Thursday, 11 December 2014

Thinking Critically in the CHC2P Classroom

One of my favourite professional development experiences is getting to listen to and work with Garfield Gini-Newman. One of Gini-Newman's areas of expertise is critical thinking, and I always leave his sessions with new ideas.

Our criteria for a perfect society.
In October 2013, I attended a workshop put on by Gini-Newman that focused on asking questions that make students dig deeper, as well as focused on coming up with criteria to best answer the questions. In our CHC2P class, the third unit looks at 1945-1982, and we focus on the creation of the perfect society. Last year, with my class, we brainstormed the elements of a "perfect" society, then created a value line on which to place examples from Canadian history. Each student had their own value line, and was responsible for researching various people and events from the time period. Students would then use the criteria they came up with and determine the person or events location on the value line.

Full on image of the value line.

It was a failure. Students didn't have adequate research skills to truly  understand the various topics, and I think they just placated me by writing down their topics on their value lines. The students' final projects were terrible, to be blunt.

This semester, I decided to take a different approach. We still brainstormed a list of criteria that was necessary for a perfect society. Instead of students having their own value lines, we created a class value line along one wall in the classroom. After learning about new topics, we discussed where each topic belonged on the value line. To help students understand the chronology of the unit, the topics were categorized by prime minister, with the exception of Joe Clark (sorry Mr. Clark).

Notice the pink lined up with the green.
The FLQ Crisis was moved up on the value line.
One of the best parts of the value line was the ability for students to change their minds about the location of a specific event. For example, as demonstrated in the images, students originally placed the Korean War and the FLQ Crisis as -2 Moving Towards Imperfect. After we did some more learning as a class, they decided that while war and terrorist attacks certainly don't make a country perfect, the two events needed to be moved up because some good came from them.

Additionally, not all students agreed the placement of certain topics, and in their final paragraphs, they are able to move topics to others location along the value line.
Notice the pink in the sea of purple.
The Korean War was moved up.

Another bonus to the value line is that it makes a counterargument much more visible, as one of my colleagues pointed out. Some of the students wanted their thesis to be "Canada became a perfect society during this time period." All I had to do was point to the value line, and remind them of the topics in -1 and -2. This visual helped them to rewrite their thesis so that it was accurate. I was able to add a layer to the assignment by having students address a counter argument since it was so visible to them.

We are still in the initial stages of writing our final paragraphs, but from their rough copies, students have selected good examples in support of their arguments, as well as a solid example to support their counter argument. I've had to give some explicit feedback around the explanation, as the students are not clearly explaining how their selected topics have moved Canada towards a perfect society or away from one.

Overall, I think this has been my best job in teaching this very long unit, and soon I'll find out how well the students learned.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Beaten Down and Exhausted

This post comes after yesterday, where after my second period class, I went to a dear friend and colleague's classroom and broke down in tears. I told her that I hated my job. That I hated teaching. A profession that I had dreamed of joining since I was a young girl.

Do I really hate my job? Do I really hate teaching?

No, I don't.

Yesterday's words were those of a teacher who right now feels beaten down and exhausted. A teacher who feels powerless and undervalued. A teacher who feels like she is working so hard, but is never good enough. A teacher who thought that she would never by disillusioned by education, at least not so early on in her career. A teacher who is crying right now as she writes this because she is ashamed and scared of her feelings. A teacher who last week started a jar called "My Jar of Happiness". A jar where she places little notes about the good things that happen to her at school. A jar that operates (hopefully) as way to remind her that she doesn't actually hate teaching. A jar of stories to remind her that what she does is meaningful and useful for her students.

I sincerely hope that I am in the minority, and that these feelings are just a blip in my career. But right now, these feelings have been bogging me down for almost four months, and I feel alone, despite not actually being alone. These feelings make me think there is something wrong with me. That they're further proof of my failings as a teacher. I wonder where I went wrong. I wonder when these feelings will subside.

I am working on reframing my feelings. Reminding myself that as long as I am doing my best, as long as I am trying, as long as I am learning, that I can't ask any more of myself.

And while I hope that I am in the minority, I hope I am not alone. I hope that other teachers have felt this way, but that it passes. I hope that teachers with years of experience can tell me that there have been lows such as this in their careers, but it does indeed pass, and things get better. I sincerely hope so.

I don't hate my job. I don't hate teaching. I am doing my best. I am trying, and I am learning. I can't ask myself for more.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Morning with Dr. Katz

This past Friday was a PD Day, and Dr. Steven Katz came to speak at my school about professional learning in order to improve student results. I've been in sort of a "funk", and I really was not looking forward to being "talked at" for an entire morning. I'm glad I went in with the mindset that I was going to make the most of my morning and take notes, because I felt motivated and challenged in a positive way by Dr. Katz.

Dr. Katz discussed how the path to improvement was "adding value to where you are". I felt this was powerful, because the message was hopeful. The goal isn't to go from okay to awesome, but rather, to make small improvements to eventually get to excellence. This also translates into the idea that "small wins have enormous power". Just as we should be celebrating the small successes of our students, we should celebrate the small successes in our own learning as teachers.

I also appreciated the message that "together is not always better" in terms of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). There are times where I am with my PLC, and we are being professional and a community, but learning isn't actually happening. This is probably because learning is the hardest part of a PLC. As Dr. Katz reminded us, cognitive dissonance is essential to new learning, and that is uncomfortable. The questions remain, how can PLCs be effective? How can PLCs be places where we have "focused learning conversations", not simply "great discussions"? I think one important factor is the necessity to check our egos and be vulnerable...two really difficult tasks. Another key to making PLCs successful, if I understand correctly, is to Plan, Act, Assess, and Reflect. I think we are working on the Plan and Act, but don't always see the Plan through to the end to what may be the most important part of the learning, Assessing and Reflecting.

Overall, the morning with Dr. Katz was worth my time, as I have new ideas to think about and I felt supported and challenged in my teaching.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Marking essays: One of my least favourite weekend activities

One of my least favourite aspects of teaching is marking, especially the evaluation of essays. It is often time-consuming (one class set can take at least five hours), and nothing seems to come of it, except a mark. It can be frustrating to take all of that time for students to continue to make the same errors again and again. One reason for this is that students simply don't review and think about the feedback given. I am attempting to cut down on the time it takes to evaluate essays, as well as make the feedback worthwhile for the students.

You can see the comments alongside the student's essay.
Notice that the comments aren't all "stock", but there are times
that individualized feedback is required.
With the goal of reducing my time spent marking, I developed a feedback document where I have compiled a list of the comments I find myself using frequently. I have organized them by areas of assessment for easier reference. As I evaluate a student's essay, I simply copy and paste the appropriate document into the commenting section of a student's submission.

There was one glaring negative I noticed about feedback: it is overwhelmingly critical. It is focused on things that students need to improve on. As a student, it would be really disappointing to see all of my hard work so critically looked at, even though the criticism is constructive. I need to be conscious of commenting on the positives of the student's work.

In addition to cutting down marking time, I want to ensure that students are actually reading and using the provided feedback. For the first essay, I dedicated approximately 40 minutes to returning essays. Students were provided with a sheet entitled "Next Steps to Improved Writing", developed by my colleague, Scott Jordan. Students were required to review my comments and highlight the areas (from Scott's handout) they needed to improve on for next time. This was great, because students actually had to go over the feedback and many took the opportunity to ask for clarification. For the upcoming essay, I will return each student's "Next Steps to Improved Writing", so that they can ensure they aren't making the same errors.

Overall, I am hopeful that as I become familiar with my own feedback document, time spent marking will be reduced. Additionally, I am hoping that by providing the necessary tools and time, the feedback will actually be used by students.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thinking about what a good course looks like

At the end of last school year, I reread Grant Wiggins' post "Critically Examining What You Teach". His words resonate with me as I work on teaching a history course with a slightly new big idea and an English course I'm teaching for the first time. It also made me reflect on past courses that I have taught.

I think one of the struggles that I face(d) in teaching history is content coverage. There are so many people, places, and events that help create the story, and therefore, are valuable for students to learn. Wiggins forces me to think beyond just the "valued stuff", when he writes, "I am claiming that to be a valid course, there has to be more than just a list of valued stuff that we cover-even if that list seems valuable to me, the teacher." When I began teaching the Grade 10 history course, there was a list of "valued stuff" that had to be taught in each unit  for students to be able to write the final exam. About six years ago, the department struggled with deleting some of the "valuable stuff", because in light of big ideas and essential questions, the "stuff" was valuable, but not necessarily needed or useful for students to know in order to understand the big idea.

Wiggins also challenges the idea of using the textbook as the driving force for a course, as he notes, "the textbook does not know your personal or school priorities; the textbook does not know your students; the textbook doesn't identify any priorities or through lines that unite all the chapters, etc." Since I'm at a school that values big ideas and essential questions, a textbook can't know what our specific priorities are, nor what my students necessarily want to learn in order to understand. A textbook is a useful way to transmit knowledge, but as the teacher, I need to create questions that allow students to make meaning of the content they will consume. And the end goal isn't to simply consume content, but to use the content in meaningful ways.

Arguably the most valuable excerpt from Wiggins' article are the prompts below:

7 Prompts That Every Teacher Of A Well-Designed Course Should Be Able To Answer
Here are some simple prompts that a teacher who has really thought through the course as a course should be able to answer:
  1. By the end of the year students should be able to…. and grasp that…
  2. The course builds toward…
  3. The recurring big ideas about which we will go into depth are…
  4. The following chapters and sequence support my goal of…
  5. Given my long-term priority goals, the assessments need to determine if students can…
  6. Given my goals, the following activities need to build insight and incentive…
  7. If I have been successful, students will be able to transfer their learning to… and avoid such common misconceptions and habits as…
Over a year ago, one of my department heads shared this with the department and asked us to think about it. I began completing it for ENG3U. The questions helped me get a clearer direction for myself, and I would benefit from carving out some time to go over the prompts for ENG3U again, as well as my other courses. I challenge everyone to consider these prompts when thinking about their courses.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Get over teaching content!

Characteristics of a model society,
as determined by students on the first day of the course.
I am currently teaching Grade 10 History for the ninth time in my short teaching career.  I have always struggled with teaching the third unit, which covers over three decades of Canadian history (1945-1982).  It is an area of Canadian history where my own knowledge lacked, and I used to focus too much on content coverage.  I needed to make sure the students knew all about the mega projects, the ins and outs of the Cold War, the minute details of the issues with Quebec, etc.  Over the years, I have realized that this is NOT an effective way to teach.  Just because I say it or because the students read it doesn't mean they have actually learned it.

I really have found the essential question for the unit (What is the perfect society for Canada?) to be helpful.  On the first day of the course (way back in February), the students and I brainstormed possible answers to all of the unit essential questions on chart paper.  I began Unit 3 by referring the students to what we came up with as characteristics of the model society and gave them a chance to add some new characteristics.

I did some direct teaching of the immediate postwar era and Louis St. Laurent's leadership.  We focused on key people, events, and issues that helped determine what Canadian society looked like during this time.  Afterwards, students got into small groups and were responsible for creating a slideshow about the final three Prime Ministers of the unit: Diefenbaker, Pearson and Trudeau.  The slideshow requirements are below.

I was very impressed with my students' work.  I did not directly teach any of them what any of the three
How I used to feel when teaching the post-war period.
prime ministers' visions were--they discovered the visions themselves.  They were able to sift through information and draw connections between what they found and a vision.  Additionally, students had the choice to focus on ideas and events that were of most interest to them.  Another positive was the small group feedback I was able to give the students.  I actually had the opportunity to talk to each student and discuss their learning.  No student was able to "hide".

Obviously, nothing is perfect.  There are certainly things I will change the next time I teach.  For example, many students skipped, or skimmed over, discussing French-English relations.  I'm not entirely sure how I will approach this omission.  My first thought was to directly teach the tenuous relationship during this time period.  Upon further refection, I could also add French-English relations specifically to the task outline.

I feel that this independent task prepared students to transfer their learning from the unit to the summative task.  When I reviewed the assignment, I was concerned because I had trouble seeing a connection between the assignment question ("what was the most dominant value in Canada during this time period?") and the unit essential question.  After listening to the students' slideshows, the summative assignment made complete sense.  It demands that students now synthesize the visions of the Prime Ministers during this time period and find an overall similarity and defend it.

Overall, I feel like this was the best job I have done teaching the post-war era, despite some concerns.  I am unfortunately not teaching CHC2D next year, but I really think that I can easily adapt this learning strategy for my CHC2P class.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Is it possible to make English class relevant?

One of the goals of our English department is to:

Make English class relevant to students' lives now.

This is a lofty, but I think, incredibly important goal.  Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with Susie, a colleague, regarding this goal.  I mentioned that I thought we had to ensure the texts we selected for students to read were relevant to their current lives.  She countered that it was the writing that had to be relevant.  This forced me to think about my original position and question the texts my students read.  How is The Kite Runner significant in the lives of students in mostly white, Canada-born Orangeville?  What about The Rez Sisters?  What possible connections can my teenage students make between their lives and the lives of middle-aged First Nations women living on a reserve?

In PLC today, Andrea, Scott, and I discussed this goal briefly, and now I am of the opinion that the writing is how we can make seemingly irrelevant texts relevant to our students' lives now.  Scott highlighted the fact that guilt is a driving force in The Kite Runner.  Perhaps the specific events and experiences of Amir aren't directly relevant to the lives of our students, but the concepts of guilt, or parental battles, or love, are in fact relevant to students.  We need to give them the opportunity to make these links.  Andrea pointed out that within The Kite Runner unit, we already encourage students to make connections via their defining moment speech.  This is a good point, and I think I am going to begin encouraging students to begin making and sharing personal meaning during our chapter seminars.

Now I think that many of the texts we study--even the Shakespeare we chopped from the course--can be relevant to our students, but as teachers, we need to encourage and welcome the personal connections via writing and speaking opportunities.

...but common assessment is foggy

I love how when some things, such as big ideas, become clearer, other ideas just become foggy.  Over the course of the semester, I have been doing some thinking about the drive for common assessments.  I always thought that common assessment meant that in all common courses all students do the exact same summative and culminating tasks.  This ensures that all students are meeting the same expectations and have similar experiences (despite having different teachers with different teaching styles).

At a recent staff meeting, I left with the message that common assessment didn't actually mean the EXACT same summative.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and I really hope that I didn't misinterpret the message.  What I
understand common assessment to mean includes:

  1. Teachers assess the same big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions.
  2. Teachers assess the same skills.
  3. Teachers have flexibility in designing their specific assignments, as well as the content they use, as long as they fulfill 1. and 2. above.  For example, tests can have different questions, essays can have different topics, English teachers can choose different texts.
  4. The culminating task is the exact same TYPE of assessment, such as an interview or an exam, but the content used may be different.  For example, two different English teachers can use two different short stories, as long as their students are all writing an essay.
I'm really curious how others interpret "common assessment" and what it looks like in their schools and/or departments.

Big ideas are becoming clearer...

About this time last year, I wrote about big ideas in the history and English courses I was teaching.

I felt that in history the overall big idea was really vague, but that the enduring understandings of each unit were the driving forces.  Lisa Unger, one of my colleagues, has done a lot of thinking about the big idea for CHC2D1, and has come up with some important questions that connect the enduring understandings to the big idea.  This has been incredibly helpful for me.  The big idea for CHC2D1 is "The Canadian identity is shaped by its past."  Instead of focusing on content-driven questions, such as "how did Vimy Ridge shape Canada's identity?", the focus has moved to broader questions, such as "how has participation in overseas shaped Canada's identity?" Or "how have contributions to the war effort on the home front shaped the Canadian identity?"  This can also lead into a compare and contrast question, such as, "what has a greater effect on a nation's identity: the role overseas or the war at home?"

I feel that these types of questions move the focus from covering content to using content in a way to answer significant questions.  This makes the big idea flexible in that teachers (and students) can choose what areas of content to focus on, but it ensures that students leave the course learning how to answer the same questions, perhaps just a bit differently.

Additionally, in my post from last year, I was rather critical of the fourth big ideas in each of our English courses.  The first three, that are common to all courses, have a built in flexibility and are easily applicable to the study of English.  As I previously wrote, the fourth big idea can be rather "strangling" to quote a colleague.  For example, the fourth big idea for ENG3U1 focuses on understanding the world around us.  At this time last year, the big idea in the course seemed to always be a stretch for me to explicitly teach.  It felt forced and the connections weak.

This semester, in collaboration with Andrea, we have fleshed out three key ideas that tie all of our texts together: identity, struggle and relationships.  I think this clearer direction also brings to life the big idea.  By studying these key ideas, students naturally begin to better understand the world they live in.  They can begin to see the connections between the experiences of others and hopefully draw parallels to their own lives.

The process of creating big ideas, and the freedom to play with them and challenge them, allows teachers to truly see their role in designing meaningful (hopefully) experiences for students.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Failure Hurts...But It's Okay

It's been just over a week since I got the disappointing news that I wasn't selected to be the next department head of Canada and World Studies at my school.  I have been processing the information since I found out--Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at roughly 5:30pm.  I pondered writing a blog post about the experience, but because it feels so fresh and so personal, I decided against it.  Then I remembered: one of the largest reasons I blog is to reflect on my experiences, so it only makes sense for me to write about my failed attempt to become a department head.

After the tears, the incredible feeling of failure set in.  I began to question my abilities as a teacher; the ways I carved leadership opportunities for myself or acted upon opportunities to show leadership; my reputation at school.  I felt worthless:  maybe I wasn't as great a teacher as I thought and had been led to believe, maybe my leadership skills were undeveloped, maybe I was THAT person, the one nobody wants to work with.

Fortunately, the debrief with my principal helped to put my mind at ease.  It wasn't that I'm horrible that I didn't get the job; the successful candidate was simply better.

The reasons I keep trying.  Photo courtesy Ravens Ridge Photo.
The experience made me realize that I work with some top notch teachers and students.  The number of people who asked how I was, or who shared similar experiences, comforted me.  It's nice to know that people didn't see me as a failure.  One student, who was working on an essay while a colleague shared his experiences with me, said later, "I'm sorry.  I think you're doing a great job".  Cue tears!

The experience also made me consider how to want to role model failure for my daughters.  I want them to take risks, to put themselves out there, to be vulnerable.  I want them to be okay with failing, and realize that there is a difference between failing and being a failure.  I don't want failure to prevent them from going for what they want or to make them question their self-worth. And I can't let failure do the same to me.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I Make Students Do Assignments That I Don't Want To Do Myself

I have been doing some thinking about assignments that students are required to complete in order to earn their credits.  This is especially timely, since we're nearly at the end of first semester.  This afternoon, the tweet below captured my attention and really made me think about what I require my students to do and if I would want to do the same tasks.

In my mind, I went through the assignments that my three classes have worked on over the course of the semester, and I'm not too happy.  My findings are below.

I'm not sure what this says about me or about my teaching.  Am I a lazy person, who just doesn't want to do anything that requires formalized writing and really close analysis?  Am I a sub par teacher, who just has students do assignments because they have always been assigned and why change?

What are the purposes of the assignments I make students do, but would never do myself, unless required to pass a course?  In looking at the English course, I notice that I don't want to do any of the tasks that require essay writing.  What type of English teacher would I be if I didn't require students to write an essay?  Is it possible for students to learn the appropriate skills without doing the essay?

Most dismal is the Grade 10 history course.  I make them do literacy assignments in an half-hearted attempt to get them ready for the OSSLT: a test I am glad I did not have to pass to earn my high school diploma.  The purpose of the weekly quizzes is horrible:  a way to force students to write down their notes.  What on earth am I thinking?  The other assignments are just blah...they measure (hopefully) the students' understanding, but they aren't particularly engaging.  No wonder my history class hates my history class.

The silver lining in all of this is the Grade 12 history class.  There are only two assignments that I would not do...and I already had plans to make those changes.  The pirate photo album will be changed back to the pirate cartoon, which students did the first time I taught the class.  The Vietnam War letter will be changed, because I intend on removing the unit and replacing it with a unit about the War on Terror and a discussion about "enhanced interrogation techniques".

I am left with one significant question: just because I don't want to do the assignment (and believe that students probably don't either) does that mean there isn't value in it?