Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Teaching How to Read in High School

When I started my career as a high school social studies teacher, I took many things for granted when it came to my students.  One particular thing I took for granted was that my students knew how to read (and all its related competencies - e.g. synthesis, main idea, making inferences, etc). 

Call me naive, I know.

Interestingly enough, my naivety was supported by the fact that, as a trained high school social studies teacher, the reading process and how to teach it was never deciphered for me! 
These two factors contributed to my blissful ignorance.

Fast forward to today.

For some time now, I have been hearing from teachers that students are struggling with many of the core reading competencies.  Teachers, in various content areas, continue to comment on how many students “can’t read” and are struggling with “understanding” what they are reading. 

Some want to blame social media or technology for this “slide” in reading skills.  Some, in our profession, shun the idea of “21st Century Learning” because they see it as eroding our students' literacy skills.

As a school we have decided that it is precisely because of social media and its emerging technologies, that our students need to be more literate than ever before.

We are not going to take the literacy skills of students for granted any longer.  

As our community navigates through “21st Century Learning” and “Personalized Learning” – we realize that literacy is a core competency that all of us (not just English teachers) need to teach.

For us, this process started a few years ago.  We invited a literacy expert to meet with our staff to conduct a in-service on the reading process.  Since that time we have been developing an action plan to integrate literacy instruction throughout our school.

This past year our “Literacy Learning Team” - a collection of teachers representing every department in the school, came together to pilot a reading program for our Gr. 8 students. 
The process began with administering a reading assessment tool (RAD) to each of our Gr. 8 students.  The team looked at the results and discovered some important findings.  Namely that the majority of our students needed attention in two areas of the reading process: Targeting Main Idea and Making Inferences
Equipped with this information, the team of teachers, regardless of their content areas, used specific lessons/resources to teach those specific reading competencies.  Teaching the skills related to targeting main idea and making inferences became very intentional.

A few weeks ago the team did an analysis of the year end assessment for our Gr. 8 students.  The results looked promising.

Next year, we intend on caring forward with this pilot project with our new incoming Gr. 8’s.  Our long term goal is to have every teacher in the building comfortable with literacy instruction.  Our teachers must be able to decode and teach the reading process to our students. 

The 21st Century demands that our students be more literate than ever.  As a consequence, all teachers (not just teachers of elementary age students) need to be intentional about teaching our students how to read!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A stumble down memory lane....

A few weeks ago I started the daunting task of cleaning my garage.  I will be spare you the gruesome details however I did stumble upon a box full of old file folders.  As fate would have it, the first thing that caught my eye was series of files from my Bachelor of Education days (1994-1995). 

The first thing that “fell out” of the file folder was an excerpt from a book that was photocopied and given as required reading.  The excerpt was form Learn to Teach, pg. 189-191, Richard Arends, 1994 (newer edition 2008)

As I skimmed the excerpt I was mesmerized by the author’s assertions on pedagogical issues related to rewards, punishment and the use of grades.

This exercise was particularly intriguing in light of the fact that I have also started reading Alfie Kohn’s, Beyond Discipline (#kohnbc).

Here are some of the more jaw dropping and head scratching sections of the excerpt:

Rewards and Privileges:Teachers can also encourage desirable behaviors through granting rewards and privileges to students.  Rewards teachers have at their disposal include:
1.     Points given for certain kinds of work or behavior that can enhance a student’s grade
2.     Symbols such as gold stars, happy faces, or certificates of accomplishment
3.     Special honor roll for academic work and social conduct
Privileges that are at the command of most teachers to bestow include:
1.    Serving as a class leader or helper who takes notes to the office, collects or passes out papers, grades papers, runs the movie projector and the like
2.    Extra time for recess
3.    Special time to work on a special individual project
4.    Being excused from some required work
5.    Free reading time
A carefully designed system of rewards and privileges can help immensely in encouraging some types of behavior and reducing others. However, reward and privileges will not solve all classroom management problems, and beginning teachers should be given two warnings. First, what is a reward or a privilege for some students will not be perceived as such by others. The age of students obviously is a factor; family and geographical background are others.  Effective teachers generally invoke their students in identifying rewards and privileges in order to ensure their effectiveness. Second, an overemphasis on extrinsic rewards can interfere with the teacher's efforts to promote academic work for its own sake and to help students practice and grow in self-discipline and management.
Rewards and privileges are used to reinforce and strengthen desirable behaviors, Punishments and penalties are used to discourage infractions of important rules and procedures. Socially acceptable punishments and penalties available to teachers are, in fact, rather limited and include:
1.            Taking points away for misbehavior 'which, in turn, affects students' grades
2.            Making the student stay in from recess or stay after school for detention
3.            Removal of privileges
4.            Expulsion from class or sending a student to a counselor or administrator

As I read this excerpt I was left with a few thoughts:

  • I couldn't help but notice the stark contrast between some of what this teacher training book was advocating and what I believe and advocate now as a principal – from reforming our school’s grading and assessment practices  to understanding rewards and punishment.
  • In few weeks I will be celebrating my 41st birthday and will have completed my 6th year as a high school principal.  I don’t consider myself old (don’t ask my students or my children).  This was assigned reading 16 years ago.  That’s not that long ago is it?  Are they still advocating some of  these practices in our teacher training schools today?
  • At times I see myself as an agent for change.  This little stumble down memory lane is another reminded of why,  perhaps, some find change so difficult.  

If we want to affect real change in our school’s we need to understand where we've come from  and, more importantly, come to a deep understand about our underlying assumptions about students as learners and persons. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cloud Computing in Education

Today I had the opportunity of attend a "pre-launch" event of Microsoft's latest venture into cloud computing called Microsoft 365.  While the event itself was technical in nature, it did provide me the opportunity to reflect on the impact this type of technology can have in education.

I have already seen and experienced, first hand, the tremendous power of Google Docs and all its applications in my role as principal and teacher.   I will be looking forward to Microsoft's official release of Office 365 and it's potential to transform how we teach, learn, collaborate and communicate in our schools.

Just before we were dismissed from the event we were shown Microsoft's "Future Productivity" Video - a vision for the next 5 years (see below).  The possibilities of this type of technology in education seem endless.....

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Giving Up Control

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that as a high school principal, I still teach - one class of Law 12 (and really enjoy it). Over the past several months, I have been doing a fair bit of reading on Personalized Learning and Problem Based Learning. Increasingly, I have been intrigued by the practical application of these strategies. 

An Experiment
Armed with some theory and a few practical ideas, I decided to try something new with my class - an exit assignment entitled “I want to know more about……”

The concept behind the assignment was basic: give students complete ownership over a topic/ research question which they wanted to learn more about. 

I didn’t provide a list of “approved” topics or recommended list of questions. From start to finish student were given complete choice.

To assist the students, we brainstormed some of the big themes of the course and discussed some “current & controversial events” that linked to those themes.

To provide further focus to their research I asked them to think about a question they want to answer and understand deeply.

I also gave the students complete choice as to how they would share their findings with the class. The only directive I gave them was that they couldn’t “bore” the audience.

I purposely chose to not discuss grades for the assignment. Instead, we focused on “discovering an answer to their question”.

The Results
The students chose some of the most interesting and engaging topics that I have ever heard in my class, including:

  • Why I want to join the United Nations Police force and how I can best do that? 
  • How to take care of your personal safety in Vancouver? 
  • Was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden legal under international law? 
  • Should marijuana be legalized in Canada? 
  • What is the correlation between mental health and criminal behavior? 
  • Are Young Offender given too much leeway in crimes they commit? 
Students were diligent in their research, seeking out multiple sources - including the use of surveys.  The students also leveraged the use of technology to explore and present their findings.

Despite the fact that no “grades” were awarded, students were genuinely interested in their work and took great pride in sharing their findings.   Not one student (to this day) has ask me: “how much is this worth” or “do we have to do it?” 

I learned an important lesson in the power of student choice and how to intrinsically motivate them and their learning.

Other Lessons Learned

  • As a teacher I found myself working on a more “one on one” basis with students. 
  • The very nature of the assignment shifted the focus from teaching to learning.
  • Grades don't always motivate students. (Late today, the one student who had not presented their findings, searched me out and made an appointment to show me his Prezi.  He was so excited when I offered him "the Principal's desk top computer and office" to share his presentation!)   
  • For this to be most effective I had to give up control! 

I have seen a glimpse of what Personalized Learning can look like.  Next year I plan to give away more control of the learning in my class and place it firmly on the shoulders of my students.

Paradoxically, it appears that the more control  I "give away" the more student engagement I get in return!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Professional Learning Communities: Are we just moving furniture around?

As a principal I believe in schools as learning communities.  While I am in support of this organizational paradigm, it is worth noting some of the clear advantages and challenges.

The Case for Schools as Learning Organizations/Communities

Peter Senge, in his book the Fifth Discipline defines the learning organization as “ a place where people continually expand their capacity to create results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to act together. (Senge, 1990, pg.3) 

Richard DuFour builds on these concepts and lists six key attributes of learning communities in schools. In particular, he writes that learning communities have a shared sense of mission, vision and values; collectively inquire and question the status quo; use collaborative teams as common practice; are action orientated with a desire to constantly experiment; constantly seek continuous improvement; and are always results orientated (DuFour, 1998). Another group of researchers write that: “If schools want to enhance their organizational capacity to boost student learning, they should work on building a professional learning community that is characterized by shared purpose, collaborative activity, and collective responsibility among staff” (Newmann and Wehlage, 1995, pg.37 as cited in DuFour, 1998).

 In his book Change Forces, Robert Fullan argues that schools can best deal with change by becoming learning organizations and asks the following question: “What would it take to make the educational system a learning organization – expert at dealing with change as a normal part of its work, not just in relating to the latest policy, but as a way of life”? (Fullan, 1993)

One of my favorite researchers on organizational development amplifies this message when he writes: “Every enterprise has to become a learning institution and a teaching institution. Organizations that build in continuous learning in jobs will dominate the 21st century (Drucker, 1992).

The Potential Limiting Factors

While the benefits of schools' embracing the attributes of a learning organizations are clear, certain forces internal and external to a school can serve to seriously undermine this endeavor. 

One particular indictment of the learning organization looks at its paradoxical nature and how its employees are asked to be innovative risk takers, while at the same time demanding that those same employees be measured under to the old paradigm of results-based outcomes.

The learning organization discourse presents itself as a romantic ideal encouraging workers’ personal growth and imaginative engagement – yet this discourse continues the workplace tradition of dictating which kind of growth counts most, what imaginative endeavours are most valued, what kinds of talk, relationships, and identities are allowed and which are out of bounds or even meaningless…the reality of workers’ multi-situated and continually shifting identity, as well as the complexities of their workplace learning are neither valued or even acknowledged. (Fenwick, 1998)

This observation only serves to illustrate that creating a learning organization requires fundamental and systemic change at all levels of the organization. “High performance learning communities represent the product of complex transformational change…they do not fix anything, they begin from scratch.” (Castle and Estes, 1995)

Of course this premise also applies to schools and how they see the creation of a learning organization. “School systems cannot be high-performance learning communities with only superficial reorganizations that are no more effective than rearranging the furniture”(Castle and Estes, 1995).

Questions for Reflection

As a I write this, I am reflecting on my school's journey to becoming a professional learning community - are we just moving the furniture around or we engaging in deep rooted, systemic and transformational change?

Perhaps, as we look at reforming our school system to reflect the needs of the 21st century and its learners, this might be the perfect opportunity to "start from scratch" - and build true learning organizations?