Posts Tagged Assessment

10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  ”5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.

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6 BIG Assessment (AFL) Practices

CC Image from http://flic.kr/p/2PRN1v

During the past few years I have been involved in a number of conversations around the topic of assessment. One key struggle that I have is the many ways in which the term “formative assessment” is defined. For some educators, formative assessment involves altering our teaching practices based on quantitative data we get from tests, quizzes, and assignments. I believe there is a role for this; however, to other educators formative assessment is Assessment For Learning (AFL) – not something that is done after we teach but more a philosophy about HOW we teach. It is more than just about checking for progress but also about including students in the process of planning, teaching, and reflecting. AFL is not something that is an add-on for teachers; it is a different lens to view student learning as well as a different overall philosophy of how we teach.

One of the best ways I have seen to explain and model Assessment for Learning (or formative assessment) was observed and learned through my attendance at the British Columbia Educational Leadership Council (BCELC) two year seminar series which included deep discussions on leadership and AFL led by Caren Cameron, Yrsa Jensen, Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert (based on the work of educators such as Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black).

BCELC used Black and Wiliam’s definition of Assessment for Learning as:

Any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupil’s learning.

Click here to access a previous post that describes the difference between Assessment FOR Learning and Assessment OF Learning.

BCELC (Cameron, Jensen) introduced the 6 BIG AFL PRACTICES as (please note that these are taken directly or adapted from BCELC):

  1. Clear Learning Intentions: let students know (in a language they can understand) what they are expected to learn.
  2. Criteria: work WITH learners to develop criteria of what quality looks like.
  3. Descriptive Feedback: increase descriptive feedback (ongoing dialogue around improvement in learning that causes thinking) and decrease evaluative feedback (numbers, letters, and “good job”). Note: Education researcher John Hattie, in his book “Visible Learning“, notes that using descriptive feedback is THE single most powerful thing we can use to increase student learning. Please read Peter Jory’s great post on feedback here.
  4. Powerful Questions: increase quality “thinking” questioning to go deeper and show evidence of learning. Move away from factual routine questions. TALK LESS, ASK MORE. For more on quality questions from BCELC click here.
  5. Self and Peer Assessment: Scaffolding of learning of self- and peer assessment in a supportive, collaborative environment enables learners to become thoughtful about all aspects of their learning. Heidi Andrade writes “If students produce it, they can assess it; and if they assess it, they can improve it.” For more on self/peer from BCELC click here.
  6. Student Ownership: centres on metacognitive awareness and action. Metacognition is enhanced only when students have explicit understandings related to all other aspects of AFL – and are able to take ownership for their learning as a result. Black and Wiliam add, “Have the learner become aware of his/her own thinking – what are my strengths? What do I need to get better at? What is my next step?”. For more on ownership from BCELC, click here.

I cannot say enough about BCELC and how inspiring it was for me. Changing the lens of assessment not only changed the way I assess, but also how I teach, lead, and learn.

Although not exactly like being part of the seminar series, the portion of a webcast series by Cameron and Jensen titled “A focus on Informed Assessment Practices”, including all the slides and resources, can be accessed here (#3) and here (#4). (I highly recommend this).

For a quick prezi I did up last year (based on this info), click here or see below.

I encourage you to describe the impact AFL has made on your students in the comment section below.

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Assessment Chat with @TomSchimmer – Thurs, Nov 17

It is no secret that an area of education in which I am passionate is assessment – in particular Assessment For Learning or Formative Assessment.  The work of Dylan Williams, Ruth Sutton, Rick Stiggins, John Hattie, Ken O’Connor and Anne Davies have had a significant impact on my thoughts around assessment but since last year, I have had the opportunity to work closely with another local (BC) educator around assessment and grading: Tom Schimmer.

Tom and I met through Twitter and since then, have met face to face as well as over the phone a number of times (see my notes from his presentation here). His mentorship around creating change in schools in the area of assessment will help me for years to come as we move away from the traditional practices to more current ones that benefit student learning. His book “10 Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading” is highly recommended as a practical way to encourage shifts in your classroom and schools.

In our recent #BCEd Chat on Monday November 4, the topic was “the link between assessment and learning”.  It was a great discussion and at the end, I asked “So we all agree that AFL (assessment for learning) is one of the most powerful tools for student learning; why is this practice not in every school and every classroom?”HOW can we work to changing the mindset so AFL is the norm in each classroom?

To help me with this question, I have asked Tom to chat with me on Twitter this Thursday, Nov 17 at 4:00 PST (7:00 EST).  The hashtag for the conversation will be #AFLSchim and

I invite you to join us on Thursday to ask Tom, and engage with others, any questions about implementing AFL into your classroom or school.  If you have any questions you would like Tom to focus on, please leave them in the comments below. Here are some that I will be looking to ask:

  • In a system in which class sizes are not getting smaller, and money and time is tight, HOW can we implement changes so that AFL becomes more of the norm in BC schools?
  • How do we move toward Assessment For Learning in a system that requires grades, percentages, and report cards?

Hope you can join us Thursday at 4:00pm PST! #AFLSchim

Tom will also be joining us at Edcamp Fraser Valley on December 3 in Maple Ridge.  Hope you can join us there to continue the dialogue around topics including assessment and grading.  www.edcampfv.ca

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Grading and Assessment with @tomschimmer

10-things2
In June, I offered our intermediate teachers the opportunity to attend, with me, a one day session with Tom Schimmer on the topic  of “10 Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading” (based on his newly released book of the same name).  I have been connected with Tom for about 8 months and we have had some powerful conversations around the topics of assessment, motivation and leadership through Twitter, in person, and on the good ole telephone.  If you ever get a chance to see/hear Tom speak: do it (you can view some of his other presentation slides here).  Be sure to check out Tom’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

The way I often take notes during sessions is to Tweet out comments and info that cause me to pause and reflect.  Although this probably does not “flow” too well, here are my notes from the day (all those without reference are quotes from Tom – I may have missed some references.). Thank you, Tom, for the learning and permission to post this on my blog.

  • “We no longer need to accept the assessment legacy of our past. We know better” – Stiggins
  • “When we think about change, we must think about possibility… we cannot think about what won’t work”
  • “In our current system, how many students are penalized because they do not learn fast enough?”
  • “There is an obvious tension between depth of learning and coverage of curriculum in our schools today”

On CHANGE:

  • “It is our foible as humans to stoutly defend an established position despite overwhelming evidence against it” – Dr. Hawkins
  • “Who is putting the NO in innovation?”
  • “I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer” – Covey
  • “How many people have the same phone since 2000? How many people use the same lesson plan since 2000?”
  • “Do any other professions state: it worked back then, why would I need to change?”
  • “Just because you say you don’t believe in something does not abolish its existence nor its effectiveness” (ie. I don’t believe in AFL)
  • “How often do we, as educators, make people professionally uncomfortable – by challenging each other”
  • “Think BIG, start small.”

On Assessment:

  • “It’s not good enough to give students the ‘opportunity to learn’. We must ensure that they learn!”
  • “If students become frustrated and disengage from learning – what do their grades actually represent?”
  • “For sound, accurate assessment – we need to have a clear purpose, clear targets, sound design, effective communication, student involvement”
  • “Formative assessments are designed to keep the information within the classroom”
  • “If your formative assessments involve a spreadsheet… you are missing the mark” Dylan Wiliam
  • “Should be a balance between summative and formative – the pendulum should not swing from one to the other (although formative should happen much more often that summative)”
  • “Summative assessment does not mean a multiple choice test”
  • “We have turned school into a game – all students have to do is collect enough points to win”
  • “How much better would our kids do when the threat of failure has been taken off the table?
  • “Assessment For Learning = CLASSROOM assessment for STUDENT learning”
  • “Are we OVERteaching some parts of the curriculum while UNDERteaching other areas? How do you know without formative assessment?”
  • “We often use methods of assessments that are mismatched with learning targets (ie. multiple choice for a reasoning target) – make sure your assessment methods match the targets.”
  • “To be effective, feedback needs to cause thinking. Grades don’t do that…and comments like ‘good job’ don’t either” Dylan Wiliam
  • “In elementary schools we often confuse maturity with ability.”
  • “Feedback has the smallest effect size when it is related to praise, rewards, and punishments” – Hattie
  • “Don’t just say “good job”.  Finish the sentence! Good job… because you…”
  • Feedback – what matters? Quality of feedback, focus on learning, include strengths – Black and Wiliam
  • When using Descriptive Feedback, make it: Timely, Specific, Clear and Useable
  • “For rubrics – avoid using numbers. Kids will add up the numbers to give them a score.”
  • “Differentiation: Put students in situations where they don’t know the answer often” Dr. C Morreale
  • “What role does time play in distorting the achievement level in our kids?”
  • “Myth: Differentiation is about creating individual lesson plans”
  • “Differentiation is NOT I will teach my lesson and then alter the lesson for those who ‘don’t get it’”
  • “Figure out ways that you can infuse AFL into your practice”
  • “If we say we can or can’t change the way we assess – we are right.”
  • “If we want the system to change – WE need to BE THE CHANGE. Be the example that we want to see.”
  • “For change to occur, we need to be able to take heat from our colleagues”

Some Videos Tom shared:

A student describes the power of forms of assessment beyond tests:

An example of what a class can be if we begin move away from a focus on grades, worksheets and tests and make learning more real for our students.

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It’s Easy…

Which road will you take?

Which road will you take? image - http://bit.ly/pASkSU

As educators, we are often faced with an opportunity to take the easy road or the hard road.  The easy road often works for us as parents, teachers, administrators but it rarely works for kids.  The difficult road may be an immediate challenge and take much more time and effort but this is most often the road that leads to real learning.

It’s easy… to suspend or send a child home for misbehaving.  It’s more difficult to spend time WITH the child, actually listen to him/her, model and teach him/her the social skills needed to be successful in life.

It’s easy… to give a number or letter (grade) to a child as a way to mark or judge the work.  It’s more difficult to provide ongoing coaching, descriptive feedback and formative assessment that will improve the child’s learning.

It’s easy… to give a zero.  It’s more difficult to tell a child “I will not let you get a zero, I will be continue to work with you to determine the reason you want to resort to taking a zero and then provide strategies to ensure you can demonstrate your learning”.

It’s easy… to teach to the test.  It’s more difficult to teach to each child.

It’s easy… to teach the curriculum.  It’s difficult to work to ensure that each child learns the curriculum.

It’s easy… to motivate student achievement with a prize/reward.  It’s more difficult to model being a learner, develop a safe, trusting environment and lessons that are truly engaging so the focus is on learning.

It’s easy… to give out tickets and bribes for good behaviour.  It’s more difficult to teach empathy, ethics, and care so that children are intrinsically motivated and will choose their actions because it is the good and right thing to do.

It’s easy… to kick a child out of class or place in a time out.  It’s more difficult to work with the child so that he/she feels cared for and actually learns the needed skills.

It’s easy… to lead from the top-down.  It’s more difficult to actually listen and make decisions based on the voices of others (although this often makes things easier).

It’s easy… to turn your head the other way or pretend you did not hear something that goes against what you stand for.  It’s more difficult to have those challenging, learning conversations with people regarding these statements and/or actions.

It’s easy… to not include the voice of parents in the school/classroom.  It’s more difficult to engage parents and build trust so that we develop a partnership to do what’s best for our children.

It’s easy… to make decisions based on white, middle class culture.  It’s more difficult to actually listen to the voices and build trust in those that have been disengaged and marginalized for many years.

It’s easy… to keep your thoughts and opinions in your head.  It’s more difficult to share these with others through presentations, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and other forms of social media.

It’s easy… to close our door and teach our kids.  It’s more difficult to open the door, allow others to observe our class/school, reflect and collaborate with others, and receive input on how to improve our practice.

It’s easy… do do things TO others by controlling.  It’s more difficult to do things WITH others by facilitating.

It’s easy… to give awards to top students.  It’s more difficult to seek out and recognize the gifts and passions of each student.

It’s easy… to place A and B students on an honour roll… it’s more difficult to honour each child for who they are.

It’s easy… to say NO.  It’s more difficult to say HOW CAN WE make this happen?

It’s easy… to standardize.  It’s more difficult to personalize.

It’s easy… to design an education system that teaches a child to ‘do school’.  It’s more difficult to build a system that encourages students to develop the skills, character, and mindset so that they can truly flourish in life in and beyond school.

With any decision- ask yourself: am I taking the easy road that works for me right now or am I taking the more difficult road that benefits others in the future?

I would love for you to add any other “It’s easy…” comments below.

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Recognizing ALL Students: Greystone Middle School

EVERY child has a strength inside them; it is our job, as educators, to bring this out.  “Recognizing ALL Students” is a page designed to showcase the success stories of schools that have moved away from the traditional awards ceremonies and monthly assemblies that only focus on a select few students to a place where ALL students are recognized for their unique talents and interests.

I am pleased to showcase Greystone Centennial Middle School from Spruce Grove, Alberta as a school that has moved away from the traditional awards ceremonies to a process that works to honour and recognize each student.  Thank you to principal Carolyn Cameron (@carolynjcameron) and teacher Jessie Krefting (@jessiekrefting) for their insights and efforts. Greystone is part of the Parkland Division – a division that continues to be an innovative leader along many avenues of education.

greystone

Why did you move away from the traditional format of awards ceremonies?

Carolyn: “We had the privilege of opening a brand new middle school in our community 6 years ago and we were very intentional NOT to set up traditions and structures that did not support what we fundamentally believed in for students – education is not about ranking and sorting students with special recognition and rewards for the few – our philosophy was based on abundance and growth.  Every learner has something special to offer and should be given the opportunity to shine.  We did not get there, however, in our first year – we have made adjustments every year to bring our parent community, students and staff along.”

Jessie: “When I was at another school in the far west of our school division (the same school division as Greystone, where I am teaching now) myself (grade 6) and the grade 1 teacher jumped on the opportunity to implement and pilot a new, innovative report card. This report card was a huge leap for parents, students and other staff members. Coupled with this report card in which we used phrases such as “can consistently do” “is working towards consistently doing” “needs support in” to describe student learning, we (the two of us) chose to not give our students the traditional academic awards for honours etc. This was a huge bone of contention with parents. I purposely chose at the academic awards to recognize each one of my students for something that they did that term that was special and an area where they showed growth. I know that this school is still doing academic awards in the 7-9 stream however, they have stopped the academic awards in K-6.”

How are you honouring and recognizing each student OR what is your current ceremony format?

We have monthly assemblies that celebrate special things going on in our school, we have a talent show, and we have a year end assembly (we call it a celebration) where we focus on the service/volunteerism of our students.  All other sharing and celebrating occurs within grade level “Learning Communities” throughout the year.  We have student led conferences where learning is shared and celebrated and our year end celebrations recognize each and every student for their accomplishments from the year.  Each grade level team organizes this year end event to include parents. Students receive recognition for Citizenship and Social Responsibility as well as academic achievement and growth.  Teachers ensure that all students are recognized for their accomplishments.

What impact has this had on your students?

Our assemblies are HIGHLY engaging as we focus on school spirit, community building and creating positive energy within the school.  One of my very favourite things we do at our beginning of the year assembly and end of the year assembly is the “gauntlet”.  Our new grade fives enter their first school assembly being welcomed through a double line of grade 9 students cheering and high-fiving for them – they are given messages/cards to welcome them.  At the year end assembly/celebration (that replaces the awards assembly), our grade nines go through the cheering “gauntlet” created by our grade 5’s as they leave the gym for the last time.  The grade fives present them with a photo cd and cards wishing them good luck in High School.  The nines always get teary and emotional during this.

Have there been any challenges to this change?

We developed a committee/focus group in the first year to discuss the reasons why we do awards ceremonies and who really benefits from this kind of tradition.  I think that helped set the groundwork.  The next step in our journey was the development of a reporting system that does not include marks – we assess students and report their performance based on meeting outcomes.  This aligned with our focus on individual growth and achievement – not competition.  The biggest challenges have come from parents of students who are high achievers – we have helped these folks understand, through many many conversations, that the reward is not what motivates their son/daughter to do well – they are driven by success and they feed off of doing the best they can do for themselves…they will continue to do well whether there is a prize at the end or not….in time, this has proven true so we are no longer being challenged on this anymore.  We have been working hard, through our assessment practices, to help students see for themselves, what they need to do to grow and learn (and it has nothing to do with a prize).

Anything else you would like to add?

We will be implementing an even more innovative report card next year that is process skills/competencies based (as opposed to information/content driven) which means our teachers will be pushed even further to develop assessments that measure performance/process as opposed to heavy focus on summative products.   Students will continue to become self-reflective, metacognitive learners who set goals for personal improvement and take ownership of their own learning.

Thank you to Carolyn, Jessie, and the staff and community of Greystone Middle for leading the way in assessment, student motivation and learning!

If you are aware of another school that is challenging the traditional method of honouring students, please contact me.

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Reflections of an EdCamper

edcampvan

After a day in which I was truly inspired by the students at our school (post upcoming on our Identity Day), I had the privilege of attending an inspirational day of professional development in which there was no keynote, no registration fee, and no agenda. EdCamp Vancouver was brought to us by David Wees and his organizing team and I think it has truly changed the way I view professional development in education.

Although I see the benefit of an expert keynote speaker, and I think these need to continue, the EdCamp format is nothing short of brilliant. There are so many passionate, reflective, resourceful educators (and by educators I mean more than teachers) in our region that the need for that high-priced keynote is lessened. Also, the learning at EdCamp is completely personalized. Let me briefly explain the day:

I arrived with 2 colleagues, my vice principal and a parent member of our school planning council, and walked into a room not having met any of these people but because of Twitter, felt like I knew them so well.  A few presentation ideas were up on a board.  If you wanted to attend these, you placed your name on a sticky and placed it on the presentation; if you wanted to facilitate a discussion or present on another topic, you posted a new sheet with that topic on the board.  Each participant (there were over 100 of us) chose 4 topics and once the topics had enough participants, they were placed on the schedule.  There were 4 rooms that held 4 sessions so we had a total of 16 sessions.  The organizers moved the sessions around to best suit the participants.  Topics included Moving Away From Grades, Questioning Awards, Project Based Learning, Assessment For Learning, Parent Engagement, Ted Talks for Kids, Making e-Books, Social Media 101, and many others.

I had the opportunity to “present” on Awards in Schools and Assessment For Learning.  When I say “present” it was more like I did a mini presentation (15 minutes) and then we spent 45 minutes discussing the “how” of AFL.  I was not there as an expert but more as one to throw out ideas, challenge others, and be challenged.  After the presentation, I became a participant of the dialogue so my learning was enhanced.  (You can access my Prezi on AFL here).

A big difference between the Edcamp “unconference model” is the amount of time built into the day for connecting with others outside of the presentations (David Wees has a good visual on his post).  The day is all about dialogue rather than listening to lectures.

Some of the key ideas that I came away with:

  • many educators want to see changes with the way we educate/school kids
  • the shifts are happening in the way we engage and motivate kids in a way that moves from extrinsic to intrinsic and information delivering to exploration
  • there are many powerful ideas but the implementation of these ideas is often the challenge (ie. how do we do this within our current education structures)
  • we cannot and should not do this alone – we must work with all stake holders
  • professional development needs to be ongoing and is best accomplished through dialogue around powerful questions
  • We are not “just teachers” or “just parents”.  BC is loaded with passionate educators!

Two days later, I am still inspired by the day’s conversations; I now look forward to seeing where this model takes professional development in schools and districts.  My final question is this:  if this was such a powerful learning opportunity for educators, how can we do something like this with kids?

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Questioning Awards and Grades

Ending Awards in Schools.

Ending Awards in Schools.

As a result of our school’s decision to end our traditional awards ceremony and the blog post by Janet Steffenhagen, Bill Good of CKNW 980 in Vancouver interviewed me and hosted callers on the topic of awards, grades, and motivation in schools.

Please have a listen – would love your thoughts and feedback.

UPDATE – I have added the radio interview with John Tory of the Live Drive on NewsTalk 1010 out of Toronto.  Thank you to Shannon Smith for recording.

I was a bit frustrated with the focus on grades as I was more prepared to discuss the impact of our decision at our school but grades, too, fall under student motivation and is an important conversation to have.  The interview is 18 minutes long and the last caller provides some shock value for you!

One of my grade 3 students said it best while listening to the interview (and the last caller) with his mother when he asked, “why is he saying school is bad?”  Love it.

I have to add a quote to respond to the last caller (thank you to my assistant superintendent for this):

“When it comes to the assessment practices that employers trust to indicate a graduate’s level of knowledge and potential to succeed in the job world, employers dismiss tests of general content knowledge in favor (sic) of assessments of real-world and applied-learning approaches.  Multiple-choice tests specifically are seen as ineffective.  On the other hand, assessments that employers hold in high regard include evaluations of supervised internships, community-based projects, and comprehensive senior projects.”

From the book: “Breaking Free From Myths About Teaching and Learning” by Allison Zmuda.

Please click here to listen to CKNW interview, come back and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Thank you to Bill Good and CKNW for the opportunity to continue this important conversation.

Please click here to listen to NewsTalk 1010 interview.  Thank you to John Tory for the opportunity.

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Homework Why’s and Homework-Wise

stressed student

“…the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling”

Alfie Kohn


I remember my days  in school when the bell would ring and the teacher would blurt out the homework for the next day.  This work did very little to increase my learning and it often left me arguing with my mother, who happened to be a teacher, at the kitchen table about how to do the work correctly.

Lately I have seen a few blogs, newspaper articles, and journal articles (see below for links) questioning the purpose and practice of homework: Why do some teachers give homework and others do not? Why is homework given as a blanket assignment in which each child is given the same homework? What is effective homework? How much homework?

These questions, along with many others, led our staff (K-6) to discuss this topic at our last staff meeting.  Here is a summary of our dialogue on the issue of homework:

  1. The teaching and learning of the specific outcomes should happen at school – with students, teachers, and staff to support. According to the research by Kohn, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”  Students should not be sent home with homework that relies on parents, family members or tutors to provide instruction.  If the student is not learning this at school, who do we expect to teach it? We also need to keep in mind that not all students have someone that can help them at home – how does homework benefit these students?
  2. Homework should be meaningful, relevant, and engaging.  Students need to feel like they will benefit from the learning and feel they have ownership of the assignment.  Student input about assignments can lead to a view that this is their learning, rather than the teacher’s assigned work to be done. Provide CHOICE; there are many ways that students can practice and/or demonstrate learning.
  3. Homework should be differentiated. We all agreed that the time per day rules/policies (ie. 20 minutes/day for grade 2, 30 min/day for grade 3, etc) do very little to support the individual students.  A learning activity that takes one student 10 minutes may take another student 30 minutes.  Each student requires learning that is catered to their needs – homework should be differentiated just as it is done during school.
  4. Homework should be flexible. Family time and play time are so important for students at any age!  If a child is involved in activities on certain days and only has a small amount of time with the family that day, maybe homework can be given on a different day.  Again, the learning activities need to keep the individual student in mind and we must respect students’ time. Is homework even necessary that day/week?
  5. Homework should not be part of the grade. Although grades are a topic for another post, one of the worst things we can do to a students is grade them on their learning at home (or worse, give them zeros for not completing homework).  Reflect on how much parent involvement there is and how this impacts the homework and learning.  Is a student going home to an environment that supports homework or is the student leaving school to look after his/her younger siblings or go to a part-time job to help support their family?  Homework must be designed to support learning; the assessment OF learning needs to take place in class when the teacher is there to support.
  6. Reflect on the purpose of homework. If the students understands the learning outcomes, why do they need to spend more time on material they already understand; if the student does not understand the learning outcomes, how do we expect them to learn it at home?  Is the homework “busy work” (ie. worksheets with 40 math questions, argh!) or is it going to actually enhance their learning?  Is the particular assignment the BEST way to help the student learn? Is it necessary? Is this homework more important than being active and spending time with the family?

In addition, we often hear teachers and parents say that homework helps students to understand that in order to get ahead in the “real world”, you must do more and take responsibility for more.  If we are relying on homework as the main way to teach responsibility, we are in trouble.  Again, if a student goes home and has a parent that ensures their homework gets done, is the homework teaching them responsibility? What about the responsibility to spend time with and help friends and family or serve a purpose in the community? I agree that students should be responsible for their learning but in order to do this, we have to give them responsibility through voice and ownership; this can happen throughout the day and not just with homework.

So what can we, as parents and educators, do about the idea of homework? I think Kohn sums it up nicely,

It strikes me as curious on the face of it that children are given additional assignments to be completed at home after they’ve spent most of the day in school – and even more curious that almost everyone takes this fact for granted.  Even those who witness the unpleasant effects of homework on children and families rarely question it.

I believe it is time that we all begin to question it.

Research/Links:

Homework Lady C. Vatterott
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples A. Kohn
The Truth About Homework A. Kohn
Rethinking Homework A. Kohn
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education J. Ferry
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework E. Anderssen

Rethinking Homework J. Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? R. Collins
What Homework Should Be B. Kuhn
The Destructive Forces of Homework J. Bower
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework C. Vatterott
Show Us What Homework’s For K. Cushman
Homework Done Right J. Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework S. Bennett/N. Kalish

Homework Lady -  by Cathy Vatterott
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education – by John Ferry (Vancouver Province Newspaper)
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework – by Erin Anderssen (Globe and Mail)
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples – by Alfie Kohn
The Truth About Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by John Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? – by Remi Collins
What Homework Should Be – by Brian Kuhn
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework – by Cathy Vatterott (Educational Leadership Journal)
Show Us What Homework’s For – by Kathleen Cushman (Educational Leadership Journal)
Homework Done Right – by Janet Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework – by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

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Power of a Student-Designed Curriculum

“Children should be given a voice not only about the means of learning but also the ends, the why as well as the what.” — Alfie Kohn

dilbert-student-voice

In an education world dominated by mandated curricula and standardized testing, it is often difficult to imagine the effectiveness of a student-designed curriculum.

Prior to my days as an administrator of an elementary school, I had the privilege of working as a high school math, science, and physical education teacher.  As I currently try to get back into shape, I have begun to reflect on the motivation to be healthy as well as events that took place during my final year of teaching high school; in 2006, I was involved in one of my proudest accomplishments as an educator.

At my previous school, grade 10 girls’ physical education classes were the classes that PE teachers were not requesting to teach.  The students were labeled as challenging, unmotivated, often absent, etc.  These classes were often given to new teachers or temporary teachers (this is a whole other topic).   I, too, struggled to find ways for these students to become motivated to participate in the various athletic units that we were supposed to be teaching.  We tried many different strategies (many of them ‘carrots’ that just wore off and when the rewards disappeared, so did the motivation) including co-ed PE and different streams of PE.   After a few years of observing and participating in this challenging class, I decided to do something that should have been done many years ago – instead of trying to change the students, I would try to change the way PE 10 Girls was taught.

In the spring of 2006, I was teaching 2 blocks of PE 10 girls and instead of forcing them to do things they disliked, we spent a few classes focused on the following question:  “If YOU could design a physical education class for girls, what would it look like?”  They had to describe scheduling, activities, assessment and any little details that came up in discussions.  At the end, the goal was to actually implement the class the following year.  The students knew that they were in grade 10 and therefore, the class they were designing was unfortunately not going to be open to them the following year.

I was overwhelmed by the discussions that took place during the few weeks that this went on (in between classroom sessions, we actually began to implement some of their ideas too).  Following the first dialogue, here are the thoughts about the problems with the current program that the students came up with:

  • they don’t like to sweat first period because they just got ready for school; they also don’t like to sweat too much during 3rd period as then they would have to sit through 4th period “all sweaty and red in the face” (note: we were on a linear schedule so students had PE every second period; the blocks also tumbled so they would have it on a different period each day)
  • they were sick of being forced to learn rules and participate in sports they disliked; they felt these sports had no relevance to them
  • they did not like being assessed on skills for sports – the girls who were already involved in those sports outside of class just got the better mark
  • they did not like being forced to run — there were other ways to get in shape!
  • they liked it better when the teachers were involved in the class rather than sitting on the sidelines
  • most were not motivated by grades — many just wanted to get a high enough mark to get credit for the course
  • they did not like the feeling of not being good at something and then forced to participate in an activity in which their lack of skills were ostracized; they would rather not participate than be out there and look silly

As you can see, there were some definite problems with the current curriculum.  Following this discussion, they had to come up with answers to the original question.  Here are the strategies that they came up with:

  • more individual activities (less focus on zero sum games – win/loss)
  • they wanted to stay/get in shape but in ways of their choice (ideas included more dance, gymnastics, aerobics, power walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, circuits, etc)
  • they wanted to see lighter workouts in periods 1 and 3 and harder workouts in periods 2 and 4
  • they would rather focus on heart rate than times during runs, etc
  • they wanted say in the activities that were offered
  • they felt they should be assessed on effort and projects (projects on issues that matter to their health), not on skill level (they said some people came to class with more skill than others and they should not be punished for not being taught those skills earlier)
  • they liked the idea of guest instructors from the community
  • they weren’t sure but pondered the idea about students teaching mini-classes
  • rather than wait and see if this worked the following year, they wanted to see if it worked NOW!

Immediately following this discussion I started to become a PE facilitator rather than the PE teacher.  I organized the schedule 2 weeks at a time (1 week in advance) and included the students in all decisions.  I brought in university students, community members, senior students, and businesses to teach dance, yoga, pilates, gymnastics, and aerobics.

The rest of the year was a phenomenal success!  Attendance was rarely an issue and students were pumped to see their ideas implemented!  I became more involved in the classes as I took the classes with the students – I think I was able to actually touch my toes after a few yoga sessions!  I also taught a few classes of box aerobics, circuit training, core strength and gymnastics.

As we neared the end of the year, a student said, “I never thought about this until now but… what is my mark?”  I responded with “what do you think you should get?”.  This conversation happened with each student (most were harder on themselves than I would have been so we negotiated a “better grade”).  In addition to this, I was there participating with the students in each class so I was continually assessing the efforts and participation of the students.  I had students fill out a ‘course evaluation’ at the end of the year and every one was positive; the only feedback they wanted to see was a class like this offered for them in grade 11.

We decided to change the name of the class from ‘PE 10 Girls’ to ‘Lifestyles Fitness 10′ and it was offered to the current grade 9′s to select for the following year.  Over 75% of the girls wanted to take the class but I only had one period scheduled for me to teach and no other teacher wanted to do it… we accepted the first 35 students.

The next year built on the successes as I continued to facilitate with a new group of students.  I brought in members from outside the school to guest teach, I had students bring in fitness DVD’s, and we also participated in projects and presentations about information that was important to the students (crash diets, eating disorders, peer pressure, bullying, nutrition, impact of media, etc).  We scheduled activities like power walking, yoga, stretching, pilates in periods 1 and 3 and activities like jogging, aerobics (Tae-Bo was a fave!), dance, and circuit training in periods 2 and 4.  Assessments were based on student conversations around their efforts in class activities as well as projects; we also came up with criteria at the start of the year about what good learning and participation would look like.  The schedule continued to be decided weeks in advance (especially to schedule guest teachers) and a few students stepped up as representatives to help with scheduling.

As a teacher, I don’t think I realized how great this class became until after it was over.  The best compliment came when a group of students approached me after school one day and said, “we want to start a LifeStyles Fitness 11 class next year”.  I approached my department head and he said as long as the numbers were there, he would make it happen.  When the course selections came back in to the counselors, we were able to offer both classes for the following year!

I wish I could take the credit for this… but this was all from the students.  It is amazing what students can accomplish if we just listen.  The grade 10 girls PE students weren’t the problem; the PE 10 Girls class was the problem.  Once the real problem was determined, we could work on a solution.

I realize that I was able to do this because I was teaching a course without a standardized test; however, this is yet another example of how effective learning can be if we moved away from a world of mandated curricula and testing to a world in which students and teachers had more voice and flexibility into the means and ends of learning that takes place in a class.

*Notes:  By no means was this process perfect; there were a number of learning conversations that took place with the students (although I think the learning that took place – both my learning and the students’ – made it perfect to me).

At the end of the school year, I accepted a job as an administrator so I was not able to teach the classes.  I had lunch with a PE teacher from the school last week and I was saddened to hear that the course is not offered anymore.

I have to admit that I did not look at the ministry curriculum once during this process… oops!  Sometimes we need to put the official curriculum aside and make decisions on what’s best for kids; we felt this change was necessary.

Thanks to Joan Young and the Twitter Exercise Motivation Team (#temt on Twitter) for the inspiration to remember the importance of physical fitness and the motivation to write this blog.


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