Category Archives: Taking Risks

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.

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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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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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.

Why My Comfort Zone is Not Important

Kids are amazing. Without fail, they exceed our expectations whenever given the opportunity to try something they’re interested in at school. Without fail, they step up to the plate and help each other learn in these instances so no one is left out. They usually do this when we have managed to shift their perspective of school from this thing they have to do every day to make it personally meaningful and relevant to their lives, passions, and curiosities.

This year, I’ve tried to have my kids learn things that make me uncomfortable. One example is coding. Not knowing where to start, we participated in the Hour of Code using tutorials from Khan Academy (available in French). The first experience was amazing for some and frustrating for others; however, they were all engaged in problem-solving and most were collaborating with a partner. Even though I know absolutely nothing about coding, I thought “Good, we tried it! I think we may do that again sometime.” What I learned 3 weeks later when we came back to it again was that the experience had sparked a passion in several of my students that I didn’t even know was there. One girl is pursuing coding daily in her spare time as part of her Genius Hour and thinks she may want to be a software developer. Another group of boys is trying to design their own video game using Scratch. How powerful is that? All because I was willing to give something that is outside my comfort zone a try.

It doesn’t take much effort, only a willingness to be the one without the answers. What have you tried with your kids lately that makes you uncomfortable?

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Oral Language – How and Why?

Oral language development is always a hot topic in French Immersion, or any second language classroom. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me “I took French all through high school and can’t speak a word!” As a French teacher, there is nothing that makes me more sad or disappointed. What is the point of pursuing language learning if we can’t interact with anyone else?

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Often we mean well, but there is a lack of understanding about how students best learn a new language. I would like to share my strategies for developing confidence in oral language amongst my Late French Immersion students.

Identify the Learning Intention

If we are not clear about our objective as teachers, how will students know what they are supposed to learn? I’m not talking about vocabulary here, either; I’m talking about what we want our students to be able to do. Try structuring your intention in the form of an “I can…” statement. For example, “I can use passé composé to share what I did on the weekend.” This will help provide you with context in which you can teach the language structure.

Context

Vocabulary taught in isolation is almost never meaningful for students; it relies on memorization and is not representative of any authentic communication situation. Grammar in isolation can be even more troublesome; what is the point of knowing how to conjugate the past tense (passé composé) if we have no idea when or how to use it in a real-life situation? Focus on what students want to talk about in the past: their weekends, their vacations, or what they did before coming to school that day. These are meaningful learning opportunities because students are actually applying the language structure in an authentic way.

Model

This step is so key! Teachers must model the language structure they want their students to learn before they ask students to use it or write it down. This means providing multiple examples along with actions and/or visuals to help cue students’ vocabulary. Using a simple structure repeatedly in context is most effective. For example, I might point to what I am wearing when I say: “Je porte un chandail bleu. Je porte des pantalons noirs.” Obviously the structure you choose to model and practice depends on the level of your students; in our class, we often focus on a specific verb tense or expression (e.g. passé composé or “J’ai hâte pour…”) The key in modeling is to avoid translating in favour of contextual cues and to take reading out of the equation; that can be learned later once the structure is internalized.

Partner Practice

Once we have modeled a language structure in a meaningful context and supported our model with actions or visuals, we can move on to offering students the chance to practice. However, this should be done in a very structured way. I will often share my model and then ask students to share their own personal phrase with a partner. This allows them to practice in a safe way as it does not put them on the spot in front of the whole class.

Once students have practiced in partners, I model a question such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” and call on anywhere from 1-5 students to answer the question. This is the time to correct any errors in the targeted structure.

Developing Independence

Have the class repeat the question, such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” chorally to ensure correct pronunciation. Then allow them the independence to practice the question and answer format with their peers. Inside/outside circles is a strategy that works really well with most students. It allows me the opportunity to circulate and formatively assess students’ abilities very quickly and easily; it also gives students the opportunity to practice the same language structure multiple times to increase

Know When To Intervene… and When Not To

With new language Learners, it is very easy to become intimidated or anxious. While of course the purpose of structured oral language practice is to target specific language structures, we need to know when to intervene or correct and when fluency is more important. If passé composé is what I am modeling, then that is the structure I will openly correct in students’ communication. Correction of errors is necessary and important, but building confidence is even more important! Don’t forget that it’s ok to leave them to fumble through expressing their thoughts as well, as they are developing different skills at different times.

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How Morning Meetings Have Transformed Our Learning

This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to try morning meetings with my grade seven students. Every morning, we sit in a circle and one by one, we share how we are feeling that day. We rate our feelings on a scale of 1-10 and provide some reasons why we are feeling that way if we are comfortable doing so. This has been an incredibly powerful experience for me as an educator, as it provides us with dedicated time to listen to each other, builds trust within our classroom, and encourages students to take risks in sharing in a new language. It has also provided us with an avenue for oral language practice. Each day, we target a specific language structure. For example, Mondays are usually practicing past tense as we share what we did on the weekend and Fridays are a great opportunity to talk about “J’ai hâte…” It is amazing how many errors can be corrected when they are class learning intentions. Over time, students have become more comfortable correcting themselves and others as well. We are able to laugh about some of our mistakes while we develop common language understanding. Several initially shy students have come out of their shells during morning meetings! It’s been a wonderful experience that has greatly increased students’ confidence in French. I can no longer imagine not having morning meetings in our classroom.

I believe oral language development is essentially the most important skill we can help develop in our students. Without speaking and listening, they will always lack the ability to communicate meaningfully with others in real-life situations. By targeting specific language structures and modeling oral language on a regular basis, we can help our students open doors to new experiences.

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Five Life Lessons

There goes my commitment to blogging a minimum of twice a month! November just flew by and now winter holidays are already upon us.

To get back into the swing of things, I’d like to share five things I’ve learned (or re-learned) this past month.

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1. Change Is Both Amazing and Difficult

Two of the classes at our school are participating in our district’s pilot program  “Communicating Student Learning” to revise our current report card model. We have moved towards a focus on core competencies (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Personal & Social Responsibility, Communication) and we have chosen to take letter grades off of our reports. Instead, there is an emphasis on self-assessment and conferencing with individual students. Personally and professionally, I have found this experience to be incredibly rewarding. I have had many meaningful conversations with students about their strengths and goals in the past couple of weeks. It is amazing to see the insight that most 12-year olds have about themselves as learners. It was also wonderful to hear about what they are enjoying and what they are excited about. My eyes have been opened to how powerful a single conversation can be as I’ve been able to more clearly understand what particular students need from me to help them improve. Others are struggling to accept the new format; some are uncomfortable with self-reflection and others want to keep letter grades. I understand their struggles because change can be difficult and overwhelming. Hopefully second term will go more smoothly for everyone as we all adjust and become more comfortable with the changes.

2. Masters Programs Require A Lot of Time!

This one has been a steep learning curve for me. I was so excited to embark on my new learning journey in September, but I was completely unprepared for how much time I would have to dedicate to my coursework. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the course… but it has been a balancing act that has not always worked out for the best. I am hopeful that I will improve my time management in January!

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3. Family Is Important… And So Is Health

Originally from Ontario, my spouse and I usually fly back to Toronto every year for the Christmas holidays. All of our family is there; we moved out here together in 2009 looking for something different. This year, we have both been under a lot of stress and not as healthy as we would like. After much discussion, we made the difficult decision to stay in BC for the holidays this year. With no family here whatsoever, it will be our first experience alone for the holidays in eight years. I love my family and I look forward to my once-a-year visit… but this year other things had to take priority. Everyone needs some down time once in awhile and for us, this is the way to get it this year. The best decisions – the ones that make the most sense at a particular time – are not always the easiest. I will miss spending time with family, but I look forward to exploring new traditions.

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4. New Challenges Are Scary

I have been wanting a student teacher for quite some time and finally requested one this fall only to not be assigned a placement. I was so disappointed, but in the end, it would have been completely nutty to have one these past few months! This week I was offered the chance to work with someone beginning in January. My initial reaction was excitement – I’ve been looking forward to this! – and then I realized just how scared I am. What if I am not a good mentor? I like to think I enjoy a challenge, but sometimes my inner child pops up and reminds me that I don’t feel ready. However, in this case, I will accept and embrace the fear, and then move on, because I know it will all work out. At the very least, passion is contagious!

5. I Can’t Do It All

I have had to let a few things go this year. For a variety of reasons, it was a very overwhelming fall and there is no way I would have survived if I had kept it all on my plate. For the first time in my career, I was burnt out and ready to quit. As someone who has struggled for a long time with perfectionism and a need to please others, this was a very difficult lesson. I can’t do it all; in fact, I don’t want to do it all. I am learning to focus my energy on the things that matter most to me. I am learning that I don’t need to have my foot in everything. This lesson has been a long time in the making, but it is finally beginning to sink in and it feels pretty good…

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I know it’s December and it’s a crazy time of year for many… but don’t forget to take some time to relax! Sometimes the things that most need our attention are right in front of our eyes and we choose to ignore them.

What are some lessons you’ve learned so far this year? What are you looking forward to?

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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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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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.

Powerful Connections

Plans rarely work out how we hope they will. I often feel defeated at this time of year as I reflect on everything I didn’t do for my students. So many wonderful plans have not worked out either because they were poorly executed on my part or because of a lack of time.

One of those plans up until last week was a science inquiry on the impact of humans on local ecosystems. We had developed inquiry questions but hadn’t really taken it anywhere. My goal was to have my students interact with the general public outside of our classroom either to interview an expert, collect data, or to convey a message.

This week, we’ve finally managed to get the ball rolling. It’s strange, really, as my kids were not initially enthusiastic about moving forward with a project so late in the year… But one tweet can make all the difference!

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The group quickly learned that their tweet would be more effective if they targeted a specific audience…

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Within a couple of days, we had responses from both the City of Surrey and the Vancouver Aquarium. How cool is that! Students are now interviewing a scientist about the ozone layer and sharing resources with the city about construction projects and population growth. When less enthusiastic groups saw that others were actually getting valuable information from Twitter, they decided to try it too.

Once we had made it through this learning curve, I threw out the idea of making Google Docs surveys to gather information that would help guide their inquiry. By tweeting to #comments4kids #sd36learn and #cityofsurrey, one group had several responses within 10 minutes. Now the students are starting to see the power of connecting outside of the classroom! They are also beginning to see that both French and English can be used to communicate with an outside audience, so many of our projects are bilingual.

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Students are using everything from blog posts, poster campaigns, and public service ads for YouTube to understand and explore their inquiry questions. All are using Twitter to communicate in some way.

Students using Twitter is not a new concept, but for us it has been a very exciting week. I am most proud of those who are taking chances and trying new things even when they’re uncertain. It is so important to make learning meaningful for kids. At this time of year, many classes begin winding down, but this inquiry project is one way I feel we are winding up. Who can argue with excitement that is connected to learning?