Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Do We Model Self-Assessment?

At our Manitoulin IGNITEd session on gradeless classrooms today, there was a lot of great discussion on the role of assessment in our courses. Jonathan So (@MrSoClassroom) posed some probing questions on our past experiences with assessment (both previously as students and now as teachers), as well as what the point of assessment in school should be.

One of the topics that a couple of participants delved into after Jonathan's presentation was on how students could better self-assess. How can we encourage (and eventually come to expect) students to reflect on their achievement? And how can they use the knowledge they glean from that reflection to help guide their future learning?

From Jonathan's Manitoulin IGNITEd slide deck

A question we kept circling back to, though, was how do students know how to self-assess? Can they be good judges of their strengths and weaknesses? Can they take that self-assessment and use it to guide how they approach learning in the future?

Do Teachers Self-Assess?

As teachers, this can be something we model. We do self-assess informally - talk with our PLN about strategies, evaluate how a lesson went, replay scenarios in our heads... and then use that reflection to plan our next lessons and units. We do this on a regular (daily?) basis, and we can argue that we've gotten pretty good at it. 

But our students rarely see it. If we want students to be able to reflect and self-evaluate - and see why it is an important process - we need to demonstrate how it is critical to our practice. 

So how can we make our reflections more public? Some ideas...

  • Blog, blog, and blog some more. Get your thoughts down on virtual paper and reflect publicly on what went right, and what went wrong. 
  • Seek input on said blog, and respond to comments. Show an evolution in thinking when in discussion with someone from your PLN.
  • Do a post-mortem on projects or big lessons with your students. What worked? What didn't work? Seek out student feedback and allow them to see you take it in to consideration in the next project or lesson.
  • Apologize when a lesson doesn't go well. Learn from your mistakes and start over. We preach that failure is okay, let's model it too.
  • Ask for feedback from your students and your colleagues. Have your students write a report card comment for you. What are your strengths? What are your next steps?

Assuming we are reflecting enough on our practice (reflection was my #oneword2016 this year, recognizing that I needed to actively practice it more...), what else can we do to model our reflection practices?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Determining the WHY

It's one thing to observe a phenomenon. It's another to understand not just what happened, but why it happened.

This really struck me last month. I was listening to the news, and there was a story about a fatal train crash in New Jersey. The question that everyone asked, of course, was: why did the train crash? 

On the surface, it is easy to answer - the train was going too fast. But that answer isn't good enough. It's not enough to know that the train was speeding, we want to know WHY it was going too fast. Was it a mechanical failure? The fault of the conductor? Malfunctioning signals? Grease on the tracks?

In other words, we want to understand the cause of the excess speed, so that we can make sure this tragedy does not happen again.

The Why in School...

We are learning to take the same approach to our classes. In some cases - applied-level math courses, for instance - we see only a small percentage of students achieving provincial standard. Why is that?

On the surface, just like the train, it's an easy question. In some cases, students just aren't doing the work. They're not working efficiently in class, and they're working even less outside of class (if at all) to learn and master the material. They are not doing all that is required of them, so they are not earning provincial standard, or in some cases, not even earning the credit.

But again, like the train, that's not a good enough - not a deep enough - analysis to say "The students aren't succeeding because they are not doing the work." We have to start, REALLY start, asking ourselves WHY that work is not getting done. And there are many reasons why students might not be picking up their pencils and putting in the work...

Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy

The goal of Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy is to have teachers start asking this very important why, and implementing ways to help our most at-risk students, including those with learning disabilities.

By definition, a student with a learning disability has an average to above average intelligence. They just have ways - that have been identified - in which it is MUCH harder for them to learn. For whatever reason, though these students have average to above average potential, students with learning disabilities are disproportionately taking applied-level courses over academic-level courses. And they are achieving success at lower rates in those courses than students without learning disabilities. 

So again, we ask ourselves, WHY?

That's not to say that we haven't asked ourselves this question before. But now we are being encouraged to really dig deeply for the answers, particularly when it comes to students with exceptionalities. This includes not just past achievement (results on report cards, standardized test results), but really looking at a student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Psycho-educational Assessment, and Speech & Language Assessment. We are looking to pinpoint very specific strengths and needs, for very specific students.

We recognize when we have identified students in our classes, but do we know - do we truly know - how to best accommodate for them so that they can reach their potential? For the first time we are really leveraging the expertise of our in-school Special Education Resource Teachers, and by pairing them with secondary subject specialists, bringing unified, purposeful interventions aimed at allowing those students to perform at their best.

And let's not forget, that what's good for a student with a learning disability, is good for even more students in the class. These purposeful interventions can have a huge, positive, trickle down effect.

That's what part of my new role is all about - digging down to determine the why for at-risk students with learning disabilities all across the school board, and working with teachers to best use that knowledge to help students achieve success in math. And perhaps we can prevent a few crashes along the way.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Tiny Connection

A wonderful little thing happened to me this morning.

I should start by mentioning that while I'm loving my new position, I do find it a little lonely compared with last year. At my home school, when I'm there, I work in an office by myself. Being in different schools throughout the week means I'm interacting with a lot of people, but I see the same people only on a semi-regular basis: lots of colleagues, but few friends.

Add to that the long drives and a good number of nights alone in hotels, and it's quite different than being in dynamic classes with your kids every day, or sharing lunch with your office of seven other zany science teachers!

(Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining - just reflecting on the difference. The position also brings with it a number of independent projects that fit my interests, and quite a bit of freedom to approach things in the ways that work best for me, something that wouldn't always be possible if I wasn't working on my own.)

I've particularly missed the connections with my students - checking in to see how they're doing, having conversations about mutual interests, or being able to see their talents develop over time. I assumed that similar types of connections weren't really possible when you don't interact with the same people every day. 

Which made this morning all the more wonderful.

I was in a secondary school, waiting in the main office for the administrator to become available. One of the students at the school - whom I had never seen before - complimented me on my dress.

Flowers on my dress today

"I like the flowers on it," she said. 

"Thanks - I like them, too," I replied. "I like that they're a little bit darker than you'd expect from flowers. Not so 'flowery.'"

"They remind me of the flowers I sketch."

"Do you draw?"

"I do. Will you be here for a few minutes? Do you want to see my sketchbook?"

She then disappeared to her locker, only to return a couple of minutes later with a pair of well-worn sketchbooks. We sat together, side by side, and she told me about her sketches - her inspirations, and how long it took her to complete them - as I flipped through the pages. 

I pointed out my favourite, a stylized profile of a butterfly, and shared that I wished I could be as good at drawing as she is.

It was only a few minutes, but it was a lovely conversation - a tiny little personal connection - that completely made my day. I don't know what made her want to reach out, but I am grateful that she did, and I hope she got what she seeking from the conversation too (encouragement? feedback? self-validation?).

It reminded me that though classrooms are natural places to reach out and relate to each other, these connections can happen anywhere. It takes just a few minutes to engage someone in a genuine conversation, and that might be all it takes to make that person feel valued, or even just to make them smile.

A kind word, or a simple compliment, can go a long way toward welcoming or connecting with someone in our schools. How can we make sure we don't lose sight of this in the busy-ness that is everyday life?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Summer Reading: The Innovator's Mindset

With a greater, intentional focus on Innovation within our board and schools this fall, George Couros' The Innovator's Mindset was high on my reading list this summer. Nothing fancy about this post - here are notes from my reading, with an emphasis on how I can address these facets in my role as a math co-ordinator in my board.

What is Innovation?

A number of us, in an attempt to describe "innovation" to colleagues, have been struggling to come up with a concise overview. I struggled especially with what innovation looks like - does it have to be huge and groundbreaking? Does it have to resonate throughout the school? Can innovation for one teacher be different than innovation for another teacher? 

Of course it can. George defines innovation very succinctly as "a way of thinking that creates something new and better." It can come from invention (something new) or iteration (the process of improvement). Change for the sake of change, though, is never good enough. What you are trying (that is new and better) should be done for a purpose, and with an end goal in mind. How will these changes help our students?

8 Characteristics of the Innovator's Mindset

Thank you, @sylviaduckworth, for summarizing this! I keep coming back to this sketchnote to reflect on how I am interacting with school teams, and to continue developing my mindset.

What is My Role?

George challenged us to think about our role as an educational leader: Have I created an environment where risks are not only encouraged, but expected? How have I highlighted the great work being done by our school to others in and out of the organization? 

The latter thought is key for me. In my new role as a co-ordinator, I have the ability to work with many school teams on a variety of inquiry projects. Sharing all that great work and team insights is something I have the power and the leverage to do (as well as the comfort in doing). But I'm still figuring out: how best can I share? How can I convince others to share? How do we, as co-ordinators, create that culture of innovation for these school teams? How do we build those key relationships?

Eight Things to Look for in Today's Classroom Learning Environment:

George summarized eight things to look for in the classroom as indicators that innovation is taking place. He also suggests replacing "classroom" with "learning environment," and "student" with "learner." We are all learners... how can I foster innovation in all the various learning environments?
  1. Voice: Learners should have the opportunity to learn from others, and share their learning with others.

  2. Choice: Providing choice allows learners to build on strengths and interests to make learning relevant and fulfilling.

  3. Time for Reflection: "We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience."

  4. Opportunities for Innovation: It is important that innovation does not become an event for our learners, but the norm.

  5. Critical Thinkers: We need to teach learners to respectfully ask questions and empower them to challenge the ideas of others to help all move forward, not to challenge simply for the sake of it.

  6. Problem Solvers/Finders: Let's start asking learners to find problems and give them a sense of purpose in solving something authentic.

  7. Self-Assessment: Looking back helps learners develop their own understanding of where they have been, where they are, and where they are going.

  8. Connected Learning: We can design and activate powerful learning experiences for learners to engage with content experts and apply their learning to create new knowledge and ideas.

The Role of Leaders of Learning

Will growth in education happen organically? Though I'm sure it can, should we leave growth to chance? Can leaders of learning stand by and just watch to see if it happens?

In a workplace study, employees were far more engaged in their work when managers focused on their employees' strengths, rather than just assuming they would continue to grow on their own. Perhaps more importantly, they also found that having a manager who ignores you is even more detrimental than one who primarily focuses on your weaknesses. George mentions that active disengagement could be a "curable disease," if we choose to help the learners around us by encouraging them and focusing on their strengths.

I Need to Learn to Wait

I love being able to jump into conversations with school teams, especially when they have exciting projects on the go. But I recognize that with a lot of these teams, I am the newcomer. I don't want to interfere with the natural rhythms of a group of teachers who have known each other for years.

Relationships are the most important element of schools learning spaces. George advises to sit back, wait and watch, and ensure that you are able to identify where people shine, rather than dictating roles in the learning process. I may have ideas, and I may be able to contribute these ideas in time, but I want to be able to coach effectively from the "sidelines," especially since it won't be me "on the field" with the students.

A Monomaniacal Focus

Ever since reading @RobinSharma's The Secret Letters of the Monk who Sold his Ferrari, I've been learning more about his approach to leadership, which include aspects of mindfulness, personal health, and a commitment to continually improving your knowledge base. He advocates continuing to learn about your craft so that you become the expert, and focusing all your energies on the leader you want to become. That monomaniacal focus, he calls it, is behind all great leaders stepping up to the plate, and making a difference.

In his own way, George states this too. He says, educators cannot feel like they are a "jack of all trades, master of none." Having a laser-like focus on a few things allows us to go deep and push our thinking, while creating new ideas to move forward. Innovation cannot happen when we stretch ourselves too thin. Less should definitely lead to more.

Final Words

Spend time discussing pedagogy, ideologies. If educators can't answer "why?", then they will never get to the "How?" and "What?" This in itself is the inspiration for another blog post...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Creating Change: Week One

This past week was the first time in 15 years that I didn't step into the classroom during the first week of September. If I can be honest, I miss the kids. I miss the excitement of getting to know everyone and re-establishing those connections that sat idle since the end of June. I miss the keen-ness of the new grade 9s, and watching new student leaders step up to the plate in grade 12.

But I'm in a new position now, one where I step back from "the trenches" and get to work behind the scenes in education to coach teachers and school leaders through forward-thinking inquiry projects and innovation. And I'm pretty pumped about it.

We are in an exciting time in our profession. For the first time in over one hundred years, HUGE changes are on the horizon as teachers move from being the "keepers of knowledge" (the Internet does that, now) to the "facilitators of learning;" helping students develop their soft skills (communication, creativity, citizenship, collaboration, resilience...) and navigate, as well as harness, the seemingly infinite amount of information at their disposal. Teaching students to make a difference, rather than make a grade.

Schools don't have to be institutional: neat rows of desks, hands-in-laps-feet-on-floor students, silent classrooms. Teachers don't have to rely on the textbook to guide them through what must be taught. We are at a time when creativity and outside-the-box thinking can truly drive the teaching process and the learning environment.

As our group of student success co-ordinators met formally as a group for the first time this week, we centred a lot of our conversation on how we were going to create this change. We have read up on why this change needs to happen. We've seen the amazing things being done in schools that have broken the mould. We have seen pockets of teachers shaking things up, but on a large scale - on a board-wide scale - we seem to be dragging our feet.

We know WHY this change is necessary. Our next question becomes, HOW do we start creating it?

  • How do we convince others that change is necessary?
  • How do we encourage principals to lead (and model) change in their own schools?
  • How do we help introduce change in a way that teachers become receptive and open to try things that, when you've been teaching a particular way for 20 years, are very scary?
  • How do we help teachers and principals do this when they already have a million things on the go in their schools/classrooms?

It seems overwhelming, and we are up against a lot of challenges. It's daunting. But then I saw this fly by on Twitter this morning:

Regardless of the obstacles, we have to begin now. We can't just preach innovation, we have to be innovative ourselves. We have to meet teachers and school leaders where they are at, and introduce change in any number of ways we can think of to get the ball rolling (differentiation, anyone?). We have to continually reflect on what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we know it's working. 

And it's okay to start small. But we have to start. We have our work cut out for us. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer Reading: Good to Great

After ten years of teaching at my current high school, I found myself cleaning all my stuff (wow, does it ever accumulate!) out of my classroom and office in preparation for my new role with the board next year.

This is exciting - this September will be the first in 15 years that I don't step into the classroom as a teacher (and, as my husband pointed out, it will be the first in 35 years that I don't step into the classroom as either a student or a teacher).

What will my focus be for the new year? 
Who will I be in my new role? 
What concept(s) will I embody?

My first summer read was Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I became familiar with the book a few years ago when one of my friends was reading it. I understood it to be a business book - how to get ahead in the industry - and it is. But after seeing a number of educators refer to it online, I thought I'd give it a read. Turns out, it was the perfect pick to get me thinking how I can answer these questions.

In short, Collins discusses how good companies became GREAT companies in their respective industries. He looks at leadership qualities, how to build a great supporting team, the role of technology and how to create finely-honed goals... a lot of which can be applied directly to an educational forum.

The Three Circles & the Hedgehog Concept

The biggest take-away for me, was the idea of the three circles: how they create your hedgehog concept and provide focus for your big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG).

The three circles: Three dimensions to help identify your core values, and focus your efforts or role within an organization/industry.

Hedgehog concept: A simple, crystalline concept that reflects deep understanding of the three circles. It's a go-to concept that guides decision-making and how you address challenges.

BHAG: A huge and daunting goal, of almost scary proportions. Without realizing the background of the BHAG, I've tried working toward some in previous years, with some exciting results.

Julie Balen (@jacbalen) recently gave my thinking a push by adapting the three circles to apply to leadership in education as opposed to leadership in industry. In her own reflection, she re-wrote the big questions as: 

My answers?

What is my educational passion?
Connecting with learners of all ages to help them push their boundaries and discover new passions.

What drives the educational engine of my position?
Allowing and supporting teachers to become more innovative.

What am I best at? 
(This was by far the hardest one for me to answer)
Leading by example and trying new things.

I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about my answers to these questions. I have yet to crystallize my Hedgehog concept or my BHAG for the next year, but it's wonderful to have some focus heading in to September.

Mental note - it will be interesting to see how/if these answers change as the year progresses!

Getting the Right People on the Bus

This coming year, our board is moving toward implementing a different kinds of professional development by means of collaborative inquiry projects. Good to Great discussed the importance of getting the right people on the team, and in the right roles; I'm looking forward to working with principals to make sure the right people are on the collaborative inquiry project buses, and sitting in the right seats.

With the right people in place, a solid collective vision will form and the motivation will come from within. I can think of no better model for PD than to have teachers drive their own learning.

Technology is an Accelerator, not a Deciding Factor

All of the good-to-great companies mentioned in the book made use of technology to become great, but they didn't use technology for technology's sake. They didn't jump on technology bandwagons and try to harness each new fad as it came about. Instead, they looked at how technology could help them answer their driving questions, or help them achieve their big, hairy, audacious goal. They were slow and deliberate, choosing only a handful of tools to focus on. Mastering those, they were able to skyrocket to "great" status.

I was reminded of this graphic that a colleague and I used in some of our board-level PD this past year:
What we do with technology has to have the end goal in mind. We're not using it because it's there - we're using it because it makes a good lesson even better. Next year, what technological tools will I use to help me reach my goals? And how can I introduce the right technology into collaborative inquiry projects so as to help those teachers achieve great things?

Wherein Lie my Passions?

The last chapter of the book is one of the most motivational. Collins talks about how while these ideas can take a company from good to great, they can also be applied to other endeavours: coaching, small business, volunteering. He asks, what other areas of your life can be made great using these same concepts?

I'm passionate about my work, but that's not all. I'm passionate about my gymnastics team. How can I make use of the three circles to come up with a Hedgehog concept and a BHAG for the team next year? We're on the right track, having won a provincial championship last season, but now I'm looking to build on that momentum. What questions should we, the coaches, focus on as we look to expand on our successes?

I'm also passionate about singing. I'm not looking to become the BEST singer, or even a "great" singer, but I am always looking to improve. I wonder how I can use a pared down version of the three questions to choose a method of improving my technique and sound over the course of the next concert season?

There's a lot more to think about yet, particularly how I can help coach these new project teams in the fall, but it's great to have a framework with which I can help take those teams from good to great.

What are you reading this summer?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Creating Mental Bedrock

I was speaking with a colleague a little while back, when the topic of conversation turned to changes in the focus of education. How important is it, we discussed, to have students learn and master basic concepts in elementary school? Things like multiplication tables, core vocabulary, or common calculations.

He shared an interesting metaphor on building knowledge that resonated with me, not the least of which because it was geological!

He suggested that building up one's base knowledge is like creating mental bedrock. Bedrock is created by layers of sand and sediment being superimposed on each other over time, usually underwater. When the sand is initially laid down, it's still free to move around - some of it could be swept away by turbulent water, or disturbed by a fish swimming by. We can imagine this sand as new bits of knowledge when we first come across them.

But over time, as we learn more things and use those bits of knowledge in different ways (connecting them to other pieces of knowledge in other disciplines, say), more sand gets laid down on top of the previous layers. Only after lots of sand gets added, and we have the pressure of the water above it (lots of practice or use of that original knowledge), do those formative layers of sand harden and become bedrock - rock so hard that it is nearly impossible to chip away... a far cry from the easily-moved sand when it was originally laid down.

The top layers, my colleague argued, were the new knowledge we are continually gaining every day. It might sit in place in our brain for a bit, or it might get swept away if we don't use it regularly. But all that new knowledge is held up by the mental bedrock underneath it: knowledge that now comes to us quickly because of years of use and experience.

I like the idea that building this bedrock of knowledge takes time and effort. You can't just learn something once to have it stick - it has to be revisited, reconsidered, and re-applied. Mastering something new isn't always easy, but if we can persevere and work through the initial learning curve, what we end up with becomes, if I may say so, rock solid.

The question then becomes: how thick should our base layer of bedrock be? How can we, as teachers, continually reinforce what students have previously learned so that one day it comes easily to them? In a world where all sorts of basic knowledge is at everyone's fingertips, how can we make sure our students have a good foundation upon which to build future masteries?