The Art of Building Character

Competitive dance may be the key to the reclamation of character in teens that educational systems have done their best to destroy.

By now, most if not all educators have heard the research against using extrinsic motivation in schools. The use of punishment or reward to alter behaviour is a temporary motivator at best, and, in the long-term, may even result in making behaviour worse. The truth is, when the rewards or punishments are removed, student behaviour will revert to its default setting. Rewards and punishments bring about short-term behaviour modification with no subsequent effect on attitudes and values.

During a class conversation today about the possible removal of term-by-term awards for honour roll, one student said if she didn’t get an award for her hard work this term, there was no way she would try as hard next term. She thought she was proving her point about how important it was to reward students regularly for their hard work, but in reality she simply proved my point: Rewards like this in schools destroy the character of our students.

Intrinsic motivation speaks to the strength of character in a student. Students who are intrinsically motivated care about learning because they know it’s good for them. They are curious. They are passionate. They believe in making the most of learning opportunities. They believe in learning from mistakes. They value hard work. They value risk-taking. They see feedback as a means for improving rather than a judgement of their worth. They have character.

The conversation in my class today didn’t begin with the goal of discussing the school’s high honours policy. Students brought up this question in relation to the conversation I began about what they need to know about their Term 1 marks and how to use this information to their benefit as they begin Term 2. For what had to be the twentieth time since the first day of school, I lamented the fact that students in our district have immediate access to their assignment marks online.

Over the last several years, I’ve been helping students see the connections between grades, rewards, extrinsic motivation, and the destruction of their character. Let me make it simple: Grades are a form of reward; they are an external, highly uninformative statement of quality about student work. Their marks, in the form of a percentage, take my rubric of descriptors regarding the quality of their work and reduce it to a mere number; for many teachers, it even takes an assignment that covered multiple learning outcomes and averages the quality of all of those outcomes into one mostly meaningless number between 0 and 100.

Students and parents and teachers and governments and universities all have their own thoughts about what a “good” number is. And in the end, everything about a “quality” education can be discussed without ever having a conversation regarding what students have actually learned. Students are driven to obtain some balance between a grade that involves the least amount of work on their part that is still good enough to avoid punishment or obtain a reward from home or school. This is the recipe for destroying character in our students, and unfortunately we’ve perfected the procedure.

Competitive dancers in my classes, however, have some of the highest grades in my courses yet they are some of the busiest people I know. They are also among the few students who, despite their high grades, admit they put in their best efforts and yet still somehow believe they could be doing even better. These dancers not only see their potential as unlimited but also have the desire to explore that limitless void.

When I voiced these truths aloud to my class today in defence of one of the dancers whose classmates didn’t believe she could have possibly read 12 books in only two-and-half months, it was the hockey players in the class who took offence. They had a point. They are just as busy at school and at play. They work just as hard on the ice as dancers do in the studio. And yet, on average, their marks are not as high, they have not exceeded our reading goals, their reflections truthfully admit that they don’t work as hard as they should on their assignments and they hope to do better next time.

Of course, I generalize. But only because the generalization led me today to an important realization.

When faced with objections from my hockey players, who made a good point, what could possibly explain the fact that my dancers have a work ethic and worldview significantly different from most others in the class? In a heartbeat, an answer pulsed through me: Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Where school has done a fantastic job of stripping character out of students through extrinsic motivation, competitive dancers reclaim that character through intrinsic motivation, and it does so in a way other sports are inherently incapable of duplicating. You see, competitive dancers don’t dance for rewards.

Okay, okay. I gave you a paragraph break to line up your disagreements. I’ll relent a bit. Competitive dancers do earn awards and rewards and often times even percentages. However, they wait an entire dance season to be rewarded. Month after month, week after week, day after day for hours a day these dancers dance for the sake of dancing alone. Again hockey players dedicate a lot of time and effort to their passion as well, but here’s the difference — throughout the hockey season, hockey players are given marks. They play regular games that result in wins and losses and more percentages in the form of stats than you can shake a stick at. I can only assume (from the baseball I’ve played) that regular conversation centres upon winning streaks and losing streaks. The entire focus is working harder to win more games, and I wonder how many conversations about “quality” hockey are had without ever discussing the basics.

Competitive dance is different. Competition season is at the end of the season. Dancers dance in a small handful of competitions that span a relatively short period of time. The bulk of their time is spent being told by their teachers that what they are doing isn’t right and to do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. It’s not perfect yet. Do it again. And again. And again. Dancers learn to fail. They learn to fail again and again and again. Competitive dancers learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. They learn that feedback is the way they get better on their next attempt rather than being the final judgement of the ability. Dancers who don’t learn this don’t keep dancing or switch to recreational dance. Competitive dancers learn resiliency. They learn mistakes are a necessary part of challenging yourself to be the best you can be . . . and then they don’t accept that their best is their limit. They learn that a sense of community and sharing their work and performing in front of their peers is part of working together towards a common goal. Competitive dancers crave one-on-one time with their teachers to discuss how they can be even better. They beg for and relish extra work (in the form of solos and duets). They know that if they don’t practice at home their teachers will know . . . but that’s not why they practice at home; they practice at home because being better is all that matters to them and they know that to be better they need to practice every single chance they get. Competitive dancers learn that redoing the same dance week after week isn’t punishment for not being perfect the first time or the second time or the hundredth time, but rather it’s the natural process of becoming perfect. Competitive dancers learn character.

Now why can’t schools teach that?

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Comments NOT Grades: A Practical Story

There are a few very important topics to me at this point in my career and this post will expand on anther one.  My blog has been dedicated to my exploration of my teaching practices and beliefs.  As I attempt to teach ethically, I also want to ensure I adhere and consider the Teaching Quality Standard set out by Alberta Education.  To this end, most of what I’ve written here has been focusing on how my understanding of the 21st century competencies are changing my beliefs and practices while the categories I use for my posts highlight my commitment to my profession.  Today’s post, while titled in such a way as to take on a hot topic in education, is more of a practical story rather than an argument.

At the end of last year I changed up how I was reporting grades to students.  Instead of providing students with their percentage for an assignment up front, I required them to grade themselves on the rubric and then have a conversation with me about my rubric for them.  We compared the two, talked about how to improve, then I gave them their mark.  This worked wonders for morale and increased the willingness of students to make improvements and learn from their mistakes.  This year I decided to take this a step further.

This year, students don’t receive a percentage at all (though I still need to arrive at one for my report cards).  In fact, assignments do not even receive an overall percentage.  I’ve decided to take a bit of a standards-based approach to my high school ELA courses (though I’m very much alone in this, at least in my district).  I have taken the curriculum and narrowed it down to what I believe are the 3 main overall standards in which students need to be proficient, plus a fourth as a catchall for the outcomes that don’t fit the other three standards.

  1. Decoding the ideas of others (ideas and support, etc from texts of all kinds)  30%
  2. Having powerful personal ideas of their own  30%
  3. Presentation  30%
  4. “Other”  10%

I’m not sure these are the best or only criteria my curriculum could be broken down into, but this is me being a ship at sea and taking a risk to move my teaching practice closer to my teaching beliefs.  With this grading practice, each criterion in my rubrics fall into one of these categories; therefore, students are given a “star” on the rubric for each criterion, which is then recorded into my marking program.  This means that each assignment is entered anywhere from two to six times, depending on how many criterion are used.

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A portion of one of my rubrics for the next authentic assessment task for ELA 10. Suggestions?

(I have a gold star stamp I use.  They love it!  BTW, this is based off Angry Birds:  1-Star is a pass.  Fail is Angry Bird terminology.  Students are okay with the harshness of it.  They recognize it as “try again!”  Like Angry Birds, assignments can be redone until you’re happy with your star-ranking.)

The practical side of this is that I/students/parents can clearly see what aspects of the curriculum students are doing well with, and which need focused improvement.  It also allows me to focus my comments for students and seek to provide feedback on problem areas.  Towards the end of the term, individualization can happen as students prove proficiency in certain areas, but still struggle in others.  Comments are becoming our focus rather than our grades, and learning is becoming the most important thing in our classroom.

On Monday of this week, I walked into my grade 10 class with a few pieces of work to return to students.  Two were “for” marks while the third was not.  (Formative and summative assessment have all but ceased to exist in my classroom:  with the criteria-based reporting, each “summative assessment” rubric criterion becomes formative to the next assignment; and students ALWAYS have the opportunity to take feedback and improve their work).  As I was commenting on the work, I realized that a few mistakes kept popping up over and over again.  Sure, this means I have a problem that I need to address on my end, but I have an important decision to make about how I do that.  In the past, I would address the issues via lecture.  Lately I’ve tried to put the learning back on the student via comments and redoing the work.  However, it struck me that I had a third option (and likely more than that).  With my focus on critical thinking and collaboration I find myself attentive to opportunities to reinforce these vital 21st century competencies.  The rest of this post will quickly explain what I did and what students thought of the learning activity.

The Learning Activity

As I was assessing their work, I decided I wouldn’t write the same feedback for improvement on more than one or two students’ work (I’d suggest three or four students for larger class sizes).  Then, on subsequent work that required the same improvements, I referred students to my comment on the other work.  For example, “I left some tips to improve introductions on Sandra’s paper.  You should go ask her if you can copy down my tips. Then compare your work and discuss how to incorporate some of the tips.”

I also began to identify students who had particularly positive aspects and began to refer students to look at these positive examples.  “At some point, go and see Frank; he has a well-written introduction and I’m sure he’d be happy to let you take a look.”  I made a point of ensuring every student had others referred to them for something positive in their work.  Those who need more improvement had more comments referring them to others, while those with better work had more peers referred to them.  ALL, though, had both types of referrals.

My original thought was to expect students to do this on their own time.  I arrogantly thought that all my teaching about collaboration would make them responsible enough to do this.   While this may or may not be true for my grade 10’s, I decided it wasn’t fair to ask this of them.  I also realized the collaboration and critical thinking aspect would be significantly stronger if we did this as a class.  So I set about planning the 84 minute period.

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When students walked into class they looked at the board (as routine is) and asked, “Do we need to read all that?”  Too funny.  My response:  “I wrote it all.  The least you can do is read it.”  Little did they know this was just a portion of the reading they’d be doing.  But you know what?  I didn’t hear a single complaint after that.  Before handing back any work, I asked several students to reiterate what the board was instructing them to do today:

  • read all the comments on their work
  • jot down anyone they are suppose to talk to (they had no idea what that meant)
  • reflect in their thought journal what they need to improve:  critical thinking through the comments and rubrics to see trends in their work
  • talk with others they were referred to, and to those who have been referred to them:  collaboration and critical thinking as they assess what their peers did compared what they themselves did
  • reflect in thought journal about how their conversations would help them improve their own work

It was about to be sheer and utter chaos for 80 minutes.  Organized chaos I hoped.  I’d never done anything like this before.  I had invited several others to witness the upheaval (and get some video), but because the idea was last minute no one could come. I knew this was going to be either spectacular or tragic.  Either way I had wanted witnesses to tell my tale.  I managed to get some video, but FOIP is up in the air at the moment, so I’ll just highlight a couple interesting moments.  At first, the room was silent for 15 minutes as students poured over their written feedback NOT grades.  They jotted down names and areas to improve upon.  Then there was movement. Slowly at first, mostly turning to their neighbours, then true mingling began and students turned to peers rather than friends.  It was wondrous.  Students were talking (mostly on task, but not 100%) and jotting notes, and reading more work than just theirs.  Desks were moved, couches utilized, groups formed and leadership occurred.  I couldn’t be happier.  Learning was happening.  Student-led, teacher-designed learning.  I got to record a few conversations with students that were inspiring and affirming.  One student (the cool boy) actually said that the purpose of his learning was to improve and grow from his errors rather than to get a better mark.  I teared up right in front of him.  We had a 5-minute conversation, some of it on tape about the role of education in his life.

Student Reactions (via Thought Journal responses)

The following are direct quotes, in some cases entire responses, from thought journal entries the next day.  Remember, these are grade 10 students (an even split of boys and girls).

“I know that I have to read more carefully to understand everything and maybe read it 3 or 4 times if I need to. . . I think it was good what we did yesterday because we could see what others did wrong or did right and why.  And what you did wrong or right and why.”

“I agree with 95% of the comments because most of them were on finding support and examples which I was just to lazy to do. . . As long as I use the comments as they are meant to my writing should improve.”

“To be honest, I believe that this excerise or activity didn’t actually help to the extent that I or Mr. Groff wanted it to.  I noticed that I needed to improve on my quality of support but the one person I was recommended to was overwhelmed with others work.  The result of this ended up forcing me to get the teacher to bring us together and start a conversation which left the other to have a free 20 min at the end of class.  As well as I don’t feel that I learnt about giving better support.  I’m not saying this was a bad idea though, I believe if we were taught how to teach and were given time to go in depth with the other person that would’ve accomplished more.  So I would like to try this again but maybe a different way.”

(It wasn’t 20 minutes of “free time,” but he’s right, a few students took advantage of me not paying close attention to them; however, the majority kept right on sharing.  After 60 minutes of hardcore learning, I wasn’t about to interrupt a great conversation regarding the need for schools to offer students more personalized education, just to harass a few others after such an empowering activity.)

“Along with this [the work we got back] we had gained additional feedback and comments along our text.  This information told us what we were doing wrong, what could be improved, and what we were doing right.  I had many comments, along all pieces of my work.  As I took the time to read and learn from this feedback, I understood what needed the most improving in my work: 1. Using better work choices  2. Going more in depth, maybe using more examples  3. Preparing a proper conclusion.  I tended to agree with almost every single comment and point.  And even when I didn’t, I learned and understood what could’ve been better and what was wrong.  And going off of that note, that was a major way other had aided me yesterday.  I glanced at there work and mine as well, and analyzed the pros and cons of both writing.  This way I could help others as well as myself.  The learning from yesterday gave me better insight and analogy for my work.  It made me realize and understand what can be done better in my text.  It was a good way to better my work.”

“I would like to do this activity again.  I learned lots from it and it was more interesting than listening to Mr. Groff talk.”

“After talking to “Joe,” and being able to read his conclusion, I found that I see where I went wrong.  I still have old habits to kill, but now at least I know what I should be doing. . . I can make my writing sound good.  That’s not good enough though.  I want it to be good. . . I agree with the feedback I got yesterday, know it needs work and I know I have strong points and also my weak points. . . I can fix it.”

“What we are learning is great.  I enjoy how you are considering both what we need in school and after school.  What I think I need to improve on my work is my spelling, eliminating I and you from my work, and most definitely my personal reflection.  I feel the class discussion are going very well.  I enjoy them much more than just writing and pear work because it keeps me entertained through the whole class.  The help I received from others yesterday was great.  they truly helped me in areas where I am struggling.  Looking into the future I feel if we continue a similar path as we have lately I think the class will be fun and interesting which is making me want to learn more.”

My Takeaway

  • I was so impressed with the critical thinking that occurred as a result of this activity.  Students were able to consider the activity, their conversations, and their work in a way that would benefit their learning.
  • This would work so much better with just one assignment being handed back rather than three (my fault for not keeping up).  Though, with a class of only 13 students, I’d be concerned with not finding enough from each student to refer them evenly to others.  The three assignments certainly gave me some wiggle room to ensure all students had peers referred to them, and them to peers.
  • Some structural changes may need to occur.  Organized chaos did occur.  And I liked it.  But as the one student pointed out, it was tough for everyone to get the most out of this activity.  I’m not sure exactly what the answer might be, or if simply having a single assignment might be enough to lessen the craziness.  I’ll be talking with this student and the class as a whole in order to have them solve this problem for me.
  • For the vast majority of students this was an extremely beneficial learning activity.  I know many teachers offer extensive feedback, and some even require their students to do extensive work with that feedback.  I think this was different though in a couple ways.  First, I didn’t force students to actually change their work.  As the one student pointed out in conversation, for him it was more about the learning for his future than it was to improve his grade.  The comments were what he needed.  The video of the conversation is quite moving, and if I can get permission to post it, I will.  Second, while I pointed students in the right direction, the activity was far from structured.  It was up to students to take ownership of their learning, to be a leader, to be a learner.  Third, this task emphasized the 21st century skills of collaboration (community) and critical thinking over the content knowledge.  Students could see the benefit of the task as applicable after they leave formal education behind.
  • Offering students grades on their work would not allow this activity to run anywhere near as smoothly.  Written feedback was the key.  One of the assignments they got back didn’t even have a marking guide with it.  It was simply a pre-evaluation of their formal academic writing skills.  This did not detract from their learning though.  Even the rubric, because the criterion are categorized into curricular standards, allowed students to begin to identify where their errors are occurring most.  With no overall grade on the work, students were able to look at the positives and negatives without feeling “overly satisfied” or “overly disheartened.”  One student, at the start of the explanation for the activity, stated that there was no way anyone would come to him for improvement.  I guaranteed him they would because he had a least one positive attribute that some of his peers did not.  It was amazing to see this student engaged for 80 minutes with his classmates, sharing his work with them, and learning from theirs.  A grade at the top of his work, with his barely passing percentage, would have ruined what little confidence he had that allowed him to at least be open to this learning activity. (***3 days later (today), this same student expressed his interest in sharing with the entire school, via the next assembly, his upcoming authentic assessment task.  That’s how confident he’s become that he can do great work.)

Comments, NOT grades, have the ability to empower students.  Comments, not grades, have the ability to say both, “This is fantastic!” and “This could be better.”  Comments, not grades, have the ability to transform schools into a community of learners rather than a competition between rivals!

Attempt to Differentiate Projects

Just a quick one tonight as I prepare to offer my students the opportunity to differentiate their proof of learning for the first time.  I’d love some feedback on this project.  The project has been crafted to meet the learning outcomes for both ELA 10-1 and 10-2 and will be completed during class time.  It’s also been designed to be (more) authentic with the possibility of being truly authentic depending on student choices, to allow for critical thinking, student choice, and collaboration (by being completed in class where students can ask and answer each other’s questions).

The project comes after quite a bit of background learning, textual study, and personal reflection on achievement thus far.  Since my mistakes with the “Theme Song” project, we have been focusing more on purpose and the students are well aware that they will be “fixing” that project based on the content knowledge we have discussed from a proposal from Obama after the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting.  You can read a bit of what we’ve done here.  Since then we have done some work with applying the text to our own lives/context and found it interesting that Obama is willing to give schools/boards/states the decisions about how to make their own students safer rather than believing there is a one-size-fits-all solution (sounds like my plea for the structure of education).  While his purpose is to keep schools and communities safer, he recognizes that there are some issues where control needs to be given to other organizations and some issues that need to be nation-wide.  My students went through Obama’s suggestions for school safety measures as though they were the superintendent of our school board who had to decide which options to accept and which to decline.  They worked in groups, had to focus on the given purpose and defend their choices with evidence from what currently happens in our school.  Students are learning more about purpose while continuing to see how critical thinking and collaboration can aid the learning and application of content knowledge.

Today I reviewed a draft of the project with students and asked for their input.  This wasn’t the plan.  the plan was for me to finish the project and give it to their sub tomorrow for them to begin.  Then I’d come back and answer questions the next day and get them refocused to continue working.  However, a comment on Twitter made me immediately consider my plans for the day.  @shellterrell said, “Each Day we walk in the classrm we can tell Ss what is planned & ask how they’d change it up then go fr there” (April 16, 2013).  While I was already planning on offering a great deal of choice in the project, I thought I’d offer my students some say in it, and in the marking rubric.

I’m so glad I did!  Students had a couple questions; one good one involved ignoring Obama’s text (that we’ve studied) in order to focus on the bombing in Boston yesterday (a series of texts that would need to be studied and analyzed before completing the project).  I revised the project to allow students the choice of text(s) to select info from for their project.  The caveat was that the marking guide would not change.  The marking guide was the learning they were to prove.  How they did that could be open for discussion in order for them to be more engaged in the learning that would take place as they completed the project.  This project will be used to assess their skills and make further suggestions for improvement before they go back to the Theme Song project, so it’s important they are fully committed to it.

Perhaps the best thing that came from offering this project to students for their opinions before assigning it was the final decision on group work.  I figured from the initial write-up (the italicized bit here was added afterward) that students would recognize the importance of completing their own project.  As I figured, students questioned the rationale of the drawbacks of group work.  I explained that they are all responsible for the entire curriculum and I therefore need to know that they complete the project themselves rather than letting a classmate do it.  We discussed the possibility of each member of the group completing a write up of their contributions and ideas, whether the project went a different way in the end or not.  Then they asked why they couldn’t use the “specialist” tactic.   I explained that if they did that, they wouldn’t learn anything.  All they would do is prove to me that they are already competent in that area.  I explained that projects were not just about showing learning, but learning more. They wouldn’t have much motivation to learn more if they do what they are already good at.

Yesterday they reviewed the work they’ve done thus far in the term and reflected on what they were doing okay with and where they still needed to improve. (More on this in my next blog post.)  I’ve taken the over 135 specific outcomes from our ELA curriculum and categorized them into 4 main outcomes:  Decoding the Ideas of others, Presenting Our Own Personal Ideas, Presentation, and “Other.”  I try to categorize each rubric criteria into one of these 4 categories.  I know sometimes I look back on a choice and wonder if it may have better fit a different category, but I’m trying to make my courses more outcome based and I’m still learning (and doing it all by myself at the high school ELA level in my district).  Because of this, students have a pretty good idea where they are at and what they really need to focus on.  So, when we got to talking about this specialist idea, we realized that perhaps we could take a reverse specialist approach.

You see, if students are at an 80% right now in Personal Ideas and chose to specialize there while others took their strong categories, then the student will likely continue to do well.  This could easily mean another 80%.  Thus, they simply reinforced their current assessment, their mark hasn’t improved, and neither have they.  However, if students chose their weakest category or two to work on, they could save time by not having to complete the work in the categories they are capable of and instead focus on the categories they need to improve.  This way they learn more and improve their grade.  It’s differentiated learning designed to help a student learn in the area they most need it.

As I reflect on this now, I can see some potential issues that arise (plus a fallacy in logic–assuming students can’t improve in areas they are already doing well in–My main argument AGAINST grades just snuck up and bit me in the butt–of course they can continue to improve; even if they are already at 100% at a grade 10 level they can improve beyond that.  But our recent focus is improving weak areas, so that was my focus.)  There are going to be some issues here, but I’m willing to work out the kinks after they have a day to recognize the kinks.  In the meantime, there’s no harm in having them work on a project they’ve had a say in.  If anything, it could benefit them:  Thursday we can critically think through the process and see what kinks did appear.  Then we can solve them together.

This is an example of how, even in a grades focused learning system, teachers can still differentiate learning, allow learning to be engaging and meaningful to students, offer more or less choice to students depending on their needs, work to improve 21st century competencies, AND STILL cover the government curriculum.

I’ll see how it goes, reflect and blog about it, and grow from the experience.  Feel free to take a look at the project and let me know what you think.  Agree?  Disagree?  See some flaws that need fixed?  Let me know!

I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

Okay, MAYBE I have the solution to education’s problems.  More likely I’m just going to open up a big debate and more problems.  If you haven’t been to my blog before, please scroll to the bottom and read my disclaimer.  I think I may need it for this post.  (I saw a question on Twitter the other day questioning whether or not those disclaimers are still necessary:  I’m thinking they are.)

I spent about 2 hours this evening talking to my principal about education:  where we are headed as a school, a district, a system overall.  I appreciate my principal’s willingness and encouragement to have these conversations with me, and this one was quite accidental. (It took place in our school hallway after she came in because myself and a colleague each locked our keys in the room we were working in.)  Near the end of the conversation she commented, off-handedly, that we pretty much covered the entirety of education and had begun over again.  That was our informal cue for closing arguments, and when we finally wrapped up we noticed two hours had flown by.  It wasn’t until my short walk home from the school that I thought a bit more about that off-hand remark.  We really had talked our way around a lot of issues.  Yet, we kept coming back to just a couple main points.  I truly value these types of conversations, with her and with others, not because they are necessarily accurate representations of what we each truly believe (because speaking in off-the-cuff conversations often don’t allow for deeply considered remarks), but because of the thoughts they inspire afterwards.  So please, leave some comments and help me consider new perspectives.

This post is about one of those thoughts I had on my way home. I was playing back some of the comments I made to see where I truly stand.  I thought about some of the challenges to my perspectives.  I stood for a bit on my porch to considered the points I conceded to the other side.  One point I kept coming back to was the idea of differentiation.  At one point my principal commented something along the lines of “but that’s just my experience.”  Several times through the conversation I recall thinking that about my own experiences and trying to keep an open mind.  But that comment struck me as important.  That’s just me.  That’s just me.  That’s just me. 

THIS IS NOT A RESPONSE TO MY PRINCIPAL.  THIS IS A DEEPER REFLECTION THAT GOES BEYOND THE OPINIONS WE SHARED WITH EACH OTHER. THE STATEMENTS I SEEM TO VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE WITH DID NOT COME FROM HER.

What if the answer to all of education’s problems lies solely with students?  I don’t just mean students as an overall group of participants in the grand scheme of education.  And I don’t mean one set of students, at one point in time, in one place.  I mean, what if every single student provided the answer to education’s problems in a way that resonated with her and himself?  Of course, that means the answer may change even for that student from year to year (or more frequently) and by subject to subject and from teacher to teacher.  But what if every single aspect of a child’s education was focused on what was best for that child?  Not a group of children who happened to be born into the same age-cohort and reside in the same geographical location.  Not statistics who live in the same province or country.  Not peers who are part of generation x or y or whatever letter of the alphabet we may generalize them into next.  What would happen if we gave education back to those it actually affects?

Some benefits to giving education to the students: 

  • Students could learn in a style that best suits their needs:  tests, right/wrong answers, m/c, project-based learning, authentic learning tasks, etc.  
  • Students could receive the type of feedback they want:  grades, rubrics, written feedback, oral discussions, etc.
  • Students could seek motivation to learn in the manner they prefer:  grades, awards, rankings, scholarships, competition, proud moments of success, the satisfaction of perseverance despite no external rewards, teamwork, sheer thrill of learning.
  • Students could study the content areas they are interested in: math, science, English, social studies, physical education, drama, dance, art, computer programming, health, foods, music, hunting, race car driving, etc. (This list could go on forever.)
  • Students could learn at the rate they wanted/needed:  outcome by outcome learning, life-long learning, fully comprehending the content because there is no one to belittle them by telling them a “normal” student would have been done by now.

Some of the criticism to giving education to students:

Kids don’t know what’s best for themselves.

To some degree, I understand this argument.  I have my own kids.  Do I let them do whatever they want?  No, of course not.  Their desire for immediate gratification and lack of awareness of consequences comes without thought to their own safety or well-being.  But is all of this childhood innocence or am I partially to blame for not letting my children make their own mistakes and face the consequences?  Is our incessant need to caudal children stifling their true capabilities.  I’m not talking about asking children to grow up too fast and make wise decisions.  In fact, I might be saying the opposite; a child’s desire to play should not be frowned upon because they have homework to do.  I believe children are capable of so much more and of being so much wiser than we give them credit for.

Kids don’t know what they need for their future.

Again, I’d have to agree with this to some lengths.  What happens if a child attempts math at a “grade 3 level (when it starts to get hard), hates it, and wants to quit?  It’s a valid concern.  To what extent will children need this knowledge later in life?  My rebuttal is this:  A student will only get so far in the study of what they want before realizing they need other knowledge in other areas to progress further.  At that point, the child who may dislike a certain subject will realize they need it to be happy.  This need will provide the motivation to acquire the knowledge they need.  If that point never comes, then what harm is it really to the child/adult to have never learned that particular content?

Kids won’t receive a well-rounded education.

In the grand scheme of things, who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?  There is so much I don’t know, about so many topics, that I can’t even begin to fathom what it is I don’t know.  Yet I am living the life I want to live.  It’s just plain wrong to tell someone that if they’ve never read “this classic” then they haven’t truly lived.  I’m not going to go on and on about all the different things we have the audacity to judge other people for not having done, or for not knowing.  People know what they need to know to have the life they want.  And if we fix our education system to provide ongoing learning opportunities no matter what age an individual is, then I don’t see why everyone needs the same shape of education.

Final thoughts

I know I’m sounding a little naive right now.  I do know there are many many more concerns with handing education over to the students, and none of the concerns, even the ones I addressed above are easy to solve.  But I also know there are far more benefits than those listed above.  And those benefits are also farther reaching than I’ve done justice to.  I don’t know exactly what the answer to education’s problems are, but I have a gut feeling that it must lay in the fact that we are all individuals.  Education has begun to emphasize differentiated learning and I think this is a step in the right direction, but this needs to apply to every student in our classrooms, not just those who excel and those who struggle.  It also needs to go that extra step to give students a voice in their own education.  Teachers can’t keep doing “things” because those things are easiest for them.  We can’t even keep doing things because the standardized tests say “these things” are working–who are they working for? (governments, universities, teachers, society’s expectations?)  We need to do the things that will allow success for every student in our classroom, as success is defined by each individual student in our classroom.  After all, isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place?

***I know the blurb at the bottom says I’d love to hear your feedback and opinions, but I wanted to personally challenge you to leave a comment.  If you’ve made it this far, you must have something to say.  A question, a challenge, a disagreement to voice, an Amen!  You’re thinking something right now, and I truly would love to know what it is.***

Why Do We Make Our Students Write Essays?

My blog post is a response to this blog post by the same title, written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, an educational leader, researcher, author, and professional speaker.

The question at hand:  Why do we make students write essays?

Dr. Eaton’s response:  Because writing essays teaches students the skills needed to write and argue effectively.

My response: We shouldn’t!

I’m a little nervous disagreeing with someone who is so accomplished; however, this is a subject that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and I relish this opportunity to organize my thoughts.

When I saw the Twitter link for Dr. Eaton’s post, I must admit that I thought I’d find confirmation for my newfound disgruntlement with essays. . . Instead I found a defence for why we should make students write essays, a defence I have some concerns about.

If you still haven’t clicked the link above to read Dr. Eaton’s article, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing.

It’s important to me that you know a little bit about where I’m coming from.  I have been teaching junior/senior high school ELA in Alberta for 6 years.  I attended junior and senior high school in Alberta.  I attended university in Alberta.  And I have always loved essays.  Coming to understand that the essay was my opportunity to explore a text and offer my own opinion was exhilarating   It was my only solace in an educational system I had come to abhor from early elementary school.  Through university, I continued to love researching and forming unique, convincing arguments.  As a new teacher, I was excited to read my students’ essays, but when my first class failed to meet my expectations, I stopped to consider how to actually teach essay writing.  I guess I should have done this before assigning an essay, but I honestly can’t remember ever being formally taught how to write an essay and therefore assumed it came naturally.  This setback did not dampen my passion, though.  I promptly set out to create a document I entitled Essay Writing Laws.  This document contains the 6 “Laws” I (still) believe are the basics necessary to produce a well-written essay.  Determining these laws was as simple as reflecting on the process I took through university to write pretty outstanding essays (I’m sorry for bragging, but they were, according to professors who asked me to read my work for the class, and even scrawled “brilliant” across the top of a particularly brilliant paper I wrote on the first Harry Potter novel for my Children’s Lit class.)  After a couple years, I made the effort to video record The Laws instead of reading through them all as a class–students were getting bored with that.  I figured if I created a video, they could chunk the reading over a weekend.

I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that I’m not opposed to essays because I hate them.  Even as I write this post I find myself nostalgically thinking back to the first real essay I remember writing in grade 11 on “The Great Gatsby.”  Man, was I ever proud of that piece.  No, my newfound opposition to making students write essays is not based on anything to do with the essay form itself or their purpose of persuading a target audience or the excellent skills in research and sentence construction they allows students to build.  All of these features and benefits are excellent.  If you took the time to read Dr. Eaton’s article (maybe you should go do that now), you’ll notice that these are also a few of her arguments for why we should have students write essays:

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

So, if the above quote seems to be Dr. Eaton’s main point, and I seem to agree with her reasoning, then what could I possibly have an issue with?  My disagreement comes from Dr. Eaton’s statement that “We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write.”  My initial response to this is to echo another one of her own declarations: “But really, that’s not good enough.”

There are many different forms of writing that students can create in order to learn how to write and argue effectively.  In fact, Dr. Eaton continues her own article by listing several of these forms:  “[W]hen you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever.”

The reason I do not believe teachers should be making students write essays is because essays are a highly inauthentic form of writing.  Before teaching my students how to write an essay, I often share with them some of my own experiences.  I tell them how essay writing knowledge has helped me to write a letter to my boss to justify a raise, to craft a cover letter when applying for teaching positions, and to verbally defend an extended curfew request to my parents.  But I also share my disappointment that, since being out of university, I haven’t written a single essay.  Until this year, the true impact of that realization escaped me.  If I, an individual who loves writing essays, and a teacher who teaches kids to write essays, haven’t found a reason to actually write an essay in the last 6 years while living in “the real world,” then why the heck am I teaching students to write an essay?  How important can it really be?  Of course, I already stated why they’re important.  Or did I?  I did state that they have benefits. But really, that’s not good enough!

Our students won’t grow up and write essays.  As Dr. Eaton pointed out, they’ll grow up and write reports, and letters, and policies.  They’ll grow up and write proposals, engage in debates–both formal and informal, deliver speeches, and write newspaper articles, magazine articles, and even blog posts!  But they won’t write essays.  For a more humorous example of this, check out the video I added to this other post.  It’s this video that pushed me over the edge, led me to cancel the essay I recently had planned for my ELA 10 class, and instead forced me to begin an in-depth examination of proposal writing through the study of one by President Obama a mere 3 months ago.

At this point, many readers may already be screaming at me through their computer screen:  WHAT ABOUT THE DIPLOMA EXAMS!?! (or whatever standardized tests their students may be forced to write) HOW DARE YOU RUIN A STUDENT’S CHANCES OF GETTING INTO OR THROUGH UNIVERSITY!

Oh my. . . I think it’s clear by now that I dislike the inauthenticity of essays, but that’s nothing compared to the abhorrence I harbour toward the inauthenticity and unfairness of standardized tests.  For an inkling, you can take a look here. Hopefully you’re still reading as I attempt to explain my position.  First, individuals who are going to scream the statements above are focused primarily on marks.  I’ll address that a bit more in a moment, but suffice it to say that students who do well on whatever you do in-class will still walk away from the course with a decent mark (and much better prepared for life) even if they do “poorly” on the diploma exam.  Second, if we are going to argue that teaching an inauthentic essay format will prepare students for writing more authentic letters, reports, policies, etc. then the reverse should also be true–teaching those forms should result in students who can produce a great essay.  Which would you rather your students be better practiced in:  The type of writing they’ll need long-term or the type of writing that will temporarily benefit them?  I choose the life-long skills.  Third, many of our students aren’t even headed off to university and, consequentially, their need for amazing diploma exam marks is virtually non-existent.  For those students who are headed to university and will need essay writing skills for four to eight more years, that’s where differentiation comes in and we teach the minor formatting differences after they are well-grounded in more authentic writing styles.  This should satisfy those teachers who believe that the government and society as a whole have the right idea about education being about marks more than it is about students actually being involved in relevant learning.  I do fully intend to ensure this happens, but not because I’ll make students do it; it’ll be because they recognize the need to learn essay writing in order to jump through the hoops of an inauthentic and broken education system.  Even with my grade 10’s, I’ve been diligent in pointing out the similarities and differences between proposals and essays to help prepare the ones who will need to know them.

The fourth and final reason I’ll expound upon as to why I’m not doing a diservice to students by not making them write essays* is that even the diploma exam refuses to demand that students write one.  I find this curious.  I’ve been to mark the diploma exams four times, twice for the -1 stream and twice for the -2 stream, and every student writes a formal academic essay for the -1 Critical/Analytical Response To Literature, and the vast majority of -2s for their Literary Exploration.  It seems that every teacher in the province knows what the diploma exam creators expect, even if those creators are not bold enough to demand it themselves.  It even seems obvious that the creators do in fact expect an essay to be written:  The omission of a question in the planning section, the question seeking to know what prose form the student plans on using, speaks loud and clear.  This question is asked for the personal reflection, where students can choose any prose form including narrative, but not for the critical analysis assignment.  I can’t help but wonder why this is the case.  Is an essay the only form possible to critically and analytically explore a text?  If so, wouldn’t that mean that “in the real world,” where essays are rarely written, texts are never explored critically?  Anyone holding to that position better be able to explain why we need to teach kids to think critically about texts at all then.  However, if we agree that this notion is ludicrous, and “the real world” does in fact demand critical exploration of texts, then is it true that essays are the only way to do so, or even a primary way, heck, are essays even used at all in the real world as a means of stating an opinion?  If not, then why expect students to write one?  Why force them to learn a skill they don’t actually need when more authentic forms of text creation can accomplish the same task?

Towards the end of her article, Dr. Eaton makes a statement that I agree with 100% and have begun to implement in my own teaching practice.  She introduces the following quote by stating that we shouldn’t have students write essays just so they can get a grade, which, by the way, supports my comments above about grade-focused teachers.  Instead, Dr. Eaton argues that school is about learning:

What would happen if we said to our students, ‘OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.’

I must admit, when I reached this part of the article, I was optimistic that perhaps I had misunderstood Dr. Eaton’s point and that she truly was advocating for the abolishment of the essay.  I read this quote and thought, “this is exactly what school should be.”  I told my ELA 10 class this very thing a couple days ago:  “School is about learning, not about marks.”  As soon as I finished the statement one of the boys in the class scoffed.  I asked him if he disagreed.  He asked me why teachers give marks then if my statement is true.  He forced me to revise my statement to “School SHOULD be about learning, not about marks.” I’ve been on a quest since then to learn more about how to abolish marks from my practice right alongside the abolishment of essays.  It was something that I’d already been wondering about, and we set aside the rest of the lesson that day and, as a class, figured out a fairer assessment strategy for this term, with the promise that I would continue learning more about this topic for next year (I’ll teach the same group again from grade 10-12).

Unfortunately, Dr. Eaton concluded her article with these words:

We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process. If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

This conclusion almost had me screaming to her through my computer screen the title of her article:  BUT WHY DO WE HAVE TO MAKE OUR STUDENTS WRITE ESSAYS?  Why do students have to write an essay to “learn about learning”?   Why do students have to write an essay to show what they learned and how they learned it?  Why do students have to write an essay to learn about themselves as students and human beings?  Can they truly prove the relevance between what they’ve learned and the real world through such an inauthentic form of writing?  I don’t think they can.  Or, at least it’s not the only way.  And it doesn’t justify making students write essays.  I strongly believe that every teacher needs to carefully consider what they teach, how they teach it, and how they assess it in order to ensure that school is relevant and meaningful and not a huge waste of time.

*The Alberta High School ELA curriculum, in a very understated manner (through the use of an asterisk, as I’ve utilized here), requires students to create an essay.  Because I love teaching, I will comply with this requirement in the most minimal, yet acceptable manner I can.  As I clearly argue in my post, I do not believe I do my students a diservice by refusing to focus on or inflate the importance of essay writing.  The authentic text creations my students will complete will more than make up for this.  Complying certainly does not mean I agree with the demand.

Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity

Is my blog post title impolitically correct?  I reside in Redneck, Alberta where killing birds is pretty common-place.  You’ll live (Even if the birds don’t!)

I went “old school” today, which is odd for me, as anyone who knows me knows.  I used to push tech; now I’m open to students preferences. But today I forced pen to paper in order to make my point about the need for critical thinking and collaboration in our “learning community.”

I’ve taken to calling my ELA 10 class a community.  The students laugh at me but are slowly beginning to mimic me, even if it’s facetious for now.  I want students to believe that a community of learners will benefit them so much more than a class of students.  My goal for the class from the start of the term has been to build their critical thinking skills (see here), and now I want them to begin on collaboration as a critical thinking strategy.

My lesson today was designed around having students believe that collaborating together can actually benefit them by aiding them in their critical thinking.  For a bit more background into the current assignment, see this post and the end of this post.  Essentially, I want to move away from “essay” writing and replace it with more authentic “proposal” writing.  There are some major similarities, but there are also many significant differences. In order to do this, I am using a real life proposal straight from the desk of President Obama a mere 3 months ago.  The proposal deals with reducing gun violence in order to keep kids and communities safer.  The stated context of the proposal was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting this past December.  My students watched a powerful 15 minute news video produced by ABC to gain the needed context.  We discussed the tragic event, vented our outrage, and they brainstormed a list of 6 proposals individuals or groups might make in light of this event.

Today’s lesson introduced them to the proposal from Obama.  All we focused on for 80 minutes was the ~250 word introduction that contained a fantastic title, 3 paragraphs, a numbered list (the ideas), and a clear statement of purpose (the thesis).  I read the intro to them complete with appropriate emphasis and emotion (stopping to add some humour to the class with a photo to “explain” the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution (We are Canadian, so it’s not common knowledge):

Bear Arms

Then the real learning began.  I slowly and carefully explained (and reexplained then drew a picture to visualize the explanation) what I wanted students to do:

  • Take out 2 blank, lined sheets of paper (What if I use a notebook?  Then tear one out and leave the other in.  Can I use my iPad?  No, this needs to be paper today. Can it have other stuff on it?  No, blank sheets, please.)
  • Today you will be completing a critical thinking activity and should come to understand that asking questions is encouraged rather than criticized.  Hence, I don’t mind your questions at all . . . but they should be thoughtful questions!
  • When I tell you to, you will skim back through the introduction.  As you skim through, think of two questions you would want to ask The President if he was here right now.  Keep in mind these questions should make you sound smart and thoughtful rather than, you know . . . (. . . like we actually are Mr. Groff?  No, no.  You are all smart and thoughtful and you’ll prove it today.)
  • You will write down your two questions on both sheets of paper, at the top, nicely, not all huge and stupid like, like the grade 11’s insist on constantly doing.  (laugh laugh laugh) [but they all got it right].
  • Again, once you have your two questions, you’ll put them both on both sheets of paper. (So both my questions go on both sheets?  Or question one on one sheet and question two on the other?  Both on both.)
  • Here, let me show you.

2 paper example

  • Okay.  Do that now.  [It took a while.  I warned them to keep their work covered and private because if their neighbour has the same questions as them their lives will soon get very difficult.  Students struggled to think critically and come up with two thoughtful/insightful questions to ask The President.  BUT they refused help.  They understood the task and insisted that I do NOT offer them a suggestion.  [Of course, I wandered the room looking over shoulders.] After most had their questions down, on both sheets, I let them get a drink and relax while the others finished.]
  • Now, listen carefully.  When I say “go” I want you to pass ONE of your sheets to the person on your left. [They are in a semi-circle, all community-like.] (Which way is left? That way [picture me pointing left].  Which sheet?  I don’t care, choose one.  Maybe the neatest one. If you have one in your notebook, pass it and keep the loose page.  But then people will look through my notebook.  I want to pass the other one. No you don’t.  Trust me.  And they won’t have time to look through your notebook.  Do I need to put my name on it?  No, you don’t.  What?  Just trust me.
  • When I say “go” I want you to pass one sheet to the left, the neatest, or the one in your notebook.  Left.  That way. [picture me pointing left . . . again.]
  • Then, read the two questions on the page you get.  So Jimmy is going to get up and take his paper across the gap in our circle (I have to get up?  Fine, I’ll take your sheet over) and he’ll get a sheet from Sarah.  Jimmy is going to read Sarah’s two questions.  Then he’s going to reread his own two questions–the ones on the extra sheet of paper he kept (Oh, that’s why we wrote it out twice.  Yes.  Wow! You really thought of everything.  Yes. Yes, I did.)  Then he’s going to determine whether Sarah’s questions are different than his, or the same.  If they are different, he’s going to write his two questions out on Sarah’s paper.  He’s. Going. To. Write. HIS. Questions. On. HER. Paper.  IF, they are different.  (What if they are the same?  [Ignore and continue]) If Sarah has one, or both questions the same as Jimmy’s then Jimmy gets to think up one or two more questions to add to Sarah’s sheet. (Oh, no.  It took me forever to think up the first two.  This is why I told you not to copy your neighbour’s questions.  I didn’t.  Then likely you’ll be okay.)  When you’re done, do nothing.  Sit back and relax.
  • Ready? (Yes) Any more questions? (No)  Gopher! [students begin to pass papers until some laugh and chide their friends because I didn’t actually say “Go.”  [They get their papers back] Goal! [same] Goat! [groans and no movement] Go!!! [And they do.]
  • [Sit back and watch the work happen.  Critical thinking and collaboration everywhere.  First they thought critically about the introduction of the proposal, getting to know it better without realizing it. [Not the real point at all.  I couldn’t care less how well they understand this text–but understanding will happen regardless]  Then, they are considering whether or not their neighbour’s questions are the same as theirs. (Mr. Groff, I think this question is the same, but one of the words is different.  Let’s take a look, but I bet you’ll be writing a new question.  Oh, nope, okay.  The word that is different actually changes the meaning of the question.  “Reduce” and “Eliminate” are not the same.) [A couple more close calls happen but in every circumstance the questions are slightly different in their meaning.  Stop the class and mention that they are now understanding the importance of word choices.  It is critical that you use the best word to get your message across accurately.  [unintended learning] Write a draft, then go back and rethink your word choices.  You often won’t be there to explain that you meant one thing but mistakenly wrote another.]
  • Now, pass the paper you received to the left again.  Keep yours, but pass the one that isn’t yours.  (Why don’t you just say “get ours back again?”  Because Rick, you need to learn your left from your right.  You don’t want yours back. [this one didn’t really happen, thank goodness!]
  • Repeat what you just did.  Read the four questions on the page you just got, the last two should be the same two you just read but not necessarily if your neighbour had to write a new question.  If any of the questions are the same as yours, you need to write a new question.  If all four are different from your two, add your two to the list to make six questions.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat
  • [Before the end of class, have students collect their original paper, which now has 10 or more questions on it.  They will know which is theirs because the first two questions on it will be the two questions they have on the other sheet in front of them.]
  • So, how many of you had to write new questions at some point. [Very few hands]  Isn’t it interesting how you struggled to come up with two questions from a 250 word introduction, yet most of you came up with different questions?  Were any of the questions terrible? [No, they weren’t.  They were all acceptable questions, many were thoughtful, and a few were insightful.]  Sharing your work with others, and getting to see theirs, can truly help you see a text or a situation from a different perspective.
  • As you walk out the door today, you’re going to throw one of your sheets in the recycling bin.  I don’t care which one.  That choice is yours. [Stand by door and recycling bin and watch students throw out the sheet with only two questions on it.  Nod in agreement and save their rationale for tomorrow’s class.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Can We Make Learning Relevant?

I don’t know about you, but I get somewhat upset when I feel my time is being wasted.  Sometimes that’s waiting in traffic, listening to someone retell the same story they’ve told numerous times before, sitting in the doctor’s office because they are running behind even though I’ve made an appointment, or zoning out at a staff meeting or PD session that doesn’t seem relevant to me at all.  Can you imagine how students must feel showing up to school 6 hours a day, 5 days a week if they feel what you’re teaching them is a waste of time?

The Problem

I gave my ELA 10 class a questionnaire to fill out at the beginning of the term this year and one of the questions I asked related to how important they believe English Language Arts is to their lives.  I wasn’t surprised to find that most students do not find ELA overly relevant.  They were surprised to learn that a full year English course is the only mandatory course for nearly all University students regardless of their program.  I am an English major and a PE minor; I didn’t take a single math, science, or history class.  But those majors had to take a 6-credit English course.  English is important to everyday life.  I’m sure every teacher of every subject area would argue their subject is important to life.  And I get it.  I do.  But as a teenager, I didn’t.  And this is the problem.  As adults we undertand that the subjects we teach are important, yet most students don’t get it.  Sure, there’s some who understand they need certain courses to graduate, or particular classes to get into the post secondary programs they want, but that’s different, isn’t it?

I’m going to take a moment and argue the other side of this issue.  Readers of my blog have been hearing about how much I hate math.  My students know it, too.  It’s not that I don’t think math is important; I just find it hard.  More to the point, I don’t find it important to my everyday life.  That’s not to say that if math never existed that my life wouldn’t suck.  Because my life would suck.  Math impacts my life in huge ways; however, it will positively impact my life whether I can do math or not.  Others can.  So others can use math to make my life easier.  I don’t actually use math beyond a basic elementary level on a day-to-day basis (I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually counted on 4 fingers today to confirm that 18 + 4 = 22.).  I get by, yet I had to take math all through high school.  Even though I didn’t see the relevance.  Even though I still don’t see the relevance.  I can make similar arguments for science and social studies.  I’m guessing many of you could make the argument for English Language Arts. I feel like going off on a tangent here and exploring just how important it could actually be to learn all the content knowledge of these high school subjects when I don’t use it and don’t remember it . . . but I won’t.

The Point

The point I want to make with this post is that many students don’t, rightfully so or not, find school relevant to their lives.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my students don’t like ELA in the same way I don’t like other subjects.  I’m fine with that.  What I’m not fine with, are students who walk out of my class not seeing the relevance of what we did.  Whether we are studying poetry, Shakespeare, novel, visual, non-fiction, etc. I want my students to take something relevant away from that text.  Briefly, I have a few reasons for this.

  1. If students see the relevance in a text, they will be more willing to study that text.
  2. If students see the relevance, they will be more open to texts in their everyday lives.
  3. If students see the relevance, they will be more engaged.
  4. If students believe school is relevant, they will be more open to learning.

Teaching kids to appreciate Shakespeare is hard.  I didn’t care for Shakespeare when I was in high school.  I thought the plots were full of illogical holes. (If only Juliet had run off with Romeo–He got away, why couldn’t they both?)  It wasn’t until the years off between high school and university that I came to appreciate the art of Shakespeare’s stories.  I hope some of my experience rubs off on students as I try to explain this at the start of Shakespeare; however, I’m not naive enough to believe all students walk away appreciating Shakespeare.  What I will proudly say is that the vast majority of my students walked away from Shakespeare this year realizing that his plays can speak to them on a very personal level.

The Possibility

Instead of approaching Shakespeare with the purpose of appreciating Shakespeare, this year my students were looking to him to provide possible answers to meaningful questions that were relevant to their lives.  My 20’s, for example were seeking an answer to the question, “Can I know if I, or someone I know, is in love?”  This was the question on the board when my students walked in from summer vacation.  Right from day one, my 20’s were talking about a topic that related to their lives.  And boy oh boy did they talk.  We began with “thought journals” where they recorded their initial thoughts about the question.  Throughout the unit, we came back to the thought journals and revised opinions based on the texts we studied.  Questions were asked, perspectives were explored, in some cases opinions were changed.  We didn’t jump right into Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was NOT the unit focus.  This transcendent question was the focus.  It provided the possibility of engaging in textual analysis, conversation, and learning.  We discussed the differences and similarities between LUST, LOVE, and CRUSH, defining the terms, comparing how individuals act, look, speak, their motives, their goals, etc.  We explored self-love, friendship, patriotism, and romance.  We looked at visuals, read a short story, watched Troy, read Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare), and watched The Simpson’s.  In the end, some students walked away saying that they believed they did in fact have enough information to determine if they, or someone they knew were in love.  Some said they would know if they were in love, but could never be certain of someone else.  Some said there is no sure way to know at all.  One walked away with a beautifully heartbreaking paper explaining why she believed love doesn’t exist in our world.  It wasn’t about agreeing.  It wasn’t about “the correct answer.”  It wasn’t about Shakespeare or visuals or any particular text.  It was about them.  It was about their lives.  It was about making English class relevant to their lives.

I believe the possibility exists in every subject area, at every grade level, for every “unit,” for every teacher to engage their students every day in learning through the use of Transcendent Questions.  By getting to know your students on a more personal level, it’s possible to tailor-make questions that will suit the needs of the class or majority of the students.  One of my questions later on in the term for my ELA 30 class was purposefully created to have students think about how they were treating one another.  Without prompting, after some study and reflection, their discussion did make it’s way around to the class dynamic.  It was definitely a feel-good moment for me.

The PLN Opportunity

A Twitter conversation I had today with @alicekeeler @jankenb2 @ACEedu and @CraigRusbult led to the notion that more teachers need to start making learning relevant to the lives of students.  Transcendent Questions were mentioned.  We wondered how to create a repository of questions for teachers to take from and add to.  We thought a Google Spreadsheet would be the way to go.  I’ve created one HERE.

***This is the first Google Spreadsheet I’ve ever created.  I tried to set it up as best I could; however, I doubt it’s “properly done.”  Please, if you have any experience with this, fix it up and get it working properly.  I tried to keep it so the filtering would work well to sort both grade level and subject area.  Make suggestions to fix it, or just fix it–I think I left it wide open for editing.  The suggestions I’ve included are ones that I’ve designed to work with grade 10-12 (div 4) ELA.

The Google Spreadsheet of Transcendent Questions to Make Learning Relevant

Content Knowledge Vs. 21st Century Competencies: The Battle Begins

I had an interesting conversation today with @tstarkey1212 that began with a question from @appeducationfox regarding how to respectfully reply to teaches who don’t have time for tech with students, and ended with me questioning the dichotomy of knowledge and competencies.  And the battle between content knowledge and21st century competencies was spawned.  The conversation spanned a few different educational areas but these two focuses (knowledge and competencies) continued to be in opposition to one another.  For example, we “debated” which focus would provide students with better future prospects; whether or not a content focus creates students who expect answers rather than students who discover answers; whether or not competencies should be the focus of education; and whether or not content is only beneficial for standardized tests or whether it serves another function.  Each of these ideas kept coming back to content knowledge being at odds with 21st century competencies.  By the end of the conversation, I think both Thomas and I had some points to reflect upon.  This post is the result of some of my reflection.  I know I will have a lot more to do on this issue.

My journey into 21st century competencies is summarized here, along with some of my concerns with how we are evaluating students.  I have a hard time separating the use of standardized tests from what our current education system is.  I see the tests as the main focus for the government and, unfortunately, for many boards, admin, and teachers.  Whether my teaching focus is on content knowledge, as mine was for the first several years of my career, or on 21st CC, as the latest several years of my career have been, these standardized tests have been the bane of my teaching.  I don’t understand how the Alberta PATs (grade 3,6,9) and DIPs (grade 12) relate to what I’m teaching.  I know the “what” is the curriculum, and that this is also used to create the PATs and DIPs; however, where I teach my ELA students that writers write from a personal desire to express themselves and readers read with a personal context (I find new meaning in texts every time I reread them based on personal context) the standardized test expect students to identify “the correct” multiple choice answer as determined by a group of expert ELA teachers, in a timed test situation, without the option to read and reread or discuss or research or defend their answers.  For me, these tests are the epitome of “Content Knowledge” as opposed to critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and contextual information.  One of the questions Thomas asked during our Twitter conversation was “Do you find that teachers where you are equate knowledge with ‘stuff needed to pass standardized tests’?”  My answer was a resounding YES!  I know I do.  I believe that in order for my students to do well on these tests, they need to strictly focus on the knowledge-based questions they will be asked, that they must be taught NOT to think for themselves or to bring themselves to the texts they read.  And I’ve refused to teach that.  Of the five major ELA General Outcomes, the diploma exam focuses on two, and barely scratches a few of the “less important” (IMHO) outcomes of a third.  Curious as to what has been left out?

  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences.
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to manage ideas and information. (inquiry and research)
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to respect, support and collaborate with others.

What’s left out are the hard-to-assess-with-a-standardized-test-non knowledge-outcomes.  What’s left out are the outcomes that ask students to think for themselves, to inquire and question, to collaborate.  What’s left out are the outcomes that begin to address what students need to be able to do in the 21st century.  So my answer to Thomas today was this:  “The fact that inauthentic standardized tests exist, perpetuates a negative equation of knowledge to the test.”  I believe that the very existence of these tests suggest that testing is the point of knowledge.  This is what our students come to believe, and many teachers as well.  Teachers teach to the test.  The test focuses on a small portion of the curriculum but is used to rank districts, school, teachers, and students to the tune of 50% of a grade 12 student’s final grade.  Teachers prioritize the curriculum to try to determine which outcomes are worthy of focusing on (for the test), suggesting that the other outcomes are not necessary.  The standardized test sacrifices competencies for the sake of inauthentic assessment of content knowledge.

My conversation with Thomas has led me to question how I truly view knowledge. What if I got my wish and inauthentic standardized tests simply vanished from existence?  Would knowledge then be given a place of honour in my teaching practice?  The obvious answer is “Of Course!”  I teach ELA because I love ELA.  I crave a well-written text, characters who make me cry or cry out in rage (though if anyone else is around I’m only crying because there’s dust in my eye), poetry that can make me see the beauty in our all-too-often selfish world, and persuasive texts that make me question my perspectives.  I relish the opportunity to create these texts myself.  I NEED to be able to share these passions with students.  It’s why I wanted to be a teacher.  I shudder to think that my students may not see the necessity of boasting of the knowledge of how to correctly place a semicolon in their writing, or that they lack the knowledge to comprehend an allegory from Greek Mythology.  I will admit that knowledge is not merely a requirement for career paths but also for witnessing the beauty of the world around us (and for you math teachers *yuck* I can now begin to understand your abhorrence with me for not knowing my multiplication tables–perhaps I’ll cherish the opportunity to gain this knowledge just as a means of self-improvement). For this realization, I owe you a sincere “thank you,” Thomas.

Coming back to a reality that still worships inauthentic standardized tests is hard for me, but I love my job, so I am forced to ask myself how I can continue to hold knowledge in high esteem while not falling into the traps set by testing.  I think the answer may be found in ending the battle between content knowledge and 21st century competencies and finding some common ground where the two can work together.  I do believe that much of the knowledge we expect kids to know can be “looked up.” However, I also believe that we can’t be looking up everything all the time or we risk looking incompetent (likely because we would be).  Consider this video shared with Thomas and me by @appeducationfox.

What would this video look like if the job candidate had been educated in a solely 21st century competencies classroom?  Would it really be that much different?  Reading and writing skills would suffer, basic mathematical equations would be time consuming, and science concepts would be unknown.  Clearly the two must work together.  I also believe that knowledge is tied to testing in the minds of students, even though it is the basis for life-long learning.  Education has become (or maybe always was) about testing and specific career prep.  In recent years we’ve tried to tell kids that school is about learning, but we haven’t separated it from the traditional methods of education.  The result is students who are beginning to hate learning.  I speak here from experience with my own children.  They used to love learning and school.  Now they view learning as something that should only happen at school (which every year they dislike a little bit more).  Just the other day, talking with my son at home about using his iPad more for learning than for games, he retorted that learning is done at school and home was the place for having fun.  I was repulsed.  Learning should be a life-long activity, embraced at every opportunity.  Learning should be fun.  My son has separated the two, and I blame a content-focused system that doesn’t value learning as a life-long goal but rather as a levelled activity, grade by grade.

So how can knowledge and competencies work together?  Where is the common ground?  What do our students need?  I’m sitting here thinking about what practical application this is going to have in my classroom when Easter Break is over.  I know I need to put some more emphasis on the knowledge, not that I haven’t been teaching it, but to actually make it more obvious to my students.  They need to understand that knowledge is important.  However, I also need to make it clear that it’s not knowledge OR competencies.  Everything we’ve done all term is still important.  I also think that I know exactly how I’m going to do this.  Before the break my students handed in a (more) authentic assessment task.  The focus of this task fit in with an ongoing term-long project where students are creating a meaningful opinion to share with others.  This assessment task was meant to highlight the importance of understanding the purpose of the writing.  Ironically, looking back at the project and rubric, this focus was not even mentioned.  Sure, we discussed purpose and studied a few texts with this focus.  Yet, my assessment of this task was 100% on 21st century competencies, linked back to the curriculum, and not on the knowledge I needed my kids to know:  That purpose will be shown through the presentation choices they make.  Skimming through their work, I know this is a problem already.  I received a few letters, and many academic essays, all of which seem to have the purpose of stating/explaining/defending a theme song choice for the film, but the presentation does not match the purpose at all, nor is it authentic to the situation.  I failed to put enough emphasis on the knowledge that was needed to produce authentic work, choosing instead to focus on the competencies that were needed.  I will need to correct this major oversight on Monday and use this work as a rough draft.

As a conclusion, I’d like to quickly share a chart from Alberta Education’s proposed Curriculum Redesign.  I’d like to discuss this shift in much more detail sometime soon, but for now, this visual depicts what I believe should be the common ground for knowledge and competencies.

curriculum shift

While the content-focus is lessened, so is the prescriptive curriculum and summative assessment.  What this means to me is that the knowledge the students and I deem as important (local decision making) will lead to greater depth of study and formative assessment.  There will be less focus on testing and more focus on learning.  This should benefit both sides of this battle!

The Value of Zero

As a classroom teacher I have mixed feelings about a no-zero-policy being implemented in schools.  I want to begin by saying that I am very thankful neither my school board nor my principal have dictated a policy about giving or not giving zeros to students for work that was assigned but never received.  I appreciate my professional opinion being valued and trusted.  Next, I will willingly admit to not being a “math guy.”  I fully admit to failing math 20 when I was in high school, to taking no physics, and to still not knowing my multiplication tables from 1-12.  That’s what calculators are for.  Thankfully, this isn’t a math debate; I just wanted to put that out there in case I say something that happens to go against the principles of math logic.  This is about grading policies.  I also promise to try to stay focused on this issue without wandering into related subjects about whether it’s even necessary to grade students, how we categorize grades, or why we have multiple levels of grades (satisfactory vs proficient vs excellence, etc.).  I’ll try to save those for future posts.

What is the value of a zero?  I like the idea of zero as a placeholder, the idea that zero has no true value.  The idea that it’s not actually a number that represents what a student is capable of doing, except in the odd cases where the student actually completed the work but does it so poorly as to earn a zero.  Even in these cases, I’d like to argue that this grade should be a placeholder with the expectation that the work will be redone after additional learning.  Zeros should be viewed this way:  They are a grade that has been given as a placeholder until the student completes the work.  Zeros symbolize the fact that a student still needs to do the assigned work.

Of course, other symbols could be used.  The “incomplete,” for example, is one candidate that many educators favour.  Others symbols may include “F,” “D,” or “Insufficient.”  I’m sure there are other symbols as well that could represent work that students have not done or not handed in or have done incorrectly or extremely poorly.  The reality of the situation though is that the work has not been appropriately completed.  When it comes right down to it, there are only a few options available for teachers when they are faced with this situation.

The first option is to acknowledge the fact that the work has not been completed appropriately and to ascertain the reason for this.  We need to understand that the students in our class are actual people with all the flaws we ourselves have.  They are busy, they are self-conscious, they are forgetful, they are preoccupied, they are prioritizing their lives.  For all of these reasons, most students would see no value in a zero; all they see is that they have a reason for not doing their work.  Most would even be willing to get it done if given the chance.  For some, that means bringing it in the next day because they left it on their bed.  For others, it might mean needing an extra week because they are going through some rough times at home.  Others may need to be retaught the content before they can complete the work.  The point is, we need to recognize that a zero is a placeholder until the child is capable of completing the work.  We need to provide them the opportunity to reschedule the due date for a date that meets their needs.  In these cases, the zero will be erased and replaced with the mark that represents their ability (Let’s assume a percentage can do this).  The value of a zero is the opportunity to get the work done appropriately.  This is the option I advocate for.   This is the option that allows children to save their dignity in our classrooms. (I won’t get started into the fact that I believe grades as we know them should be eliminated from the education system; for now, I am stuck having to assign a percentage grade to my students.)

The second option involves refusing to use zeros as placeholders, instead choosing to allow them to stand as a final grade.  Unfortunately, I know there are teachers out there who do this.  For these teachers, a deadline is a deadline and if you don’t meet the deadline then you receive an irrevocable zero.  These teachers, I think, view this as an attempt to motivate students to do the work because if they don’t do it, their grade is permanently marred.  These teachers would rather a kid fail or drop their class and “learn a lesson” about deadlines rather than take the time to ascertain the reason for the missing work.  But this is not an indicator of what the student is capable of, especially if their work is sitting, completed at home on their bed.  I am not a supporter of this option; however, I can understand the sentiment behind it.  I believe there are better ways to teach responsibility to students with chronic lapses in self-management.  In these cases, the value of a zero is the measurement of a social value rather than of the curriculum.

The third option, one that I’ve heard from many educators, is to replace the zero with an IC or an incomplete.  I know our Alberta Standardized Tests use an INS for insufficient.  There is a logical fallacy to this option, though.  Let’s say, for instance, that a student doesn’t complete their first assignment for your class.  You assign an IC because you have been forbidden to assign a zero.  Then, for the next assignment, the student scores 100%.  Let’s assume the two assignments are weighted the same and are the only two assignments of the year (I told you I was bad with math, so this makes the calculations simple).  As you complete the final marks for this student, what do you do?  Logically, if the IC isn’t a zero or any other percent, then it can’t be calculated into the final mark.  Therefore, the student receives 100% in your course.  If this is the case, and I am the student, and you have 40 assignments in the year rather than two, why don’t I simply do one assignment well, then not do anymore?  On the other hand, if, like the Alberta Government, you take the IC and turn it into a zero for the purpose of calculating a final mark, then why not just call it a zero all along?  What other options are there?  Either it counts as a zero or it doesn’t count as anything. Right?  Wrong.  One other option I’ve heard is that an IC could represent a failure to complete the course.  This would require a student with an IC to retake the course.  Problem solved?  Not even close.  If I’m that student, I’ll do just enough to force you to give me 1%.  Surely any student can provide enough to earn 1%, whether they’d prefer not to do the work, have other more important things to deal with, or actually don’t understand the concepts.  What if a student didn’t do this though?  Is it really fair to force a student to repeat a grade level if they have one IC?  If we turned that into a zero, they’d still pass.  What about two or three IC’s?  How many do they need to say they didn’t complete the course?  And really, what’s the difference between an IC and a 49%?  Don’t both symbolically represent failing to successfully complete the course?  In this case, the value of a zero is no different than 100% or 49%.

In my current education system, I have to report in percentages for my junior and senior high school classes.  I am quite certain I do not have the ability to force a student to repeat my course because they have an IC.  I am quite certain I would fight any policy that forced me to do so, unless that policy rightly forced any student with a below passing grade on any single assignment to also repeat the course.  Ultimately that would result in a pass/fail system, and that is one that I think I am fully on board with.  But I’ll save that for another post coming soon to this blog near you.

As I wrap up, I’d like to offer a couple last ideas that I’ve been struggling with as a response to this issue.  I don’t like giving zeros.  I know they do not represent what a student can actually do.  The only value they have is to simply inform me that for whatever reason work  was not acceptably done.  They are not an accurate portrayal of what I am suppose to be measuring.  When I first began teaching 6 years ago, the school I still teach in had a high rate of incomplete work from students in all subject areas.  This missing work was assigned a zero by teachers at some point in the year (some earlier than others).  A couple years ago I suggested a homework room, where students who had missing work would spend their lunch “hour” sitting and theoretically working on their overdue work.  I had good intentions with this idea and truly believed in it.  I even volunteered to sit in every day at lunch for two years to supervise The Room.  The program did work, though it had its flaws. Zeros were fewer and farther between.  Students were provided time to work on assignments that they didn’t find time to work on outside of class.  Teachers were more understanding about seeing students as human beings with lives outside of school.  But we also had a headache trying to police those who did not show up to The Room.  We had difficulty deciding on appropriate discipline for those who didn’t show up and needed to be tracked down.  We had fights with students who didn’t know why they were in The Room.  We had teachers who didn’t use the room or forgot to add their students to the list.  I now believe The Room, while it addressed some of our immediate issues, did not address the problem.  Students still weren’t handing in work or doing it properly.  More of them simply eventually got it done.  I think there are a couple things we can do as teachers to address this issue, even in our current education system, and I will even dare to say that we can eliminate zeros altogether.  I want to address these further in another post, but in order to get the discussion started, I’ll toss a couple strategies out here.  As teachers we MUST:

  • Stop assigning homework
  • Learn and care about students’ needs
  • Create a more appealing learning atmosphere

For now, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this issue.  Can we eliminate zeros?  Should we be giving zeros?  Is our current system for awarding grades really the best we can do?  I’m still trying to get things figured out for myself; perhaps together we can figure out what’s best for our students.

(More) Authentic Assessment Tasks

I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks.  I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement.  I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be.  I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.

Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs:  My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice.  We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic).  The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online.  My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep.  They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.)  My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice.  They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.

But that’s junior high.  When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks.  Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level.    That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between.  Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???).  The time frame has also been an issue.  My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily.  However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year.  In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts.  I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.

This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students.  We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure.  I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live.  And things were great.  Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them.  It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades.  I no longer believe this to be true.  (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.)  Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments.  I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help.  What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.”  I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits.  So why do we expect these things from our students?  The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better.  For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students.  My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences.  Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.

If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class.  They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!

See No Evil:  A Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”