the personal connection and what I think is so important at the heart of education which is to encourage the growth mindset in all of our students. Tomorrow I will have some work to do to build the confidence (again) of some of my students as today will have been the most frustrating and demeaning day of the year. How is that good for education? It is mind boggling to me… Sigh.
Two of my professional goals have been to focus on giving strong descriptive feedback as well as to have students give strong descriptive feedback to each other. I have noticed that when I ask students to peer edit each others’ work, they seem to focus on grammar, spelling, and punctuation rather than critical thinking and the effective expression of ideas. In order to combat this, we have spent a lot of time talking about what good feedback entails.
I have also wanted to focus on oral communication skills early on in the semester as in English, one of the things I worry about is that we concentrate on writing and reading when oral communication and media are just as important in our curriculum.
In order to consider all these concerns, this past week my students engaged in the following activities:
1. The students worked in groups to create a short oral presentation about a hot topic. The success criteria was to find a hot topic that would be engaging to their peers (focus on audience). Summarize then deconstruct the issue as well as explain why their peers should care. They were in control as to how they presented and it was a wide range from fully rehearsed presentations complete with PowerPoints to ones that were created in five minutes at the beginning of class. I wrote all my feedback on one Google document which I shared with the class after all the presentations were completed. We also recorded all the presentations on my iPad.
2. I wanted to spend some time talking about effective visuals and asked the students to choose and watch a Ted Talk. They then analyzed the presentation skills of the speaker and created a visual that would accompany a presentation (the catch was they knew they weren’t actually presenting to the class again). We then had a gallery walk in the classroom where the students clicked through each other’s presentations and provided feedback on a piece of paper beside the Chromebook. Before the gallery walk, we discussed what effective feedback looks and sounds like. The results were awesome! The students provided each other with really practical and helpful ideas of how to improve.
3. Next week the students will be doing summative presentations about what they have been reading lately in class. I’m experimenting with the idea of mixing formative into a summative task by giving them feedback on their reading skills and focusing on the skills of oral communication for the summative piece. We will be recording these presentations as well and using them for reflection and analysis of growth as a follow up task. (Their writing skills will be assessed summatively with the formative being their first four blog posts). I will also be giving them feedback on their reflecting skills as meta cognition is such an integral aspect of the English curriculum.
I’m really excited to see the results from all the feedback, but more importantly, the reflections on growth post presentation. It should be an exciting week leading up to March Break!
Disclaimer: I’m a reality tv junkie…
One thing you might not know about me is that I love the show, “The Voice.” I love singing (even though I suffer from the fixed mindset about my singing abilities…) but I also really enjoy hearing the stories of the people who audition for the show. I’m a sucker for the underdog and I think that the producers do an excellent job of pulling at your heart strings when they introduce each contestant.
The last performer of tonight was Deanna Johnson, an 18 year old girl who had auditioned for the show previously but failed to get a chair to turn. In tonight’s episode, it profiled how after the first rejection, she stopped singing for a couple of months but then regrouped and this time had all four judges turn their chairs for her.
The redemption was great, but what Adam Levine said to her really made an impression on me. I’ve recently read Carol Dweck’s “mindset” and am currently on a learning cycle in our school about fostering the growth mindset in our students. The first thing he praised about her wasn’t that she has an amazing voice (which she does) but rather that she went from not turning any chairs to getting all four to turn and the work ethic and determination (I’m paraphrasing) that she possesses in order to make that happen. He then went on to say that there were a few things he noticed that she could work on, but he wanted to be the one to help her grow. She ended up choosing him to be her coach and as he was walking to welcome her to his team, he talked about how “the good ones want to hear feedback in order to grow” (again paraphrasing). His assessment of her was absolutely bang on as this young 18 year old girl embodies the growth mindset for singing.
By the same token, Deanna really impressed me as in her interview after, she said the reason she chose him was that she “wants someone to be honest with her.” She wants to get better. She thinks she has potential and is looking for him to help her.
It yet again drives home my thinking that we can learn anything from anyone. She is following her passion and embracing this mindset (whether she’s aware of it or not) in order to grow as a singer and she’s only 18!
Over the Christmas break I read mindset by Carol Dweck and thoroughly enjoyed it. Her discussion of the different mindsets made me really reflect on myself as a learner and what I do in the classroom.
As we are just two weeks into the second semester, it’s really fascinating to see how the fixed mindset is something that many of my students seem to have. I feel like there is a fear of failure and an expectation that they need to be perfect and I’m throwing a curveball by asking them not be afraid to make a mistake.
Earlier in the week I was really frustrating to some students as I let them make their own decisions on a topic for their first blog post. I’m using their first post as a writing diagnostic and it took a while to get some students to buy into the idea that writing about what you’re interested in (as opposed to a topic from the teacher) is acceptable in class.
From this some good learning for me has occurred:
– I’m really going to have focus on using the essential learnings to explain our tasks
– that I have some work to do around the idea of mindsets
– that I need to build a lot of trust and have strong rapport with each and every student
– and that I need to keep reiterating that we have to practice skills before I can assess their abilities
– and that English is a skills based curriculum and it’s skill development that is key
The first week of the semester is in the books and I think it was a success for my students. I have three groups of grade tens (two academic and an applied) and from first impressions, they are lovely.
My two academic classes are a part of a board initiative here in WRDSB called the English Digital Learning Project and I am so excited that we will have this amazing opportunity this semester! I love the focus on thinking outside the box as well as student voice and student choice. I’m really looking forward to seeing we can cultivate these characteristics across multiple schools in the board.
We are also making a concerted effort to teach collaboration skills, but instead of making students copy down a note, Amy Cruickshank from Southwood had the brilliant plan to have the students do the Marshmallow Challenge and reflect on it. My students loved it!! They had a blast working together and enjoyed the Ted Talk following our debrief.
What was really fascinating though was our discussion about how kindergartens tend to do better at this challenge than most other people. They talked about how kindergartens aren’t afraid to make a mistake and are willing to keep trying if they do. They don’t see it as a failure or that they aren’t smart, it just didn’t work. They also commented that as they get older, it’s the teacher giving them the solutions whereas in kindergarten, the students are learning for themselves. I was blown away by these reflections as they are so deep and thoughtful. It also makes me excited to think about that if they are here already, where can we be in June..
At the end of the day I checked Twitter and saw that @avivaloca’s class was also making structures and from a conversation that night, we had my grade 10 class interview three of her grade ones and it was amazing! I have to give a shout out to my student interviewer who is amazing with kids, but also to Aviva’s students as we really enjoyed engaging with them. I loved hearing their insights into the building and team work involved in the creative process. It’s also obvious that the growth mindset is at play in Aviva’s room as her students were talking about how they just kept trying new things and that they were having fun at the same time.
So at the end of two pretty exciting days, here are my take aways, I have some students who are already wanting to focus on learning not just grades, I also have some students who see the value in collaborating and thinking outside the box, and that we have a lot to learn from kindergartens and grade ones. They look for the joy in learning and that is something I hope my students and I can foster together this semester.
First semester has come to an end and I’m reflecting on the last few months. Overall, I am quite pleased. My students were amazing! We had great discussions about life and learning, and they created some absolutely wonderful products for me.
Something else that I really appreciated was that right away, my students realized that marks are not what is important in education. For many, the main focus was on learning and loving learning. It was so impressive to hear their reflections on their growth and I really feel blessed that many of them focussed on that instead of grades.
But what’s nagging at me is that at the end of the day, the end result of my class is a number and I have no choice but to give them a grade. It doesn’t focus on the personality of the student or the growth he or she demonstrated, it’s a number on a page and I can’t help but feel a bit let down and almost hypocritical. I spent the whole semester preaching about the value in learning and the importance of loving to learn, but the last piece of feedback from me will be a number on the report card (along with my comments of course.)
It just doesn’t sit well…