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2014-08-29-25ways-890x395_c

Fine.

What did you do at school today?

Nothing.

All parents have had these conversations.  Apparently students all over the world are doing nothing at school, but not to worry,  it is fine.  It is the challenge of asking questions that specific, but are still open-ended so to avoid one word answers.  We all easily fall into the trap, with our kids, our co-workers and our friends of asking “how are you doing?” and knowing the only really acceptable answer is “fine”.

In our home we are continually trying to make a conscious effort for some different conversation starters.

There are a couple of lists that I have found and used that I think are useful (I don’t love all the questions – but they get your mind working about different ways to have the after school, or dinner conversation). Maxabella Loves shared these 10 kid conversation starters on her blog:

1.  What was the funniest thing you heard all day?
2.  What was your favourite thing that happened today?
3.  Did your teacher get cross today? What happened?
4.  What subject was the most interesting today?
5.  Was anyone away today? Did that make the day different?
6.  What was something new you read today?
7.  What happened today that you wish hadn’t happened?
8.  What did you enjoy most for lunch today?
9.  What are you learning about in science?
10.  Did anyone do something nice for you today? Did you do something nice back?

Last fall I also saw this list that Liz Evans posted on Huffington Post:

  1.  What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?)
  2.  Tell me something that made you laugh today.
  3.  If you could choose, who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?)
  4. Where is the coolest place at the school?
  5. Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)
  6. If I called your teacher tonight, what would she tell me about you?
  7. How did you help somebody today?
  8. How did somebody help you today?
  9. Tell me one thing that you learned today.
  10. When were you the happiest today?
  11. When were you bored today?
  12. If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?
  13. Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?
  14. Tell me something good that happened today.
  15. What word did your teacher say most today?
  16. What do you think you should do/learn more of at school?
  17. What do you think you should do/learn less of at school?
  18. Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?
  19. Where do you play the most at recess?
  20. Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?
  21. What was your favorite part of lunch?
  22. If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do?
  23. Is there anyone in your class who needs a time-out?
  24. f you could switch seats with anyone in the class, who would you trade with? Why?
  25. Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.

In our house right now there are two questions that we talk about most often around the dinner table, or the breakfast table, or the car driving to practice, or whenever we have those moments to get caught up with each others’ lives (we borrowed them from a radio talk show):

Tell me something I don’t know?

What have we learned today?

We like both of these questions as we all answer them – kids and adults – and they are great with extended family or friends over.

It is always a challenge to try to stay engaged with our kids.  As we often say about teaching, asking the right questions is so important, and actually very difficult.  It is an ongoing struggle to not live in a world of “fine”, “good” and “nothing.”

advice

Whenever I find myself speaking to students working their way towards a degree in education, someone will turn the conversation to the state of the job market.  And the truth is, in recent years, it has not been very good.  In British Columbia there are a number of factors that have led to a limited number of jobs for new teachers.  From district budget reductions, to declining enrollment, to fewer than expected teacher retirements, to huge numbers of candidates going through teacher education programs.  With this, I feel the angst of those graduating, looking for the little advantages that might help them secure a job.

I was recently speaking with elementary and middle school student teachers at the University of British Columbia, and gave some off-the-cuff advice, that I think is worth sharing more widely.

So, just what should a student teacher do?

1) Be Damn Good!

The explosion of teachers looking for work means that we get dozens (or sometimes far more) applicants on every position.  Our schools never have to settle for average candidates.  I am blown away by the quality of teachers being hired.  So, first and foremost, if you want a job, you better be good.

2)  Get Involved!

This can look really different from person to person, but it is really about playing up and sharing your passions.  Maybe it is coaching the volleyball team, or helping with the school musical, or sponsoring the chess club or being a lead on the school professional development committee – or a combination of them.  The parts around the classroom are some of the best experiences for students and teachers.  It is about seeing teaching as more than a job.

3) Connect!

It has never been easier to connect.  I feel like a broken record but all new teachers should get on Twitter, find at least five blogs to regularly follow, and consider starting a blog themselves.  And the power of the network is not just digital, student teachers transitioning into new teachers should connect into school district and multi school district teacher networks.  I know in West Vancouver, and I am sure it is true elsewhere, our professional opportunities are open to all – and that all includes student teachers and new teachers who might not have classroom teaching positions yet.

One more piece I shared when I met with the student teachers at UBC was an updated digital story (below) that I shared as a welcome to our amazing profession:

 

There are definitely things that can be discouraging in our profession, but whenever I have a chance to speak with those just coming into our profession I am left with so much hope – it is an exciting time for teaching and learning.

rpsImg

The West Vancouver School District has become synonymous  with excellence and innovative programming.  In recent years this reputation has been bolstered by our commitment to a range of sports academy programs.

I am thrilled today to announce the latest in the long list of innovative programs – our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy.  It is tremendously exciting that we are going to engage our students with this sport that has worldwide popularity.  There is great pride in being an international community and our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy will support this.

The world is changing and we need to embrace traditional sports like fencing, soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball and also look at new emerging sports.  That is where Rock, Paper, Scissors fits in.  We know that there will be tremendous excitement over this announcement, and student-athletes will come from many surrounding communities to be part of our Academy Program.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a sport that anyone can participate in from 5 to 85.  It will help foster lifelong fitness.  While many have raised concerns about the lack of physical activity with our youth – Rock, Paper, Scissors, gets our children away from the video games and engaged in physical competition.

Our curriculum will be based on resources available through the World RPS Society.  Students will learn about the history of the sport that is traced back to the Chinese Han Dynasty.   And the training will both be in the classroom and in the gym.  Competitors at the top-level need to be both physically and mentally sharp.  As any of our instructors will tell you, Rock, Paper, Scissors is far from random, and over time through deep study, athletes in the academy will become familiar with the various algorithms of their opponents selections.

As student progress through the grades, the academy will allow them to explore higher levels alternatives including rock-paper-scissors-Spock-lizard and other East Asian Hand Games.

This academy is completely aligned with the new curriculum – focusing on a series of competencies and embracing cross-curricular connections.  Students in the program will receive credit for English, Math and Physical Education.

Our Academy Programs have always been about supporting students through being academic athletes and taking their talents to the next level.  It is exciting to think the next World Champion might be sitting in our classrooms now and all they need is this type of program to catapult them to the world stage.  Here is a video of the 2014 United Kingdom finals:

We know that our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy we are launching today has the potential to be as succesful as our many other academy programs.  Anticipating its success we are already considering adding other emerging sports including cheese rolling and toe wrestling.  It is all about getting our young people active and excited about activity!

Finally, to quote our Academies Principal Diane Nelson, “Today marks a special day in the West Vancouver School District as we announce the very first Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy in the world.  We are honoured to welcome some of the region’s most talented athletes.  I am equally proud of this truly special sport as it continues to delight people of all ages with it’s quantum indeterminacy.”

This is the latest in what has become an annual tradition at this time of year to launch innovative initiatives.

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

Today we add our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy to this list.

Hopefully your first day of April is as fun and exciting as mine!

Writing is Writing

writinghardwork

Every month I read the magazine School Administrator cover to cover.  Produced by the AASA – the American Superintendents’ Association it moves from big picture issues, to practical current topics to interesting slices of life from a variety of others who serve in the same role as me.   It is my go-to professional journal.  Over the last four years I have got to know its editor, Jay Goldman.  Jay has been kind enough to take some of my blog posts and turn them into columns for the magazine, and I am right now working on a piece on school sports for an issue this summer.  It is not just the relevance that draws me to the School Administrator Magazine but also the quality of writing – which goes back to the tone and standards set by the editor.

I had the chance to attend a session at the recent AASA National Conference on Education hosted by Jay Goldman and his colleague Jimmy Minichello on Publishing Professionally: Guidance for School District Leaders.  I went there to look for tips on how better to take what I am writing every week for my blog and make it something that would work in a variety of other forms.  And like many of you out there, I do have dreams of writing a book one day.  It was a great session, but the key message I took away was one not really about writing for a magazine or books or even for blogging – the message I took away was Writing is Writing.  Something that fits with a message I often share, “Good writing still matters.”

There is one particular slide that brought this message home for me:

whywrite

If anything, being a good writer seems to be more important now than ever for teachers and administrators.  And while Jay was speaking about the power of writing in the context of a magazine, this slide is a great slide to answer the question – why blog?  The goal is not bloggers, for our students or the adults in the system – it is writers for the reasons that Jay outlines.  What is true is that blogging allows the writing to be more dynamic and allows us all to be owners of our own publishing company.

In the end though, writing is still writing and all of us should take up the challenge to do more of it in our profession.

mobile-devices1

I have been teaching in a couple high school classrooms recently, and I have been reminded that students on small hand-held internet devices can be distracted and distracting.  I am being intentional in not using the word phone.  For almost all of us, the devices we call phones are primarily used for other functions.  I know for me, the phone is maybe the fifth or sixth most popular use for my small internet device.    I don’t think the discussion is about phones vs. tablets vs. laptops rather it is about what functions are best done with what size of device.

For more than a decade I have been advocating students bringing internet-ready devices into the classroom.    I have said things like, “phones are great, if that is all students have, they should bring them.”   And this is still true.

I have also regularly said, “If students have a phone and can’t afford a laptop, their families should really consider making a different (better) decision that could benefit the child’s learning.”  I know families have invested in phones for a variety of reasons and safety is a reason I often hear.  Well, get a cheap phone for emergencies and take that money for the iPhone contract, and invest in a laptop or tablet.

Back to my recent reminders.  I will focus on one particular class of grade 11 and 12 students I was working with.  We were having a discussion around leadership in the digital age.  And I have to be honest, the students on their small devices were driving me crazy!   I could see the students were distracted, and in turn, this was very distracting for me and others.  They were texting away with students in the room and outside the room, only periodically engaging in the lesson.  Now, I know it is partly my fault.  If my lesson was more engaging, the students would not have been so easily distracted.  I also could have done a better job of classroom management.  I also know that in our efforts around students bringing their own devices, the journey has not, nor will not, be linear in terms of how students use devices in their classrooms – we are in shifting times.

At our District Parent Advisory Council Meeting this past week we had a great discussion around technology that included a high school teacher and a grade 10 student.  As the student reminded us, “When kids are on their phones they are usually not doing school work.”  Heck, when adults are on their phones it is more likely for social rather than business.  I have always been a believer in the key role of adults to model technology use and it is hard to suggest kids just need to behave differently when so often we see parents busy checking their Facebook or Twitter feeds.    The power of devices in school is usually around what is possible to create, and with the small handheld devices, in schools they are almost exclusively consumption devices or texting machines.

So, the advice of the last decade does stand – that any internet device that gets you in the game is good.  But it is also true that some devices are better than others and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking devices like iPhones are changing learning.  I am a bit “old school” and like to type on a keyboard so my advice when asked about what one should get for their child is probably a laptop, or a tablet with a keyboard.  More and more other specs matter less, and work lives in the cloud – it is about getting to the internet.

And what else was I reminded in teaching classes where all students have technology; technology does not making teaching easier, but it does make it very different.

Working for the Grade

grades

There is a debate in education around the relationship between grading and learning. Many of our teachers and schools have shifted the ways that they give students feedback – focussing more on constructive comments for improvement and less on grades. Of course, this has been met with some concern. For so long, schools have been using grades as something of a sorting system, and while also a learning system, the sorting often took priority as students marks were used to make comparisons.  And of course, with almost all of our students looking towards post-secondary education in our community, grades do matter.

Our teachers and schools are committed to getting better at how we communicate student learning. Like many BC school districts, we have been piloting new reporting documents this year, and next year both Kindergarten and Grade 4 will be running district-wide reporting pilots. The goal of this work is to take the best information we have about student learning, and have that reflected in what we share out to parents and students.  In my last post, I referenced FreshGrade, that presents a new way of communicating student learning.  It is one of the tools our teachers are beginning to use to break down traditional way of reporting – moving reporting away from being an event but rather an ongoing dialogue.

I was recently reminded of the challenge of assessment, grading and reporting  with a story told to me by a colleague in the district about her daughter, currently in Grade 6, who attends a school in another district. Her story is a common one that I hear about assessment practices, and one worth sharing.

In this particular story, the class was asked to develop some speaking notes on a topic and deliver a 3-5 minute spoken presentation. Her daughter practiced for several days behind closed doors, working hard to ensure that she could deliver the presentation in the allotted time, as points would be deducted for presentations that were either too long or too short. She felt prepared and really enjoyed the research and work involved in putting it together. She even shared some of her ideas with classmates in the days prior to the delivery, and they talked about their shared concerns and strategies to overcome the usual pitfalls of public speaking. It was a great project, with one very big downside.

When she had delivered the presentation, her mother asked how it had gone. “Well, I don’t have my grade yet, but people asked questions and two of my friends said that I did really well.” She was pleased about the positive feedback and talked about her own impressions of the project.

The following day, her daughter returned home, locked herself in her room, and examined the grade and evaluation sheet in private. It was not what she had hoped to see, and she was not eager to share it with the family.

This story illustrates our challenge. We want assessment to help improve learning, but for this student, as soon as the grade was given, the learning stopped. Instead of being a stop on a learning journey – this became a story about ranking and sorting.

While parents love to hear that “Sophia is a pleasure to teach,” timely and constructive comments that help parents understand how they can support at home the work in the classroom is far more useful.

There are no easy answers, but this is an important conversation we are having in our schools and across the province as we look for better ways to assess student learning.

A previous version of this post was originally shared in my Superintendent’s Message that was published earlier this month for the West Vancouver School District e-newsletter, the Learning Curve.  

dotsIf education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues.  With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers.  There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world.  For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.

My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust.  While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.

I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.

From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education  and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:

The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.

“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”

His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.

Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning. 

Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.

A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:

Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.

Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade  since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.

“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.

She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.

“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”

And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach.  The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:

A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”

Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”

She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.

Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well.  If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment.  And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions.  And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like.  And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.

And on these three  items – what do I think?  I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach.  I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years.  My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing.  And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge.  There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts.  A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.

But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.

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