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


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.

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.



I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.