Experiential Education in the Outdoors

This past week, I facilitated my last PD session of the year. It was called Experiential Education in the Outdoors, and I must admit, I use the term facilitated loosely because two teachers in our school division did most of the work. The day was the brainchild of a teacher colleague who does a great deal of learning with his class along the river near his school. He is passionate about the kinds of learning experienced outdoors and I felt this would be a great addition to our PD roster for the year. So, we asked another colleague from the opposite side of the division to co-facilitate with us and we were on our way!

For the day, we headed to Greenwater Provincial Park, which is located in the south eastern part of our school division. We wanted a place that would offer unique opportunities to explore the outdoors with the teachers who had registered. Even though spring was late this year, the leaves had just burst and we had plenty of beautiful environment to enjoy. The weather prediction turned out to be conservative and we ended up with a scorching hot day, filled with plenty of sun.

In the morning, we met in a parking lot on the edge of the park and loaded up the fifteen passenger van and a couple of trucks and headed to a remote-ish location along the lake. One of our co-facilitators had set up the kitchen area early in the morning, so we just had to finish up by finding spots for our lawn chairs. Our two big ideas for the day were: 1) Being outdoors creates a physical and emotional response that readies us for learning because it makes us feel good; and 2) Learning outdoors can be integrated into any subject with any age group. We encouraged the participants to take stock of their feelings throughout the day and to imagine how each activity we explored could be adapted to the age group of students with whom they work.

For the first three hours, we rotated three groups through three different locations, where we engaged in learning experiences that tied to multiple curricula across multiple grade levels. The first activity occurred down by the river, where the participants engaged in a study of the water ecosystem and made plaster casts of animal prints. The second grouping occurred in the forest, where the participants built a shelter. The final group gathered with me and we created watercolour paintings and wooden block artworks based on Australian Aboriginal paintings. We also looked ta several ways to take students outdoors as part of English Language Arts classes.

Our lunch was amazing! One of our facilitators did a fish fry, which included delicious battered fish, homemade french fries, and salads. He had even brought an appetizer. The participants could not stop talking about the food (and I can’t stop thinking about it!) We all sat in a circle and enjoyed the sun and good conversation. It felt really colleagial and everyone was enjoying themselves. We all reflected on ways we could bring this same vibe to other professional development events. I continue to think about this as I plan for next year.

In the afternoon, my two teacher colleagues shared their tips for safety, permissions, and planning an outdoor experience. They gave us insight about hunting times, ways to avoid pesticides, and how to keep students safe. They also shared some of their best contacts in the environmental world – we live in a very outdoor-sy area of the province and there is ample opportunity to engage in the environment in really meaningful ways.

We took a couple of breaks in the information sessions to play a First Nations game and learn how to set beaver traps (a very new experience for me!) We finished the day by looking at curricular outcomes and rubrics and discussing ways the learning experiences for students could happen outdoors. There were many really creative ideas shared and it was a good chance to look at our curricula again and think about it in a new way.

Before we loaded back into the vehicles, we headed down to the river to grab our animal print casts and share some of the things we had seen (mostly leeches and bugs…ugh.) Everyone seemed very energized (and quite sun-drenched as well.) I could not believe how quickly the day flew by! It was definitely one of my favourite PD days this year. A huge hats off to my co-facilitators, whose commitment to this day was amazing.

Here are a few pictures:

A deer track Artworks Building shelters Eating lunch Fries!! Getting our animal prints In the bush More painting Naomi in the water On the bus Our chef Setting traps part 2 Setting traps The fish

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.

Nuggets from ASCD 14

I have a travel blog and when I journeyed to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago to attend the ASCD Conference, I documented the trip on that blog. However, I cannot resist capturing some of the educational wisdom I gleaned from my time there on this blog. I guess I think of the two different blogs as the the physical journey (travel blog) and the journey in my mind (this blog).

My colleague and I started by attending a two-day pre-conference called “Engaging Educators with Data to Create the Future of Your School,” which was led by Victoria Bernhardt and her colleague Bradley. Here are the nuggets from that session:

  • The people you meet from around the world are one of the very best things about going to large conferences. I think it is important to take advantage of this networking because it really facilitates reflection about your own system when you listen to others.
  • It is very important to look at demographic, perceptual, system and academic data when making decisions. Too often, we focus on a single data set and limit our ability to determine root causes, influences and responses. (I know we have not looked at demographic data enough.)
  • “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Abraham Lincoln. This was a huge focus of this session- moving forward.
  • There is a huge difference between compliance and commitment in continuous improvement. Our assumptions determine which side we are on. Therefore, discussing the why behind decisions as well and inviting engagement in information from which decisions are made is a must. Superficial compliance is not transformative. (I concur wholeheartedly. Compliance without commitment signals we have not done a good enough job yet.)
  • When looking at data, jot your thinking and connection-making as you go. The “in the moment thinking” is rich. First, wonder, question and wonder some more. Then, synthesize. But don’t move ahead before taking time to notice. (This is tough. We always want to rush to solutions without letting the thinking, noticing and connection-making happen first. We are always in such a hurry. I teach this exact same lesson to students in my art class.)
  • Having a strong process is essential for examining data and making decisions. Without a process, everything falls apart. Think about successes, challenges, implications for a school or system and additional data needs. (No processes = chaos.)
  • When facilitating data analysis, control the misconceptions. Be ready to step in and clarify when needed. (This reminds me of the same discussion we have around inquiry. There is a time to let things happen and there is a time to step in. Knowing the difference is the sweet spot.)
  • A good first step is to inventory the data available to a school or system. Then “clean it up” or make it easy to read, triangulate and reflect on.
  • “Your school is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting.” (Reality check moment.)
  • “Avoid random acts of improvement.” Ensure work is targeted and focused. (This happens so much in education. Good intentions lost due to lack of strategic focus.)

Our first keynote was Daniel Pink. I had read his book, Drive just prior to attending and was looking forward to his wisdom. This is what I gleaned from his session:

  • Teaching is persuading. Not only that, but it is persuading children to do what we want them to do instead of what they think they would like to do. In other words, it is no easy task.
  • Education has changed because we have moved to a place where educators have information parity with students. It is no longer a case of telling students things they don’t know. Instead, we are persuading them to manipulate the knowledge we all hold in various ways. (I hadn’t thought of education in this way. I think this is an area where we feel some discomfort as educators right now. We are used to having the answers.)
  • Remember, small wins cascade to other small wins. Aim for small wins.
  • There are six ways to increase your chances of persuasion. Tip 1: You can increase your effectiveness by temporarily decreasing your feelings of power. This allows you to empathize, which has tremendous impact.
  • Tip 2: Ambiverts are the best persuaders. There are studies that show that the most persuasive people are those who are both extroverted and introverted. Either extreme has less persuasive ability.
  • Tip 3: Interrogative self-talk is the most effective way to ensure success. Instead of saying to yourself, “You can do this,” ask yourself, “Can you do this?” After a question like this, you are more likely to prepare.
  • Tip 4: Ask these questions of the other person- “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to…?” Follow up with, “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?” This way, the other person works to defend your position.
  • Tip 5: Context drives behaviours so make it easy for people to act. As Pink says, “Show people the off ramp and they will more likely take it.” Don’t worry so much about changing minds. Change behaviours first.
  • Tip 6: Explain why…even more than how.

Next up was Jay McTighe and Essential Questions. I have to explain that what I learned may have been different from others because we have been working on using essential questions in our division for years now. So, this is what struck me as particularly worth considering as a person who already knew a lot about EQs:

  • A good questions is like an itch – you want to scratch it. That is why finding the right question, whether students do it or teachers do it, is so important. (We have spent so much time on finding the “just right” question in our division. Once you find it, you know it but I think we under-estimate the brainstorming that has to happen before we find the compelling question.)
  • Essential questions require a defense. It is important that students understand that it isn’t just about the answer…it is about why that answer was given. (This is actually articulated on many of our rubrics.)
  • Essential questions should recur. They are part of larger understanding. (And they should recur authentically. Again, compliance or commitment?)
  • There are four categories of essential questions: Philosophical, Epistemological, Meaning Making and Metacognitive or Reflective.
  • Essential questions must be kid-friendly. They can be part of making this so!

The evening keynote was Sir Ken Robinson, who is funny and thought-provoking all in one! Here is what I learned from his session:

  • Life is chaos. It is a continual process of improvisation and anyone who claims otherwise is misrepresenting reality. As a result, few of us know where our life will head when we are in school. It is simply impossible. So, if we create our lives, do our school systems reflect this? Do schools invite this process for students? (And do we expect students to have made decisions too early? Are we giving them enough time and opportunity?)
  • In order for us to end up doing the things we are meant to do, we need to figure out what we are good at and look for opportunities to use that talent. To be “in your element” means doing something for which you have an aptitude and a spiritual energy (love). If you are in your element, others are drawn to you. The big thing is finding your element. How often does our school system overlook or marginalize the “elements” of our students? We have to help students find the things that they love!
  • The basics of education are not the core subjects…they are the four purposes (economic, cultural, social and personal).
  • There are two worlds that exist for every human – the larger world and a world of our private consciousness. Both are really important to the decisions we make.
  • Human beings are built with a tremendous capacity to be creative and think of alternatives. Creativity is not some special feature of a few select people. We have to foster creativity because all fields move forward by people contributing original ideas. What teachers pay attention to is what students think is important. If we give attention to creativity and innovation, so will students. (This makes me wonder what students think is important now? Being quiet? Handing in work? Getting stuff done? Behaviour is more important than learning?)
  • When students perceive there is one right answer to a problem, creativity and imagination shut down. Don’t let creativity be educated out of our children! (I loved the video he showed to demonstrate this. I even tried it with my art students and found that when they were allowed absolutely freedom, they were far more creative.)

My last session was with Grant Wiggins and John Kao, who were talking about innovation in education and specifically about their project: EdgeMaker. Here is what I learned:

  • We have still not arrived in education. Grant stated he has been engaged in education for a long time and we are still working on getting to where we need to for students. (Agreed.)
  • “…the idealism and passion of the young are one of the most underutilized resources on the planet.” This session communicated the belief that children are full and complete humans, capable of creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking. We no longer need to wait for students to get old so they can solve the world’s problems – we need to let them begin to solve them now, because they may, in fact, be the most capable of doing so. (This was a huge aha for me. Not because I didn’t know it but because, when stated so clearly, I realized we have some very huge assumptions in our society about children. I have said it before-kids are hugely tolerant of adults and our systems.)
  • Maybe it is time to facilitate and listen in different ways in the classroom. Maybe we need to re-position ourselves with students and the “wicked problems” they want to think about. Do adults really believe children can be innovative? Do we invite this nearly enough? We need to get students out of the bleachers and put them in the game!
  • We need to aim for self-sustaining student learning. If the teacher is solely responsible for sustaining learning, then the purpose for doing the learning is not nearly compelling enough. On top of this, when adults do all of the sustaining and then students move on to post-secondary, they are under-prepared to have executive control over their own learning. We have taught them to look to others for motivation.
  • We are living off our innovation inheritance. It is time to change this and one way is to let children innovate.
  • We also need to design units around wicked problems using essential questions. Let them be project-driven so the students can have executive control and the teacher can step back and let students think.

My colleague and I have already started to use many of the data pieces we learned in our pre-conference. It is so exciting to attend PD where the learning is immediately applicable. ASCD put on a fabulous conference and it was a privilege to attend.

 

 

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.

When students aren’t learning, dig into their thinking

This year feels different from last year. There are all kinds of reasons why this may be the case but one of them definitely came to me after spending the last two days in two different schools in our Division, working with staffs – we are back to talking about learning.

I don’t mean to say that we haven’t been talking about learning in the past number of years, because we have, but with whole scale provincial curriculum renewal Pre-K to 12, we have been really focused on unpacking and making sense of outcomes, designing rubrics for each outcome and then thinking about assessment. We just haven’t had the time or energy (or the readiness) as a Division to really think about learning deeply beyond the curricular intentions (teachers think beyond it every day, of course). That being said, there is a time and place for everything and we were doing what we needed to do, given the circumstances. In fact, I would argue that it is because of all those years spent thinking about curriculum, that we are extremely well-positioned to have rich discussions about student learning. We know where we are going with clarity and this has given us the opportunity to explore the results of our instruction more fully. As a result, these start up days have filled me with excitement to talk about students, whether or not they are learning, how they learn, and why they learn or don’t learn with groups of people who share the same language and curricular understanding.

Yesterday, I spent the day with a staff exploring learning strategies. Their specific request was to discuss reading strategies for grades four to six students but, as I will explain, reading just cannot be separated that neatly from the other things students do, so we called it learning strategies. Here are some of our thoughts, learning and clarifications as a result of the day:

  • A typical learning experience (lesson, activity, etc.) is filled with complexity. When we plan learning experiences for students, we consider outcomes, criteria for success, ways learning could be lived out, environments that support and enhance learning, tools…the list goes on and on. We consider a lot when we teach. It is this very complexity that makes it challenging to identify exactly where difficulty occurs for students, when they are having trouble experiencing success or growth. As a result, we have to stay curious…often beyond our initial response, in order to determine where the issue (s) may be.
  • Staying curious takes a concerted effort. For example, when a student does not follow our instructions during a game in phys. ed., we may often conclude defiance or not listening. However, staying curious means stepping back and looking at the learning experience in all its parts. Some questions we may ask are: Did the student hear my instructions? Do they understand the words I used to explain the game? Do they have visual or auditory challenges? Is the game too complex? Why didn’t they pick up on social cues from their peers? At exactly which point did they show difficulty? Did they respond when I gave them a verbal cue? The point is, being curious means asking many questions before determining possible responses.
  • Many things we ask students to do in a day may seem simple but are often complex. In addition, everything students do is a mixture of expression and reception. They are taking in information and creating information to send back out. Even if we are asking a student to read an article and fill in a T-chart, they have to listen to our oral instructions, read the words, examine  (view) the structures and features of the text (pictures, text boxes), make connections, write their ideas in a certain way, read what they have written to ensure it makes sense…again, school is complex. This is true for every single learning experience in every class. Therefore, if a student is struggling, we have to look at all those parts (de-construct the task) and try to determine where problem started. Did they miss the instructions? Are they having trouble reading? Is the vocabulary too complex? Do they know how a T-chart works? Are they able to read their own writing? Do they know how to write what is inside their heads?
  • When we talk about learning strategies, we are talking about thinking. Learning strategies are those strategies humans apply to make sense of their world, make sense of their responses to the world and formulate an action or feeling. So, when we respond to challenges during a lesson, we are not responding to the activity itself or even the product we get, but to the thinking that occurs before, during and after a student’s engagement in a learning experience. This is hard because most thinking happens inside a person’s head unless they have a way to share it verbally, in writing or visually. Even then, there is thinking behind that expression that we can never know.
  • Learning strategies and instructional strategies are different things, although they are strongly connected. For example, if an effective learning strategy is to make predictions, then the instructional strategy may be to fill in a KWL or to Think-Pair-Share. Instructional strategies are the tools and methods we use to help students develop and practice effective learning strategies.
  • Everyone uses learning strategies. How we use them is influenced by our learning preferences (whether we predict out loud or on paper, for example), our prior experience and how well they serve us. Part of the trick is to build on the strategies students already possess. If we need a student to make predictions in order to improve reading comprehension, we can start by figuring out when they already make predictions and how this happens. Then we can build on that.
  • Learning strategies are not strand-specific. So, if a student is having trouble reading, we may have to step into another strand (speaking, listening) where they have greater strength, in order to develop the strategies that will make them better readers. Practicing strategies in ways that students will experience success gives us a greater chance of application in areas where things are a little harder. It also helps to think of learning in as broad a way as possible. Any message sent or received is a text, which means how we dress is a text, our houses are a text, graffiti is a text…once the idea of a text is opened up, we have infinite opportunities to practice strategy use in really engaging ways. All subjects are filled with texts and learning strategies can be used and developed all day with students. This is not simply the work of the ELA teachers.
  • The best way to figure out how students are already using strategies is to give them a task that is highly engaging, invite them to do it in groups (so you can hear and see their thinking) and sit back with a list of learning strategies, monitoring use. This is great baseline data. We have also been using our RAD (Reading Assessment District) results to inform our strategy instruction.
  • It is important to not just help students use strategies but to help them understand how a strategy is helpful today and how it will be helpful when they come in contact with new content and new contexts. It is the strategy we want to develop…the thinking. The content is simply the vehicle.

 

 

ePortfolios: Exploring our paradigms

There are times when things happen in the course of my work and I can see that they provide me the perfect opportunity to stop and reflect. Yesterday was a great example of this because my conviction that we need to continue to look at our system and what we do inside it was “refreshed.” The interesting thing is that one of the catalysts for reflection  came from two people who don’t work inside our profession at all!

Yesterday, I co-facilitated a professional development opportunity on ePortfolios for teachers. I shared leadership duties with two of my colleagues, both of whom are digital learning specialists in our division. As always, I came away from the experience having learned as much as everyone else there! My own learning started with the lead up and planning for the day and developed as we led others through inquiry-based activities.

At the last minute, we were able to invite and include two people from a community centre in a larger town in our school division. These participants were interested in digital portfolios and the opportunities they may present for sharing between their students, the centre and the school as well as a place where students who are experiencing multiple challenges in their lives could place things they were proud of, things that represented who they are and things that advance their learning. It was an exciting partnership and proved to be an extremely beneficial addition to the day.

Prior to the day, my co-facilitators and I met on three different occasions to plan, and most importantly, sort out our own and then a shared understanding of the potential of ePortfolios as well as our ultimate purposes for the day (planning with the end in mind!) I blogged earlier about my own realizations that emerged from one of our planning sessions (Digital Thinking: Why We Have to do Better). As we continued to meet, my understandings continued to grow, along with my conviction that thinking digitally opens up opportunities for different kinds of learning in new and exciting ways.

Here are some of the gems that emerged out of the day (for me, and hopefully, others):

  • Having people from outside the system join us for the day invited us to hold a mirror to our own practices, beliefs and assumptions. It was wonderful to watch and listen to two people share in the day and reflect on what they were seeing and hearing. It was also great to hear them make sense of digital oppotunities for youth who come to their centre looking for connection and support. I saw tremendous opportunity to partner with outside agencies in ways that emerge from the students, themselves. They were excited and hungry to learn and this was so wonderful!
  • As one of my colleagues said: “It is no longer about saving; it is about sharing.” How profound. This reflects how students function in their world. Sometimes I think our paradigms really get in the way of us seeing things as they are. ePortfolios invite us to have much needed discussion with students about why we share, who to share with, when to share and how to protect ourselves. Because sharing is no longer an option, we have to talk about the best ways to do this. His statement also speaks to authentic purpose – they ways we choose to share can provide students with purposes more authentic than “for marks.” The possibilities are limitless.
  • Digital portfolios offer us ways to assess that can be much more inclusive of process. It is not just about a product; it is about how we construct a product…how we get to the product (process). ePortfolios can allow us to see a much wider picture than one assessment event can sometimes provide. This means we can offer feedback in a more timely fashion, can engage in conversations with students anytime, from anywhere and really and truly see where students are stuck and where they are ready to fly. As my colleagues and I stated it: “Connect me to your thinking through your ePortfolio!”
  • We saw evidence of the much desired “flow” when we engaged in inquiry, using an ePortfolio to document or “capture” learning. Everyone in the group could make choices, like who they would confer with, how they would show what they were learning, and how to document thier overall understanding. The collaboration process was organic and natural – they worked with others when it made sense to do so and worked on their own when that was what they needed. We have done workshops like this several times and we see the same thing every time. This is how learning could be!
  • As a facilitator, I did not have answers to questions MULTIPLE times during the day. I tried my hardest to model being perfectly okay with this. It was really nice to say to participants, “I am not sure. Let’s try something. What do you think might work?” I would love all teachers to be comfortable with this aspect of inquiry. Learning alongside others is optimal for so many reasons (this would be a blog in and of itself.)
  • We talked about the idea of “letting go” of perfection. The conversation started with an assertion that doing ePortfolios with students in grades 1-3 is so time consuming – teachers have to do every step for students. What? When we got down to it, the reason for this was because we wanted the ePortfolios to look a certain way. In the end, we decided that ePortfolios give students the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning and be proud of what they have done. IT ISN’T ABOUT US…it’s about them!
  • We don’t have to choose between digital or traditional portfolios. We can use a blended approach. We need to be open to problem-solving and adapting to meet the needs of the moment. We talked a great deal about using photographs to capture learning that happened in non-digital ways.
  • Front-end pain (for set up) = long-term gain. It may seem like we are wasting so much time establishing ePortfolios but they can pay off tenfold afterward.
  • Lastly, we talked a great deal about literacy. A statement was made early in the day about how students who were really lacking literacy skills would not be able to do ePortfolios. By the end of the day, we were talking about KINDS of literacy. We talked about using listening, viewing, speaking and representing as building blocks for reading and writing. We talked about the power of images and how ePortfolios can build on and honour literacies students already possess so we can move forward. We looked at multiple apps to support this process. By the end of the day, we all understood how the paradigms we hold can prevent us from looking openly at tools and ways of communicating that may be powerful for students. This was a profound discussion.

I continue to marvel at the gift of these professional development days. We are not engaging PD that is outside of a context and lacking in applicability. We are trying very hard to invite learning in ways that are meaningful for those who are in the room. This leads to amzing insights!

 

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.