Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One Voice or Many? A student’s perspective

The following article was submitted by a Gr. 11 student at my school.  In it, he makes the compelling argument for schools and teachers to embrace the internet as a learning tool.  I thought I’d share it.  Thanks, Tommy, for agreeing to have your writing posted on my blog!!

            Within the last 15 years the internet has made its way into every bedroom, kitchen, classroom, car, office, office, meeting and pocket. Needless to say the internet is here to stay. Now the question being asked by anyone who is looking into the future of our youth is this: Should students be turned on to internet in the classroom rather that of the single limited voice of a teacher?

            There are two very opposite sides of this ugly headed beast. Old fashioned people (most likely older teachers) will preach to you the benefits of the classroom environment, and learning at a designated pace. They will try to convince you that ancient methods of pencil and paper are the only way to educate unruly teenagers and to control their hormonal angst. But these people are fools.

            I have been educated by the pencil and paper way since kindergarten. I have always been the kid in the middle of the class answering questions, acing tests and intimidating classmates.  Not to be pretentious, but as one of the students receiving the greatest reward from this method, even I have to say when compared to the things you can learn on the internet:  it sucks.

            In ancient times the way kids learned was through following their father or mother around every day and learning through what they saw. But this method was later cast out in favour of schools. At the time it was a great idea. People adapted to circumstances and created schools for children to learn. But why are we so afraid to adapt now?
            The internet is more than just an alternative, it represents change, and it represents the future. Our modern adaptation to our modern circumstance is to embrace the internet in education.

            The internet is a resource for learning that I have used for as long as I can remember.  When I have French homework I don’t understand, I use an online translator.  I have used the internet to find info on biology, chemistry, and physics that were explained to an extent that not even the greatest science teacher could imitate. I found online quizzes to test my knowledge, crosswords to check my vocab, and on top of that I studied with other students through Skype!

When I have a funeral to go to and I forget how to tie a tie, I learn on YouTube. When my family plans a trip we book it online. I have an aunt and uncle who immigrated to Canada about 35 years ago. They still can’t speak fluent English, their accent is terrible, and they refuse to adhere to Canadian style living. My aunt and uncle also own an laptop with windows 7 because even they realize that they’ll be left behind without it.

            If the internet was in the classroom it would be beneficial to everyone. Good teachers would emphasize what students learn online. Bad teachers could be picked out because students would have more than one voice in their ear telling them what is true about Science or Socials, Math, or English!

            Although there are also many negative things that the internet brings to the table that the pencil and paper method does not, it should not take away from the internet as a whole. I personally believe that there is still merit in classrooms, but just not enough to convince me that it’s the best way to learn right now in our present day and age.

            If I asked you right now to go and define: PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS would you look it up in a medical dictionary? Or would you Google it? Unless you have a medical dictionary right there next to you opened on the right page, 99% of people reading this would look it up online. Please don’t have the audacity to say that the dictionary is more accurate or reliable, because if they had just discovered a new side effect to PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS (a lung disease) the first place to have it would be the internet. In fact it’s also ironic that when I use Google as a verb, there’s no squiggly line underneath to designate an error. (Word servers are updated online.)

             The internet is so much a part of our daily lives that we don’t even notice it anymore. The GPS in our car, the apps on our phone, even the contacts I’m wearing that I ordered online. The internet is part of us, and it should be part of our education.
             The main reason though that I believe that students should be turned on to web browsing is that the internet is the voice and tool of everyone who uses it. The deal breaker for me is that it all comes down to:  

            If you’re thinking that peoples voice don’t matter? Really? In Egypt the people voice broke down the government, in Libya the peoples voice is breaking down the government. In America the people voted for an African American President. The peoples voice matters, and the internet is the people’s voice.

            The internet is our best, modern, and acceptable form of education for today’s youth. The internet is opening doors every day for people who didn’t know that these doors existed. The internet, like us is constantly changing, evolving and adapting and this why we need it in our lives. We need to adapt, we need to change we need to evolve, and the internet is the way to do it.     

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Death of the Grading Program

In my opinion, the single biggest impediment to high school teachers embracing grading practices that promote learning is an over-dependence on grading programs.  The irresponsible  use of these programs reduces the grading process to a collection of numbers or statistics.  The problem with an over-dependence on numbers, as Mark Twain writes, is that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Having said that, I shudder when I think of my first five years as a social studies teacher and how I assessed and graded my students.  I would assign homework assignments, projects, and tests.  I would religiously input the students' scores and periodically would let the grading program assign a grade to the students. 

Any question by a student or parent regarding a grade would result in the standard answer: “When I run the numbers, this is your grade” (as displayed a long list of numbers).  Or better yet, “When I look at your results, I see that you missed a homework assignment (three months ago!) which has brought your grade down 7.4%” 

What was I thinking?  Why was I “counting” everything?  What about giving students an opportunity to practice their learning (without penalty)?  How about the notion that learning happens over time?   Why was I averaging? 

Sadly, I was letting the grading program do my job!  I was abdicating my responsibility to assess and grade my students, leaving it instead to the grading program.  For some reason, I was led to believe that as a teacher, there was no room for my own professional judgement (based on a comprehensive and legitimate body of evidence) to determine a grade.
I recently read the “Philosophy of Grading” out of the University of Georgia that was originally published in 1989.   Part of the policy states:
... Grades are not numbers. We use numbers to ensure that grades are given fairly, but the grade itself is a teacher’s professional judgment of a student’s knowledge.
Grading and assessment should never be reduced to a set of numbers.  As a teacher I assess my students - not the grading program.  I distinguish between formative and summative assignments.  I look for improvement over time.  

Today, thankfully, I have been liberated from the clutches of the grading program! 

As schools embark on the process of reforming grading practices, the reform they seek goes beyond retooling any grading program.  True reform lies in shifting the hearts and minds of the practitioners. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What do you look for?

Recently I heard Marcia Tate, brain based learning author and speaker, describe the five practices every administrator should see when walking into a classroom. They include:

Students Talking

The research tells us that the person talking is doing the most learning
Students Moving 

The research tells us that moving activates muscle memory and procedural memory 

Students making connections with their learning 

Some brain based learning strategies that help students make connections include: writing, the use of storytelling, using visuals, role playing, games, using technology and listening (or creating) to music.

Positive Atmosphere

Classrooms that are imbued with humour and build students' confidence increases learning.  In addition, teachers that are passionate  and show enthusiasm create a climate conducive for  learning.

Purposeful Classroom 

Students do better when they understand the learning goals for the lesson and when they can relate to the lesson on a personal level.

Listening to this presentation has caused me to revisit what I look for when conducting classroom walk-throughs.

What would you add to this list?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nurturing the Inner Life of a Teacher

This past January, we had a staff retreat at which I lead a session on “nurturing the inner life of a teacher”. Much of my session was based on the thoughts of Parker Palmer and his book “The Courage to Teach”. 

The main premise of Palmer’s book is that we as teachers “project the condition of our soul onto those that we teach” (Palmer 2007).  As teachers then, we must be self aware of our gifts and shortcomings.  Being aware of the flip side of our giftedness and nurturing our inner selves, will in the end, allow us to fully live out our life as a teacher (you can substitute teacher with anything).  This, in the end, will allow us to be present to wide, demanding and changing needs of our students.

In some further research, Palmer goes on to identify the top five “shadows” (to use Carl Jung’s term) or “weaknesses” that teachers in his study self identified. 
These top five shadows include:

Insecurity about identity and worth
This shadow manifests itself in such forms as jealousy towards other professionals, the” school owes me” attitude, competition with others, and a hostile attitude towards students.

Universe is hostile
This shadow manifest itself with attitudes that assume the worst in people and general negativity towards what people (or the school) are doing.

Everything depends on me
This shadow manifests itself by such actions and attitudes as lacking a balance between work and personal life.  This person wants “to be all things to all people” at the expense of their personal wellness.

This is the most common reported emotion for teachers.   Teachers identified such things as fear of failure, success, bad reputation and violence.

Denial of Death
Cannot “let go” of the past or present.  This person resists the natural order of the universe that says that all new things arise from “letting go” of the past.  This person resists change.

I would argue that as education professionals, the more aware we are of our inner lives the better equipped we will be to deal with our students and colleagues. 
As a change agent, understanding and nurturing the inner life of your constituents will only serve to enable change at much more sustainable level.

During the retreat, I asked the staff to reflect on and discuss, with a trustworthy partner, the following:
Which shadow do you struggle with the most?  What have you done (or will you do) to mitigate the impact of this shadow?

To deal with our own blind spots I suggested that we become reflective practitioners. Donald Schon describes this process as "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning", which, according to the Schon, is "one of the defining characteristics of professional practice" (Schon, 1983)

You’ll be happy to hear that I’m still figuring it out!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Does our talking match our walking?

“Culture is the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges.” (Deal, 1993) 

“What are we doing and why are we doing it”?  This is a question ask myself daily. 
As the principal I see myself as the guardian of the school’s culture.  One of my favorite researchers on this topic is Edgar Schein.  In his research he identifies three levels of organizational or school culture: the artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions. 

According to Schein, a school’s artifacts are those things that are easy to observe but more difficult to decipher.  Artifacts can be ambiguous and are often dependant on the observer’s reference point (Schein, 2004).  Schein goes further and states that to find a deeper level of understanding of a culture one must move to identifying the espoused values of a school.  The values themselves fall on a variety of levels.  At the outset, a culture’s values might not be shared knowledge; they must be tested over time (Schein, 2004).  Once a group’s values are reinforced through such things as problem solving, stories, traditions, and celebration than those values can become basic assumptions

Schein argues that these assumptions are the root of an organization’s culture and are so strongly held that any behavior based on a different premise in inconceivable (Schein, 2004).  These basic assumptions, according to Schein, are at the core of understanding organizational culture.  Good or bad, these assumptions are so entrenched in the group that, at times, it can be the cause of the distortion, or rationalization of certain realities.  As such, the challenge for leaders is to identify the assumptions of a culture, assess them and come up with coping strategies to deal with the anxiety when you try to change them.  

As we plan for next year our leadership team is asking important questions related to our shared sense of purpose contained within our school culture.  In other words, are our stated values and visible artifacts congruent with what we believe and do – across all stakeholder groups?  Put another way - does our talk match our walk?

To accomplish this, we will have to test whether or not our stated values are being matched by the actions of our stakeholders – in this case, the professional teaching staff of the school.

The following is a sample of some of the espoused values at our school and some guiding questions that I came up with to test our underlying assumptions: 

We educate the whole child. 
Testing underlying assumptions:  
How is teaching and learning conducted in the classroom?  How much differentiation is happening?  Is technology being embraced?
How do we assess and grade our students?  
Are learning opportunities extended beyond the classroom?
What extra-curricular activities do we provide our students?

All children can learn.
Testing underlying assumptions  
Do our actions affirm our belief that all kids can learn?  Does our assessment and grading reflect this?  What does success look like for students?
Do you follow the pyramid of intervention effectively and consistently?
Do we understand the different ways that students learn?  (Brain based learning)
Do our school polices related to such things as admission, discipline, grading & reporting align with this stated value?
Who is control of the learning in the classroom?  What will an observer see when walking thru classes?  Who is doing the talking?  How are students being engaged?

“Jesus is the reason for our school”
Testing underlying assumptions
How does this translate across the curriculum?  
Do our school policies match this value statement?

Parents as primary educators and partners
Testing underlying assumptions
How and what do we communicate to our parents? 
Are parents given enough voice?   

Working and learning in community is important
Testing underlying assumptions
How is teaching and learning conducted in the classroom? 
How is our PLC time being used?
What does collegiality look like?
How do we treat each other?
How do we celebrate together?

I am looking forward to leading the staff in this important process of finding integrity between our words and actions. 

This process is critically important in order for us to sustain a positive school culture - where there is a shared sense of purpose, where there are underlying norms of collegiality, where there is a focus on improvement, where student accomplishments are celebrated, where there is teacher innovation, where we encourage parental involvement, where meaningful traditions are maintained and where learning is surrounded with integrity, joy and humour. 

Any suggestions or comments that could assist in us finding greater “alignment” would be gratefully welcomed!