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?


All Ready for Tomorrow? Well, Maybe.

I just finished fine-tuning my plans for tomorrow, and I have to admit, I’m feeling deflated.

I went to the SUM (Saskatchewan Understands Math) Conference 2013, which featured Dan Meyer and Marian Small as keynotes. I got myself fired up to be amazing upon my return to school. Somehow, I’m feeling like I’m fighting a losing battle.

I can say with certainty that the lens I view the textbooks with has never been entirely rose-coloured, but upon my return, I have become very unenthusiastic. The questions and problems seem just short of pointless.

Their big redeeming quality, as Dan Meyer would point out, is that they have some content to use as a jumping off point. They are just written in the most monotonous way.

For instance, tomorrow we will be doing a review of perimeter to launch into the composite shapes chapter. The first question asks, “Draw a rectangle that has a perimeter of 24 squares on a piece of grid paper.” The second question asks, “Draw a rectangle that has a perimeter of 28 squares on a piece of grid paper.” The third asks, “Draw a rectangle that has a perimeter of 20 squares on a piece of grid paper.” The numbers here might be wrong, but the boringness is still maintained.

I do see the value in this — perimeter is a total measure of all the side lengths. There is an infinite possibility of side lengths that can have a measure of 24 squares. This could be powerful stuff. But it’s not, because it is so rote.

I wanted to come back ready to shake it up in my class. I am ready for that change, but I’m still struggling with executing it. I have plans for a Three-Act activity on Thursday, and I’m hoping that can spark the change. Where I’m struggling here is how I can start making small changes to my teaching that will eventually lead up to big ones? Are there little daily things I can/should do to help prime my students to have their minds blown when I’m ready to take that jump?

What? Science is Cool?

I don’t know if my students really understand what MIT is, or how big of a deal it is. I don’t even know if my students really understand how awesome they have the potential to be, when they want to be (or subconsciously want to be but try to be cool about it). I do know, however, that last week my students were pushed, and they excelled beyond my hopes.

A few months ago, I got a text from an old classmate, Kyle Webb. It read,

Happy Saturday. How interested are you in taking science class to the next level?

Little did I know that those 14 words would have such a profound impact on making school awesome for 45 fourteen-year-olds.

After I responded excitedly (that might be the understatement of the year), Kyle hooked me up with Mark, an Engineering post grad student at MIT who is working in/on environmental policy. Aside from my shear excitement to be working with someone who is as cool, if not cooler, than Howard from The Big Bang Theory, I was more excited to get to have an awesome teacher moment.

I hyped it up with my students. They were unimpressed. They were wondering what this whole MIT thing was, as apparently MIT doesn’t sound like a real university to a 14-year-old. I left it at that, but I maintained my excitement for a few weeks.

I had a few family things come up in the days leading up to when I planned on having Mark Google Hangout with our class. This turned out to be a good thing. We were working on designing the most ecofriendly house we could conjure up. The students grouped themselves up, and they worked somewhat diligently for a week, but they were frustrated. Their presentations, while alright, were nothing like I had expected or hoped for. They were kind of limp to be honest. Enough to meet what I sort of wanted, but not what I knew they could do.

The started on the extension of the project, designing the most ecofriendly community (after all if one house is good, couldn’t an entire town be better?). I grouped them this time, and they had a few days to work on this. Then Mark hungout with us.

Originally, I planned on him hanging out for about 35-40 minutes, then giving my students the rest of class to apply his ideas. I asked them all to come to class with a few questions, and they were all supposed to ask one question, but many students thought it might be “lame” or something.

What really happened was far more incredible. After some fun internet-related issues and about 3 power outages the morning of, we connected and Mark introduced himself. I quickly summoned a few students who had questions ready, and they began asking questions.

I have to admit, I was terrified. I didn’t proof any of the questions. I wouldn’t have been surprised if something inappropriate came up. But it didn’t. Even better, the students ask REALLY GOOD QUESTIONS. All of them asked really good questions. Even the students who had been struggling with this project. Even the students who had been disinterested with the project. Even the students who don’t like science. It was awesome.

Mark hungout with both of my science classes. Same setup, same Mark, but two completely different sets of questions. I have a total of 45 students. There was not ONE duplicate question. To be honest, I thought some of the questions were a bit outrageous when I first heard them, but Mark handled them with ease and proved that some of the most outrageous questions were some of the best questions.

As class was ending, a student stopped to pack up his binder. After his classmates were gone, he looked up and calmly said, “Miss Thibeault, that was really cool.” Then he wandered off to his next class, as content as could be. I don’t want to get to Hollywood on you or anything, but it was definitely a moment that was Oscar-worthy. I couldn’t have paid a student to have a better reaction.

Oh, did I mention that their ecocommunity presentations were awesome? They incorporated ideas from their discussions with Mark, adapted some ideas, and canned others. They poured their hearts and souls into them. And it was awesome.


Would I do this again? In a heartbeat.

What can I make from all this? It was a lot to digest, and it has taken a few days. What I’ve taken from this is that the greater audience is important, but his greater audience has to be visible, it has to have importance, and it has to resonate with my students. Mark did just that — he was cool, he was young, he was on the SmartBoard talking to them (woo!), and he conversed at their level.

Another important piece I pulled from this: the internet is great for having a huge pool of knowledge, which isn’t easy to navigate. There is still significant value in connecting with experts and asking questions. I didn’t give any students any questions. They thought of them themselves. One question sparked another from a different student. This kind of collaborating and feeding off of one-another just can’t happen in the huge google pool. They wanted to know and they wanted to learn.

The last thing I’ll speak to is me. I have no formal science education training. I was almost terrified (but up for the challenge) when I saw Science 9 on my timetable last June. I do, however, have the ability to help facilitate my students’ learning. I need to draw on resources, like Mark, that enrich my classes in ways that I will never be able to. This isn’t solely in science, but in math, career education, or any other subject I end up teaching. It could mean face-to-face, it could mean via Google Hangouts, it could be over twitter, or it could be something else. I owe it to my students to let them learn. After all, they proved that they really wanted to learn (even if a few of them kept it a secret so they could look cool).

Training Circuits

I have been to many conditioning and exercise classes in my time. They’ve drilled it into my head that some of the best workouts are in the form of short bursts that utilize different parts of my body. I have to agree. So, I decided to apply this to math.

The math coordinator for my school division came out to visit me last semester and introduced me to the idea of doing learning centres in math, but it has taken on a whole new life from what I originally envisioned after our meeting.

My basic set up is a set of seven stations — two practice stations, one skill check (quiz) station which I kind of axed and turned into another practice station, one reading station, one mad minute station, an open-ended problem solving station, and a Thibeault Time (3-1 time with me) station.

What I’ve learned so far — I am going to tweak these stations a little bit. I think it would be best to divide into four or five groups so I get more time with groups. I also would like to be able to get contact with each group each day (the current station set up means I don’t see one group each day).

I also have identified that there are common things in that I taught every group, regardless of their skills and abilities. That gave me a spark — why not do a hybrid flip-flop (flipped classrom-style ordeal, but have the videos available to watch in class instead of for homework)? Instead of having students wait to move on until they saw me (unless they figured it out correctly themselves), I could record a few videos, then have more directed instruction with the groups individually where we could work through at-level problems or reteach specific concepts.

I do want to keep the reading and mad minute stations, along with the open-ended problems simply because they workout different parts of the brain and provide a break from staring at questions all hour long. This ties into the circuit training — workout different things to get a better overall result. Same principle here — utilize different important skills (reading, problem-solving, and basic math) to get a better overall result. Not to mention, it is a good break for them. As of today, I haven’t had any classroom management issues. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing happens!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a few days now, but this morning I almost didn’t post because my confidence was rattled. A student was away for a few days and had NO IDEA what was going on. She was completely lost and didn’t get any meaningful support from her group. She came to her Thibeault time, smiled and nodded, then came to visit me at lunch. We’re doing similar polygons with her group, but she had no idea what scale factor was, and was therefore quite lost. I’m wondering what I can do to combat this issue in the future. I think having the videos will help a lot, but I also am wondering if I need to build in 10 minutes each day for open Thibeault time (anyone who was lost).


Any thoughts on any of this, especially when students are absent? I really appreciated the comments from the last post — they certainly helped me with the process thus far, as well as thinking about improvements for next go-around!

Change is Bad

Change is really hard to take, especially in education. Change is usually uncomfortable, and at times a nuisance. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Well, in a field as broad as education “broke” is not black and white. It’s not simply working or broken; sometimes, things can be bettered by an uncomfortable change.

Here is one of my many frames of reference: students like predictability. They like things they’ve done before. They like things to stay the same, and they seem quite complacent with the hierarchy of the class — the weak stay weak, and the strong shall remain strong. A change in teaching styles could shake up the hierarchy or at least make them uncomfortable. The students who tend to protest most about change are those who are at or near the top.

Photo credit to Sara Thibeault. (CC) 2013.

Photo credit to Sara Thibeault. (CC) 2013.

For instance, in one of my math classes, we will be starting a math circuit. I haven’t worked out the finer details of exactly whose doing what, where, when, and why, but I’ve got the basic concept down pat. I’ve decided to split my class into seven groups, loosely based on ability, but also on compatible workers. I created seven stations for my students to work at — Thibeault Time (3 on 1 instruction/help with me), Mad Minute (drill and practice on basic math skills), Math Mysteries (a few problems or related games to play), Practice (work time on an assignment, which they will visit twice), Literacy Time (reading at-level math history or math-related articles that I found), and Skill Check (a short quiz that students will take after they are ready to show mastery of a specific math process, or more practice time if they aren’t ready). I plan on working through 5 ten-minute rotations each day. I have a 62-minute class, and I’m allotting 5 minutes for Oh Canada/attendance/setup, as well as 5 one-minute breaks for rotation time, and two minutes for clean up. All of this will flow under the guidance of their individual learning contracts. This hopefully will minimize chaos and maximize awesome learning time. It’s going to be hectic and crazy, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Here’s the catch: I didn’t tell them about it. Why? I wanted to flip a unit with them (the polynomials one above, actually, with a few improvements) and they complained bitterly for days leading up to it. They were uncertainly about it for the first few days, and by the end they enjoyed it. A few students complained afterward too, and it was enough to rattle my confidence. So I went back to teaching on the board (not even the SmartBoard) and powered through the next unit.

The biggest complainers involved in this whole ordeal were the students, barring a few, who were at the top of the class. Maybe they were nervous that they weren’t going to be #1 anymore? Maybe they were nervous that it wasn’t going to work for them? Maybe they knew that they could coast and not have to do a ton of work with traditional teaching, so weren’t prepared to step u their game? I don’t know. I’ve seen it in a few of my other classes as well, and I’m a little disheartened by it. Just not enough to make me scrap my plans or kill my enthusiasm.

So this is where I stand — I have big plans for change in my classroom and students who are hesitant because it will be different and maybe even a bit awkward. Any advice for keeping them calm and getting them on-board? Also, has anyone else tried math stations in their classroom successfully (or unsuccessfully)?

Souffles, Neighbours, and Bystanders

I was out this evening picking up some souffle pans from a local dollar store, since I decided that we are going to be cooking souffles in math class for our unit in measurement conversion. However, that’s not really the point of the story. The very sweet cashier scanned all six of my glass dishes, and asked if I wanted them wrapped. Since there is a 25 kilometer journey in the morning, I thought I better have them wrapped up. The dishes are kind of awkward, so it was taking a fair bit of time. Fortunately, there was no one in line behind me. Just beside me, in the balloon section, a mother and her son, who was having a bit of a hissy fit, started walking toward our till. The mother then angrily glares at the cashier and me and says, “Can you just scan this for me?”

Preaching anti-bullying, but not standing up to bullying when the time comes is like making a souffle that comes out deflated. Flickr Photo Credit to PupCraze. All Rights Reserved.

Preaching anti-bullying, but not standing up to bullying when the time comes is like making a souffle that comes out deflated.
Flickr Photo Credit to PupCraze. All Rights Reserved.

Unfortunately, the cashier was in the middle of my transaction, so she politely replied that she couldn’t. The woman stormed out of the store, after throwing the balloon on the floor, then called over her shoulder, “You should have just taken the money. Sheesh.” (That may have been paraphrased for moral integrity of this blog).

As I was heading out, I profusely thanked the cashier, who was quite rattled by the experience. I apologized for the woman’s behaviour and for my unusual order. However, I’m still feeling quite uneasy about how openly rude and disrespectful this woman was.

I hate to say it, but this was the second verbal thrashing I have witnessed in the last few days. On Saturday evening, I was upstairs changing into my pajamas after supper. I heard some commotion outside my window, so I peered out. I saw two young-ish (maybe 25 year-olds) hollering at my neighbour to quite being creepy and to stop staring at them (again, paraphrased for that whole moral integrity thing).

Disclaimer: I have THE BEST neighbour I could ask for. He is the kindest gentleman I know. He loves to peer out his window and watch the world go by. Who doesn’t? He’s the guy who I go to when I don’t have a tool for something. He’s the guy I ask about all the Condo Association questions I have. He’s the guy who bolted my timer to my car power-post-thing (what ever it is called where you plug your car in during the winter) when I was at school, without even telling me. He is the guy that offered to/gave me a ride to my car that was parked at Tim Hortons because I got stuck on our street. He is 100% fantastic.

I couldn’t get downstairs in time to poke my nose out the door and tell those ladies to get over themselves. I did stand guard waiting for them to pass by again, but I was unsuccessful.

I wish I could say that I let these things go easily, but I can’t. I can’t stand by while people bully and harass others. What I’m taking from these experiences is that I need to be vigilant in my classroom to overtly promote kindness to one another, but also to help teach my students to how be respectful. This goes beyond “just being nice.” I need to continue to build positive relationships with my students and be a role model for them. I don’t want to see them grow up to think that this kind of behaviour is acceptable.

In both of these cases, the bullies got away with their harassment without so much as a dirty look from any bystander. This should not have been the case. I was a bystander at the dollar store, and I didn’t do anything during the episode. There were probably 10 other bystanders, including the store manager. They didn’t do anything either. That needs to change.