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!

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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.***

The Dangers of Not Blogging Our Failures

Are all other teachers perfect?  Am I the only one making mistakes?  Should I really be allowed to teach kids (let alone teach other teachers)?  Some days, maybe a lot of days, I feel like everyone else has all their ducks in a row while mine are flapping about everywhere as though they were badly wounded.  And some days I feel like a badly wounded duck.  Some days my students act like they are badly wounded and I can’t get them back in a row.  And now that my simile is breaking down horribly, let’s move on.

I know the title of this post refers specifically to blogging, but that’s only because the people reading this are bloggers, or at least online learners.  In reality, most of what I have to say will relate to the dangers of not sharing our failures, no matter what form that sharing might take.  This post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with another learning coach in my my district.  I’m not sure how we got onto the topic at all because sharing failures isn’t something that happens too often, but I remember specifically stating, for some reason, that I felt I would be fired from this particular position next year.  To my surprise, my colleague admitted that she had been feeling the same way.   Now, we both knew that these feelings were unwarranted:  We were specifically chosen for our position because we are qualified to hold them, and our administrators often confirm the job we are doing.  But this is typically the case for most of us, isn’t it?  We know we are qualified, even if we don’t feel qualified; we know we make a difference, even if we rarely see it; we know we are on the right track, even if we sometimes fall down.  Yet we often feel alone in our failure.  The way I see it, we need to share our failures, and failing to do so is dangerous for a few reasons.

1.  Failing to share our failures leads to discouragement.

If individual teachers believe they are they only ones who struggle, it’s easy to become discouraged.  It’s hard to look around yourself and think that everyone else is perfect because their stories are full of success and advice.  This happens often on blogs, but also in our staff rooms and at conferences.  Of course, it makes sense because we like telling stories with happy endings, and we like inspiring others.  We feel insecure sharing mistakes, and I believe we think that sharing failures will lead to discouraging others.  However, it is more discouraging to believe that we are the only one who fails.  I wonder if this plays a big role in why stats are so high for teachers leaving the profession in their first five years teaching.  Do they look around and feel they fail more than anyone else?   My school, a K-12 with approximately 210 students, recently had 5 new teachers come to us.  All are in their first few years of teaching.  We only have 16 teachers in the school, including these 5, so they make up a significant percentage of our staff.  These teachers have made such a huge positive difference in our school climate and we are lucky to have them, but there are certain times through the year when it’s noticeable that being a new teacher takes it’s toll.  I’ve talked with these teachers and have heard the discouragement they feel from time to time, and it’s tough to hear them say that they can’t wait until they get more experienced and things get better.  I remember thinking this.  It hasn’t happened yet though.  Things haven’t gotten better for me.  I don’t think they do if we are continually pushing ourselves and if we refuse to become complacent.  I still have trouble keeping up with my marking and planning.  I still have lessons that go horribly wrong.  I still can’t believe how I’ve let my kids down after learning something eye opening from someone else.  But I rarely share these failures with others.  I rarely let others know I’m not as perfect as I try to appear.  And this failure to share is discouraging other teachers in my school.  Going back to my conversation with the other learning coach, after we shared with each other, we both expressed a sense of relief that we were not the only ones feeling inadequate.

2. Failing to share our failures leads to not learning from our own mistakes.

When I feel that I’m the only one failing I tend to have one of a few reactions.  If I can, I will quit.  A few years ago I was interested in kayaking.  I went out to the Grande Prairie kayaking club’s open night at the pool to get more involved.  Now, I’d been out a bit before with my brother who was also a beginner, but in that pool I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing.  I’m pretty introverted, and it was a big risk for me to even show up there by myself.  I felt out of place.  I felt inadequate.  I felt like the only one failing, so I left and didn’t go back.  It was easier to quit than it was to face my mistakes and learn.  Other times when I feel that I’m the only one failing, I will ignore my mistakes and focus on something I’m doing well.  I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m not as good as others so it’s easier to forget my shortcomings.  This doesn’t help me learn and grow though.  Another common reaction when I feel like everyone else is perfect and I’m struggling is that I deflect fault.  When I make excuses or blame others, however, I am refusing to accept responsibility for my mistakes and to learn from them.  The opposite is true though when I realize that others struggle as well.  I take responsibility for my failures, confront them head on, and persevere until I’m successful.  Rather than feeling like I am inherently flawed, there’s a sense of challenge for me when I realize that things are difficult for others as well.

3.  Failing to share our failures leads to others not learning from our mistakes.

This one is pretty straightforward, yet it should be a compelling reason to share our failures.  A common question in education is “why reinvent the wheel?” One answer to this question is that often times we are left with no other choice.  It is not good enough for us to simply share our success with others while ignoring the process of failures it took us to arrive there.  IF I become a blogger who sticks with this practice and begin to share my success story with others and tell them they should be blogging as well, but I don’t mention the many failed attempts I made at blogging consistently and the reasons for those failures, then others who try to live up to my example will have to figure out solutions to these same problems.  Some of these problems have included:

  • not knowing what to blog about (failures would be a good suggestion, read what others write about and share your own opinion, successes, something you recently learned about . . .)
  • not having time to blog (I cut back on my tv watching, I construct piecemeal using the Notes app on my phone when I have the time then pull it all together)
  • not knowing how to get started (I talked to others to figure what blogging was, attended sessions about it, trial and LOTS OF ERROR, Googled answers to issues)

I’ve started and stopped blogging several times, due to the problems above.  Sharing my “success” with blogging without the struggles I ‘ve had won’t help others learn from my mistakes.  We need to share our failures, the steps to solve those failures, then the success we’ve had.

4.  Failing to share our failures leads to not utilizing the assistance of others.

Again, this seems obvious, but how much bother could we save ourselves if we were willing to share our failures with others?  I’ve told this to my students many times, “I can’t help you if I don’t know you have a problem.” (Let’s ignore my poor understanding of the fact that part of my job as a teacher is formative assessment and that I should know they have a problem.)  Others can’t offer their assistance if they don’t know we are struggling.  There is a wealth of knowledge out there and people who are willing to help us if they only knew we needed it.

5. Failing to share our failures leads to turning others off.

No one likes taking advice from a know-it-all.  When we fail to share our failures we set ourselves up as perfect in the eyes of others, and the consequence of this is that others begin to resent us.  We all know no one is perfect.  We all know there are no easy answers.  We all know.  Therefore, people become suspicious and wary of us when we set ourselves up to be experts.  Personally, I prefer to listen to speakers who humanize themselves rather than those who set themselves up as experts.  It turns me off to be sitting in a session with someone who feels they are better than me (I know you are already, so help me learn rather than preaching at me).  When people come to read our blogs, are they turned off by how we present our ideas, or do readers feel a sense of connection to other us as learners?

I believe we need to be more open to sharing all of our stories with each other, not just the successes.  We need to come together as educators and create a community of learners rather than an expert vs. learner hierarchy.  Failing to share our failures will lead to some dangerous consequences, but sharing our failures with one another will lead to all of us becoming better teachers for our students.

Validation

I’m not typically one of those people who needs to be validated by others in order to feel confident in who I am and what I’m doing; however, over the past couple weeks, I’ll admit to being a little downhearted.  I don’t know about you, but I get like that sometimes.  My marking begins to collect faster than I can get it back to students; I get bogged down in the paperwork; I put too much stock in the politics and standardized tests; I get depressed that the technology I want is inaccessible; I lose sight of the reason I wanted to teach in the first place–to make a difference in the lives of my students–and focus on all the reasons why I feel I can’t make a difference.  These dark times don’t often last very long, and all it takes is a day like today to snap me out of my funk and remind me that teachers really do make a difference in the lives of their students.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly share my day with you. I began the day at Sexsmith Secondary School in Alberta.  As part of my ELA coaching position, I was asked to judge the school’s first poetry recitation competition.  There were two levels, one for jr high and one for sr high.  I was blown away.  Memorization isn’t something I’ve required of my students before, though I offer it as an option in a couple of units.  Watching these students today was inspiring and made me want to push my own students out of their comfort zone a bit.  It was easy to see that the teachers at SSS are pushing their kids and the kids are thriving.  It was validating for me to see that other teachers are continuing to sail out of the harbour and take some risks, and their kids are right out there beside them.

Next up was my own ELA 10-1 and 10-2 combined class.  I didn’t know if I’d make it back for the beginning of this class after the poetry competition, so I lined up another teacher to cover my class during her prep.  (That cooperation was validation of its own–I love my school, colleagues, and students!)  However, I did make it back in time, only to have this teacher offer to sit in with my class anyways.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and set aside my plans for the day in order to talk one-on-one with each of my students.  It was a great experience.  I let the students know upfront that the conversation was not because I had any particular issues to discuss, but rather that I wanted to give them each a private forum to voice their concerns and opinions about the course so far.  These conversations reminded me that each of my students is an individual:  I had varying comments on different issues, ranging across the spectrum of possibilities.  For instance, workload was a hot topic for some, feeling that I expected too much, while others were content with the expectations, and some felt like they could certainly handle more.  This was a great reminder of one of my goals for this term, which was to bring a deeper individualization to my courses.  It was also validating to hear that my students were unanimously appreciating the “book club” feel that I am attempting to bring to the course, where we are much more conversation oriented as we study texts.  They enjoy the critical thinking inherent in this framework, and many of the students mentioned they were much more engage despite harbouring a distinct disliking of ELA in general.  It also deeply moved me that each student willingly shared their ideas and opinions with me, something I was a little wary about when I decided to hijack these 84 minutes today.  (By the way, when they weren’t talking with me, students appreciated the time to work on a couple of the tasks we have on the go.)

Finally, I had my junior high drama option for the last two periods of the day.  I’ve decided to take a different approach to this course this year, bringing a “short film” focus to the term.  I’ve done this for a variety of reasons and have heard a variety of opinions from students and parents about the decision to do so.  But this isn’t the point.  Suffice it to say, the goal is that each student will create a short film on a topic of their choice, in a genre of their choice, by the end of the term, and we will present these in our own film festival.  Over the past couple of classes students have been creating the plot and point of their short film.  Last class we began to peer review the stories they’ve written.  Today I wanted to introduce them to the notion of critique.  We talked about the differences between critique and criticize.  We talked about the life applications of learning how to provide critique to others, as well as accept the critique of others.  I began the critiquing session by sharing my own ideas for my own short film.  And the students amazed me.  They asked smart questions for clarification, mentioned positives in my ideas, but more importantly they offered polite suggestions for how I might go about improving my idea.  It was validating to hear them interacting as I had hoped, but feared to expect.  This continued beautifully through student volunteers who shared their project ideas with the class, faltering only slightly as a grade 7 boy decided to persistently question his older sister.  All in all it was a great end to a great day.

Sometimes we teachers can get so caught up in all the responsibilities of teaching that we forget our number one priority needs to be our students.  Luckily, we can’t ever escape these same students, and it won’t be long before they  remind us that we do make a difference in their lives.  At that point it’s up to us to decide whether we will have a negative or a positive difference.  That’s certainly an easy decision to make; we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we weren’t always striving to better the lives of the kids we love.