Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Do We Model Self-Assessment?

At our Manitoulin IGNITEd session on gradeless classrooms today, there was a lot of great discussion on the role of assessment in our courses. Jonathan So (@MrSoClassroom) posed some probing questions on our past experiences with assessment (both previously as students and now as teachers), as well as what the point of assessment in school should be.

One of the topics that a couple of participants delved into after Jonathan's presentation was on how students could better self-assess. How can we encourage (and eventually come to expect) students to reflect on their achievement? And how can they use the knowledge they glean from that reflection to help guide their future learning?

From Jonathan's Manitoulin IGNITEd slide deck

A question we kept circling back to, though, was how do students know how to self-assess? Can they be good judges of their strengths and weaknesses? Can they take that self-assessment and use it to guide how they approach learning in the future?

Do Teachers Self-Assess?

As teachers, this can be something we model. We do self-assess informally - talk with our PLN about strategies, evaluate how a lesson went, replay scenarios in our heads... and then use that reflection to plan our next lessons and units. We do this on a regular (daily?) basis, and we can argue that we've gotten pretty good at it. 

But our students rarely see it. If we want students to be able to reflect and self-evaluate - and see why it is an important process - we need to demonstrate how it is critical to our practice. 

So how can we make our reflections more public? Some ideas...

  • Blog, blog, and blog some more. Get your thoughts down on virtual paper and reflect publicly on what went right, and what went wrong. 
  • Seek input on said blog, and respond to comments. Show an evolution in thinking when in discussion with someone from your PLN.
  • Do a post-mortem on projects or big lessons with your students. What worked? What didn't work? Seek out student feedback and allow them to see you take it in to consideration in the next project or lesson.
  • Apologize when a lesson doesn't go well. Learn from your mistakes and start over. We preach that failure is okay, let's model it too.
  • Ask for feedback from your students and your colleagues. Have your students write a report card comment for you. What are your strengths? What are your next steps?

Assuming we are reflecting enough on our practice (reflection was my #oneword2016 this year, recognizing that I needed to actively practice it more...), what else can we do to model our reflection practices?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Determining the WHY

It's one thing to observe a phenomenon. It's another to understand not just what happened, but why it happened.

This really struck me last month. I was listening to the news, and there was a story about a fatal train crash in New Jersey. The question that everyone asked, of course, was: why did the train crash? 

On the surface, it is easy to answer - the train was going too fast. But that answer isn't good enough. It's not enough to know that the train was speeding, we want to know WHY it was going too fast. Was it a mechanical failure? The fault of the conductor? Malfunctioning signals? Grease on the tracks?

In other words, we want to understand the cause of the excess speed, so that we can make sure this tragedy does not happen again.

The Why in School...

We are learning to take the same approach to our classes. In some cases - applied-level math courses, for instance - we see only a small percentage of students achieving provincial standard. Why is that?

On the surface, just like the train, it's an easy question. In some cases, students just aren't doing the work. They're not working efficiently in class, and they're working even less outside of class (if at all) to learn and master the material. They are not doing all that is required of them, so they are not earning provincial standard, or in some cases, not even earning the credit.

But again, like the train, that's not a good enough - not a deep enough - analysis to say "The students aren't succeeding because they are not doing the work." We have to start, REALLY start, asking ourselves WHY that work is not getting done. And there are many reasons why students might not be picking up their pencils and putting in the work...

Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy

The goal of Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy is to have teachers start asking this very important why, and implementing ways to help our most at-risk students, including those with learning disabilities.

By definition, a student with a learning disability has an average to above average intelligence. They just have ways - that have been identified - in which it is MUCH harder for them to learn. For whatever reason, though these students have average to above average potential, students with learning disabilities are disproportionately taking applied-level courses over academic-level courses. And they are achieving success at lower rates in those courses than students without learning disabilities. 

So again, we ask ourselves, WHY?

That's not to say that we haven't asked ourselves this question before. But now we are being encouraged to really dig deeply for the answers, particularly when it comes to students with exceptionalities. This includes not just past achievement (results on report cards, standardized test results), but really looking at a student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Psycho-educational Assessment, and Speech & Language Assessment. We are looking to pinpoint very specific strengths and needs, for very specific students.

We recognize when we have identified students in our classes, but do we know - do we truly know - how to best accommodate for them so that they can reach their potential? For the first time we are really leveraging the expertise of our in-school Special Education Resource Teachers, and by pairing them with secondary subject specialists, bringing unified, purposeful interventions aimed at allowing those students to perform at their best.

And let's not forget, that what's good for a student with a learning disability, is good for even more students in the class. These purposeful interventions can have a huge, positive, trickle down effect.

That's what part of my new role is all about - digging down to determine the why for at-risk students with learning disabilities all across the school board, and working with teachers to best use that knowledge to help students achieve success in math. And perhaps we can prevent a few crashes along the way.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Tiny Connection

A wonderful little thing happened to me this morning.

I should start by mentioning that while I'm loving my new position, I do find it a little lonely compared with last year. At my home school, when I'm there, I work in an office by myself. Being in different schools throughout the week means I'm interacting with a lot of people, but I see the same people only on a semi-regular basis: lots of colleagues, but few friends.

Add to that the long drives and a good number of nights alone in hotels, and it's quite different than being in dynamic classes with your kids every day, or sharing lunch with your office of seven other zany science teachers!

(Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining - just reflecting on the difference. The position also brings with it a number of independent projects that fit my interests, and quite a bit of freedom to approach things in the ways that work best for me, something that wouldn't always be possible if I wasn't working on my own.)

I've particularly missed the connections with my students - checking in to see how they're doing, having conversations about mutual interests, or being able to see their talents develop over time. I assumed that similar types of connections weren't really possible when you don't interact with the same people every day. 

Which made this morning all the more wonderful.

I was in a secondary school, waiting in the main office for the administrator to become available. One of the students at the school - whom I had never seen before - complimented me on my dress.

Flowers on my dress today

"I like the flowers on it," she said. 

"Thanks - I like them, too," I replied. "I like that they're a little bit darker than you'd expect from flowers. Not so 'flowery.'"

"They remind me of the flowers I sketch."

"Do you draw?"

"I do. Will you be here for a few minutes? Do you want to see my sketchbook?"

She then disappeared to her locker, only to return a couple of minutes later with a pair of well-worn sketchbooks. We sat together, side by side, and she told me about her sketches - her inspirations, and how long it took her to complete them - as I flipped through the pages. 

I pointed out my favourite, a stylized profile of a butterfly, and shared that I wished I could be as good at drawing as she is.

It was only a few minutes, but it was a lovely conversation - a tiny little personal connection - that completely made my day. I don't know what made her want to reach out, but I am grateful that she did, and I hope she got what she seeking from the conversation too (encouragement? feedback? self-validation?).

It reminded me that though classrooms are natural places to reach out and relate to each other, these connections can happen anywhere. It takes just a few minutes to engage someone in a genuine conversation, and that might be all it takes to make that person feel valued, or even just to make them smile.

A kind word, or a simple compliment, can go a long way toward welcoming or connecting with someone in our schools. How can we make sure we don't lose sight of this in the busy-ness that is everyday life?