Posts Tagged student choice

Honouring A Student’s Strength: Story of Daniel

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(This was originally guest-posted as an “A-Ha Moment” on  Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  With all the talk about how we changed our awards ceremony to focus on ALL our students’ strengths, I felt now was an opportune time to cross post.  Thank you to Pernille Ripp for the opportunity to share Daniel’s story.)

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class – always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class – he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

Leadership and Strength

Daniel leading the "Welcome Song" to start our week.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Rather than only recognize those select few award winners at the end of the year, we need to honour every student every day.  Every child has a strength and passion within him/her; we need to help EVERY student to find this and excel in his/her own way.

Here are the comments that the person who taught me the most about this, Dominic (Daniel).

Dom 1Dom2

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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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