Can I PLEASE do my homework?

Recently, Ms. Proch and I took two huge steps: we flipped our Pre-AP ELA 9 classes and we also implemented Outcomes-Based Grading (Standards-Based Grading for my American readers). Needless to say, we’re really excited, but I’m also a little bit hesitant/nervous/anxious/terrified. I’ve done both before, but not in an English class. Math made some much more sense to me when it came to exactly what my class time versus homework was going to look like, but English is a whole new kettle of fish.

Today is the first day where I noticed a huge difference in what my class is like. I assigned some prep-work (the work my class will do the night before a class) last night for my students to do. (You can check out my class website for the resources mentioned.) Their job was to watch a short video on Shakespearean Insults and to do a little reading about how to paraphrase when reading Shakespeare. Today in class, we took our knowledge about how to read Shakespeare and applied it to how to write like Shakespeare. They were tasked to act as a “secret admirer” to another student in my class and write them a kind letter. In theme with Valentine’s Day this week, this letter could be romantic (not required) or platonic, whichever the students were comfortable writing, so that I can pass them out anonymously on Friday for a little Valentine’s pick-me-up (some of them were super sweet–I almost cried reading how kind-hearted my students are).

Here’s where my students were struggling with the flipped concept: they were working, but not very hard. I reminded them that the assignment was to be completed by the end of class. They had more than sufficient time to complete this work if they were working diligently, but many of them were not. As the deadline drew nearer–fifteen minutes left, ten minutes left, five minutes left–the students began to panic more. Several students put up their hand at the five minute marker, and asked if they could take this home for homework.

Normally, I would be OVER THE MOON if a student willingly volunteered to take work home so they could complete it and “do a better job,” but I’m in the process of retraining their thinking on how class works. I said no, and they were dismayed. I took time to have a “teachable moment” and explain that they need to be maximizing their class time or we aren’t going to accomplish anything all semester. I’m lucky to have a spectacularly motivated crew, so they were on board with actually being productive. I am also fortunate that I get to keep my class all afternoon, so we dipped into some of fifth period to get the letters done to their satisfaction.

All in all, this was a great learning experience for me: I need to be grateful for my very eager students, I need to be more diligent with managing class time, and I need to reinforce the difference between prep work and class work (and the absence of homework).

My question to you, as readers, is what strategies do you use to help your students to transition their learning habits from a traditional classroom to a flipped classroom? 

Marks or Learning?

Part of my teaching load this semester is Pre-AP English 9. This group of students is highly motivated, and I love teaching them. They are very good about completing their homework, they are outstanding when it comes to participating in class, and they are ultra respectful. They are also keenly interested in their grades. They are driven by attaining a numerical standard, for which I have no reference point. What constitutes an 83% versus an 81%?

Part of what got me thinking about this again was a few weeks ago when report cards were due. I have one student who has failed a few assignments and does homework about half the time. I was expecting a grade in the high 50s or low 60s. After I entered a few grades, I decided to check to see how everyone was “doing.” I was shocked to see a high 70. Based on the quality of work I’ve seen, this grade seems disproportionate to the skills the student has demonstrated. Another student, on the other hand, had about the same grade, yet has showed significantly more ability. Needless to say, I was puzzled and dismayed.

Another complexity that has me thinking about this is the issue of getting on the honour roll. For the most part, my English class students are pretty much all on the honour roll. They get their grades back, quickly do a an average and figure out if they attained the above 80% standard or not. I don’t know if I am completely able to justify what makes a student less than an 80%, especially when some of my students with lower grades work harder than the students with the highest grades.

To complicate the issue, I have been living in a strange vortex with my teaching load as well — I also teach Modified Science 9. My science crew are pleasantly happy when I return passing grades, but otherwise have no vested interest in the number that appears on their report card. They operate on a pass-fail mentality. As long as they have 50.0 or higher, they are doing great in their minds.

Both classes are leaving me with a bit of a dilemma. I am working to create valuable learning experiences, only to slap a number on it and shatter dreams if it isn’t the number they want. I have a few solutions for how to remedy this situation, because I’m feeling like a terrible teacher for not instilling a better sense of wonder and excitement about learning (rather than an obsession with numbers).

Firstly, I tried out outcome-based grading last year in math, and it worked fairly well for everyone involved. I was able to translate exactly what a number meant, and the students knew where they stood exactly. I am grappling with how to use this technique in English right now, since everything we do seems to be covering 302378039843238 different outcomes and indicators. Currently, I’m thinking that it might be best to design a series of general rubrics for each strand — reading, writing, representing, viewing, listening, and speaking. I am weary, however, because I don’t want to short-change my students by over-generalizing their work. I would be remiss to only score an essay based on one strand, writing.  Each writing piece also has so many intricacies. Would I, however, be able to score an essay on writing, representing, and reading, depending on the content of assignment? I haven’t worked out the fine details, but I’m considering this my Christmas project to iron out some key points of how to implement this assessment in an English classroom.

The second remedy I’ve been toying with is self-assessment. I had the blessing of taking two classes from Dean Shareski in university. For the second course I took with Dean, he implemented a self-assessment plan. He gave use lots of great assignments with a wide-variety of choice. I can honestly say that I worked my butt off for that class. I knew that I wanted to get a 90% in his class, so I worked hard to make sure I got it and deserved it. I know that self-assessment can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Some students will give themselves more than they deserve after slacking off and some students will give themselves less than they deserve after working really hard. I don’t know exactly what my self-assessment piece is going to look like, but I need to build one in to add a sense of ownership for my numbers-driven students.

I won’t ever be able to undo their love of numbers. I probably won’t ever be able to escape it, though I will try. What I can do, though, is tie a meaning to a number, rather than it being an arbitrary digit with no significant meaning beyond “I’m passing” or “I’m failing.”

Here’s where I’m at right now: once I get some outcome-based grading rubrics set up, my students could use them as a scale for formative and summative self-assesment. Their thoughts might sound like this: “I want to get a 5. Today, based on the rubric, I think I’m sitting at a 3. This is what I need to do to get from 3 to 5.” Of course, this won’t happen overnight, and it may not happen in a semester either, but I am going to try.

Of course, it would be unfair to my students to walk into class tomorrow with a brand new grading system. I want to get it right, so I will likely begin to develop different assessment resources for myself (and find a bunch too) to begin testing them on student work to help iron out the kinks. I can’t say what my teaching load will be next semester, but if I can figure out how to make the jump from math to ELA, I think I just might be able to make it work for any subject.

How have you implemented Outcome-Based grading in your classroom (or SBG if you’re from the states)? Any tricks of the trade? What do you do to alleviate the pressure students put on themselves for a grade?

 

Squirmy Yoga and Differentiation

I started taking a yoga class that one of our staff members has arranged for our school. I’m definitely not the “yoga-type” by any stretch–I like live a fast-paced, jam-packed life, and I can hardly sit still, let alone breathe with intention. I told my self at the start of the semester that I had to sign up and give it a solid try–that meant attending every week and trying REALLY hard to like it. It worked for olives, so it will hopefully work for yoga. I am now three months into the experiment and I can honestly say that I look forward to our practices. During practice, I do my best to be mindful and enjoy the session, which is kind of tricky when you are playing twister with yourself (right foot to left hip, right hand to right foot from around the back, left hand to the left foot, don’t fall over!). Each practice, our yoga instructor asks us to set an intention for the practice. I’m not entirely sure what I should be intending, but  without fail, I always set the intention of “I am going to relax and enjoy this.” Once it’s solidified with a wavering “ohm,” I do my darnedest to make that happen.

As I mentioned before, I’m not great at sitting still. I am a way bigger fan of the “moving and grooving”-type exercise, so the static nature of yoga is unfathomably difficult for me. I usually get into a pose, hold it for a bit, then start squirming. I don’t squirm because I’m not enjoying it; rather, I squirm because it’s tricky and I like to move.

I hadn’t really noticed just how squirmy I was until yesterday morning. I was especially tired from staying up too late working on report cards, so my concentration, balance, and ability to keep my eyes open were a little bit limited. About midway through the practice, I was flailing violently in a grand effort to not fall over whilst twisted up in the latest maze of a pose when I realized that everyone else either calmly put their foot down (how, I don’t know) or didn’t even waiver (again, how, I do not know). As I was about to wipe out, the instructor magically appeared by my side to steady me while the rest of class was statue-like.

This got me thinking about how much I appreciate my yoga class, especially the instructor. I go to class each week and I am greeted with a smile. I fumble my way through class, yet I always receive positive praise and little help when I need it. No one in my class gives me dirty looks for doing yoga “wrong.” I am in a wonderful learning space where I am exploring my own abilities. No one has ever told me to try something easier, to stop wiggling, or to try harder. Everyone accepts that I’m doing my best, and because of that I work to be better.

While we were in our last pose, my favourite “lay on the floor and relax so that you could almost fall asleep,” my brain got thinking about whether I was doing this in my own teaching practice. While I don’t teach P.E., I still want my students to be comfortable to explore their own abilities within each subject. As of late, I’ve been working hard to keep up with prepping and marking, so my differentiation for students who are not fitting into the mould has not been up to snuff. My students are learning, but are they learning their best? I am giving them lots of varied activities, but am I encompassing all the talents and hidden talents of my students? Am I asking my students to sit in their desks far longer than they should when many of them are kind of squirmy to begin with?

I’m certainly going to be asking myself these questions over the next few days while I’m planning my upcoming units. What tips or tricks do you have that help with building in movement into high school classrooms (without causing a huge raucous)? What sort of activities are your “go-to’s” for differentiation and exploring creativity when you are in a time crunch?

 

Raising the Bar

My Christian Ethics 10 class started a project last Monday exploring the Church’s opinion on a variety of moral issues, ranging from gun control to abortion to gay marriage to cannibalism. The students chose their own topics and their partners. For the most part, I simply explained the project to them, gave them a week to work in a computer lab and hoped for the best. Really and truly, I pretty much let them have free reign so long as they (1) defined their topic, (2) gave relevant information, and (3) explained the Church’s opinion by making direct references to specific teachings (ex. Ten Commandments, Consistent Ethic of Life, etc.).

They worked pretty diligently, asking a few questions here and there, for the whole week. Most students spent a little bit of time over the weekend putting on the finishing touches, but for the most part, they had plenty of class time to complete their work. They were tasked with creating a presentation in some form–a slide show, a video, whatever they thought would get the message across–and a handout for their classmates. Many chose a PowerPoint presentation, since they are comfortable working in that medium. Many chose other mediums, such as videos, simulations, prezis, and the like. It was really remarkable to see their projects coming together so well.

We started our presentations on Monday. The first few groups were very strong, and I was blown away. Tuesday rolled around and they were again very strong. Today, we had a substitute IA (instructional assistant) in our classroom, and the presentations went swimmingly again. She came up to me after and asked what grade level these students were. I said they were in grade ten and she was floored. We talked a bit about how well they were doing and perhaps why.

One of the key points we stumbled upon in this impromptu reflection session was the media. I know that the media, as of late, has a pretty bad rap with educators for disintegrating the next generation with profanity, highly sexualized content, and the like, but I am taking a different stance. The quality of television, websites, posters, social networking and so on is much higher than it was, and continues to improve at an astronomical rate. With this, media has also stepped up students’ expectations for student-generated content. Because technology is emerging so quickly that makes generating valuable and professional-looking work at home easy, students have set high expectations for themselves in terms of what is reasonable for them and what “good” truly looks like. Unknowingly, my students significantly exceeded my expectation for the quality of their work.

Furthermore, they knew that they weren’t getting marked on how they presented the material–they were getting marked on what they were presenting. They managed to step up their game on both. Perhaps this is because they think that having low quality information on a high quality presentation is funny looking, perhaps because having high quality information on a low quality presentation devalues the effort, or perhaps they are just awesome. I can’t decide, but I do know that I’m highly impressed.

One other plausible bar-raiser might be the change in what teaching and classrooms look like at our school. Each teacher has an iPad, as well as a computer. The quality of lesson presentation is vastly different than what was available when I was in high school less than a decade ago. I hardly use my whiteboard as a whiteboard, while I fondly remember writing notes for half the class copying from the chalkboard. Doing something remarkable for a presentation was a really awesome slide show or perhaps a video (which took hours to create and required a video camera with film in it), whereas all this technology is available to students on something that fits into their pocket. The “really-awesome-presentation bar” is now way higher because of the availability of this technology. Searching for something new and innovative is both challenging and easy–there are so many options, but you also have to find something and use it in a unique way.

For instance, a group of students used and XBox and Mine Craft to simulate drunk driving. I going to be honest–the execution was not quite right; however, the concept could have been developed into something remarkable. Perhaps Mine Craft was not the right medium, but a similar, more versatile second-life type program may have served the students better. 

The other key point that our discussion stumbled upon was the amazing confidence the students showed while they presented. We theorized that this is likely to do with the awesome work they poured into their projects. The students were each genuinely proud of the work they did. I was proud of the work they did. Their classmates were intently interested because of the great work they were doing. All this built into awesome confidence, even from a few of the shyer students. 

To be completely honest, when I envisioned this week a few weeks ago, I saw myself sitting through and marking slide show after slide show. I was planning on the students doing a good job, but I had no idea what a treat I was in for.

Smell The Roses

I really enjoy long-range planning. One of my favourite parts planning is calculating the number of hours each unit should have, then deciding on major assessment types, and finding really awesome projects. Long-range planning is so mystical and so hopeful. I’m not one to say that I stray from my long-range plans, per se, but some of the most wonderful ideas I have tend to slowly disappear when I discover just how much I need to accomplish in the allotted 13 hours for a specific unit. It sure doesn’t leave too much time for an in-depth inquiry project, complete with student-experts, student-generated media, and learning centres. While I’m certain it could be done (and I’m more than certain it has been done), it seems almost too daunting to take such a time risk at this point in my career. For example, investing two weeks into an inquiry project that should cover the majority of a unit would be FANTASTIC. However, if it flops I’m going to be two whole weeks behind, which stresses me out!

I’m slowly working myself up to more involved, student-centred lessons that stretch on for more than an hour or two in order for students to really dig into the curriculum with their own shovels. Currently, I’m about four hours into some inquiry for Ancient Rome in Social Studies 9, and it’s going well, but only time will tell. My assessments at this point are looking awfully hopeful though.

I am also teaching Modified Science 9. This class has taught me a lot (with more enlightened blog posts to follow, but I’ll stay on topic here), but in particular, I’ve learned to “smell the roses.” I feel significantly less time pressure with this class because we don’t have to explore the topics as deeply as regular programming. This lets me figure out what truly interests the students and use that topic as a launch pad for many lessons to come. This serves many purposes, including helping the students find a point of reference for the majority of each unit. They are significantly more interested because they are learning about things that interest them (while secretly covering the same curriculum from a different view).

A few days ago, I was stopped in my tracks with astonishment about quickly we were whipping through the current unit. I took the unit I taught last year in the regular programming and altered it to be at the appropriate level, which meant removing a few topics and supplementing them with similar topics that would be lower level and easier to work through. I started adding in the course work from my regular course in the last few days, and to my surprise they are absolutely crushing it. While my assessments and assignments differ a bit, the concepts are the same and I’m instructing with the same level of difficulty that I did last year.

This shocked me for two reasons: firstly, I was amazed at how well they are connecting their learning (something that I hadn’t seen earlier in the semester), and secondly, I was impressed with the fact that I stopped to smell the roses AND covered all the course work with no problems.

This is making me revisit my other courses to see what roses we’ve ran past in a race against the clock. It continues to affirm that student-ownership is hugely important in their retention and their willingness to learn. These “roses” are invaluable and could even potentially save time for more wonderful roses, even though it seems like they are only taking more precious time.

Common Courtesies Aren’t So Common Anymore

Our school has an awesome new initiative. It started as a twitter feed (@MilerKindness) and has taken on some momentum. We are launching a kindness scavenger hunt, which I’m proud to say I helped out with. It was pretty tricky thinking of fifty ways to be kind to someone (friend, family, staff member, stranger), which I found a touch concerning for my own sake. Because of this, I’ve really tried to be extra nice and form even more kind habits in my day.

I was at the grocery store last night picking up an appetizer to take to a Grey Cup party (thank heavens the Riders won! Go green!). I was arguably in a big hurry, since I lost track of time prepping at school. However, I took time to make small talk with the cashier. I asked if she was a big football fan, and she said that she really didn’t like watching football. I responded with that a friend of mine feels the same, which is why my friend loves working Grey Cup Sunday, since it gets pretty quiet. She was down-right grumpy about it. She complained about how horrible it was to be working. Needless to say, I was pretty sorry that I’d tried to be nice.

Where this leads me back is that common courtesy and the art of small talk seems to be, well, a lost art, especially from my generation down. We are all destined for neck problems from staring at our phones, rather than taking a moment to brighten someone’s day.

I’m working at building these every-day existence skills into my classes. I took a few minutes in English to discuss email etiquette. We’ve talked about netiquette too, but I think real-life etiquette sometimes gets skipped over.

What successful ways or ideas do you have to build kindness and common courtesies in your classroom? Any suggestions? Aside from modelling positive behaviours, I’m kind of stuck! (PS. I teach mostly grade nine students)

It’s Time to Recognize

Well, I’m pleased to say I’m back to the blogging world after a somewhat long hiatus. It’s not that I intended to be gone for so long, but, as you probably know well, the life of a teacher is busy!

I have spent the better part of the last month really focusing on what I’m grateful for: good health, a wonderful family, supportive friends, and a welcoming school. I am happy to be back at the school where I completed my internship in Fall of 2011. My heart is so full of gratitude for the kindness the staff have extended to me so far this semester.

In particular, a number of staff members have volunteered to “take me under their wing” to informally and formally mentor me. To me, having a group of mentors is invaluable. Each person brings a different perspective, different advice, and a different skill set for me to draw on and hopefully emulate.

One person, in particular, has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make me feel welcome and loved. Jodi, an enthusiastic technology expert, has an unparalleled pedagogy. She strives daily to connect personally with her students, all the while using multiple forms of technology and media to deliver a sound education to everyone who sets foot in her classroom.

What strikes me most profoundly about Jodi is her kind nature. She never seems rattled, she always looks for positive solutions, and she always has time to lend a hand. I can honestly say that no one has had a more powerful impact on my pedagogy, desire to further my knowledge formally and informally, and plain old love of teaching than Jodi has in just a few short months. She is truly inspiring. I can attribute 90% of my sanity in the last few weeks solely to Jodi and her caring advice. 

Because of this, I am in the process of nominating her for a provincial teaching award to recognize her for being so gosh-darn wonderful. What I didn’t know before I started doing my research on this incredible role model is just how involved Jodi really is. Her resume is jaw-dropping, and her technical abilities astound. She is digitally connected through social media and blogging, and she makes such strong connections in the physical world too. I could probably write a fifteen-page essay on just how remarkable she is, but I have marking to get to eventually.

Why I write today is partially to recognize Jodi, but more importantly to highlight the importance of recognition in general. Teaching is such a politically sensitive job. We are continually scrutinized by the government and the public. Our careers can quickly become so negative. One of the complaints I’m hearing most often from the teaching community is that they feel undervalued. Perhaps this value doesn’t need to have a dollar sign (although, I won’t complain if it does), but rather it needs to come in the form of praise and recognition. This praise doesn’t need to come in the form of an award, but rather in small, personal moments. It can be as simple as saying “I walked by your classroom today, and I was so impressed with the mature discussion your students were engaged in.” It could be a note in a mailbox thanking someone for their help with a particular lesson. It can be anything, but I think it is all too often forgotten about. We have a busy job, and things like this can quickly be put on the back burner. Let’s support our fellow colleagues and take a moment every now and then to recognize each other for the tremendous work we all do.

If you’re reading this and you’re a teacher, I bet you are thinking about a remarkable teacher you know too. Let them know it! If you are a parent, a student, or anyone else, you probably know a teacher who could use a pat on the back. Take the next three minutes to do it. Send them an email, write them a quick note, text them, tweet them, phone them, or find a funny comic that reminds you of them. Whatever you want. Glue macaroni onto some construction paper, even. Whatever you do, remember to be grateful for the work everyone does. It takes a minute of your time, but it will make that teacher feel wonderful for a lifetime.

Jodi, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU. You are a miracle worker every single day. I have a high-five waiting for you tomorrow morning!