Practicing what I preach

It was time for a change. I have been working as a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for five years and, in that time, have become comfortable with the many facets of my role (staff developer, instructional leader, learning supports designer, cheerleader, professional listener, evangelist, everything-related-to-learning coordinator). Nevertheless, as a collective leadership team, we knew it was time for a change and now, as the wheels begin to turn on this “restructuring,” I find myself needing to reflect on what this has meant for me already and what it will mean as we continue to walk in this new direction.

As I have articulated in many past posts, we have been working for five years on developing and supporting a common understanding and language around learning as it relates to renewed curricula, shifting assessment practices, responsive instructional design, planning using UbD and formal, data-focused reflection. The professional development we have undertaken with all staff in our division is immense. But, as we move into our sixth year and also, as we move into a new provincial sector plan, we began to see that it might be time to move from whole-group instruction (so-to-speak) to targeted supports. For this reason, I am shifting from working with 21 schools to working in one of three pods, with a much more focused seven schools. My fellow coordinator of early learning and my new coordinator colleague in student support services will also have pods and, along with our two superintendents, we will share understanding, assess needs and construct supports and responses for our schools, based on information we glean from a wide variety of sources.

So what does this mean for me, personally (I ask myself)? Well, I will need to learn a lot! I will have to build a greater understanding of both the early learning and support services portfolios. We will continue to have our specializations but we will also need to share understanding across all areas in order to work with our assigned schools. I was well on my way in understanding the connections between our work but had done so with broad brush strokes. I will now need to examine the finer details. In fact, my title is changing to Coordinator of Learning (which I share with my other coordinator colleagues).

I am also now working with staff through professional growth plans, observations and conversations. This is an expanded role. I have always worked with our support personnel within a leadership team, but again, next year will require a much more intensive relationship as I work with them to specifically develop their professional growth plans and support them in their important work.

I will be much more immersed in my assigned schools. This year, I worked very hard to visit all 21 schools as often as I could, but found myself spread too thin and my supports were often not as robust as I would have liked. The focus to seven schools will change my work significantly. Couple this with a shift to far less whole group professional development, and I will be able to work alongside others in a more meaningful and targeted way. My assigned schools are at least an hour away, so this will also mean more travel. In fact, my pod team will be located in a town an hour from my office.

This is just a lightly painted picture of, what I think, are significant changes to my work. So, how am I feeling about this change? Well, I believe I am feeling much the same way others feel when changes occur in their work – excited, nervous, scared, unsure, motivated, curious. I am very used to defining my own job. Sharing my job description with two other people is new to me – the last time I shared the same role as others was when I was a classroom teacher. Co-constructing a role will be interesting. I am also very accustomed to being confident in most aspects of my work. At the moment, I am confident I can do good things but less-confident in all aspects of understanding that this new role will require. This is very good for me but it has been a while since I have not felt sure of how things would “roll out.” I am committed to being the best leader I can be for my pod team but I know I have to spend much time listening and learning as part of that leadership. I will have to become more comfortable in saying “I am not sure” and “let’s try this and see what happens.” I am excited about spending more time talking about specific students and their learning. I am equally as excited to engage in my own learning, which is already happening. I think this new understanding will only make me and the work I do better.

Change is scary and exciting all wrapped up in one package. I am no stranger to change but this one feels new to me. I have learned that the more new something feels, the more opportunity it provides me to grow and adapt and become better at what I do. I look forward to travelling a new path.

PD for an Entire Division: Part 4 – What Did We Learn?

After sixteen different Data Days with teachers from Grades K-12, what did we all learn? As I have stated in previous posts, learning is personal, contextual and complex. All I can do is consider this question from my own perspective and through the observations, comments and follow up questions we received as a result of these days. We had goals and we had lived out experiences. How well did they reflect each other and what are some of the things we figured out? Here are some realizations that come to mind:

  • Elementary teachers teach differently from high school teachers. No one was surprised by this but it is interesting to see data to back up your perceptions. In grades 1-6, 100% of teachers report reading to their students, while 62% read to them in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 94% of teachers explicitly teach learning strategies and this number drops to 54% in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 60% of teachers invite students to assess and reflect on their work and in 7-12 this jumps to 82%. We compiled data across grade levels and this was informative enough to allow us to see where we still need to target professional learning opportunities. I recommend this particular activity to other divisions.
  • Teachers found the Data Days to be positive, on the whole. In fact 126/150 teachers in grades 7-12 reported feeling energized, optimistic, validated and challenged after their Data Day. 20/150 left the workshops feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and 4/150 had no comment. Overall, this speaks to the professionalism of teachers and their willingness to learn.
  •  Data is really interesting. Anytime we look at data, it invites us to ask questions. One of our main assertions was that we weren’t trying to come up with all the answers by exploring our demographic, perceptual and academic data; we were trying to ask the right questions. It is only through asking the right questions that we can hope to provide responses that will have an impact. Anytime we engaged in data throughout the day, we had robust discussions. Patterns and trends are compelling.
  • We have a tendency to add on instead of release. Without judgement, I assert that I found it very interesting how strongly we work to defend our current practices. It is hard to explore the idea that we may be engaging in instructional approaches that may not be giving us the results we hope for. I, too, am guilty of this. So, when we were exploring that huge list of instructional approaches, every group found a way to justify most practices. I think it makes sense that things are contextual and that how we engage in practices impacts their success. However, I also know that we try to do too much and do not target our approaches enough based on student need (academic, engagement, skill set). So, this is a conversation that will continue into the future, no doubt.
  • Revisiting ideas again and again is essential for learning to occur. It is no different than in a classroom. We know we have explained something but it just didn’t sink in on the other end. We know we have discussed certain ideas but the person listening wasn’t positioned to apply that learning just yet. So, revisiting terminology during the triple Venn activity served a strong purpose to re-engage in ideas. We realized there were terms we regularly use that not everyone was hearing in the same way. Building a shared understanding and a shared language is essential for a system.
  • The physics article was the perfect route into a discussion about teaching and learning. Teachers behave just the same as their students and a simulation is a nice way to make this visible. It also helps us connect the notion of learning and stamina to emotional responses and pre-conditioning to certain activities. By giving the teachers an article at a level that was challenging for all (even our physics people), we forced them to activate their own learning strategies in a highly visible way. We saw their learning as it was occurring and documented it. This helped us show the power of anecdotal documentation and it also helped us explain the importance of activating highly able students in the same way – in order for these students to keep growing, they need to be challenged to use strategies in new ways.
  • It seemed to be helpful  to think about metacognition in the contexts we were facilitating. We have been talking about this for some time, but it was really clear on this day, for many, that inviting students to explore the thinking behind what they are doing is the key to growing learning in a responsive way. The Learning Strategy poster was photographed and discussed over lunch hour on many days, which led me to believe it was a helpful way to think about interventions and feedback. The stack of learning strategy cards was also requested by many (we sent it to everyone) and we were really happy to hear teachers imagining ways to use the cards, both on their own and with students in all subject areas. We think this is a pretty important piece of reflection, feedback, formative assessment , interventions, RtI, and daily learning experiences.
  • Exploring data and why students are struggling is something we need to find time for more often. In some of our sessions, we asked how often the teachers sit back and look at the learning of students by outcome or by strategy. The majority of teachers acknowledged doing this very little. We understand- teachers are busy. Really busy. However, many thanked us for the time to really explore their students in this way. This leads us to believe that sometimes, in order to be pro-active and build really good scaffolds and supports (or withdraw them when students are ready), we have to look at students with this diagnostic lens.
  • It is a delicate balance to provide support but also build independence. I read a really good article called Are You Scaffolding or Rescuing? by Terry Thompson. It speaks to our discussions about equipping students with the strategies to be successful but also knowing when students are ready to make some of these decisions on their own.
  • Small group instruction in a whole group setting requires finesse. When we discussed small group time with our grades 1-6 teachers, it wasn’t quite as huge a stretch as with the 7-12 teachers but every group had to do significant thinking and discussion about how to structure classes to facilitate this idea. Some people shared their work with Daily 5 and Guided Reading. Others talked about their center work or work in classrooms as co-teachers. However, translating these processes to a grade 12 physics class (for example) wasn’t easy. We also had to clarify that small group instruction is different from flexible grouping. The role of the teacher is different in each. Also, it is really important that when the teacher is working with a targeted group, the rest of the class is reinforcing skills using processes they are already familiar with. This is the only way to ensure all students are engaged in meaningful work all at the same time and won’t interrupt the teacher while they are working with a smaller group. We discussed essential skills in each subject areas that could be practiced during set times, so interventions could be directed more easily in a predictable fashion by the teacher.
  • Providing enrichment for those students who are ready requires consideration and works better when we anticipate it occurring. Our discussions around exploring outcomes with enriched understanding took different flavours depending on the grade levels we were working with. Our grades 1-6 teachers were concerned that they were not structuring the opportunity into their learning and assessment experiences. Once we clarified that the EU level on our rubrics wasn’t about “impressing the teacher” or “blowing the teacher’s socks off” but rather was more about showing they had walked through the outcome door with confidence and were ready to explore the landscape beyond, teachers began to consider how this could look. In grades 7-12, the discussion was more around why so many students were achieving this level and whether or not our assessment was authentic. They also seemed concerned with the marks conversation piece and in finding ways to ensure that if students were achieving EU, then it was based on solid time spent exploring the outcomes more deeply to this degree. I had several follow-up conversations with teachers about this very point.
  • Elementary teachers have a homeroom, which means increased flexibility. It is really hard for 7-12 teachers to explore cross-curricular learning and building in structures that invite flexibility when they are tied to one hour a day with a new set of students each time. On top of that, curricula is really demanding and all teachers are feeling the pressure of “getting it done.” That kind of mindset means that reflecting on responsive instruction and providing interventions feels like a way to guarantee you will never “get through your curriculum.” These factors make solutions more challenging for sure.
  • Pre and formative assessments are essential for responsive instruction and timely and specific feedback. You simply cannot target instructional approaches if you don’t authentically know how students are doing. You cannot engage students in goal setting and reflection if they don’t know how they are doing. Assessment as learning does not yet have enough emphasis in classrooms. Many teachers acknowledged this as an area for growth in their reflection forms. Everyone agreed that students are challenged to reflect well and set meaningful goals but in order for this to get better, teachers have to work hard at helping students be a part of the assessment experience. In the past, we have spent too much time talking about the number of formative assessments we should be doing and not enough time thinking about what these assessments tell us and the students with whom we work. Formative assessment cannot be a check-box in a  list of “to do” items. Educators have to be clear about the purpose and the information it provides and base decisions on the information they get. I have written a more in depth blog post about this previously called, “Assessment, inferences and making thinking visible.”
  • Learning strategies are the destination and content is the vehicle. This idea, shared in the Data Days, was one that seemed to give much food for thought to participants. Many people approached me and wanted to discuss this idea in one of three ways: 1) They agreed completely and wanted to express relief at having this stated 2) They have always felt this was true and wondered when our curriculum would catch up 3) They found it hard to understand how this could be the case, and still “get done” their curriculum. No matter the response, it was a great catalyst statement for discussion and I am quite sure we will be talking about this in education for some time. We still have some things to figure out.
  • Teachers are committed, caring and enthusiastic about their work and their students. On our reflection form, the final prompt was “My students are…” There was not a statement made on a single teacher’s form that wasn’t positive. Teachers feel very strongly about their work with students. There are times when we hear contrary stories and opinions but I would challenge anyone to have attended these days and not seen the passion teachers displayed. It is a privilege to work in this profession and I feel incredibly optimistic about learning for our students.

So, there you have it. Our PD for an entire division in four easy blog posts! Needless to say, it was challenging and rewarding all rolled up into one package.

PD for an Entire Division: Part 3-The workshop

Now that I have clarified the set-up and goals of our Data Workshops, I will explore how the day was structured, for the most part. I offer a small disclaimer because no one day was exactly the same as the next. Like classroom teachers, each day we reflected on the feedback, our observations and the flow, and made changes to meet the needs of the group. We also shifted in mid-stream to be responsive to questions and concerns. The day was mostly constructivist and this meant we had to be open to the direction we traveled, even if it wasn’t anticipated.

We started the day with a pre-assessment, which helped us not only frame the day, but bookend it as well. We placed a number of questions around the room and asked the teachers to read each one and place a check mark or dot on every question to which they could answer a firm “yes.” We then totaled up the responses and ordered them from most frequently used instructional approaches to least. I will comment more on this in my next post, but it was interesting to see that as we worked our way up through the grades, the responses varied. Even in our Grades 7-12 days, the results were often different from group to group. In some, inquiry was used often and in others, not so much. Most groups acknowledged they didn’t provide opportunity for students to achieve at the Enriched Understanding level on our rubrics. Also, providing reading material at a variety of reading levels was not done often either. On the other end, most teachers explicitly teach behaviours and offer feedback regularly.

October 201311

At the end of the day, we returned to this list and re-ordered them according to potential impact. We sorted into three groups: those approaches that affect most students a great deal; those approaches that impact some students a great deal or most students a moderate amount; and those approaches that have very little impact. As expected, we were able to make a case for almost anything because it depends on the context and how each approach is carried out. The premise, however, is that we have a finite amount of time to encourage specific learning in all our students. Therefore, we have to choose the approaches that have the greatest impact and stop using some that have little or no impact. This final conversation was a great discussion piece, for sure.

checked question #1

Following the pre-assessment, one of our superintendents shared data relating to both our province and our school division. The data ranged from demographic, to perceptual, to teacher-related, to academic. We found that most of the follow up discussions centered on the engagement data and the academic data. The discussions were very interesting and had a different lens, depending on the grade level. We also shared our metaphor for the rubric we use for assessing all outcomes (see previous blog post – Re-imagining the Rubric), and reviewed the RtI triangle and the numbers of Level 2 and 3 students our system can support compared to the numbers that currently exist according to our data (15% vs 30% respectively). This introduction to data was a great springboard for the rest of the day, and we found ourselves referring back to the data several times (as should be the case).

Once we had shared the profile of teaching and learning in our school division, we were ready to talk about some vocabulary associated with education as it relates to the three data sets we were focusing on for the day (SudentsAchieve outcome data, TPM RtI data and Tell Them From Me perceptual data). We used a triple Venn diagram and a wordle filled with vocabulary in order to encourage discussion and meaning making.

triple Venn

Some of the words we invited teachers to fit somewhere in the Venn were: assessment as learning, assessment for learning, inquiry, Tier 2 interventions, and behaviour. Following time to place the words, we then asked the groups to identify words they weren’t sure where to place or words they weren’t sure of the definition. These were the terms we discussed as a whole group. It didn’t matter where they placed the words – in the end, the conversation was the destination and it gave us all a chance to review some of the ideas so important to learning.

Following this activity, we paired the participants up and asked them to engage in an assignment. We explained that they needed to read an article, follow the directions, and answer the questions. We then gave them a doctoral physics paper that was very cumbersome. While they worked with their partners, we circulated and recorded their actions, the things we heard and their responses to the articles. As expected, we had a variety of responses, which I will discuss in my next post. However, the teachers acted as students do and we had plenty of fodder generated from this simulation to engage in a discussion. We took time to talk about our purposes for engaging them in this difficult task: Firstly, we wanted them to remember how it feels to struggle and we wanted to remind them that some students feel this way every day. Further, because they are proficient learners, we wanted to engage them in a challenging text in order to activate the learning strategies that they do not often recognize themselves as using. Much to our pleasure, teachers began to underline, whisper-read, highlight, collaborate, identify key vocabulary and so on. In other words, we were able to use them to demonstrate the next topic of discussion – learning strategies or “habits of mind.”

We then asked each pair to take a package of cards on which 31 learning strategies were written and choose the three that they felt would have been most beneficial to helping them understand the article better.

cards

Once everyone had chosen their learning strategies, we asked each pair to share, one at a time, until we had listed all strategies on chart paper. Each day, we found the same ten or so were chosen. As they explained their choices, we drew lines to other strategies they mentioned in order to determine if some strategies needed to be attended to early in the learning. We always came up with the same five: activate prior knowledge, engage in new words, make connections, identify main idea, and confer with others. This helped us discuss the importance of these strategies to developing strong learning. We also took time to share how these strategies can be explicitly taught and then reinforced in all subject areas.

I then took some time to share my diagram for helping us understand how learning strategies fit into all the other things we have been talking about in education. I explained that thinking about what students learn and how they learn it is the bread and butter of our planning and teaching. However, if we do not explore how students think about what they are doing and how they are doing it, we cannot hope to develop deep learning and offer targeted interventions. I explained the importance of learning strategies to giving constructive feedback and to offering small group, targeted instruction. if we do not develop thinking habits, then all we can do is hope the learning experiences we provide will stick somehow.

Diagram

After this series of discussions, the workshop varied from day-to-day. We explored multiple ways to find the sweet spot of connecting everything as we looked at student data. I think we did fine each day, but seemed to get better as time went on. Nevertheless, the rest of the day rolled out with the following activities in a variety of sequences.

We moved into our “Putting the Verbs on the Table” activity. The purpose of this activity was to begin to dig deeply into the reasons why students are having difficulty with particular outcomes and strategy use. The teachers formed new groups and, in the center of each table, we placed the seven most common verbs in our provincial outcomes: analyze, assess, create, reflect, read, demonstrate, and apply. (With our 1-6 teachers, we focused on learning strategies measured in their reading assessments as opposed to verbs. The activity was the same.) We first asked the group to reach consensus on the meaning of each verb. We included rubric examples in order to help with context. Once we agreed on the meaning, we sorted through the strategy cards and identified those that would be important for achieving the outcome. The next step was to ask ourselves If this is what students need to be able to do and these are the strategies students will need to use to be successful, why are one third of our students still not achieving at grade level? Teachers wrote all their ideas on paper that covered the table. We encouraged them to think of intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual reasons. We also asked them to re-examine their reasons and explore more deeply by asking why? For example, if they wrote “unmotivated,” we asked them to ask the question why? What are all the reasons they might be unmotivated? We wanted to get at reasons that would be helpful for teachers in order to a provide targeted response. A summary of this work was sent to each teacher following the workshop and can be found here, under each verb:

http://curriculum.nesd.ca/assessment/assessment-tools

The next part of the day involved teachers logging onto their electronic, outcome-based gradebook and identifying two things: 1) The outcomes that will likely be delivered through whole group (differentiated) instruction (those outcomes that most students still need to demonstrate) and 2) those outcomes that need small group, targeted instruction (those outcomes where students are having difficulty, where pre-assessments show a varied class profile, or where students will be offered a differentiated approach due to learning preferences, choice, readiness). We asked the teachers to identify students by name who fit certain criteria (reading below grade level, have difficulty working in groups, have difficulty being creative, etc.) We the invited them to work in groups to determine how they would respond to these varied needs. We invited them to consider the next two weeks of school and the varied learning needs in their classes and plan for some targeted instruction.

This conversation led to our next point of reflection: How can we offer targeted, small group instruction within a large group setting in a way that meets the learning needs of both the small and larger group? As can be imagined, this was a hearty discussion point, since much of the targeted intervention in 7-12 settings currently occurs at recess, and before and after school. Thinking about the structure of our classrooms to invite purposeful and varied learning experiences all at the same time, was worth considering. We shared some of the models from our grades 1-6 classrooms (Daily 5, Guided Reading, Math Centers) and tried to imagine how this could work in a secondary classroom.

As mentioned before, we ended the day back at the instructional approaches questions from the beginning of the day. We had come full circle, discussing everything from assessment to planning, from class structures to targeted interventions and learning strategies. We ended the day with a reflection page, which always helped us to make the next workshop even better.

feedback

As you can see, they day was absolutely packed full of learning experiences. It was clear that different activities were more meaningful to some teachers than others. Everyone brings their own experiences to a workshop and leaves with their own meaning. Our goal was to provide ample opportunity to construct meaning and engage in rich conversation. In my next blog post, I will explore the extent to which our plans gave us the results we were hoping for and reflect on the kinds of learning we witnessed and experienced ourselves.

Identity and the work we do: Part 1

You know, if I really think about this identity business, it occurs to me that I haven’t thought enough about it at all. My brain worries back into the past and propels forward into the future. I go back and try to recall where my identity started at the beginning of this year, or at the beginning of last year. I look ahead to where it is going. Identity is such a wisp of a thing; a shadow; an illusion. I am shaped everyday, if only slightly. The only things that are rooted at my core are my experiences so far and the lessons they have taught me. I hang onto them , hoping they will help me predict and function and cope. But even those experiences, when examined under a microscope, are filled with moving, complex bits, We are only our moment, our now. Anything can happen. (Personal journal, 2008)

Over the two decades (or so) of my career, there have been times when I have come face-to-face with myself and I could not ignore what I saw. Over the years, these moments of stopping and staring into my own heart have always invited me to discover new things hiding there. My career has been a  transformative journey of change and growth. My moments of revelation have been elusive at times, because I often need to share a space with another person or find myself in a completely new situation before I can see myself. By living through these experiences and then telling and retelling (Clandinin and Connelly, 1994) these meaningful, joyful and startling “spotlight” moments, I can discover parts of myself that have changed, melted and adjusted over time. These moments have become mirrors to greater understanding of what is most important to me in my work and in my relationships. I have discovered that if I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge which can, in turn, help me to be more effective in the work I do everyday. The trick is to be willing to stop, without judgement, and examine what is resting within me.

I have learned to recognize the time to pause and reflect by first identifying a visceral response I am having – it is in moments of my greatest discomfort, unrest and insecurity that I know it is time to have a look, because it is these moments that signify that my identity is facing some changes. It continues to take a great deal of practice and fortitude, but if I can remember to take the time I need to consider the origin of my discomfort within me, I have the opportunity to reinvent myself just a little. The Buddhists call this the “in between spaces” and I remind myself to welcome them because it means I am ready to learn something.

Crocus 18-17

Why co-teaching, you ask? Here’s what I am thinking…

I got excited today after receiving an email from a colleague. She shared a concern about something we will be starting next year. Starting in the fall, we are beginning a new co-teaching model where we are assigning staffing and specifically timetabling co-teaching pairings in all of our schools. We are also going to be offering days when the pairings come together at a divisional level, so we can build relationships, plan, reflect on our students and our practice and engage in responsive instruction through co-teaching. I am very excited about this approach and cannot wait to learn alongside others! However, her concern was why we were engaging in co-teaching when class sizes are increasing. Why not just divide the students in half? What is the advantage to having two teachers with a larger class? That is when I got excited…because I had some thoughts about her question:

 1)    Co-teaching invites reflection and uses the model of a critical friend to talk about what happened in the moment, so the soundest instructional choices can be made. Two people means the chances of this happening are exponentially greater.

2)    Students do not always benefit from fewer students in class – fewer sometimes means fewer perspectives, less flexible grouping. We make far too many assumptions that fewer is always better – it always comes down to instruction. Always. More than any other factor (including class size, student demographic, gender ratio). So, co-teaching builds stronger, more responsive teaching.

3)    Two teachers mean greater chances for students to connect with an adult who shares interests, styles, abilities with them. It takes some pressure off trying to be everything to everyone. Teachers can share that role.

4)    Anyone who has been involved in a successful co-teaching relationship will tell you that the synergy is a case of the whole being far greater than the parts. True story.

5)    “Taking extra time” to plan together and concerns from colleagues about the “extra work” involved in co-teaching makes me think something that may not viewed as fair …but it occurs to me that the work we do is not primarily about US and OUR TIME. It is about meeting student needs. We are a service profession and two people serve better than one. I do not believe life should be filled with unreasonable sacrifices for teachers but I also do not believe that their needs always come first. In this case, more work at the front end means less work during and after because students will be more successful, more engaged, more connected and will need fewer re-dos, fewer re-teachings, fewer study halls…well, you get my point. Effective instruction means less time in the end, even though it initially seems like more.

6)    We are still building and learning – building strong planning, building effective instruction, building authentic assessment. When you are building, building together means greater success and the chance to share this success with others. Closing our doors again means we go backward, not forward. We need to keep going forward.

7)    Through pre-assessing, two teachers can identify gaps, work to provide support to understand the missed content and introduce the new outcome, seeing success for that student.  Having two teachers in the classroom has lowered the pupil-teacher ratio and has very much benefited some of the struggling learners, while benefitting the teachers at the same time.

8)    Having two teachers in the classroom allows the opportunity for students who pre-assess as already understanding the intended outcome to show enriched understanding. 

9)    Having two teachers allows teachers to sometimes work in two locations at times – not only reinforcing the concept taught, but providing a platform for the student to take their fully meeting understanding and apply it to real world situations. 

 I am sure there are many more reasons but these are the ones I offered off the top of my head. I consider this step part of a journey – we are continuing from where we are right now. I am quite sure we will learn a great deal together. There will be challenges and there will be celebrations. Most importantly, we are trying something new in order to meet the needs of our students. There just isn’t a higher purpose than that.

When leading means pulling back

I remember a job interview a number of years ago, when I was asked what I considered to be my weaknesses. I had prepared for this question, intent on following the advice that in these situations, you must present your weaknesses so they actually end up sounding like strengths: I am too committed to work, I over-communicate, I over-prepare for interviews and end up making my responses sound like they could come from anyone…things like that.In reality, I actually do believe that my strengths are my weaknesses. As with most things, when there is too much of a good thing, it can become a not-so-good thing.

I have been reminded of this point this week as my colleagues and I linger on strategic planning for next year. This is my fourth year in this position and each year, we adjust our approach to strategic planning so we can continuously improve as a school division. As a result, we have accomplished some amazing things. As always, we begin by looking at Ministry expectations and Board goals and blend these with data we have collected about student performance, teacher perception and family engagement. We then develop strategies to address areas where we need to grow and begin the work of deciding how to communicate these strategies to the field. This is all good work – rewarding, exciting and filled with promise. Yet, this is the point when my strength becomes my weakness if I am not careful (and sometimes I am not).

As I have said in previous posts, I love my job. As a Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, I am right in the middle of all the things I care about – learning, students, teachers, possibility! I am also pretty good at my job – I am creative and communicate well. I work very quickly and enthusiastically and churn out documents, PD plans and supports like there is no tomorrow. I work more hours than required because I find so many pieces of my role fascinating. So, I have ideas – lots of them. But I very easily slip into over- efficiency and I look inward for too long, without pausing to consider the people around me at a deep enough level. I imagine this is true for many passionate people in our world. We work and work and work and, only every so often, we stop to look up. That is when we see others around us looking flustered and irritated and we wonder why.

Last week, our team decided to phone administrators in our school division to do a little “temperature check.” We wanted suggestions for how to improve the way we share next year’s plan at our May administrative council meeting. We sensed administrators were feeling over-whelmed. My Early Learning colleague and I phoned every single principal, and it was the best thing we have done in a long time. It was humbling for us, a welcome chance to talk about leadership for them and very informative to our team as we move forward.

As we were sharing the synthesized version of our calls with the team, it suddenly occurred to me that my own strengths may have become a weakness. My efficiency and creativity had, perhaps, become too much for the people around me. Now, I do not claim responsibility for everything that happens in our division. I am also not claiming that I have grievously injured anyone – I don’t think I have. I am simply owning my own part of a larger leadership challenge – moving too quickly. In fact, it is because I share this same strength/ weakness with the people with whom I work that this has become something worth thinking about. We are all efficient. We are all passionate. We all have great ideas. But, in the end, all those plans often get filtered through one person – the in-school administrator. And it is a delicate balance between providing a vision that is empowering and providing a vision that prevents the vision of others to have a place.

This is a delicate topic, and so I do not make any grand statements about systems and what they should and shouldn’t do. I am also not critical of anyone in my own system – I am so lucky to work with such amazing, diverse and committed individuals. Our team is fantastic, the administrators are so skilled and compassionate. Our teachers work incredibly hard for our equally amazing students. But when I stand back and look at myself (which is all I can really do), I have to remind myself that some of my great ideas may have to sit for a while. I have to remind myself that the great ideas we have already set in motion are still great and deserve time and energy in order to nurture the great-ness. I have to remind myself to slow down. Because the fact of the matter is, that when a person is in a leadership role, the work they do is not about them; the work they do is about the people who surround them. And if we spend too much time checking off our own lists, thinking about our own passions and our need to feel fulfilled, without looking around us, we run the risk of forgetting why we are here in the first place.

There are some non-negotiables for me – students are the centre of my field of vision…always. I will never release this committment to student learning. However, I have to remind myself that there are ways to support all the people working with students everyday and there are ways to leave them feeling a little abandoned. I am committed to support. This week was a good “reset” for me (and for those who are impacted by my work.)

 

 

 

The challenges of a gradebook

Our school division has done some amazing work. Everyday I am proud and excited about how learning experiences are changing for our students. I see shifts in learning environments.

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I see classrooms engaging in “Invitations to Learn” and inquiry.

Up to April 2012 176

I see students and teachers embracing digital learning.

Up to April 2012 140

I am proud that we assess according to curricular outcomes. I am excited to see children reflecting and goal-setting. I hear the term pre-assessment a lot in school visits. I could go on and on about the amazing things that are happening.

Up to April 2012 150

But we are stuck. One thing is occupying a great deal of time and energy and is inviting us to linger a little too long in places not so related to teaching and learning. We are caught up in the world of reporting.

Now, I am not even remotely suggesting that reporting is a bad thing. It is important because it opens one line of communication with families. It is a prescribed (in our Division) way of sharing a child’s progress with parents and guardians. We have gone one step further and opened our gradebook to parents, which is also an okay thing…as long as it is, indeed, communicating something. And that is where we are stuck. I am not sure what we are communicating and I am not sure we (as an entire societal education system) know what parents are wondering either.

In order to explain my own thinking on this (and it is my own…I would not presume to speak for anyone else), I have to travel back in time to the earlier years of my career. Way back then, I had a gradebook handwritten in the back of my day planner. I proudly filled it with numbers throughout each of the three terms. When the time came to calculate marks, I simply added everything together and divided by the total. When I got a little more sophisticated, I would group the numbers into categories (assignment, tests, etc.) and weight them before adding and dividing. The most important point in all of this, though, is that when a parent (or student) had a question about a mark, my explanation for the mark sounded something like this:

Well, you received the mark you did because I took 25 and added it to 14, 36 and 21. That gave me 96 out of a possible 120. I divided the 96 by the 120, multiplied by 100 and your mark was 80%. That was on your assignments, which I weighted at 75%. This gave you a 60 out of 75. On your final exam, you got 80%, which was 20 out of 25. Add those two together and you received 80%.

Clear as a bell right? Math magic I call it. Notice that not once in this explanation did I talk about learning. I did not refer to the outcomes (objectives in those days). Not once did I talk about how the student demonstrated learning, the feedback they received, the goals they set, the learning experiences they engaged in. I just explained how I calculated the mark. And in my recollection, no one ever questioned it. These kinds of explanations have been going on for years. Parents seemed to get the answers they were looking for from the information I gave.

So, flash forward to now. We construct learning experiences through the UbD model. We assess the outcomes. We offer constructive feedback. We even have a spot in our new gradebook for formative assessment. Our classrooms have changed. Learning has changed. But we are trapped in parts of the old paradigm and the message we are sending parents is convoluted. As educators, we have to be clear about the things we do in our own hearts before we can ever hope to clarify understanding with our partners. Lately, I have been wondering if a gradebook is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong…I think our gradebook is great. We designed it ourselves and it does amazing things. It organizes learning according to curricular outcomes. It takes into account most recent evidence as well as most consistent. It focuses on learning outcomes and allows us to document behaviour separately. It is great. I think the problem would exist with any gradebook because the notion of a gradebook in and of itself, holds connotative meaning for many people.

The gradebook, for many, represents the old paradigm of math magic and assessment of learning and the mixing of the old paradigm with the new has us confused (and I include myself in this because I spend much time considering it). I think it is possible that we are still using the gradebook to simply create a report card. It is also possible that we spend a great deal of valuable time trying to make the gradebook say what we want it to but I am not sure we are clear about what we want it to say. Maybe we still just want it to explain the math magic behind scores (even though we use alpha codes K-8). When given the option of making an assessment formative or summative, we may choose summative because that is the score that “counts”, and the more scores that count, the better. This is an old paradigm.

What I have been wondering is if it would help to think of learning and assessment like this: all learning is formative and all assessment is formative until one of two things happen: 1) a student reaches the outcome (and I would even argue that because learning will still continue, so should formative assessment but let’s simplify for argument’s sake) 2) it is report card time. Otherwise, shouldn’t all assessment be formative? Isn’t all learning continuous?

Now, I don’t want to sound too pie-in-the-sky and impractical. I hear the chorus of arguments that say: Sometimes there is an end to the learning because we run out of time or Sometimes I want to measure learning once and for all…what you suggest isn’t practical. I am inclined to entertain discussions about pragmatics for sure…there are aspects of our education system that challenge most arguments any person could present about almost anything. After all, learning is messy.

But I return to my original story – if we are spending inordinate amounts of time trying to manipulate a gradebook, or calculate a mark or justify the result we finally share, then we are sacrificing time we could be spending on formative assessment and feedback. Further to this, if we are afraid of sharing the variety of assessing we are doing to reflect the progression of learning (formative, pre, summative), then we are missing out on a conversation that is so important. I am not suggesting that every single thing we do needs to be entered into a gradebook – this isn’t practical. But, how can we use all the information we have to engage in conversations with students and parents? How can we use it to adjust our instruction? How can assessment be part of the learning? The complexity of these questions is compounded when the conversation about learning is continuous with parents; when they have access to the gradebook at all times. We have to be clear about the formative nature of learning and be aware of how we share this process with parents and what we need them to know. We have to think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. Because, at the end of the day, schools should be about learning and not about marks. And the things we should be sharing are the images of amazing things that happen inside our schools each and every day. We have a lot to be proud of and so do our students.