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:

http://pbs.twimg.com/media/BsNomSdCEAAJASL.jpg:medium
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!

https://4feet2mouths.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/2012-06-05-15-grand-canyon-lake-powell-las-vegas-499.jpg

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?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Teachers: What are you Learning?

At the end of May, a group of educators from across the province came together in Wikwemikong to launch a writing project aimed at giving principals the tools for becoming leaders of learning in online environments.



Though online curriculum is, course-by-course, the same as what is taught in-class, there are obviously different practices at play when a teacher potentially never sees their students face-to-face. Our task was to look at how an eLearning teacher's teaching practices could be assessed by their local administrators. 

When principals walk into a traditional classroom, they can immediately pick out what is working well, and what might need some help/encouragement/leadership to change. But can a principal walk into an online "classroom" (be it a Google Classroom, a D2L shell, blog, etc.) and make the same assessments?

We started by looking at the five domains of the provincial Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA), and the competencies associated with them. We refined and "e-ified" the competencies, and arrived at 10 questions that principals could ask their teachers (or teachers could ask of themselves) to assess their online teaching practices.

(This week, we have gathered again as a group to really examine these questions, pare down the "big ideas" behind them, and create a resource that both teachers and administrators can use to better their practice.)

Throughout the original process, there were two big questions which - though refined during our brainstorming process - really stood out to me as questions ALL teachers (online or not) should be asking themselves:

What are you learning?

How do you share what you are learning?


Two simple questions that pack a lot of reflective punch. 

There's value in reflecting on the culture of teaching as a culture of learning, be it learning to lead, or co-learning content with our students. As teachers, take a moment to ask yourself these questions (as I find I'm also asking myself): 

  • When was the last time you learned something new as it applies to teaching? 
  • When was the last time you tried something new in the classroom based on something you learned/read/heard about/experimented with? 
  • Are you learning on a regular basis, or only occasionally? 
  • Are you learning on purpose, or do you pick up new ideas passively? 
  • Are you learning as much as you'd like to be learning?
  • What could you do to learn more?

And if you are learning, can we learn along with you?

  • Do other teachers in your school know what you are doing? (And oppositely, do you know what your colleagues are doing?)
  • Do you have a digital portfolio?
  • Do you keep a blog of what you're learning and trying (both what works and what doesn't)?
  • Do you use social media to share?
  • If you aren't sharing, why not?

Check out what other Ontario educators are learning and sharing - there are great lists of Ontario edubloggers here and here. And if you learn something new, pass it along...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Unleashing Creativity: All About the Bats


This past semester, I wanted to create a project for my grade 9 science class that not only had them learning more about their surrounding ecosystem, but also practicing good stewardship and advocacy for some of the creatures that seem to be disappearing from our area. They had all heard about the plight of the bees, but what about the bats?

The project had roots within our ecology unit, but also pulled in from other units - effects of light pollution/dark skies (astronomy unit) on the bats, and why bats are more likely to electrocute themselves than birds or squirrels (electricity unit). We looked at food webs involving bats, limiting factors on their population, the devastating effects of White Nose Syndrome, and how we as humans impact bat habitat.

The final piece of the project though, which we called the "Creative Component," was to come up with a way to give voice to the bats: spread the word about why we need bats in our ecosystem, or how we can help them make a return to Manitoulin Island.

I had tried a number of creative assignments with my grade 12s earlier this year, and absolutely loved what they created when there were no limits in place. I wasn't sure what to expect with my grade 9s (who struggled with the extra freedom at the beginning of the semester), but in the end, I was overwhelmed with what they produced.

Click on any of the pictures below to see a larger version!


What Students Created

A good number of students designed, built, and hung bat boxes on their properties:




Some students sewed little bat plushies to help spread the word:

Two of the students chose to keep their bats, but the middle one hangs (upside down!) in my classroom. Our peer teacher went all out and created a GIANT bat plushie/cushion for our comfy corner!




Some students baked some bat-themed treats, and then delivered them to other classes in the school (or people in the community) along with a short speech about why saving the bats is important to our local ecosystem:


Bat brownies!

Many students harnessed their artistic abilities and designed posters/paintings to help get the word out (including the one at the top of this page):



Some students designed and created t-shirts to bring awareness to the plight of the bats:



Some students went on their own and did something totally original - I would never have thought to suggest anything like this. Love the creativity!
I LOVE cross-stitch!

In the end, many students reported that the "bat unit" (as our ecology unit quickly became known as) was their favourite unit, as they could easily relate to how the bats affected us, and likewise how we affected them.

I loved how each student really took ownership of their creative component. With very little guidance, they were all able to play to their strengths and take a step toward benefiting their local environment. They were excited to see what each other had created, and were all able to explain the reasons why giving the bats a voice was so important. As a first step in trying a little STEAM in the classroom, it was a great success!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thinking about Going Gradeless

I've taken some pretty big mental strides recently toward the idea of a gradeless classroom - one where everything is assessed (given feedback) but not evaluated (given a mark). It's an idea that appeals to me, for a variety of reasons, but there's still a big part of me that is reluctant to give up my initial hold on grading.

I'm a numbers girl. I take comfort in data (provided it's been collected properly) and am constantly on the lookout for trends that hard data can provide. 


I shared this with my math class last week - I love what the numbers can tell us!


As a teacher, for the longest time I was of the view that if I wanted to know exactly how much of the material my students had mastered, a hard and fast grade would be the way to find out. You got three questions right and two questions wrong. You completed three of the four steps needed to solve this problem. You didn't properly communicate your answer: -2 marks.

This was also something that was easy to show a parent or the student themselves if they wanted to know "why their mark was the way it was." It was (in my mind) reliable, calculatable, and foolproof.



The Shift Begins

The past few years, though, I've moved toward assigning levels rather than grades, as outlined in Growing Success, and was surprised to see that I actually liked it. I liked being able to assign a qualifier ("The student predicts a result with considerable logic") rather than a quantifier (75%).

After a decade of teaching, I found I had more trust in my professional judgement... a trust I didn't have when I was a new teacher. I didn't have to rely on a hard and fast number to report on the success of the student - I became more comfortable using a spectrum to identify strengths and next steps.

With a writing workshop on rich task assessment last year where we broke down the rubric-writing process, I also became much more comfortable creating good rubrics - ones with solid spectra for assessing specific success criteria. 

Now, most of my gradebook is levels, with unit tests being the only numerical evaluation I record. I've seen how feedback can have a greater impact on success than grades. But I'm starting to wonder about taking things one step further...



Going Gradeless?

Last week, I tried something new - I returned a worksheet to my grade 12 math class with no grade, and no level written at the top. There was lots of feedback though - from checkmarks and happy faces to encouragement to try again or ideas of how to rethink their approach to problem solving. I recorded a level for myself, but wrote nothing at the top of the page for the students.

Would the students notice? Many of them are very concerned over their grades... would the students demand a mark? It turns out very few of them did. A couple of them asked "what they got" on the assignment, which then turned into a conversation about how they did based on the feedback embedded in the worksheet. It was actually a nice way to place the emphasis back on the feedback.

I'm feeling good about starting to go gradeless. But can I give up grades & levels completely?

I've been talking with Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) on how he ditched grades, meets curriculum expectations with his students, and how his students self-grade. I think it's fascinating how well he works with his students to develop not only success criteria, but also their ability to assess themselves. If his students can do all this in grade 6, surely mine can do the same in grade 9 or grade 12, right?

Along the same lines, at OAME this year, I heard about about one school that gives entire classes "I" ("insufficient") on the midterm report card, so as to not give false hope (some students stopped working figuring they could coast to the end of the year) or to dash hopes (by having students feel that there is no use in continuing to try). They are essentially providing a gradeless report card. Could I do that?

Jonathan suggested that I check out Starr Sackstein's book: Hacking Assessment. She was able to go gradeless with an AP class - I'm looking forward to reading about how she did it, and continuing my own exploration on feedback over grades.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Exploring a VUCA World Context

At the Ministry's Provincial Mathematics Learning Day last week, where the renewed math strategy was rolled out to board supervisory officers and coordinators, I was introduced to a new-to-me acronym. 

Alright, as a newbie coordinator, I was introduced to a LOT of new-to-me acronyms, but one in particular really stuck with me...

VUCA

It was used not as a noun, but as an adjective... for describing the world context for which we are preparing our students.

We've all seen videos like this one, relating just how quickly society is changing:


For me, the biggest takeaway from these videos is always that many of the top-ten in-demand jobs within the next few years have not even been invented yet, or are trying to solve problems we haven't even dreamt of. 


Into what kind of world will our students graduate? 

That's where VUCA comes in. The future will be:

  • Volatile: rapidly changing, unstable and transitory
  • Uncertain: not likely to follow past trends, unpredictable
  • Complex: having many facets and interconnectedness
  • Ambiguous: open to many interpretations

And it is our job as educators to prepare our students for this new work force. How can we do this? How can we expose our students to this kind of context, but still maintain a safe atmosphere - where it is okay to take risks and even fail as we learn and improve - in our classrooms?

A little more poking around online turned up this graphic, which can help give teachers a focus when it comes to helping students adapt and thrive in a VUCA environment. It is written from a leadership perspective, but has a lot of good direction for me, when I am giving my students 21st Century-style problems to solve, or rich tasks to conquer. I often wonder if I am being too "hands-off," and this will help:

http://www.thindifference.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Leading-Through-VUCA.png

VUCA is a new lens through which I can view and guide what we're doing in class, all to prepare my students for this brave, new world. It will be interesting how this guides my job next year as a coordinator and coach for teachers also preparing for this new future of education.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

New Challenges

I am happy to announce that there are some big changes for me on the horizon: beginning in September, I will be stepping away from the classroom as I take on one of two Math Coordinator positions (for grades 7-12) in my school board.

https://seanwes.com/2013/try-new-things/

It is a one-year, interim position where I get to work with other teachers in the board and help them achieve their numeracy, inquiry and innovation goals in their math classes. I'm beyond excited about the new challenges this will bring, and the new perspectives I will be able to bring back to the classroom a year from now.