34

Will My Child Be OK In A Split Class?

Nervous about split classes? It will be ok.
(CC) Image from http://flic.kr/p/4nNBEG

Each year, we set up classes and find that due to the way our enrolment numbers fall into place, we must create some split (or multigrade, combined) classes. Each year, we also have a high number of parents who are concerned about their child’s placement in a split class… particularly the upper grade of a split.

I truly appreciate the concerns that parents have as they often bring up very valid questions such as:

  • Why has my child been placed in a split class?
  • Will my child get challenged if they are the older grade in the split?
  • Will my child get the required support if they are the younger grader in the split (or the other side in which parents believe their child will get challenged more and develop faster if placed in this type of split)?
  • Will students in a straight grade class gain more learning than my child?
  • Will my child get bullied more in a split?
  • Will my child feel they have failed because they are back with the younger grade?
  • Will my child be provided with the same opportunities (field trips, projects, etc) in the split that are provided in the straight grade class?

As splits are inevitable every year (this year 60% of our classes are split classes), I feel it is important to share some key thoughts around this issue to ease some concerns of the parents.

There is much thought (and hours) put into the placement of students in classes.  At the schools in which I have worked, the teachers start this process in the last term of the year as they separate their students into two-three balanced groups (based on gender, present ability, needs, required support, etc).  Following this, the administration creates the first draft of classes and then presents this to the staff for feedback.  By the end of the year, students are placed in classes on a temporary basis as they will need to be switched based on enrolment in September (students and families are not notified of the placement as it is likely to change).  In the fall, the students and classes are shifted to make room for new students (and gaps left by students who have moved over the summer).  Teachers are again given the classes to provide feedback on class composition.  After all this, the classes are finalized and students are led into their classes.  Present academic ability is only one factor and students are NOT placed in a split based solely on this (ex. students with higher academic assessments are placed as the younger grade in a split). The Richmond School District writes:

Parents often ask how students are assigned to combined classes and what reasoning goes into deciding whether a student should be placed with older or younger students.  It is often assumed that the “brighter” students are placed with older children and those who are less able are placed with younger children.  This is not an effective way to compose classes and should not occur.

As you can see, placing students in classes to provide them with the best support is not an easy process nor is it an exact science but educators put in many hours to try to put students in the most appropriate learning environment.

The biggest and most valid parent concern is often about having a child’s needs met.  This SHOULD be the number one concern for parents regardless of whether their child is in a split or straight grade class.  The key is to meet with the teacher and discuss your concerns and then stay in contact with your child’s progress throughout the year.  As for not being challenged as an older child in a split, any teacher will tell you that within EVERY class, there is a span of 3+ years of development and teachers put in most of their effort planning and assessing at the students’ current levels.  John Goodlad’s research estimated that the typical straight grade class has a development span of 5 years and a combined class can have up to 6 years.   Research by John Hattie also states that the effect of multi-grade classrooms is almost zero (0.04).  Effective teachers always have a number of different lessons going on at the same time as they must differentiate to their students’ abilities and interests. As Rob Taylor writes in the BCTF magazine:

“Teaching the splits is different and no easy task, but the wide range of student abilities is really no different from any other classroom. Keep that in mind. Remember that your main focus is teaching students, not grades or outcomes…”

Students need to be supported in ANY class they are in and with this support, they will learn at the same rate regardless of being in a split or straight grade class.  As for research in this area, both the Vancouver School Board and the Richmond School District cite the work of Dr. Joel Gajadharsingh from the Department of Curriculum Studies from the University of Saskatchewan as he

“…completed a Canadian study on the effects of multi-age grouping or combined classes on student learning in 1991.  He found, using standardized tests, that students in combined classrooms did as well or better in the following academic areas: Math, Language, Science, Social Studies.  Using teacher-made tests or teacher-determined assessment strategies, he verified that B.C. students did as well or better in the above mentioned areas.  He also found that students in combined classes performed better than students in single grade classrooms in the following areas: independence, responsibility, study habits, and attitude toward school.” (click here to access more work from Dr.Gajadharsingh in the book “The Multi-Grade Classroom: Myth and Reality – A Canadian Study”).

As in any classroom and/or learning environment, through the efforts of the teacher and the support of the school and parents, the students should get the support and challenge they need to grow as educational learners.

Another thing to think about is that we are in a system that, as Sir Ken Robinson states, separates students based on their date of manufacture and often nothing to do with their strengths and interests.  Some schools and parents are choosing to create more muti-grade classrooms (ex. some public/private schools as well as schools like Montessori and Waldorf – for a list of schools in Atlantic Canada encouraging multi-age classrooms, click here)  based on the idea that students can benefit from being placed based on their strengths and interests as well as getting the chance to experience potential benefits of peer mentoring, leadership, and the further development in skills of independent learning and responsibility.

Unfortunate social/emotional challenges like bullying and anxiety are present in many straight and split classes and these need to be dealt with immediately so students, families and schools can work together to develop skills to help lessen the impact on students.  In addition, we now work (thanks to parent feedback) to ensure that grade-peers often remain together for important events. If there is a majority of students in a straight grade, then those students in the split need to have opportunities to attend field trips, participate in leadership opportunities, etc with the other class (ex. all grade 3’s go participate in a trip to the outdoor pool and staff makes efforts to work together to make this happen).

Students are required to receive instruction based on the BC curriculum in any class they are placed. Therefore, many teachers will use groups and theme-based approaches to teach the concepts of two different curricula to students in a split class. In the areas of numeracy and literacy, teachers will differentiate the instruction to the developmental levels in the class.

The most important thing to remember is that relationships and communication are key.  If your child has an effective relationship with his/her teacher and there is effective (2-way) communication between the school and the home, your child should have a great year at school.

Remember, there are stories of  successes and struggles of students in every type of class.  You will meet parents and students who struggled in combined and straight-grade class as well as those who experienced success. Regardless of which class your child is in, as a parent or family member, your concerns need to be heard.  I encourage you to meet with your child’s teacher to voice your concerns; the teacher and school staff can then work with you to move past these and ease any stress you may have over the placement of your child in a split class.

If you have any other ideas or comments on how to ease the concern for families of students in split classes, please leave it below.

More resources:

 

30

Starting the Conversation on Rethinking Awards Ceremonies

Since I wrote about our school’s decision to end our awards ceremony and change the the way we honour students, I have been asked a few times how people could start the conversation in their schools.  I realize that most schools have already hosted their year-end awards ceremonies but while it is fresh in people’s minds I wanted to provide a place for the conversation to continue.

As many are aware, when I arrived at my current school, the conversation had already been occurring for a few years; although I was part of the final decision, I was not part of the initial discussions (this was started by staff, parents, and admin prior to 2007).   Having said this, I have often thought about how I would approach initiating this dialogue in a different school now that I have seen and experienced the success of a school without an awards ceremony.  Keeping in mind that each school culture is different and that each school probably has lengthy traditions of trophies and awards in schools, this is not a decision that people can make without the support of some key parents, students and staff. Once you have a few people (your support network) questioning the idea of only honouring a select few in a created competition in which the winner is decided by staff, here are some possible leading questions (I need to be clear, though, that I am NOT advocating for expectations to be lowered nor am I supporting the idea that EVERY child gets some sort of “top _____ award”):

  • Does your year-end awards ceremonies and/or student of the month program align with your school vision, plan and/or goals?
  • What does research say about the use of awards/prizes to motivate (or demotivate) learning?
  • At which age do awards become necessary – 5? 10? 15?  Why?
  • How much of the award is based on culture, language, parents (particularly cultural capital and income) and teachers that the winner has/had and how much is based on the person’s work ethic?
  • What if, as a first step in changing awards ceremonies, we honoured students who met a certain criteria?  This would be rather than selecting one person as a winner (often when many others have worked just as hard).
  • What does “top ______ student” actually mean?  Does this mean they have done well or does it mean they have just done “better” than everyone else? IS the top student in a class of 12 the same as the top student in a class of 120?
  • If awards ceremonies are important for kids, why do we not do this in our homes?
  • Is it possible for an award winner to struggle with success later in life?  Is it possible that there are a few (or many) people out there who have achieved success that did not win an award?
  • If we agree that formative assessment,inquiry-based learning & encouraging a growth mindset are the direction we need to go in education, how can we defend a ceremony based on a fixed mindset that showcases winners based on grades?

The more I discuss and read about human motivation, the more questions I seem to have.  I wonder if we all provided ongoing feedback that personally honoured and challenged our students and we continually worked to form trusting,caring relationships with kids… would we need public recognition at all?

This post is not about questioning whether or not we should have awards (here are many other posts that ask that question); this post is about providing a platform to share ideas and engage in dialogue around the idea of starting the conversation about rethinkng the way we do awards ceremonies in schools.  If you have questions and/or thoughts or if you have initiating successful (or unsuccessful) discussions in your school, please share in the comments section below.

42

Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Communication TO is not the same as WITH. photo from http://bit.ly/pvuhJa

As our school moves to attempt to add another stream of communication to parents via SMS (text messaging), I have been asked – “how many ways do we need to communicate with parents?”  Should parents not just try harder to stay informed of their child’s education?

My responses are twofold:

  1. We need to differentiate our parent communication so we meet families where they are.  Each family has a varied level of involvement and engagement due to time availability, access to technology, and ability to exchange in dialogue.  Some families have the social-cultural capital (non-financial social assets like time, education, confidence, etc) to engage in ongoing face-to-face dialogue with the principal, teachers and staff at their child’s school; others prefer to use technology (email, blog comments, Facebook, etc) to communicate while some families are content (or due to family circumstances, it is the only option) to receive information from the school.
  2. We need to be clear of the difference between communicating TO families and communicating WITH families.  There is a purpose for both but we need to be very clear that TO and WITH serve different needs for our families.  Communicating TO families is a way of broadcasting information while communicating WITH families is a way of exchanging in dialogue.

So with the understanding that we need to meet families where they are and we need to use a number of different tools to communicate both TO and WITH families, what are some ways we can do this?

COMMUNICATING TO – GETTING THE INFORMATION OUT THERE

  • newsletters
  • reports
  • announcements, newspaper articles and ads
  • emails, SMS
  • Website
  • Twitter feed
  • Blogs
  • Facebook Page

COMMUNICATING WITH – CREATING DIALOGUE

The key with parent communication is clarity of PURPOSE.  We cannot say that we communicate WITH parents effectively if we are not visible in the public and our technology does not encourage feedback and dialogue.  Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue but can be used in a way to increase the likelihood of these meetings through developing confidence and better school-family relationships.

Schools have traditionally worked to improve communication TO parents and families. In today’s system this is not enough. We, as educational leaders, need to increase dialogue and communication WITH families by not only making ourselves more visible but also by embracing the available social media tools to meet parents and families where they are.

 

2

Pondering Meetings: Who is at the Table?

Originally posted at Connected Principals blog.

While reading Carol Dweck’s “Mindset“, I came across this great quote from Lou Gerstner:

“Hierarchy means very little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a problem, regardless of position.”

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

Dweck also adds that from the view of the “…growth mindset, it is not only the select few that have something to offer.”

How many meetings do we have per year that do not include the voices those that have something to offer? Students? Parents? Support staff? Teaching staff?

How many decisions are made without those who the decisions have the greatest impact (ie. How many decisions are made about teaching that involve those that do not teach)?

It is time we move away from the traditional structure of admin meetings and staff meetings to a model of learning conversations that include those who choose to be there and those that want to see action (similar to the movement toward EdCamp model for professional development). What if, instead of a certain number of staff/admin meetings per year, we lessened those and added meetings that were open to engaged parents, students, community members and the dialogue focused on a specific area of interest?

Can we move away from the hierarchical structure to one that welcomes the voices of those that choose to be there – those that are engaged and want to see solutions – and away from the structure that includes only those with certain positions?

I would love to hear from any people that have changed the traditional structures of meetings in their school/district to a model that works to flatten the hierarchy and include more voices of those that “can help solve a problem, regardless of position”.

25

Identity Day: Pride In Who We Are

Identity_Day_Logo

As an educator, I have had so many moments that have taken my breath away; working with kids, we often find ourselves truly inspired.  On Thursday, April 14th, 2011, I had the privilege of being inspired by every student at our school in a way that I can honestly say, had me leave the school that evening with a memory of the best day I have ever had as an educator.

The idea of Identity Day started at Forest Green School in Stony Plain, Alberta and was shared with the world by George Couros.  I presented  this idea to our staff in 2010 and they agreed that they would be willing to take a risk for kids and give the idea a try.  Part of our school goal is to have our students “develop their unique talents and interests” so this idea felt like it was made for our school.

The idea behind Identity Day is that students create a project on themselves; there is no criteria, no grades, and no set topics.  Students were encouraged to design a demonstration, video, powerpoint,  slideshow, poster, display or anything that would help the audience to learn something about them. (see Prezi on Identity Day here).  The idea was that each student and staff member would present in a way that shared a talent or interest about themselves.

My project on "My Family"

My project on the "Wejr Family"

Students were given about a month to prepare their projects along with some class time.  Families were encouraged to be involved and those students that struggled were given extra support from older students and staff members.  After presenting to each class, I was not sure how the day would go (whenever I bring a different idea/event to the school, I get nervous about the result); there was not a whole lot of interest a few weeks before… but when students began to bring in their projects a few days prior, we could feel a huge buzz in the school.  Kids were bringing in Lego, pictures, books, posters, stuffed animals, sports memorabilia and equipment – the students were beaming with pride about their projects.

The day of our fair was nothing short of brilliant.  Each class hosted the other classes at one point during the day.  Kids were so excited to teach

A Grade 5 student's project on "Lego"

A Grade 5 student's project on "Lego"

others about what was important to them!  We had students bring in all sorts of animals (including a goat!) as well as so many things that were meaningful to the students and staff.  They presented and taught others everything from “stuffies” to “animals” to “sports teams” as well as things more personal like “things I like” to “my family”.

It is so difficult to put the day in words; you had to be in our school to truly get a sense of the pride and excitement in our students.  Our school was full of parents, community members and students all genuinely interested in each other.  I learned more about our students in one day than I do in an entire year!

Because of Identity Day, I can now approach any child in the school and have a conversation about something in which they are interested.  In the past week, I have stopped students to ask about dance, Lego, their family, and various sports.  What better way to have students proud of who they are than to have them showcase…. who they are!

Every child has a gift; it is up to us, as educators, to create the environment that encourages the student to develop this strength and passion.  Identity Day is one example of the many things we are trying to do at Kent School to help children find their gifts.  If you have any questions on bringing Identity Day to your school, please comment or email me at chriswejr@gmail.com or on Twitter @mrwejr.

I want to thank the students, families and staff of Kent Elementary for their outstanding efforts.  Also, thank you to George and his school for the idea and the encouragement to bring something truly amazing  and inspiring to our school.

Here is a video that includes a few of the projects from Kent’s version of Identity Day:

17

School Choice: Maintaining the Hierarchies

“Neo-liberal policies involving market solutions may actually serve to reproduce – not subvert – traditional hierarchies of class and race” — Michael W. Apple

Christy Clark, the new Premier in British Columbia, has long been an advocate of increasing the opportunities for parents to choose schools for their children.  Most people’s response to this is that it sounds good – parents should be able to make a decision on which school best meets the needs of their child.  In an ideal world, this may work but more questions arise as we look deeper into who truly benefits from school choice.

As most of you know, I believe the autonomy to choose is extremely important in life.   Students, staff, and parents need to be provided with equal opportunity to choose how to do things in life.  The key word in the previous statement is EQUAL.

When we think about school choice, who does it actually benefit?  If a parent is to choose a school away from their neighbourhood school, they must have some of the following:

  • a school nearby (within driving distance)

    Only if you have the capital....

    Only if you have the capital....

  • the cultural capital to discuss school choice and knowledge of options
  • a vehicle for transportation to another school
  • a parent available to drive to another school
  • the finances to be able to pay for private schools or academies (ie. sports academies in BC) as well as transportation

So I ask the question again: who does school choice truly benefit?  The answer: students from middle-class urban households.  It would be fantastic to be able to drive across town to participate in a Sports Academy – but the student must have access to a number of assets before he/she can even consider this option.  I do not blame any parent for making informed decisions that best suit the educational needs of the child; in fact, I think parents need to be MORE involved in educational decisions.  But how does school choice benefit a child from a family without a vehicle? One that cannot afford the tuition to a private school or BC academy? One that lives in a rural community in which the next school is hours away? One that has a single parent working two jobs?  From a different angle, if students are choosing to attend schools outside of their neighbourhood, what does this do to the community sense of schools (although this argument will be discussed at another time)?

At my previous school, I attempted to bring the Hockey Canada Academy to my school (at a cost of almost $1000/student each semester).  The idea is fantastic; students are provided with the opportunity to participate in something in which they are passionate.  Unfortunately, as I grew as an educator I began to realize that not ALL students are provided with the opportunity – only those that have the capital.  Why is it acceptable that only students who can afford choice schools are provided with the opportunity?

We are now seeing schools and districts compete for students.  Parents are provided with Fraser Institute Rankings, ‘standardized’ test scores (that are often marked by their own schools), a variety of academies (that often come with an tuition cost), specialized schools, ‘traditional’ schools, and an option of attending an independent school (based on religion, culture, specialization, etc).  Schools that refuse to market themselves, teach to the test, or compete with others schools are sometimes seeing parents choose to send their child elsewhere.  Apple (2001) states that there is a “crucial shift in emphasis… from student needs to student performance and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school.”  He also goes on to say that “more time and energy is spent on maintaining or enhancing a public image of a ‘good school’ and less time and energy is spent on pedagogic and curricular substance”.

As stated, I am not against choice in education.  However, this choice must be available to ALL students so every student in BC is provided with equal opportunity for a ‘personalized learning’ experience.  This means that if districts are going to provide specialized schools and academies, all students within the district must be provided with access – in particular, transportation and funding.  This also means that rural schools must be provided with funding to be able to provide students with learning opportunities comparable to students in urban communities.

Premier Christy Clark’s education plan includes (from “Christy Clark’s Education Vision: More School Choice”:

  • Support independent and faith-based schools, and promote public-school academies focusing on sports and arts. (She has long been a strong proponent of school choice; her nine-year-old son attends an independent school.)
  • Keep the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) (our provincial standardized test that is used to publish and rank schools)
  • Enhance and emphasize math and science, including promoting province-wide competitions to recognize excellence in those fields.
  • Publish detailed information about school programs, achievements, operations and facilities on school-district websites so parents can make informed choices.

I see similarities from Apple (2001), in discussing the US situation, when he states “We are witnessing a process in which the state shifts the blame for the very evident inequalities in access and outcome it has promised to reduce, from itself on to individual schools, parents, and children.” Ball (1993) also states “markets in education provide the possibility for the pursuit of class advantage and generate a differentiated and stratified system of schooling”.    A great blog post from Ira Socol also touches on this issue as he writes,

So parent-based systems reward the haves. They have choices because they have funds, knowledge, transportation, the ability to even home school. And the have-nots are punished. Those children have parents without access to information, without access to transportation (and thus charter choice), without access to their own successful educations as a support system.

School choice, as it is now in BC, does not solve the real problems of the hierarchies of class and race that exist within the current system – they actually maintain them.  Unfortunately, we often only hear the voices of those with the cultural capital to speak on behalf of their children and we don’t hear the voices of the marginalized.   When we hear that a solution to our education system challenges is school choice, we need to question where this voice is coming from – is it a voice that speaks on behalf of ALL students or just his/her child?

Clark also goes on to say, “My proposals are designed to involve all the stakeholders in creating a kindergarten to 12 system that truly reflects the needs of students.”  I am not sure how providing school choice is a way to involve ALL stakeholders and meet the needs of ALL students.   Ravitch (2008) writes that “Democratic education [means] that everyone must be educated as if they were children of the most advantaged members of society”.  I realize that the funding formula in BC currently encourages schools/districts to compete for students so they are often forced in the direction of promoting school choice.  Most will agree that our system needs to change but school choice, the way it is currently designed in BC, benefits primarily the students from advantaged families; schools need to collaborate, rather than compete, and be adequately funded so programs are not cut but are created so as to offer ALL students within each school REAL choice in their education.

References:

Apple, M.W. (2001) Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education, Comparative Education, 37(4), 409-423

Ball, S.J. (1993) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and USA, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(1), 3-19

Ravitch, D.R. (2008) Education and Democracy: The United States as a Historical Case Study, in Coulter, D.L. & Weins, J.R. (Eds) Why Do We Educate?  Renewing the Conversation, pp. 42-57 (Blackwell Publishing, Mass, USA)