Category Archives: Social Emotional 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.

 

What Plant Best Represents You?

This past week in our Inquiry class, teacher candidates participated in a mini inquiry designed to integrate disciplines and active many of the core competencies in BC’s redesigned curriculum. For many, it was an engaging and useful activity, as it modeled how we might not always open an inquiry with the actual inquiry question! I think it’s important that teachers understand that we don’t expect students to jump in unarmed with skills and tools to help them be successful. Below is a general outline of our process.

Learning Intention: I can make detailed observations about my local environment.

Experiences:

  • Sharing photos of plants and making observations as a group
  • Nature walk where students took photos of plants they observed in our surroundings
  • Sharing out observations in small groups

Plant 9

What do you notice about this plant? How would you describe its physical characteristics?

Learning Intention: I can use creative thinking to transform a physical characteristic into a personality trait.

Experiences:

  • Teacher modeling of a short story “Chloe the Cactus”
  • Writing a brief story about one of your chosen plants and what its physical characteristics might look like if it were a person

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Once we had developed some of the key skills required to engage in the final experience, we introduced the inquiry question.

What plant best represents you?

Learning Intention: I can make a meaningful connection between a plant and my personal identity.

Criteria:

  • Artistic representation is 2D or 3D and includes at least 2 different media.
  • Connection is about the real, inside you – your essence (i.e. not your physical appearance).
  • Description includes at least 3 thoughtful reasons why your plant represents you.

During this final stage of the process, teacher candidates engaged in their own online research to help select their plant. In a classroom setting, we discussed how we would need to provide more scaffolding at this point. It would be a great opportunity to teach digital literacy and credibility of sources through a model such as Get REAL. Some questions that helped guide our research were:

Where does your plant thrive? What else grows nearby?

What does your plant need to survive?

What are its physical characteristics?

What are some unique features of your plant that make it different from others?

This process was really beautiful to watch, as many of my teacher candidates used this as an opportunity to really reflect on their true selves. It is a good reminder that inquiry doesn’t have to be something overly complicated, but it can certainly be beautiful! Below are a few examples of the work that came out of this mini, teacher-guided inquiry. I hope they and the process inspire others to see how we might approach developing Core Competencies in a meaningful, inquiry-based way.

Harleen

Succulent plants are known to be found growing in mild and warm climates and do not require frequent watering. Cold weather does not suit these kinds of plants. The desert rose succulent best represents me in terms of the climate of situations I have faced. Similar to the desert rose succulent, I have built enough resilience that I do not need frequent “watering” to combat a situation. The succulent resembles a colourful flower but its exterior is tough and thick, which is similar to how I view myself; vibrant and carefree but also tough enough that I can withstand and get through stress and pressure from all aspects of my life (school, work, social life). The individual I am on the inside likes to stand outside of the box, not inside, and likes to be unique in small but meaningful ways. The plant is different in the sense that it stands out from other cacti and succulents but not in an overwhelmingly neon-coloured way.

Michelle

I found this decision quite easy, and associated myself with a Scotch Thistle quite quickly. My reasoning behind this is that this plant is nature to the Scottish highlands, the place in the world I feel most calm and happy. I, like the thistle, prefer wet and cold climates, to the sun. Thistles also are weeds, and tend to grow in the wilderness. Though they can come close to society they prefer to be on the outskirts and watch. Thistles also grown close to each other and other plants, but flower and leaf at the end of their stems, which are long. I connected to this because although I like to be near people, and to have people close, I like to have my distance as well, and am, at heart an introvert. Finally, thistles protect themselves by being bristly, and spiky. I too like to protect my inner self, and tend not to like to open up to many.

Heather

I ended up choosing a lotus flower. The obvious reason being that I literally have them tattoo’d on my shoulder. However, the lotus flower is quite a symbolic flower – which is what drew me to them enough to get a few permanently inked into my skin. In the buddhist culture (and I want to declare that I am not buddhist, nor am I trying to steal part of their culture) lotus flowers are a symbol of purity as it is a flower that physically has to push up through the mud to bloom into something so tranquil and part of this reason is why it also represents patience. The structure of a lotus contains multiple layers of petals that protect its core centre. I feel like we can relate to these characteristics of a lotus. Like others, I feel as though I have  had to push through the mud multiple times in my life to be the person that I am now. While I try incredibly hard to be patient, and would label myself as patient, it is still a quality I would like to have more of. The structure of the lotus is something I feel as though I can use to describe myself as well: I have a true inner self that protected by my outer layer personalities. I present myself as outgoing, funny, sarcastic, and confident – but these are just the outside petals I’m not afraid to show. As so many people do, the more vulnerable parts of myself I keep tucked away behind those petals. The firey red colour of this lotus also holds a meaning. A red lotus, according to the buddhist faith, symbolizes emotional attachments of the heart. I find that I can be quite an emotionally attached person and try to live life with passion and compassion.

 

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I would be a lime tree.  I chose a lime tree for a number of reasons:
The first is that my name, Linnea, means lime tree in Scandinavian, so I have always had an unusual fondness for lime trees despite not caring all that much for limes.  But having looked a little more into the plant itself, I uncovered a few similarities beyond simply the name.
Because it is a tree, it appears strong and sturdy.  However, lime trees actually require considerable care and support (such as consistent watering) in order to thrive.  They are “heavy feeders” which require regular fertilization (I love to eat!).  While they will still produce limes in colder weather, these limes would be small and dry, and few in number.  Lime trees produce the most and best fruit in warm climates!
In all, while lime trees appear to be hardy and resilient, they are actually quite needy.  They need lots of care, support, food, and warm weather to be the happiest trees they can be!  I feel like this description also fits my own personality quite well.

Credit given to Yvonne Dawydiak for the original inquiry question and art activity: What plant best represents you?

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.

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.