Category Archives: Learning

Teaching Is Learning

Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

Over the past several years, we have been in a period of significant educational shifts in British Columbia. We now have a redesigned curriculum that consists of four major components: Core Competencies, Big Ideas, Curricular Competencies, and Content. This is a move away from the traditional “checklist” style curriculum in favour of a more flexible format that allows opportunities for student choice and voice while maintaining learning standards across the province. You can read more about BC’s redesigned curriculum here.

I had the privilege this past week to work with Genevieve McMahon, as we were asked to give a planning seminar to all elementary Teacher Candidates in the B.Ed. program.  Anyone who knows me knows that I always say planning is a personal process and that no two teachers plan exactly the same way. I believe this is true. However, it’s also fun to work with someone from afar and try to mash your brains together to come up with something cohesive that presents a united front about a particular topic. That is exactly what Gen and I tried to do when it comes to planning. We tried to convey the message that teachers should always plan with the end in mind. This message is simple, yet it’s so easy to lose sight of our intention as teachers. With all the chaos that comes with the classroom environment, we often get bogged down in the details; but if we can maintain our focus – our intentions – everything falls into place. Kids learn.

All this to say that I think it’s important to take the time once in awhile to reflect on what’s really important to us; what we believe in. I know that organizing this seminar provided me with an opportunity to reflect on what works well in my own planning process but also what I can improve upon. Sometimes when we are forced to simplify and communicate our message to others, it provides us with the prompt that we need to reflect on ourselves. Teaching is sometimes the best way to learn.

If you’re interested in what Gen and I shared with Teacher Candidates, you can find our slides below.

Planning Seminar – Sept. 28, 2017

 

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A New Chapter

This past spring, I made the decision to leave the classroom and try something new. I accepted a new role working with Teacher Candidates in the B.Ed. program at the University of British Columbia. While I will continue teaching Intro to Teaching and Learning Core French as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I am also be coordinating the Social Emotional Learning cohort. This means I am responsible for teaching Inquiry courses, embedding the theme of SEL into our cohort throughout the year, and acting as Faculty Advisor for a group of Teacher Candidates.

When I made this decision, I felt nothing but excitement. What an awesome new challenge! However, while saying my goodbyes in June, I started to second guess myself. By the time summer was in full swing, I was sure I had made a mistake… What was I thinking? I love my kids! Knowing that I wouldn’t return to my school or to any classroom in September made me very emotional.

Most of us enter the teaching profession because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids and I was no different. Those pre-teen years in particular come with a lot of angst, social awkwardness, and sarcasm that I secretly love. Those years are when I felt most disconnected from adults in my own life, so I’ve always wanted to help those who are looking for a positive role model and a bit of empathy while maintaining the facade of nonchalance and grown-up-ness. Little people in big bodies who just need to know they are loved…

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However, having met my group of Teacher Candidates this week, I am feeling much more optimistic. They are a wonderful group of people who, like all of us, are in this to make a difference in the lives of kids. Their hearts are in it and they are authentic, intelligent, compassionate people. I already feel like I am getting to know many of them and I haven’t even had to give up my addiction to bad jokes and sarcasm!

I can tell that it will be a fantastic year of learning and I know they will all make a difference in the lives of kids. I can see the potential for far reaching impact in this new role and that is exciting. I can also see that I am going to learn so much from them. But most of all, I can now see that although I may not have a physical classroom this year, I have met my new “kids.” And I couldn’t be more excited to see where this new adventure takes me…

It’s the Little Things

Over the past couple of years, I have often questioned my abilities as a teacher. I have had a lot of rough days and a few occasions where I wondered if I could ever do enough. I think we all end up in this place once in awhile because it is truly a job that never ends and could always be done better. However, I have also been trying to focus more on the little things that bring us joy as educators. There are, of course, many moments related to academic learning that are super special, but it’s not these moments that I find most meaningful and it’s not these moments that keep me in this profession. It’s those little things that are about relationships that really get to me…

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  1. That smile from that kid who just needed someone to talk to at recess.
  2. “Can I give you a hug, Ms. B?”
  3. The moment a child finally opens up to you.
  4. An email from a parent thanking you for your understanding.
  5. That kid who comes to ask you about anxiety after a lesson on mental health.
  6. The student who feels safe enough to share that their grandfather passed away during morning meeting.
  7. “I know you get it, Ms. B. You understand.”
  8. Watching a child develop a new friendship.
  9. Parents who let you know that their child is happy to come to school.
  10. Returning after an absence to: “We missed you!”

There are a million moments that we could reflect upon because we truly do make a difference in the lives of kids. They matter. We matter. Relationships matter.

When we’re feeling down, we need to remember that it’s the little things that matter the most.

2017: A Year of Intention

Last year, I couldn’t choose just one word for the year, so I chose 3 words that would guide me to be my best self: Balance, Strength, and Relationships. I cannot say that it went smoothly… In fact, with some long awaited consistency in my vie quotidienne, it seems I finally had time to delve deep into my personal struggles. Rather than a year full of balance, it felt like a year full of self doubt, overwhelm, and frustration. Side note: I’m sure this is only in part due to my inability to choose a single word…

However, these words also led me to make a few decisions in 2016 for which I am grateful. They were changes that were not sudden, but had a positive impact over time.

  1. Starting a gratitude journal. For real this time. I have successfully expressed gratitude for something daily, in writing, for the past 8 months. This allows me at least one moment of release from my anxiety at the end of each day.
  2. Spending time in nature. I didn’t strictly adhere to my #photoaday2016 aspirations, but the project did allow me to become more mindful of the world around me. Allowing myself permission to take a trip to Maui over Spring Break helped renew my energy and positive attitude in ways I wasn’t expecting. More time exploring this beautiful province reminded how grateful I am to live here.
  3. Devoting more time to friendships. Some people just make your soul feel good. Time outside of our own head can be a good thing. Enough said.
  4. Renewing my love of physical activity. I took rowing lessons, signed up for a barre membership, and even attended a couple of yoga workshops. All of these things have helped me focus on staying healthy outside of the classroom so I can hopefully be healthier in the classroom.
  5. Being vulnerable. This one was much less conscious, but powerful nontheless. Sharing my struggles with colleagues, friends, students, and strangers has given me a sense of freedom I wasn’t expecting. It has allowed others to see me as a whole person rather than the shiny version that I have typically tried to present to the outside world. I am now in a place of heathy contemplation about what really matters in life.

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@beverley.bunker #photoaday2016

As we head into another new year, I’ve been inspired by the idea of an intention for the year. The idea is that an intention guides us in our daily lives but is more fluid and organic than a specific goal. It can change with us as needed. So in 2017, my intention is to simplify.

I’m not sure what exactly that means yet… but I think that’s ok. I know it speaks to my heart. I believe it will help me be more intentional in my actions, my words, and my decisions. What more can we really ask of ourselves than that?  Intentionalilty is what makes a good teacher a great one.

Wishing you love and joy in 2017.

The Importance of Modeling

When I was explicitly teaching language every day in French Immersion, modeling was a no brainer. It’s how we developed oral and aural language skills as well as conceptual understanding in various curricular areas. I still use explicit modeling when teaching Core French because it has become second nature to me in a language context. However, lately I’ve been reminded of the importance of modeling in all areas of learning.

Kids – heck, all people – need to see others lead by example. This means modeling how to problem solve, how to make healthy choices, and how to be kind and compassionate. It means taking risks ourselves in order to show our kids that mistakes are not a bad thing. It also means being authentic… because kids know when we don’t mean it.

Social emotional learning is complicated; there are so many factors that influence our lives and those of our kids. It can sometimes be difficult to model compassion, patience, and empathy when we aren’t feeling particularly compassionate, patient, or empathetic. However, these are qualities that will help our kids grow up happy and healthy; help them build strong relationships. Society needs to stop assuming that kids “should know” how to be respectful or kind. If we don’t show them ourselves, how will they know what it looks like?

So be brave, make big mistakes, and model the reactions and strategies you want to see in our kids. We tend to fall back on behaviours that are most familiar… so let’s make kind, compassionate, and empathetic more familiar. And when we mess up, let’s admit it. Model honesty and resilience.

Searching for Truth & Reconciliation

For too long, Canadian history books have painted a euro-centric picture of colonization. For too long, we have ignored our collective history in favour of a charming perception of Canada as a kind, respectful, inclusive country where we protect human rights and freedoms. We have glossed over darkness and ignored the needs of those who have suffered. I feel fortunate to live now in this time of transition where we can all play a part in truth and reconciliation. BC’s redesigned curriculum is founded on the First People’s Principles of Learning, and yet there are so many questions for teachers to navigate…

What are the principles? Where can I learn more? How do I teach perspectives authentically and respectfully? Is it about tackling the tragic history of residential schools? Helping students see the value in not just tolerance, but acceptance and respect for diverse points of view? How do we address sensitive topics like religion and abuse (especially at the elementary level) while still being truthful?

The only thing of which I am convinced is that it is now about so much more than content.

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This year, I have made an attempt to learn more. I’ve attended workshops, read stories, and most recently, heard Wab Kinew speak about how the residential school system has impacted his family. First hand accounts of the inter-generational effects of disconnection and abuse have made me reflect on everything from anger to compassion and forgiveness.

Recognizing my own ignorance, I have a pile of books waiting to be read, including Wab’s The Reason You Walk, and I have made an attempt to involve my students in my learning journey this year. We have explored picture books and kid-friendly biographies about attending residential school, which were a beautiful way to introduce the topic.

We’ve also increased our emphasis on place-based learning. Through weekly nature walks, we try to learn from nature rather than simply bringing learning outdoors. So far, we’ve explored geometry, patterns, human impact, and physical education.

While I do believe these are steps in the right direction – my students are genuinely engaged in the history of residential schools and wanting to learn more –  I don’t feel they are anywhere near enough. I know that I will never understand enough.

We can never make things right, but we can continue listening and seeking people’s truth. I only hope we can find the courage to admit our ignorance, acknowledge the tragedy of our collective past, and open our hearts to those who need to be heard. I am no expert, but I will continue seeking people’s truth, as I believe this is what will lead us to reconciliation.

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.