Category Archives: Collaborating

Cross-Curricular Connections

Whenever I’m asked to share about our redesigned BC curriculum with other teachers, the first question I’m often asked is: “Can you show us examples of planning?” I struggle to answer this question for a few different reasons. First of all, planning is personal. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to planning, regardless of what your curriculum looks like. Secondly, if I truly shared my mind’s journey as I plan, I think I would frighten people. Finally, finding cross-curricular connections is something that I feel is crucial to planning with this redesigned curriculum. This takes some effort and thoughtfulness on the part of the teacher who will, in fact, be teaching whatever is being planned.

I’m lucky to have the opportunity this year to be working with teacher candidates one day per week at UBC. This means I get to play with different ways to think about this redesigned curriculum in addition to what I am trying in my own Grade 6/7 classroom. Last week, we explored how mind maps might help us visualize connections between Core French and other disciplines. Through facilitating this exercise, I realized that this simple method of brainstorming could be a powerful tool for helping all teachers beginning to think about cross-curricular connections that could eventually lead to large scale inquiry.

Learning Intention:

I can create a mind map that highlights opportunities for cross-curricular connections between Core French and other content areas.

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By simply identifying curricular competencies and content that work together from a couple of different disciplines, we can begin to understand how this way of approaching teaching and learning is more efficient and more effective for our learners. For example, teacher candidates quickly realized that francophone culture – a big idea in most Core French curriculum – is a great entry point for inquiry. This can be combined easily with competencies in Social Studies or Language Arts to create a deeper, more meaningful understanding of cultural stereotypes, traditions, or historical events. Cross-curricular connections are also what free up time to allow for other creative experiments such as Maker Spaces and Genius Hour, so it’s a win/win situation.

The key to finding solid cross-curricular connections is being intentional. How can we scaffold student learning to ensure we’re targeting all disciplines involved? How can competencies be combined to allow for a single learning intention? With Core French, it’s about connecting communication with context. For example, using language structures such as les verbes à l’impératif with directional vocabulary in French can help us teach communication through P.E. skills. Students practice giving and responding to instructions while focusing on movement. Other disciplines and other classes may look different and that’s ok. Ultimately, it’s about exploring these connections so we can create the most powerful learning experiences for our students. So pull out some art supplies and start envisioning the possibilities! Exploration leads to innovation.

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Photo Credit: Questions to consider when planning @beverleybunker

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

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cc Photo Credit: liquidnight via Compfight

We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

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cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Open Questions in Math

With a background in high school Music and French, I was definitely terrified of teaching Math when I started teaching five years ago. I “succeeded” in Math in school, but I never enjoyed it or fully understood why I was doing what I was doing. However, as part of the Numeracy Project in our district, my school participated in a lot of professional development surrounding Numeracy and over the course of my first two years of teaching, I began to love the subject that I had hated growing up. By year three, I thought I had it figured out. I spent my time filling in students’ gaps, working with small groups, and offering choice in the problems students tackled. I was differentiating, for sure, and students were experiencing success in learning, but I don’t think I helped ignite a passion for Math in many students that year. The following year, I explored project-based learning in Math with some success although I didn’t feel I was addressing those knowledge gaps quite as effectively. I had completely shifted my teaching style, yet somehow, I lost my passion for teaching Math along the way. What was missing?

The problem isn’t that my students weren’t learning; it’s that I forgot about the big ideas. With so many learning outcomes in Math, it’s easy to become focussed on the minutiae of what students are supposed to learn and to forget about the big picture. However, it is the big ideas that should guide our instruction from K-12; by focussing on the big picture, we can encourage critical thinking and creativity in a domain traditionally seen as rigid and procedural.

I read Marian Small’s book “Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction” about 3 years ago, but I don’t think I effectively put it into practice at that time. Now that my enthusiasm has been revived, I’ve been begun re-exploring how open questions impact student learning and student engagement.

Here are some examples of open questions we’ve tackled in our Math class over the past couple of weeks…

Using 12 base ten blocks, which decimal numbers can you represent?


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While some students came up with three possible answers for these questions, others came up with fifty. The point is that everyone could enter into the problem. Some students are just beginning to understand tents and hundredths, so they worked on using all of the same type of block. Others could easily see patterns in numbers and were challenged to find as many answers as possible and to represent them in different ways.

___ + ___ = 4.32 OR ___ – ___ = 4.32

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Again, this open question offered choice. Students could choose addition or subtraction. They could show their understanding with whatever tool they wanted. Some chose to work symbolically while others made visual patterns concretely with the base ten blocks. They were all on task, collaborating, and learning.

Sometimes teachers get bogged down with the PLOs and forget about the big ideas. Here, we are focused on representing numbers in different ways. Without explicitly talking about it yet, students are beginning to see how decimal numbers and fractions are connected through questions like “Represent one fraction and one decimal number in as many ways as you can. Which is bigger and how do you know?” They are already discovering that fractions and decimal numbers are closely connected, that there are ways we can represent both such as fraction circles and number lines, and that finding equivalent fractions is helpful when comparing and ordering. But most of all, I’m just excited to see kids engaged in Math, especially those who struggle. One simple change can sometimes make a bigger impact than trying to completely redesign the way we teach and learn.

How do you differentiate Math instruction for your students? What has worked well for you?

Possible: Kids Get It

My last post Possible: A Frame of Mind touched on how we as educators need to shift our mind sets to context in order to inspire change in the system. We must understand our “why” and encourage others to find theirs before we ask teachers to change their practice.

Last week, I had an awesome conversation with my students. I asked them what they liked about our class and what they would like to change about school. Here are some of their responses…

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Photo Credit: Nanagyei via Compfight cc

I think teachers should be closer with their students. It makes it so much easier to learn when you are connected with your teacher.

I really like how we have a lot of freedom and choice in our class. I’ve never really had this much freedom in school before.

I really like how we learn in different ways like in Math we use manipulatives and whiteboards and iPads. Math is more fun and easy to understand with manipulatives and it’s so much easier to show my thinking on an iPad than on paper.

Sometimes I think teachers forget what it’s like to be a kid. School is so much more fun when your teacher gets to know you and understand you.

I think more teachers should think about the physical space in their classrooms. How a room is set up makes a big difference in how I feel at school and having different spaces to learn is really helpful.

Honestly, I wish I had recorded the conversation because my kids were SO insightful! Their ideas were extremely well articulated and more powerful than I expected. Everyone was engaged in the discussion and wanted to contribute. We talked about making a video this year to share our experiences and what changes we would like to see in education moving forward. It was a very exciting day for me as an educator and a very powerful group activity. They have since asked if we can have awesome conversations every Thursday.

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Photo Credit: Leonard John Matthews via Compfight cc

We can’t be afraid to have these conversations with our kids. There is so much we can learn from them.

Kids get it. As long as their voices are valued, they will always see what’s possible.

C3 Inquiry and Assessment for Learning

I am embarking on a new learning journey. A few short weeks ago, I met my M.Ed. cohort for the first time. For the next two years, we will be learning together, exploring the concepts of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration and how they relate to the inquiry process. I must say that my initial reaction was a positive one as everyone seems open to respectful dialogue and listening to new ideas. I was challenged and I felt excited! However, I was also overwhelmed on the first day with social anxiety, worries of inadequacy, and wonder about how this would relate to my professional practice. Before we left on Saturday, we were assigned learning tasks to complete in between sessions.

I left my first weekend of classes feeling totally energized and inspired because of my colleagues and our rich discussions. However, once I had time to sit down and review our learning tasks, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment that I was returning to my days as a university student with readings and assignments that were not relevant or meaningful to me. Although we had said that it is all about the learning process and not the product, it seemed like another case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Tonight we began our second session together, and I am so relieved to say that this is not the case! While we had each written a critique, the importance was not at all placed on what we had written, but rather on sharing, discussing our work with colleagues, and self-assessment. We spent several hours constructing meaning as a group about the many conceptions of creativity that exist and how our personal and social contexts influence our conceptions. We practiced how to offer a balanced critique of someone else’s thoughts while being fair and charitable. But most important of all, we were given time and space to reflect and self-assess our own thinking.

No assignments to be handed in or graded.

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Photo Credit: giulia.forsythe via Compfight cc

It is such a relief to know that there are education programs out there that are actually using assessment for learning. This past week, I felt some of the anxiety about assignment criteria and expectations that many of our students experience when something is to be graded. While I thoroughly enjoyed thinking critically, reflecting on my own conceptions of creativity, and discussions with friends, the thoughts of submitting my ideas on paper to be assessed made me nervous. I was reminded that many students feel that way all the time and it saddened me to think that my learning might be limited because of assignment format or criteria. Tonight, it was freeing to hear that there will be no grades given until we have mastered concepts and can submit our best work. We will continue to share, discuss, and transform our thinking and when we are ready, share and submit our best. We will all be involved in each other’s learning to help provide guidance and feedback. We will all help each other make our learning relevant to our teaching context.

I am excited to experience assessment for learning firsthand and the power it can have to transform student learning. I know the experience will help me grow as an educator and I hope I will learn how to make formative assessment more impactful for my students.

As part of an ongoing learning diary, I will blog about creative, critical, and collaborative inquiry using the tag C3 Inquiry. I look forward to sharing my learning with you 🙂

Reflecting On Innovative Learning Designs

This year, my school has participated in our district’s Innovative Learning Designs inquiry project. We were awarded a grant at the end of last year which we used to equip our school with new technology such as iPads, document cameras, and Apple TV.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to share our learning with one of our other team members Krista Stoklossa (@KStoklossa) as well as many other schools from across the district. What an inspiration! Educators in our district are doing so many amazing things: blogging, creating eBooks and ePortfolios, holding digital playgrounds as pro-d and developing digital citizenship programs. It is always so much fun to hear about what’s happening in other schools!

Below is a simple Haiku Deck we shared to summarize our school’s experience this past year.

http://www.haikudeck.com/p/RKiaonhv0C

However, the experience also allowed me to reflect on my own learning journey this past year. Here are a few key things I have learned…

1. Sharing

This has come up over and over again. From our Digital Learner Series to ILD to ConnectEd, everyone is talking about how sharing is no longer an option. How else do we learn and improve? How else do we create change? Whether you are on Twitter, blogging, offering pro-d or simply walking across the hallway to share with another classroom, you are headed in the right direction. We all want what’s best for kids but to achieve that, we need to share what is working. Thanks @shareski for giving me the kick in the butt I needed earlier this year to begin sharing. Now I can’t help myself!

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Photo Credit: tom@hk | 湯米tomhk via Compfight cc

2. Growth Mindset

Not everyone is at the same place with their learning. For many different reasons, some people make more time for learning than others or have different priorities, and that’s ok. We need to meet people where they are and help them move from their point A to their point B (thanks for the quote @gcouros!) One year ago, I think I would have shared some apps with my staff and called it a day. I did not yet feel proud of what I was doing in my own classroom. When I was, on occasion, proud, I thought that everyone should be doing the same great things or using the same amazing tools. Now I know that we can all work toward a common goal from different places and at different speeds, as long as we’re all moving forward.

3. Collaboration

This is one area that both Krista and I felt we would like to improve for next year. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been on Twitter for a year, because I seriously could not imagine teaching without it anymore. I’ve taken a ride on the Twitter roller coaster this year ranging from lost to overwhelmed, from disconnected to obsessive compulsive. It’s been such a powerful tool in my learning. However, I think in all of my personal learning endeavors this year, I actually isolated myself from some pretty amazing staff within my own school. I know there are a lot who would say that this is a terrible thing, but I do think there is something to be said for learning and reflecting individually before we are ready to put ourselves out there. I am naturally an introvert and need a lot of time for reflection. I know that I have come a long way this year because of this critical reflection and now I will be better equipped to share openly on a regular basis without judgment in the future. I’m now excited about the thought of collaborating with my staff rather than afraid or self-conscious.

4. Inspiration

This is something that everyone needs in life, period.

Dee Reiter (@deereiter) has been a huge influence on my growth as an educator this past year. She came to us as principal last January and I have not stopped learning ever since! She has made me feel valued, respected, and supported. She has inspired me to truly be the best that I can be.

Elisa Carlson (@EMSCarlson) is someone who I have only met on a few occasions but who has inspired me not to give up on my dream of creating change. She aims to transform education, and I believe she is doing just that by supporting and empowering educators in our district and around the world.

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Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

We all need people close by to whom we can look up and who will support our “crazy” ideas. Without them, nothing seems quite as possible… We would say “yeah but” instead of “yeah and…” There a million people through whom I have found great inspiration this year and I could never thank any of them enough. The only way I see fit to share my gratitude is by seeking others who need inspiration and paying it forward. After my learning journey this past year, I feel that I am ready to start doing that.

I know the power of this past year – the inspiration, the opportunities, the confidence I’ve gained – will remain a part of me for years to come. I am forever changed as a learner, and I’m sure that without even realizing it, the Innovative Learning Designs project has a lot to do with that awesomeness.

How have you grown as a learner recently?

3 Things I Learned at ILD EdCamp

This post was started nearly two weeks ago… Life got in the way, but my new motto seems to be “better late than never!”

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cc Flickr photo by Mark Brannan

On February 8th, I had the opportunity to attend my school district’s Innovative Learning Designs EdCamp. Although I had never attended an EdCamp myself, I was familiar with the concept of participant driven learning and the expectation that participants would share with each other. I wouldn’t say that I learned a lot of concrete things in my two sessions (i.e. the proverbial “something I can use tomorrow morning”) but I definitely came away with lots of reminders and lots to think about.

1. Sharing is Key!

I have been reflecting so much on this concept for the past several months thanks to Dean Shareski and #ETMOOC. It is so important that we be willing, as educators, to share our ideas, our efforts, and our experiences. If we don’t share with each other, how will we ever learn to be better? There was a lot of awkward silence at my first session, and that’s ok, and partly to be expected for a bunch of EdCamp newbies… but I think we need to be willing to just jump in and share! Tam Manery from Bear Creek (@TManery) did just that, and her sharing helped me to clarify in my mind what personalized learning could look like in Math. A topic and subject area that, quite frankly, I used to love but haven’t been loving so much this year, was rejuvenated! That’s the power of sharing. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Risk Taking Is Essential for Learning

It’s ok (and I would even say necessary) to take risks and to experience a sense of failure. I think that too often, we want to wait until we have “mastered” a concept before we try it out in our classrooms. However, I really do think there is something to be said for diving in head first! I have learned so much more by simply trying something than I ever could by planning and thinking about it. If things go miserably wrong, I have learned a valuable lesson about what does not work. If we expect our students to take risks in learning, we have to model this ourselves. We  worry that students may not be “ready” for things like passion and inquiry based learning. My question is: How will we ever truly know unless we give them the opportunity? Mistakes are inevitable, but they are incredibly valuable learning opportunities.

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cc Flickr photo by pcgn7

3. Technology is Not Innovation

It is not about the technology, it is about transforming the way we approach teaching and learning. Technology should be second nature, invisible, embedded into everything that we do… NOT because it is cool and fun (which it is) but because it provides students with amazing opportunities to create and to share their learning. We must always remember this!

The day was a great reminder of what “Innovative Learning Designs” really means.

What have you shared or tried lately that was innovative?