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.

Working through the logistics of re-demonstration of learning

Our school division has been working through the practicalities associated with our philosophical beliefs about learning and how we assess it for well over six years. We have an assessment handbook, we have held multiple learning sessions for all teachers, we have a common grade book and reporting system in all grades, and we revisit this topic often through multiple contexts. The belief that all students can learn, that learning is continuous and that assessment of/for learning guides all future learning are the basis of our stated philosophical beliefs. We believe that students should demonstrate their learning often while receiving frequent feedback and should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes.

However, when this philosophical belief met up with actual experiences inside classrooms, we saw a need for some clarification about the term re-demonstration and the implications for teachers and students. The term “re-demonstration” had been interpreted multiple ways and in some schools, it was viewed as a “given” after every summative event while in other schools, it rarely occurred, which created challenges for both the teachers and students. Most schools were somewhere in the middle.

To reconsider this idea, we had to clarify that learning begins with outcomes and an authentic learning experience followed with multiple opportunities for formative assessment and feedback. Explicit instruction, practice, revisiting criteria, assessing and reflecting on our learning and “re-demonstrating” are all parts of the learning cycle. It is only when teachers feel quite certain that students are ready to “show what they know” that a summative assessment event should occur. At many grade levels, there aren’t even formal summative assessment events. Instead, teachers observe students, honour the learning cycle and when they are sure a student has reached an outcome, they document that event and move on. However, as students get older, there tends to be an increasing number of summative events.We encouraged teachers to consider which assessments should be summative (reflective of large portions of an outcome) and which should be formative. When we ensure that students engage in learning strategies and receive timely and specific feedback, there will be less need for re-demonstration.

Further to this, we saw a need to explore ways to engage students through an authentic purpose for learning. For example, if students know they will be sending a persuasive letter to a musician they respect, they will be more likely to engage in the learning cycle and ensure their product is strong. Further to this, in this instance, there is no re-demonstration; once the letter is sent, it is sent. But before this happens, we will have worked very hard to ensure that what was sent was strong writing.

In instances when students are not ready to summatively demonstrate (and we will know this from our formative assessments), we may choose to wait until they are ready or we may take the summative snapshot but allow re-demonstration after further engagement in the learning cycle. This practice should be encouraged and these decisions will be supported by formative evidence, observations and through feedback with both students and parents when appropriate.

A second example of when re-demonstration may occur is when the summative assessment event shows results that are vastly different from previous formative results and observations. In these instances, the teacher has conflicting data and may need to seek out further evidence of learning. It is helpful to consider that a teacher has a responsibility to help learning and collect evidence of this learning as it progresses over time. Formative assessment doesn’t “count” (in terms of number calculation) but they do help both teachers and students understand where the learning is and where it needs to go. This is all part of making strong assessment and instructional decisions. At the end of the day, a teacher has the responsibility of making a professional judgement about how students are doing on each outcome. The whole picture is important, as is the most recent evidence. Both need to be considered when making reporting decisions.

The term “re-demonstration” is perhaps better clarified by referring to it as continuous learning. If that isn’t happening, then re-demonstration is not working for either the teachers or the students. Continually revisiting the purpose of schools is helpful when navigating the practicalities of everyday life inside classrooms.

 

Education rant: Some things I have been thinking about…

Be warned: The soapbox is out today! Read at your own risk!

If you want to embrace a First Nations way of learning math, have the math emerge from experiences (games, real-life problems, baking…) Too often, the experiences and real-life problems come after the algorithm. Switch it around.

Talk about language with students. Talk about words. Talk about phrases. Talk about expressions and idioms. Wonder and puzzle over the craziness and incredible nature of
of language. This will help students read and write.

Pre-assess. Please. And then honour the knowledge students already possess. Stop making students repeat learning. All this does is test their compliance and, quite frankly, it is a wonder there isn’t more misbehaviour if students have to repeat learning. It is annoying to adults and it is annoying to kids.

Be explicit and be flexible. It is a balance and we switch the two around too often. We are wishy washy and over-flexible when students are craving clarity and we are inflexible when students could benefit from creative choice. Help students get to their destination by being explicit on the non-negotiable steps for success and then step back and let students make choices when they are ready to do so. The only way to know when to do each is by listening and watching carefully. Students give lots of clues if we are willing to notice.

Talk to your students about their lives outside of school. Find out who has supports and who doesn’t. Ask how much homework students have and respect their personal lives. Don’t ask more of them outside of school than their circumstances can accommodate. Set them up for success; never failure.

Treat families like equals. Be cautious of the language you use. Is there a tone that communicates superiority? Do you dictate how families will spend their valuable time? Do you invite conversations? Remember, parents want to know their children will be okay. They want to know that you care. They will more likely walk alongside you if it feels like the invitation exists.

Students are smart. They know a lot. Take time to honour their knowledge. Assume their intelligence and it will show itself.

Please talk about learning as if it is fun. Talk about it like it is accessible. Don’t scare students into learning. Don’t talk about “big tests” and “huge assignments.” This makes learning sound scary. Some students experience tremendous anxiety when we talk about things in this way. They lose their confidence. Learning is fun. School is interesting. If it isn’t, then try a different approach. Fear and learning do not go hand-in-hand.

Don’t say students can’t read. This statement is an over-simplification and is unhelpful on top of it. Students can read. They can read signs. They can read people and situations. They can read body language. They usually possess a myriad of reading skills that need to be acknowledged. Call it what it is: they are experiencing challenge in reading the school texts we want them to read in the way we want them to read them. We have to dig much deeper into their strategies or “habits of mind,” in order to help students improve their reading. Also, please don’t say: Students learn to read in grades K-3 and then they read to learn. This isn’t true and it sets students and teachers up for disappointment. Humans become better readers their whole lives and reading instruction needs to continue throughout school.

Learning strategies (not instructional strategies…also important but different) are the destination. Content is the vehicle. How students get to the content, interact with it, digest it and respond or engage with it is the important thing. I am not saying content isn’t important because you can’t get to the destination without it. But the transferable strategies are what students will apply over and over. When students experience difficulty, it is because they did not apply effective strategies. When we offer feedback to students about how to grow, it should be connected to the strategies they need to apply to get there. Examples of strategies are: make predictions, activating prior knowledge, determining the main idea, organizing ideas…I blogged about these earlier.

Math is complex and abstract. It is also challenging to teach if we are depending on our knowledge based on how we were taught. Math represents idea and information and concepts that require deep understanding. If you feel like math is just algorithms, take a class or have a conversation with someone who deeply understands math. I suspect that many people feel like I felt a few years ago-I needed to learn more about math because I don’t think I ever really understood it, even though I did well in school.

Languages are important. So are art, and music and drama and dance. While we’re at it, so are physical education, science, social and health. It drives me crazy when we talk about only two subjects. In fact, subjects are silly in that they compartmentalize learning that is, in fact, holistic. Learning is wondrously connected. It is amazingly complex and multi-faceted. And humans are just as complex and what makes us wonderful is our individuality and our diversity. All learning makes us who we are and all subjects are vital to our humanity. I am not human if my life isn’t filled with the arts, languages, movement and wellness…and math and communication, of course!

Please give learning an authentic purpose whenever you can. Revising, creativity and effort are so much more likely when people are working for a meaningful purpose. When students want to do well and work hard, you know you have found the sweet spot.

Assessment isn’t a bad word. However, assessment should be part of the learning cycle. If assessment just means “report card,” then reconsider. Assessment is something we are always doing, from pre-assessment to formative assessment, through feedback and relearning, to observation and demonstrations of learning. Assessment is essential to learning and has nothing to do with ranking and sorting students. Assessment should be based on clear outcome criteria. It is from our constant assessment that we make decisions about our instruction and how to invite even more learning. Assessment should be optimistic and hold the promise of success. We have to believe that all students can and will learn.

Which leads to…all students can and will learn. If you find yourself saying, “She just isn’t ever going to learn much,” or, “He will never be able to…,” ask yourself how you know this to be true. What evidence do you have? Where can the student grow? How will you be part of that growth? Acceptance of failure leads to failure. And talking about inevitable failure diminishes our work and our role. Even worse, it diminishes the student.

Why I am glad to be where I am

In the last three weeks, I have been facilitating workshops, visiting schools and talking with many colleagues and I have to say how exciting it is to be where I am right now. There are ups and downs, as always, but let me tell you what I have seen since we started with students three weeks ago:

1) Teachers talking…a lot…with each other…about learning. This bodes very, very well for students.

2) Assessment driving instruction. At every workshop, teachers are looking at rubrics, talking about criteria, thinking about how learning unfolds.

3) Teachers talking about all the ways learning might happen and learning experiences might be designed. They are planning centres, simulations, explicit teaching, flexible groupings, invitations, games…the list is endless.

4) Teachers thinking about student learning deeply. I hear them talking about ways to enrich and ways to build in extra support. I hear discussions focusing on children as complex and diverse people with different needs.

5) Teacher planning for digital learning. I see Google Apps on computers, Facebook pages, and many other ways of engaging students in digital thinking.

6) Sharing…pictures on Twitter, documentation on walls, write ups in letters sent home. I see photos being taken everywhere by both teachers and students. Everyone is justifiably proud of their learning.

7) Teachers and students talking about learning strategies and teachers considering how to build them in students. Powerful stuff!

8) References to curricula everywhere: lesson plans, on walls, in assessment. Students know what they are learning and, more importantly, why and how better than ever before.

9) Learning moving beyond the classroom through field trips, Skype, classroom guests…

I am so excited for our students!

Individual or group work? Removing the either/or

This entry is inspired by a conversation on Twitter during the keynote at the #ASCD13 conference. The keynote stated that, “In life, you have to learn from groups; that is how we solve problems.” (Possible Twitter paraphrase.) The resulting Twitter discussion questioned whether or not this was true. Is it possible that some of us solve problems better on our own? That some of us need to work independently? But if creativity and problem-solving happens in groups, how do we honour individual learning preferences? All great questions, and they got me thinking…

Is it possible that this doesn’t need to be an either/or discussion? Do we complicate things by feeling it has to be one or the other? I am imagining learning experiences that honour both. In fact, I see evidence of what I am proposing within the medium of Twitter itself. To me, it all boils down to a shared purpose- this is what makes a group a group. It doesn’t have to be about proximity or “doing everything together.” Instead, it is about defining a vision and a need and flowing between group and individual time to reach the purpose. We connect when we need to and we go into our own corners when it makes sense to do so. When I think about challenges I have had with students doing group work, it was usually because I was forcing collaboration when it wasn’t working or I hadn’t involved students in the shared purpose. So, it all fell apart. This is what we fear when we hear the term “group work.” We question whether or not students will learn to be collaborative in our classrooms. But they often have learned outside of school, and this is why I mention Twitter as an example.

My PLN on Twitter is filled with people with whom I share a common purpose: To make education and learning the best it can be. We collectively question practices and propose new ways to imagine learning. We recommend readings and reflect on what we have read. We ask questions and discuss answers. We are collaborating on a very large and important desire to make our system better. I hear often how beneficial a PLN is and I agree. It is “group work” at its best. There is as much diversity of thought as there is collective vision. There are several “right answers.” And…this is the important part…there is as much “individual work” as there is collaboration. As with all good group work, there is a time to think together and discuss and dream and there is a time to separate and experiment and craft and re-craft our own ideas into plans. I propose that this is how “group work” could work in a classroom.

What if we invited students to co-construct a common purpose? What if we invited time to share and discuss and time to work on their own? What if individual contribution was as important as group ideas? What if it was both? A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry about the purpose of learning and I refer back to it to reaffirm by belief that when we have a shared purpose, collaboration comes naturally. We can honour both the need to work on our own and the important skill of working with others. Let’s move away from either/ or thinking and embrace “both.”