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.

PD for an Entire Division: Part Two – The Goals

In Part One, I outlined how our school division approached our whole group PD for this year and the work that led up to it. In this post, I will explore the goals our team hoped to address and the reasons behind these goals. As with any goals and subsequent plans, they serve as the starting point, the destination and the map, but the journey itself is where the real magic (and challenge) happens. In response to detours, pot holes and unexpected  picturesque sites, the route shifts and this was certainly the case by the time all sixteen PD days had occurred. Nevertheless, let’s begin with our vision.

As mentioned in the previous post, a number of things positioned us to engage in these Data Days. Firstly, we have spent the last number of years exploring curricular outcomes, criteria, rubrics, assessment events, differentiated instruction, Response to Intervention, and effective planning. We were ready and very willing to explore our students and their learning. We needed to talk about what actually happens in the classroom after all the great planning has occurred and the environments have been structured to hopefully support learning. How well are the students actually learning? How do we know? How do they respond to the learning experiences? What happens when we pre-assess? What happens when we check in on learning and the needs start to diverge? What happens when whole group instruction is not meeting the needs of everyone? What data do we have to show us, more precisely, how each student is doing? And the biggest question of all: What do we do in response to the answers we get?

As a team, we have facilitated a lot of workshops in our school division… I mean A LOT. This has afforded us plenty of reflection time and insight into how we wanted to approach these days. We knew we can easily find ourselves talking too much. We knew that when participants construct their own understanding, the results are much more powerful. We knew that we had some key ideas we wanted to explore. We knew we had multiple data sets to examine. We knew we wanted teachers to have time to think about their students – the ones who they would see the very next day after the workshop. We knew we wanted the teachers to also think about how they were addressing various needs in their classrooms. And we knew that we had to make a plan that would allow for plenty of room to adapt to each group and their needs as they unfolded throughout the day.

Suffice it to say, the task of planning was daunting and we took several runs at it over several months. We started by researching; topics like data, school improvement, change, learning and learning strategies, and interventions. We mapped out the day several times, trying to arrive at a strong sequence and a manageable pace. We ended up focusing on three main goals or themes and these themes guided the day:

1) Data – We wanted to engage in the data available to us as well as discuss terms associated with the data sets we would be looking at. After looking at some provincial and divisional data, we wanted each teacher to focus on one specific data set for one specific class and one set of students. We felt that looking at more than that would limit our ability to plan responsive instruction that would impact students the very next day.

2) Learning Strategies or “Habits of Mind” – We knew that this was one of the key pieces of both whole group instruction and small group intervention. We wanted to really explore the importance of thinking processes and metacognition as a way to address learning both proactively and responsively. We knew we wanted to develop familiarity with these key processes and connect them to curricular outcomes in each subject area. We also wanted to frame them in relation to feedback, reflection and goal setting. Most importantly, we wanted to connect them to actual students and allow time for reflection on which processes may need to be taught and reinforced in order to increase learning.

3) Small group, Tier One intervention in a whole class setting – We wanted to end the day by thinking about how we structure our class time and the instructional approaches we use in order to maximize learning by each and every student. We were aware that teachers offer targeted intervention and instruction to small groups at recess, noon hour and after school. However, we wanted to talk about how teachers could structure their actual class time to allow for some of this work. The idea harkens back to our work on differentiated instruction but it moves beyond flexible groupings as part of a whole group approach. We wanted to connect the thinking habits to the idea of targeted, teacher-directed small group work. Based on our achievement data, we know we are reaching 70% of students most of the time through our whole group approaches. But that still leaves 30% who we aren’t reaching and that number is too large to leave up to whole group approaches. So we needed to talk about how we use our class time to address the gaps.

In my next post, I will share how we ended up structuring our workshop day to try to address all these lofty goals. In a subsequent post, I will explore what we learned, both as expected and by surprise and some of the responses of the participants. For those of you who engage in experiences like these, you understand that these blogs capture the learning through select lenses. Actual personal experiences are as vast as each person who was involved. However, my own reflection and observations have helped me to think about the future and these personal thoughts are what I am working through.

PD for an Entire Division: Part One – The Set Up

This year, our team made the decision to host one workshop day for every teacher in our school division in order to look at student data. In our most creative moment (enter sarcasm), we called these days Data Days. As I type this introduction, I can almost hear the gasps – PD for everyone? Where every teacher listens to the same thing? More sit and git (or whatever else we call terrible PD these days)? And about data…the dreaded data that hinders real student learning? Well, I know we worked pretty hard to make sure our Data Days were responsive, constructive, applicable and personal. And, while each teacher who has attended will have all sorts of perspectives on our success, I can only offer my perspective and thoughts (based on reflection, feedback, follow up emails and conversations) about why I feel this has been an incredible journey despite the “whole group” beginnings and my own personal anxieties about doing this with any success.

First of all, the planning team consisted of three coordinators – our Early Learning Coordinator, our Continuous Improvement Coordinator and me (Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment). We later added one Superintendent, who shares provincial and divisional data at the beginning of each Data Day. We rounded out the facilitation team with the addition of one learning coordinator at each day as well as one IT support person to ensure we could access our data electronically. Finally, and on a very positive note, our Director and all three Superintendents of Schools have ended up attending days here and there and have immersed themselves in working groups, co-constructing with teachers. While this could have been intimidating for teachers and boring for these leaders, it has turned out to be incredibly positive for shared understanding and relationship-building as well as very supportive to the Early Learning Coordinator and me, who have facilitated each day.

Our team planned and re planned; constructed and deconstructed; researched and reflected for well over a year on how these days would look. We settled on the Pre-K to grade six teachers attending with their grade level cohort group (these groups have spent five years together, working on curriculum, planning, assessment and responsive instruction). Those eight days were held before Christmas and they involved extra reading, observational and environmental data sets acquired from some division-wide assessments we do. In January, we hosted a day with K-6 teachers who do not teach ELA (and likely don’t have a Homeroom). We have since followed up with four days with grades 7-12 teachers, with the last three of their days happening next week. In other words, sixteen days in total when we are done (and from a teacher or administrator’s perspective, one day each). When I consider the learning, discussion and questioning that has occurred as a result, I don’t even know where to start! These days have certainly achieved the goal of acting as a catalyst for further discussion and, for me, have given me so much to be excited about for our students.

In documenting the set up of our Data Days, I should explain the PD journey our Division has travelled since we became a larger school division, amalgamated from several smaller divisions eight years ago. This is important because we could not have had these days work the way they did without the previous ground work. So, some highlights:

We have spent time on PLC development, including developing strong Mission, Vision and Values in each school and as a Division (based on the work on the DuFours).

We worked together to examine renewed curricula with a UbD lens (see Wiggins, McTighe and Ainsworth), unpacking each and every curricular outcome, creating strong Essential Questions and thinking about what student needed to know, do and understand.

We spent years exploring assessment, resulting in an Assessment and Evaluation Handbook (based on the work of many authors, including O’Connor, Wormeli, Cooper, Marzano, etc.). We also created a rubric for every curricular outcome, adopting a consistent four level continuum in every subject at every grade level. We then created possible assessment events for both formative and summative purposes. We also developed our own divisional grade book and new report cards for all grades. We moved to reporting documentation in Pre-K and K, alpha codes in 1-8 and percentages in 9-12 (but still based on outcome-based learning and assessing as well as rubric use for creating responsive instruction and offering timely and specific feedback.)

We created a division website called Curriculum Corner ( http://curriculum.nesd.ca/) where we house all the above work. We share this work with the world as a show of solidarity in our global desire to support learning.

We have spent years exploring differentiated instruction, including embedding DI Facilitators in every school. Our work was based on authors such as Tomlinson, Silver and Hume, among many others. We have since shifted to co-teaching in all schools this year, with workshop days held to support this work.

We have spent three years developing our RtI approaches, forming response teams in every school. We have adopted PBIS as an pro-active approach to behaviour and learning and each school has developed their own Behaviour Matrix. We have also purchased and modified a data tracking system for RtI purposes.

We have worked with early learning educators on creating and nurturing play-based environments, documentation of learning, invitations to learn, etc., focusing on the work of Reggio Emilia.

We have worked with all teachers in grades 1-6 on readin; in particular, administering and responding to the Reading Assessment District and Diagnostic Levelled Reading. We have talked a great deal about learning strategies and metacognition in our many days together as cohort groups.

We have offered optional PD within our division from well-known presenters like Deb Silver, Rick Wormeli, Damien Cooper, Karen Hume, Tom Schimmer, etc. We have also held our own workshops on topics like: Inquiry, Daily 5 and Guided Reading, Creating Responsive Environments, Learning Strategies, Core French, Arts Education, Health Education, FNMI Art and Math, Physical Education, Leadership, Google Ecosystem, I Pads, Digital Storytelling, Digital Citizenship, Anxiety in Students, etc.

Without all this work, we could not have had the conversations we did when we met in groups at our Data Days this year. In my next posts, I will attempt to explain the format of the Data Days, the data sets we were examining, how we tried to make the days personal and constructivist, how we ensured the work was relevant to what teachers would be doing in their classes the very next day, the challenges in our approach and, most importantly, the fantastic learning that resulted for me and those around me.

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.