Category Archives: Learning

What’s Assessment Got To Do With It?

I’m an assessment nerd. I like reading about it, talking about it, and experimenting with it in my practice. I find it fascinating because it seems like the missing link between social emotional learning and more “academic” competencies such as critical thinking. As someone who believes relationships come first but adores challenging students intellectually, formative assessment changed my life.

The Journey

Having said this, I didn’t start my career truly understanding formative assessment. As a new teacher, I felt I was very current because I loved using analytic (4-column) rubrics. I spent countless hours choosing just the right language to include in each column. I got very excited about projects and was proud that I gave lots of descriptive feedback on these tasks. I never believed much in the value of letter grades, so I would proudly share that I didn’t use these in my classroom regularly – they were only present on report cards each term. I did have an “aha” moment in my first or second year of teaching that providing an overall performance indicator on a specific task was exactly the same as assigning a letter grade. Duh. I also felt like no matter what the task, at least one kid didn’t fit into any of the boxes I had so carefully and thoughtfully crafted. But the most important realization? I didn’t notice any significant improvements in my students’ learning once I gave them all of this wonderful feedback. The learning was over. I was designing great end goals but I was ignoring the important part: how do we help students achieve these goals?

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Slowly, I began learning more about formative assessment and the importance of questioning and feedback during the learning process rather than at the end. I was introduced to Dylan Wiliam’s work and started implementing learning intentions and criteria as part of our regular routine. Students starting to use this language and soon, I was giving targeted feedback both orally and in writing – as we learned – and we were exploring self and peer assessment in ways I had never thought possible. Rather than commenting on what they liked about someone’s final project or presentation, students were giving each other specific, descriptive feedback before they ever shared the final product. This resulted in more peer-peer support, greater sense of ownership, and better learning overall. They could actually provide evidence for their claims! Eventually, I moved away from analytic rubrics in favour of single-point rubrics, where the criteria simply indicate the expectation and the feedback can be personalized for each student. This showed me that there are ways to avoid placing students in categories and that the focus really can be on the learning 99% of the time. I was developing a greater understanding of my students, both as learners and as people, and this helped to shape our classroom environment. We developed a more explicit focus on social emotional learning and kids began talking about perseverance and growth rather than comparisons amongst themselves. I can honestly say that formative assessment is the single most important thing I ever shifted in my practice; it impacts everything.

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The Key Takeaways

Now working with pre-service teachers, I have a new perspective on formative assessment and the confusion that it inspires. For example, there is often a tendency to focus on the what rather than the how. Exit slips, observations, and work sample collections are all wonderful ways to gather evidence of student learning. However, it is so important to remember that these are simply tools. I could ask students to complete an exit slip at the end of a lesson, but if I don’t use it to guide my instruction and/or provide feedback, then it is really not being used formatively. We need to think carefully about how the information provided through the tool will guide our lessons, provide an opportunity for teacher feedback, or involve students in self and peer assessment. All of these are important features of formative assessment because they move learning forward.

Equally important is aligning our formative assessment with our summative. If we don’t have an end goal in mind, it becomes very difficult to design learning experiences that help students move toward that goal. Scaffolding is a term thrown around frequently in education, but often misunderstood. Really, scaffolding is the process of planning and assessment, which are interdependent and inseparable. Too often we teach one way and assess another, like providing lots of hands-on, interactive activities in Science but assessing with a written test that focuses on recall. This doesn’t make sense but it is an issue often overlooked in pre-service education courses. Summative assessment should reflect teaching practice in order to be fair, valid, and meaningful.

Finally, new teachers often remember that it’s important to collect evidence of learning and they use it to guide their own decisions in the classroom. They also tend to acknowledge that feedback is generally helpful for learning. What is most often forgotten is providing ample opportunities for students to apply the feedback in a timely manner. Spending hours on thoughtful comments is not meaningful if there is no opportunity for students to respond and/or try again. It also isn’t meaningful if it comes weeks after the experience. Whether it is with the same task or different but similar ones, students need multiple and frequent opportunities to practice and apply the feedback provided. Summative assessment – our end goal – is assessment of learning. How can we assess an end result if it is students’ first time doing something? This may seem simple, but I believe it is one of the most profound mindset shifts we can make as teachers.

I’ve learned so much over the years thanks to those who have shared and questioned their practice alongside me. Obviously, this post is not a comprehensive overview of assessment, but it’s always worth sharing stories and ideas. Formative assessment changed my entire practice as a teacher. It was the key to unlocking my students’ potential, and it was right in front of me all along. I hope there is something here to inspire you… or at least, to familiarize you with one of my nerdy teacher passions!

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Core Competencies in Action

Today, I just want to share a quick activity I did with my class last year to promote the Core Competencies found in BC’s redesigned curriculum. If you’re unsure what Core Competencies are, you can read about them here.

The activity below is simple but I found it powerful. My Grade 6/7 students really enjoyed it but it could be tailored to any grade level. You can find this and many other Core Competency activities designed by Surrey teachers here. Thanks to Chloe for providing her art and poetry sample.

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Title: Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox

Core Competency: Positive Personal & Cultural Identity

Curricular Connections: Language Arts & Fine Arts

Description:

As a class, we explored the term “totem.” We created a brainstorm of what we thought this word meant and what some examples might be in our own or others’ lives. Next, we read aloud the Author’s Note from the picture book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox to help solidify our understanding of the term. We used the Think/Pair/Share strategy to discuss the following questions: What might you choose as a personal totem and why? What might it be like to grow up not understanding your own culture? How do we know what our personal strengths are?

Following these discussions, we read aloud the picture book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox. Students worked either independently or collaboratively to brainstorm their positive personality traits and how they were like a specific animal of their choice. Students created poetry in a style of their choice and a piece of art to represent the connection between their positive personality traits and their animal totem. We based our artwork on the style of the book by author/artist Danielle Daniel.

Prompting Questions:

  • What might it be like to grow up not understanding your own culture?
  • How do we learn about ourselves? When and how do we learn about our strengths?
  • What guides you in making personal decisions?
  • What are some of your positive personality traits? How are they like those of an animal?

Learning Intention:

I can represent my positive personality traits through animal totem poetry and art.

Criteria:

  • Poem describes how one animal represents the positive traits of my personality.
  • Poem uses metaphors, similes, or analogies.
  • Poem includes descriptive and varied language.
  • Poem uses rhyme or repetition as a writing technique.
  • Artwork includes a representation of myself and features of my chosen animal.

Next Steps:

  • Sharing family recipes and traditions
  • Selecting totems that represent our identity
  • Video reflection on our positive sense of self

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I am a dog, loyal to my friends.

I am, and have loyal friends.

I am a dog, my tail starts to wag as fast as a plane propeller when I see my friends.

I get excited and start to tag along all my friends.

I am a dog, I worry when my friends are struggling.

I scurry everywhere to help my friends in troubling situations.

I am a dog, unique and different.

My friends always find various personalities I’ve got.

I am a dog, a man’s furry, comforting best friend.

I am a caring best friend who helps you feel better.

I am a dog,

I was, am, and will always be a friend who is loyal, friendly, caring, unique, and comforting.

 

The Values of Our Actions

Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. I’m not someone who has ever understood the appeal of audio books or podcasts. However, with some big chunks of time in my week newly available to me, I feel as though the inspiration that comes from podcasts is really infusing new life into my long commute.

Some of the most inspiring listening sessions I’ve had over the past couple of months have been financial podcasts. One in particular called Afford Anything exposed me to interviews with people I likely wouldn’t have come across if I had stuck to my usual book reading. One message I have taken away from this show is the importance of our values aligning with our actions. Basically, if we are not clear on our values – what’s most important to us – then we likely won’t align our actions with those values. According to a few of the show’s guests, this often results in a lot of frustration as people realize they’re not achieving their financial goals; if they could just be clear about what matters most, they would make more decisions that help them achieve their goals and they would be much happier.

I consistently find myself making connections to teaching. We often think we are clear about what matters to us in our practice. Whether it’s inquiry, storytelling, technology, or relationships, we tend to know what our passions are. But how often do we check in to make sure that our actions align with our values? How often are we actually doing things that are counter-intuitive to our values without being mindful of this disconnect?

I think these are important questions to ask ourselves because we are all human beings and teaching is hard work. The stress and frenzy of “the day” gets to all of us at one point or another. We can easily lose sight of what matters most when there’s a line up of emotional crises to deal with after lunch, the child who needs it most doesn’t have EA support again, or the phone rings for what feels like the 17th time that day. Nonetheless, taking the time to really dig deep, articulate our values, and map out how we might act accordingly can have a huge positive impact on our practice. It can save us time by minimizing decision fatigue and help clarify our expectations of our learners – not to mention make us happier!

So take the time to think about what matters to you… and more importantly, what you will do about it.

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

 

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.