A Journey of Assessment

One of the strengths of the University of Regina Middle Years Education program is that there are so many different connections that can be made between the courses we take. Recently in our ECS410 Assessment class, I had the privilege to reconsider Dr. Joel Westheimer‘s “No Child Left Thinking: Democracy at Risk in Canadian Schools”, and look at Assessment through this lens.

I want to share my reflections, since this process has really influenced how I frame assessment and qualify my own experiences with it, both as a parent as well as a teacher.

  1. What did you find most interesting about Dr. Westheimer’s talk? Why?

I always appreciate hearing Dr. Joel Westheimer’s views on education. Having read his book, “What Kind of Citizen?” for ESST317 – Teaching Engaged Citizenship: Social Studies and Social/Environmental Activism, I was familiar with some the ideas that he presents in this video. What I found most interesting about this talk was his analysis of the aims of standardized testing and the methods of collecting and interpreting the data and the various ways in which it can be detrimental to students. I also appreciated the challenges of standardized testing, especially having come from, and lived through EQAO as both a parent and a teacher.  I have seen how mandatory testing of all students in Grades 3 or 6 can be skewed by students whose abilities, for one reason or another, fall below the “norm”. My own daughter, who couldn’t read well enough in grade 3 to complete the EQAO Reading test on her own, was given an NI rating – ‘Not enough Information to accurately assess her comprehension of the texts’. However, by Grade 6 she had caught up to her peers and was able to complete the EQAO Grade 6 test at/above the provincial standard. Now attending Queen’s University, her goal is to teach High School English. This example demonstrates how Grade 3 can be a particularly challenging year to collect data. Surely exempting students that for whom completing this level of testing will be detrimental or ineffective, would be prudent. As a tutor, I worked with many students who had developed so much anxiety about the EQAO testing that they could not perform successfully at all. These examples make me question whether the results match the intent of the tests, and if, as Westheimer suggests, a sampling of students might not be a more accurate indicator of educational effectiveness. I was pleased to hear that testing in Saskatchewan is not carried out in the same regimented manner. Furthermore, you can imagine my pleasure at hearing from Greg Enion, Director of the Regina Public School Division, that the two standardized tests that the Regina Public Board administers can be opted out if the teacher/school deem a child will be detrimentally affected by taking this type of test. Furthermore, the Regina Public Schools assessment methods place more emphasis on “Value-Added Assessments”, which meet their Assessment philosophy: “Assessment is a sensitive, caring process based on the assumption of achievement for all.  Regina Public Schools assesses for, as and of learning in a variety of ways and contexts.” I am excited by the possibility of working in a school division such as this.

  1. Two ideas/statements that you agreed or disagreed with and why?

One point that I agreed with was the idea that a classroom in a democratic society should look different than a totalitarian society. To me, the most important difference is that we are teaching children to question, adapt, and affect societal progress. This point goes to this quote from the Canadian War Museum that Dr. Westheimer mentions at the very end of his speech:

“History is yours to make. It is not owned or written by someone else for you to learn … History is not just the story you read. It is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror and replete with hope. You shape the balance.”

Teaching students to be democratic thinkers means giving them the experience of affecting change in their lives, the community, and beyond. Understanding that the choices they make can and do make a difference, this models active citizenship and democracy.  In our class ERDG317 Teaching Critical Literacy, we are currently reading, “Critical Literacy – Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text” by Maureen McLaughlin and Glenn DeVoogd. In it, they support Westheimer’s position, stating that one of the four dimensions of critical literacy is, “taking action and promoting social justice – reflecting and acting to change an inappropriate, unequal power relationship between people”. I believe that developing students, to be critical thinkers that believe in affecting changes in their world, is indeed one of the main goals of the middle years classroom, and one that I value.

The second statement that I agree with is the idea attributed to Larry Cuban – “You have to meet students’ expectations, and then change them.” In other words, you have to meet their idea of what school is, before you can break it. I interpret this as meaning that the classroom must at some level be a comfortable, safe place in which students can feel grounded. This also means that students must be comfortable with you as a teacher before they will take risks and step outside the zone to question things. A teacher can create this environment by establishing a connection with each student, and modelling that it is acceptable and important to think critically about the world around us. In this way, a teacher can allow students to relate their learning to their own worldview, and enable them to grow beyond their safety net.

learning journey

  1. In your view, what is the most important concept mentioned for assessment theory and practice? Why is it important and how does it relate?

The point that I find to be most relevant to assessment is the idea that self esteem is the number one ingredient of successful people. A focus on self-esteem, combined with the research that shows that the number one goal of parents is for their children to be happy, support Westheimer’s criticism of teaching to the test and standardized testing.

Assessment should not only ensure that students are meeting the curriculum, but that they are doing so in a way that enables them to develop a strong sense of self-esteem and self-worth through the work that they produce. Assessment should measure the journey, not just the destination. By engaging students and assessing them in an individualistic fashion, teachers empower students to take ownership of their learning, thereby increasing self-esteem and happiness in their school life experience. Ultimately, this is the criteria by which I choose to measure my success as a teacher.

So regardless of your profession, how do you measure your success? Is critical thinking embraced in your workplace, or are you rewarded for “towing the line”? Do you focus on the journey, or the destination?

 

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How often do you breathe?

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I am a busy person. I always have been. My mind or my body is usually in motion, and anyone within earshot will confirm that my mouth usually offers a running commentary for my unsuspecting audience. At the front of a classroom, this translates into a need for  more “Wait Time”.

It seems obvious enough that allowing wait time is important in the classroom; giving students time to think of answers before blurting out the right one, waiting for silence before continuing on with a lesson, making room for quiet reflection to ebb in the flow of a busy classroom.

But while this is true, I have also found that I, too, need to open myself to wait time in my own life. Instead of busily racing from Pre-internship into the madcap chaos of our last three weeks of studies, I have found a need for solitude, reflection, and the digestion of the last three weeks. I found myself asking questions and reflection upon the experience, over and over again:

What did I learn? What did I do? What was important to me? What am I proud of? What would I do differently? What kind of teacher do I want to be?

…and so on, and so on. My brain seems to suggest answers constantly, filtering and filing the good ones. Sometimes the answers come in the middle of the night. Other times they pop into my head when I am having a completely unrelated conversation with family or friends. And so my brain, my spirit, my body, and yes, even my mouth, continue to process this experience. I never would have thought that 3 weeks in a classroom could have such a profound effect on me.

As I pause this weekend, before returning to classes, a 5 word truth hits me:

Purposeful pauses provide profound providence.

I have come to appreciate the value of reflection. Reflection doesn’t always reveal immediately what messages are most valuable, but if you give it enough wait time, the cream rises to the surface.

So looking ahead to the next steps, I realized today that just because I am busy does not mean I shouldn’t breathe. Even though I have an aggressive plan for the remainder of my degree, the breaks and pauses now also have my attention. Perhaps this is the root of my next Health Action Plan… taking time to breathe.

So, I will leave you with a question – How often do you “breathe”? What form does it take – journal reflection, incessant rambling, spin class, or something else?

Making room in the schedule for “teaching”

When I walked into my 3 week block this month, I thought my eyes were open. I knew that we only had 10 teaching days available because of extracurricular events. I knew I needed to be prepared, well planned lessons in-hand and ready for the class. Knowing all of this still did not prepare me for the fluidity of the classroom schedule.

I have enjoyed every minute in the classroom, but I have been surprised by the activities IMG_0484and interruptions that detract from “classroom learning”. There were the planned interruptions; a Grade 7-8 ski trip to Mission Ridge, a visit from the high school one day, followed by a tour AT the high school the next, the school-wide “Carnaval” Day, and of course the division PD Day and Teacher’s Conference. These things I knew about and planned for.

What I (and sometimes even my co-op teacher) didn’t anticipate were the other interruptions – half the class leaving mid-lesson for band practice, the Student Council members leaving to tally points in each classroom for Hawaiian Day, an impromptu pep rally for the Boys Basketball team before they headed to the City Finals, vaccination day (bringing with it a lot of drama and chatter in a Grade 8 class). Though a blessing to be in a school with many resources and funding, it can still be a curse in the classroom.

Students absences also created challenges; family vacations, extracurricular performances, sports and illness kept me on my toes.  Even when students are physically present, sometimes students are not mentally ready to learn, or the lesson doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Sometimes technology got in the way of my smoothly planned lesson. Wi-Fi can be sketchy, and buffering videos can be a dangerous game in Middle Years. Squeezing in the last 10 minutes of a video before a Friday ski trip worked!

And so, through the craziness of it all, I found my best weapon is flexibility. I have been thankful for my ability to go with the flow. Whether it was planning some differentiation in my lesson for those students at the head and the back of the pack, or a mid-lesson refocus because a concept needed additional explanation, I have been proud of my ability to react “in the moment”.

Whether the teaching occurred within my preconceived “lesson time”, or on the ski slopes, or during a brief interaction in the hallway, responding to student needs in the moment is one of my favorite challenges of this profession.

Hello… from the other side (of an action plan)

So I recently completed a Personal Health Action Plan for our EHE317 class. The plan was about improving my own emotional and mental health as well as supporting that of my husband and children. As a university student and a married mom of 4, it is understandably challenging to find time to connect in meaningful ways. In addition, our current family dynamics have been impacted by 1) having lived apart from my husband for the past three years, 2) moving homes (and schools) three times in two years, 3) and an older daughter at university during this same timeframe. In June, 2015, we moved to Saskatchewan and, aside from Sarah who remained in Ontario at university, we are now living in a new home. However, living under the same roof doesn’t automatically mean feeling connected to one another. Therefore, this action plan was about healing our sense of “belonging”, as described in the Circle of Courage.

After 21 days, I asked my family how ‘connected’ I had been to each of them, before, during and after the plan. Although there were some surprises along the way, I am pleased with the results. I think I made some good progress in connecting with both my family members and myself. Consider my original intent:

  1. To create purposeful timeslots for activities to focus on myself, my husband and my family. I will be in the moment and not divide my attention.

I did create purposeful timeslots for these relationships. Some of the planned activities never or rarely happened. For example, the dog walking with my husband.  The original reason (or excuse) was the cold weather, but other things ‘conveniently’ cropped up. However, the talking and time together with my husband that this was going to provide was fulfilled through lots of time spent indoors, talking and discussing options for remodeling our ‘new’ older motorhome.

Another comment about the timeslots came during feedback from my 14 year old. When I first created this plan, she had asked if I was going to plan time alone with each of the kids. My intention was that I wanted more family time – time spent together as a family. She didn’t seem too keen on the “family time”, but I shrugged this off, telling myself that, “everyone will enjoy family activities”. After the plan was over I asked her how my attentiveness and connectedness changed. She commented that during the Action Plan my attentiveness to her decreased – from “pretty good” prior, to “a little bit” during, and back up to “pretty good” afterwards. We had a long talk about this, and the fact that going into this action plan, she and I had a very strong connection with each other. However, during the Action Plan when I was working hard on family and spousal connectedness, she felt less connected to me. I appreciate my daughter’s thoughtfulness in answering the questions, and I think I overlooked this initially when considering the obstacles or challenges in this plan – what happens if there are strong bonds that will be adversely affected by my efforts to connect with others?

2. To be present in the moment when my family asks for my attention. If I am working on homework or otherwise occupied, I will give them my full attention wherever possible.

This wasn’t so much as structured time, as it was responsiveness. I think I did much better with this goal, as hard as it was. There were times when I knew I had assignments and readings to work on, but when my kids needed help, I gave them my full attention. When I did this, I found that the homework was completed quicker, we were able to make further extensions to their learning, and I enjoyed and appreciated the time we spent together more fully.

3. To “connect to myself”, I will also not take on ownership of resolving disputes if they arise between others. Learning to promote self-regulation, compromise and accountability in my children will improve my “connectedness to self”.

I can’t really tell you if I succeeded with this goal. My time to connect with self was definitely placed last on the list, getting demoted when anything else needed attention. However, as far as the ownership of resolving disputes, I think there were fewer disputes for me to get involved with. Perhaps being busy with my own work also eliminated me from the equation.

All in all, I am pleased with the progress I made. There are many things that I can continue to work on, but I feel that for a first action plan, I stepped up to meet the challenges that I established.

As Emma and I discussed today, now that our action plans are over, we feel the need to create a new action plan, with a new purpose! So, perhaps you have some ideas from action plans or goals you have set in the past… what has worked for you and what goals do you feel are meaningful?

Inquiry… then and now

I have lived through my fair share of “inquiry-based” learning, as a student and as a mom of 4 kids. Back in my school days, science fairs seemed to be presented in a way that gave students permission to delve passionately into a particular inquiry of their choosing. For me, this happened in Grade 8.

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Microfiche Reader, old-fashioned inquiry

I remember creating my Science fair project on the Human Eye and how we perceive colour. Back in those days, we didn’t have the internet to provide prompts and inspiration. We didn’t have a computer in our house and research meant looking through our 1965 (or thereabouts) version of Encyclopedia Brittannica. If I found the data antiquated (which I usually did), I would peruse our local library, or in dire  circumstances, I would even go to the Mississauga Central Library branch, which had far more resources; even video tapes and microfiche! It was a lot of effort for limited information, which we took for “gospel”. In the Education program, we often hear of the importance of teaching children how to properly research, choose credible sources and question intent. Resources are vast and diverse of worldviews. 30 years ago the data was harder to find, but we took it for face value.

 

But I digress. When I was judged on my colour project, I distinctly remember one of the judges asking me about the difference between tan and beige. I suspect his inquiry was based on the clothing trends of that decade. My display was visually appealing and colourful, but not as innovative or controversial as some other projects, such as dissolving nails and teeth in a glass of Coke. Looking back, I can’t tell you what the rubric looked like or how we were assessed. I investigated, I learned, I presented information. But was it inquiry? By definition, yes. But inquiry can be so much more.

I like how this video relates inquiry based learning to this Australian school’s mission to foster a desire in all students to make a difference; a personal, communal, national and global difference. This is something that I truly believe is the key to inquiry – why do I care and how can I make a difference?

So how can this impact how we present inquiry in the classroom? Consider for a minute differentiated learning. This is a topic that my fellow teachers Kendra, April and Emma are exploring with me for our own current inquiry-based learning. There is a wonderful variety of students that present themselves in any given classroom; different types of performers, “high” or “low” achievers, hands-on learners, EAL students, struggling readers and writers.

A Science Fair project can set up all sorts of successes, or challenges. Just look at this project designed by a frustrated mom a few years ago:

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One mom voices a common sentiment among parents and students

My son’s Grade 6 Science project is one example of lack of motivation. A few years ago, he, along with a partner, created a display that showed how solar panels could power a small computer. They enjoyed the hands on challenge of making it work, however they did not see the connection to real world problems that they hadn’t experienced. If they had explored a community that had scarce power, would this have deepened their inquiry into how this could provide a viable alternative for remote communities or countries? Would this have seemed more meaningful to expand the hastily written journal or reflection?

Also, this brings up the point of choice in presentation style. I am sure that if they had been given the opportunity to video blog their reflections, they would have been able to produce much deeper, meaningful reflections on their work. As someone who (for the first time ever!) did my very own video reflections this past term with my teaching partner, April, I am a firm believer that giving a choice of method will increase the content and understanding tenfold.  Here are 72 ways students can show what they know!

As I approach my 3 week block, I am planning for a Unit in ELA – Short Story Writing in the Suspense genre. I think of the students in my class – the same brilliant mix of students I mentioned above, and I wonder – How will inquiry based learning help them to achieve success in this unit? How can I, as an educator and a facilitator, motivate them to share their creativity with others?

My ultimate goal is that the students will want to share their finished products. Not only does this step complete the inquiry process, but it opens the experience up to not just personal, but rather, communal learning as well. I will keep you posted!

And so, readers, I ask you: What topics excite you? Does inquiry follow naturally in these areas, and does this always translate to sharing with your community, and beyond? How do you foster inquiry in others?

 

28 Words to Use Instead of “Awesome”

And for my Doctor Who fans and UK folks, “Brilliant” is an awesome alternative (literally!) #ECS311

Brian D. Buckley

It’s official: “awesome” is dead.

It’s our fault. We killed it. We took a word that literally meant “awe-inspiring” – a word used to describe Mount Everest and the Andromeda Galaxy and God Almighty – and applied it to a YouTube video of a kid failing to swing a stick.

Don’t get me wrong. Words change meaning over time, I’m all for evolution. But “awesome,” in its current state, has the impact of limp ramen on Kevlar. When someone tells me something is awesome, my brain files that something into the category of things that exist, because that’s all they’ve told me about it.

I know – I’m as guilty as anyone else. But as I carried the disease, so shall I deliver the cure.

Let’s give “awesome” a break. As writers (or merely as excellent dudes and ladies) let’s do our duty to the English language. The next…

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Reading between the students

… AKA “The Emotional Exit Slip”

I have been working with children and teens in various roles for the last 9 years; Sparks/Brownies, soccer coaching, math and reading tutoring, reading volunteer, and as a parent of 4 kids of my own. Currently I have the privilege to work in a Grade 8 classroom as a pre-service teacher. I have seen the dynamics of the schoolyard, a classroom, a gymnasium full of little girls. I have been the shoulder that my own kids have cried on through the ebb and flow of popularity and belonging.

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Some kids often feel left out

That is why when the below story popped up on my facebook feed from 2 years ago, it was a welcome reminder of one teacher’s method that has stuck with me since I first read it. It speaks to the very heart of the “connectedness” that I believe is key to a child’s success in the classroom, and in life. Rereading this article, I was reminded that the teacher in the story started using this strategy right after the Columbine shooting. In the wake of the LaLoche tragedy last month, I believe this type of “emotional exit slip” is a way that teachers can keep a pulse on their students’ mental health.

Below is an excerpt of the original article published in 2014 on www.momastery.com:

“Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who doesn’t even know who to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”

Having two of my own kids in middle years right now, this speaks volumes to me. The recent RAP training that I completed spoke of the four quadrants of the Circle of Courage – Belonging, Mastery, Independence and Generosity. As a middle years teacher, I believe that using the above strategy provides a safe “emotional check-up” with each student in a non-threatening way. But this is only the first step. By looking at the patterns – the lonely, the outcasts, the students who may be bullying or bullied – a teacher can find where a student’s circle is broken, and develop one-on-one and classroom strategies that enable those students to connect with someone. Maybe it’s a classmate, a reading buddy in a younger class, an older mentor, or a teacher. Connectedness and positive self-esteem can make a huge impact on a student feeling like an important part of the class, school and community. Ultimately these are the experiences that our students will remember, and without these connections, learning cannot begin.

So teachers, how can you foster connectedness in your classroom? Do you see other ways to use the data this activity collects?

Parents, do you check in with your kids who they connect to in the class? Does it change week to week? How might this help your understanding and connectedness with your own child?

The riddle of the English language

Below is one of my favorite poems that demonstrates the ridiculousness of the English language. We use words that originate from Latin, French, Germanic roots – it’s a fascinating read if you are interested. Being in the Middle Years B.Ed program, I sometimes feel like I am trying to piece together my own pre-existing knowledge and experience with the new theories, pedagogies and practices that we are learning about.

Much like the PFL perspective of transfer that we learned about this week in ECS 410, I know that I am learning for long term application. I may resist stripping away past knowledge and beliefs that no longer work in the new paradigm, but this Negative Transfer is important to analyse. Do I let go of past learnings? Do they still hold value? Do I marry them with new ideas to create something unique, perhaps my teaching philosophy?

So, I invite you to do two things:

  1. What have you read or learned lately that you are still processing? Have you old ideas that are getting in the way of embracing this new knowledge? By comparing and contrasting the old with the new, you open yourself up to a deeper, stronger understanding once you truly reflect and resolve this within yourself.
  2. Just for fun, read the poem below aloud. How many words can you confidently pronounce? How might you use this in the classroom?

Spelling - Teaching Spelling - Spelling Rules

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,

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Teaching starts at home

I recently read an article about a special one-day parent conference organized by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and its parent involvement committee. This conference was designed to bridge the gap between what happens at school and home. As a parent, I can totally relate to the struggles that parents have when faced with their children’s homework. With busy lives and the pressures of work, it can be tempting to hope that your kids finish their homework during classtime, or at the very least, know how to tackle their homework independently. But more important than ever, our kids need us to be present in their lives – emotionally, physically, spiritually, and yes, also mentally. Parents, as well as other key adult figures in a child’s life, model attitudes about learning, questioning, communicating, compromising. This got me thinking, “What kind of attitudes do I model for the children in my life?” If you ask yourself this question, as a parent, a teacher, or any role model, what attitudes come to mind?

Since a new year tends to be a good time for reflection, I invite you to take a minute to consider a few more questions with me:

  • Have I embraced the new day with excitement and enthusiasm? Here are 5 positive ways to start the day.
  • What kind of ripples am I sending out for the rest of the day – for myself and for others? My emotional state reflects on those around me. Our mirror neurons, as I have learned this week in RAP training (Response Ability Pathways (RAP) and Circle of Courage), offer us a way to directly influence the attitudes of those around us, especially our students. Here’s an article that shares how mirror neurons can influence perspectives in the classroom.
  • Am I present in the moment? This goes for time spent with family or friends as well as in pre-intern classes, at work, church or volunteer experiences. Living in the moment; putting down the cell phone, closing my laptop, and focusing on the interactions around me – this is the biggest focus for me in the new year.
  • Lastly, am I looking at my experiences in a mindful way? Also tied to living in the moment, this can help me to model for others the ability to focus on the things I can affect. For some ideas on the Art of Now, visit this blog.

I look forward to asking these questions often in the next few weeks, and sharing any new revelations they bring. Do you have other questions you are asking yourself this year? Please comment below with your own questions, comments or resources! Happy beginnings!