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A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!

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Do You Need To Change Anything?

Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone.

Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of choices. I enjoyed learning with other teachers who I normally don’t have chance to hang around with.” to the What-went-well question. This was balanced by a What-could-improve answer – “Encourage inclusiveness vs. cliques by having beople [sic] work with those who are not in their regular social circles.”

There were some very positive comments – “The workshops offered were interesting, fun, and engaging. They helped us to get out of our comfort zone and learn things that we wanted to learn. It was also nice to be able to put on a workshop about something that we enjoy. Seeing other peoples’ talents also helped me to appreciate and admire the staff more as well.”

Some a little critical (from the What-could-be-improved question) – “Making sure that all teachers went to the sessions. I know of one teacher who skipped out and did grading instead of attending one of the sessions :(. It would be good to make sure all teachers are involved all day.”

And some very critical – “The creativity and fun aspect of the day is certainly a plus. But I question whether “remember what it’s like to be a learner” is a significant enough of a goal to spend an entire day this way. I wonder if the goal were something like “learning about other subjects with the goal of integrating,” it could lead to more valuable learning while maintaining the creative aspects. Then if we have sessions on art and dance and movie making and photography, teachers can learn those skills to better help students develop them and use them in their science and English and Korean and math classes. It might provide a better focus for choosing and developing sessions. And it might result in a bigger impact on teaching and learning. Also, it would have been really helpful if you had asked teachers their opinion about how to spend all three PD days AHEAD of time. Teachers really should be playing an integral role in the planning process of every single PD day at this school.”

My experience in developing these sorts of programs for faculty and staff across a number of different international schools over the past 15 years has led me to know that this range of opinions is expected, and even more importantly, is essential.

As an administrator it is important to know how things can be improved, what worked really well and that some colleagues felt the day was a waste of time. It is important to hear that the value I see in devoting a whole day to professional learning is shared by most, but not by all.

My (possibly controversial) reflection is this…

At it’s core, “Teaching” is about “Learning”. You cannot be a great teacher if you are not a great learner. We spend a lot of time (comparatively) learning about teaching (as expert learners), and in the process learn very little! (Generally, not a lot of our fundamental teaching practices change after a conference or a workshop!) We spend very little time (comparatively) learning about learning. This day of learning was designed in the hope that we would experience what being a NOVICE learner was like again. Because that’s what it is like for your students – EVERY day! Maybe EVERY lesson in a given day! Adults are rarely NOVICE learners. And even more rarely do they spend an entire school day being a NOVICE learner.

Before you begin to teach today, consider what it will feel like as a student to sit in your classroom to LEARN today. Do you need to change anything?

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Becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day!

Yesterday, after some careful planning and logistical tap-dancing, our full faculty enjoyed a home-grown professional learning day focused on passions. Teachers were invited to offer presentations on something they were passionate about to their colleagues.

Here’s the list of what we had to choose from:

  • iMovie Basics
  • Planning and Integrated Inquiry Unit
  • Sharing gratitude
  • Maximizing SmartBoard use with Notebook Software
  • Introduction to Lego Robotics
  • Cooking: Chinese Dumplings
  • Supportive and Investigative Teaching
  • Woodshop – Build yourself a stand!
  • Learn to Tie Asian Knots
  • Basic Drawing & Shading
  • Coaching the Mental Game
  • Tech-Infused Formative Assessment
  • EAL Resource Website
  • Strength training and conditioning
  • Photography 101
  • Cooking: Unrefined Sweets
  • Fitness Room 101 – Strength and Resistance Training for Beginners
  • Photoshop Basics
  • Let’s Bboy (and Bgirl)
  • Juggling 101  
  • Pumping Up Our Reading Culture
  • Jazz Dance Routine

It was one of the best days of Professional Learning I have participated in in nearly 25 years of working in schools!

For the first time this year, every teacher in the building was truly transported into the role of the student. The NOVICE learner. The student who truly knows very, very little about the topic and is expected to listen, learn and demonstrate their understanding at the end of the day.

There was struggle! For the life of me I just could not fold those Chinese dumplings right. Too much filling. Not enough filling. Clumsy fingers. Ugly Jiaozi!

There were teachers who for the first time were donning protective eyewear as they ran lengths of timber through a table saw. Noise. Fear. Danger. Sawdust. Triumph! The look of satisfaction on the faces of those same teachers who left with a wooden creation of their own making was so inspiring!

There were teachers who had always wished they could juggle but had never taken the time to try, standing up at the end of the day performing feats of juggling for their peers! The balls were dropping left right and centre but the smiles were so big that everyone in the audience cheered!

And there were teachers breakdancing. Yep, BREAKDANCING!

The juggling was led by an English teacher. The Woodworking was led by the Elementary Principal. The Fitness Conditioning was led by the Kindergarten teacher. The Jazz Dance was led by a Korean teacher. The Lego Robotics was led by the Biology teacher. The Breakdancing was led by the Chaplain!

It was truly inspiring to see so many of my colleagues stand in front of their peers and teach something they truly love doing, that previously we had no idea they knew anything about. I mean, a breakdancing Chaplain!!!

So what are the takeaways from the day???

  • Any school can run a day like this – your colleagues have secret talents!
  • For a teacher, becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day is a very, very valuable perspective shift
  • Our culture of learning just received an enormous boost
  • Professional learning is as much about “the act of learning” as it is about what is learned
  • Smiles. Everyone left smiling!

 

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Are we teaching the “love of” the the, or just the “the”?

In my office, on a small desk covered with Star Wars minifigures, a rubics cube and some Hot Wheels cars you will also find my 4th grade class photo. I’m the smallish blonde boy in the middle row, fourth from the left. At the other end of the row is Mrs Paterson. She is the reason the photo sits on my desk thirty-six years later.

I don’t really remember much about what I learned in fourth grade. As an elementary teacher of many years myself I can guess what was covered, and while it might be interesting, it’s not important. What I can remember is the way Mrs Paterson made me feel about being in her class.

She had high standards. She challenged me. She believed that I could do it.

At a recent conference I sat and listened to Sir John Jones talk about the way schools should be. Amongst his humour were some truisms that all educators need to be thinking deeply about. One was, “Google can teach you history. Only teachers can teach you the LOVE of history!”

Like most other schools around the world, I urge my teachers to “address the standards” when they teach. “Follow UbD when you plan,” I say. “Start with the standards. Design the assessment. Build the plan.”

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-1-32-22-pm

But in my fifteen years of co-planning with teachers, I have never come across a standard addressing teaching the “love” of something. I’ve never asked a teacher to add a row in a rubric to read,”demonstrates a love of calculus”, or writing, or painting or long division. And as I ponder this, I am wondering how to address this absence.

If the role of a teacher is to teach a “love of” something, be it physics or reading or history or simply (but not so simply) learning, where do we start? Where do we put all the effort in and how to we know if we’ve accomplished it? Can we use the final grade as a measure? Or is it less quantitative and more qualitative? Is it the number of students who choose to follow that subject as a career path? Is it the number of smiles on faces I see in classrooms as I walk through the building? Or is it the waiting list of students eager to get into a particular class with a particular teacher?

Mrs Paterson was my fourth-grade teacher and she is the one who taught me a “love of” something. She did it by challenging me, expecting I was able and caring for me as I made my attempts and failed.

Maybe it is that simple. Maybe it is that and a bit more. Maybe what was right for Mrs Paterson is different for you and I. Who knows?

As a school administrator, I don’t have the answer. I know when a teacher has it and I can see when a teacher doesn’t. I can give examples of it. I can attest to the importance of it. I can urge those without it to develop it.

If you are a teacher, how are you developing in students the “Love Of” your subject?

 

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How would you change?

I am reading an interesting book right now – Ron Ritchhart’s “Creating a Culture of Thinking: The 8 Forces we must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools” and a paragraph or two have really stimulated my thinking.

Image Credit: http://static.messynessychic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/outdoor-school-2013-11-05-Buitenschool-1930-04.jpg

This one has got the wheels turning with some gusto: “does the space facilitate learners’ needs to communicate, discuss, share, debate, and engage with other learners—or is it meeting only the students’ need to see the board?” It is referring to the physical layout of a classroom, and as I did a mental walk through of the school I work in I am concluding that the vast majority of the rooms are set up for the students to see the board, not talk to one another.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if teachers came to school one day to find the board had been removed, the projector taken down and student desks facing each other.

What would happen?

How many would rearrange the desks, tape some chart paper up onto the wall and continue on as normal? How many would turn up in my office, unable to teach? How many would think for a minute and change what they had planned and begin a different approach?

Image Credit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4bR9llHHJ0k/T3S4w3oVyqI/AAAAAAAACSE/Duk6yhDAZ_c/w1200-h630-p-nu/classroom+without+walls.jpg-large

It was a stark reminder of the very strong connection between our physical space and the way we teach. It was a stark reminder that often times, if we are to change the way we teach, sometimes changing the space we teach in is the first step.

So if you came to school tomorrow and discovered that your whiteboard/blackboard/projector had been removed, how would you change?

 

 

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How are you asking for student voice?

When we are asked about “student voice”, and if it is able to be heard in our classrooms, it is easy to answer yes. “Students in my class talk.” “Students in my class respond to questions.”
 
But this is not what the question is really asking about!
 
Student voice is less about students making a noise and more about WHAT they are saying.
  • Do you know if your students find your classes challenging and engaging?
  • Do your students have a say in determining what they are learning?
  • Do your students have a choice in HOW they demonstrate their understandings to you and others?
  • Do you make all the decisions for your students?
These are the questions you should be asking in relation to student voice. 
 
Best practice tells us learning is improved when students have a “voice” determining the what, understanding the why, negotiating the when and deciding the how.
 
How are you asking for student voice? To read more and for some fantastic ideas, click on the image below!
 
http://www.edutopia.org/topic/student-voice

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Lego, IKEA and problem finding!

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Einstein-formal_portrait-35.jpg

“The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”
― Albert Einstein

It would be fair to suggest that we have all heard of problem solving! It is lauded as an essential 21st century skill. We ask each other if we are asking our students to “problem solve”. While this is not unimportant, Einstein’s 20th century quote above might be putting a new spin on this 21st century skill that we have not considered – that finding the problem might be more important that solving it!

Somewhere in my past I remember listening to a speaker (maybe it was a TED Talk) whose main idea was that we should be spending a LOT more time working with students on FINDING the problems, and then solving them. If I remember rightly, he was suggesting that handing a student a page full of “problems” and asking them to “solve” them was missing the point somewhat.

Maybe it is like an IKEA dining table you bring home.

Here are all the parts you need, and the tools you will need to use with the parts, and a book that gives you the step by step instructions for putting the table together, and a picture of what each step should look like, and a picture of the finished product, and a helpline number to call if you mess things up. Or, if that’s too hard, here is the number for a couple of guys who can come to your house and solve your building problem for you (for a small fee of course!).

Imagine what would happen if the IKEA table came with five extra pieces, no tools, no picture and no helpline! (Oops, someone just fainted!)

If you have ever watched a child receive a Lego set as a present, there is that short period of “building the IKEA table” where the booklet is opened, the steps are followed and the “thing” is built. It is played with for a short period. The car zooms. But then… the car crashes and the pieces come apart and the car merges with the house and the boat to become become a hovercraft with a time travelling switch and a laser cannon and next thing the room, and everyone in it, is being blasted by lasers and transported into the future.

I wonder what would happen if you started playing lego with all your different pieces of IKEA furniture???

I digress!

As you continually challenge your students to solve problems, how can you challenge them to FIND the problems and then solve them? How can you make those problems you are posing embedded in the REAL world, rather than the SCHOOL world?

How can the problems you challenge your students to find and solve REALLY help them with the problems they are going to encounter and attempt to solve this afternoon as they walk/cycle/bus/train home from school?

And apologies if you are still having shivers from the “five extra pieces” IKEA thought!

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Your lightbulb in your classroom?

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. – C. William Pollard

(Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/innovation.html)

There is a danger that when we think of innovation we imagine devices that can turn salt water into drinking water, or self-driving cars, or mouldy bread that can charge a phone battery (yes, it does exist!). While these do fit the definition of innovation, to most of us, these types of new ideas are well beyond our scope. Innovation, as portrayed by the media, is usually big and life changing and sensational.
But innovation can be something you do every day!
When you consider that innovation is defined as “a new method, idea, product, etc”, then your own scope for innovation suddenly widens. And innovation can be a personal thing! What is innovative for you doesn’t need to be innovative for someone else. If what you are doing is new for you – a new method, a new approach, a new idea – then you are being innovative.

So, as you consider your teaching today, what are you doing today that you have not done before? Where are those moments where you are challenging yourself with a new teaching idea, or a new assessment practice or a new approach to planning. If you have always taught a certain book or a certain unit a certain way, or have always taught from a content perspective, or have always set a final exam, how can you innovate? Can you take the big ideas of the book and allow students to choose their own books that address those ideas? Can you reconsider the content from a conceptual standpoint and teach from that new angle? Can you develop a rubric that covers all the elements of the final exam and give students the opportunity to choose how to demonstrate those understandings via a project?

Innovation carries with it a certain amount of risk. Will the conceptual unit be as good as the usual content approach? How will I assess students if they are all reading different books? Will a final project be as rigorous as a final exam?
Risk taking in teaching is critical. Not everything is going to be fantastic first time around. It won’t be the end of the world. You will be able to try again.
So today, how will you innovate in your classroom? How will you innovate in your teaching? How will you allow your students to innovate?

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Student Choice

As I work through the “8 things to look for in Today’s Classroom” from George Couros, “Choice” is one of those that we might immediately consider more difficult than some of the others – especially if we are teaching a prescribed curriculum, or an prescribed course, with a text book, a time schedule and an external exam on a given date in May! I’m not going to say it’s easy, or that I know how to suddenly infuse your course with CHOICEs – that’s for you to consider. What I do understand however is the fact that when students have choices they are more engaged, and when they are engaged, learning becomes more effective. I did originally write “learning becomes easier” here, but many times it doesn’t.

Engagement doesn’t make learning EASIER! From a personal perspective, when I am engaged I’m prepared to struggle with my learning for a lot longer than when I’m not. I tend to persevere more. Through this willingness to persevere I learn more. The learning isn’t any easier. In fact, because I am prepared to persevere more it would be fair to say that in some respects the learning is harder, or at least there’s more struggle.

So coming back to Choice…

From an institutional perspective, some schools do a better job of allowing Student Choice to permeate their school culture than others. Some schools allow students to choose their high school courses, to fit into a set schedule. Others have flexibility in scheduling and can allow some degree of student choice in timing of when they take those classes throughout the day. Some schools opt for a “no uniform” policy and allow students to choose what they wear to school. Others don’t. Some larger schools allow students to choose which teacher they want when there are multiple sections of a course. And then there are graduation requirements that guide student choices for extra-curricular, sporting, cultural, service and other activities. While these institutional level choices are important, the more critical arena for student choice is the classroom.

If you work in a classroom (note I didn’t say “Are in charge of a classroom”), here are some questions to ponder:

  • If you drew up a pie chart titled “Teacher Choice – Student Choice”, how would the two sections of the pie compare in size? Have you thought about how you might be able to make the Student Choice slice bigger?
  • When you are designing an assessment task, how do students get to choose?
  • When you are planning a unit of instruction and are considering learning activities, how is student choice built into the planning?
  • When students take notes in your class, do they get to choose how they take their notes?
  • When an assessment task is finally assessed/marked/graded, do your students get to choose their result/grade/mark (self assess)?

Alfie Kohn, in his September 1993 article, “Choices for Children – Why and How to let Students Decide” put it pretty bluntly when he wrote,

“Much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behaviour may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.”

If you have some time to read through the whole Alfie Kohn article it is well worth the time! If not, at least begin to consider how you might be able to introduce more student choice into your classroom. Alfie Kohn suggests possible starting places when he writes, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn” and goes on to expand upon these ideas.

The FacultyFocus.com article titled, “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment” takes the idea of “how” and “how well” and challenges the idea of prescribed assessment tasks, suggesting,

“rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.”

While I am not advocating every teacher suddenly creates an assessment buffet for students to help themselves from, it does help us to rethink something that possibly has been considered un-rethink-able. Again, the whole article is well worth a read (and is a bit shorter than the Alfie Kohn article).

In summary, engagement is critical for deep learning, and giving students choices in the what, the how, the how well and the why of learning can only serve to increase engagement.

References:

George Couros. “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.The Principal of Change. 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Alfie Kohn. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide (*) – Alfie Kohn.Alfie Kohn. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, Sept. 1993. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment? – Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. 2011. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

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“Copy this down…” or don’t. It’s up to you!

From an interesting article about the Primary Years Program… Click here for the full blog post.

If we truly value thinking and creativity, then why would there be a need for students to copy something down. Whether it’s a definition, a list of attributes, or instructions for how to do something, doesn’t the act of expecting students to copy down whatever it is we are looking for steal their thinking? If learning is all about making meaning, aren’t we missing an opportunity to have students construct their own meaning if we are expecting them to copy down someone else’s meaning?

Out of the whole post, this short paragraph has been clunking around in my head more loudly than the other ideas shared within. I’ve been asking myself, “Should teachers be telling students to copy this down?”

When I taught for a year at TongJi Medical University in Wuhan, China (after having taught elementary for four and a half years in Australia) I was introduced to a “copying” culture in my students. Whatever I wrote on the blackboard (with chalk!) was diligently copied into all 45 journals in the room. I didn’t need to say, “Copy this down.” The presumption was that whatever I wrote on the board was important, without necessarily understanding what it was important for. That year made me rethink what I used the blackboard for!

Fast forward twenty years and now we have LCD projectors and interactive whiteboards (not a stick of chalk anywhere!) and the ability to bombard our students with a “blackboard” full of Google or Powerpoint slide after slide after slide after slide of “important” information. My Chinese university students would be most dismayed because they would not possibly be able to copy it all down. And maybe because of that they would begin to ask which information was important to copy, which makes me wonder about why students should take notes at all. Why anyone takes notes at all!

Well, from my personal perspective, I take notes every day. Notes of every meeting I attend. I write down who is there, the date on which it takes place, the time of day and the main things we speak about. If I need to complete a task as a follow-up to the meeting I note that down. But in all of that, the most important element is why. Why I note those things down!

I note those things because I know that in the future I will need those pieces of information for something else I will need to do. Those are the things that are important to remember in order for me to do a good job of being the Principal.

From a student perspective, the WHY should be similarly important. WHY a student is taking notes should drive what notes they are taking. This demands that students actually KNOW what they need their notes for, be it an exam at the end of the week or semester, for a project they are developing or for an essay they might be writing. They must KNOW the criteria around which that task will be assessed. Only then can they determine if what is being presented to them on the “blackboard” is worth copying down.

So when we say, “Copy this down” we are missing the most important part of the whole note-taking process – the CRITICAL THINKING that demands the worth of the information be COMPARED to the demands of the task, to result in a CONSCIOUS DECISION to copy or not to copy.

So when the inevitable student question “Do we need to copy this?” comes up (as we all know it will), try answering with a question instead… “Why might you need to remember this information?”

If the student can’t answer that question then you (or the student) might have bigger problems, but it WILL prompt critical thinking.

Note-taking, as the original blog post mentioned, should be about students making their own meaning from information presented to them. Don’t ask students to “Copy this down”, ask students to be critical about what they think is important* and let them choose!

 

*But make sure you are VERY clear with course goals, expected learning outcomes, assessment criteria and assessment details!

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