Measuring Shadows

Posted: 11th December 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

One of the jobs I had before this one was as an early years teacher in a child care centre. One afternoon I was outside with my gaggle of 2 and 3 year old charges exploring our shadows. One little guy was particularly intent on measuring his shadow. He had chalk and a tape measure and was determined to see how big it was. Every time he moved his shadow moved too and he could never quite catch it to measure it. After some time and some tears, he allowed me to use the chalk to mark where his shadow was and then we were able to measure it together. Now I had one happy shadow hunter. Until the next morning when we went outside again so he could proudly show his big shadow to the other teacher and he discovered his shadow had shrunk due to the different time of day. Sometimes measuring shadows can be awfully difficult.

Inquiry-based learning has been a hot topic in education for the last while. I am happy that so many educators and students in our school are willing to give inquiry a try in their teaching and learning opportunities. With enthusiasm or trepidation (or both) they jump in. They tweak, they start over, they try a different approach, they dig deeper. It can go a million different ways.

And then they all come to the same screeching halt.

How do we evaluate this?

Assessment is one thing. I can observe, provide feedback, ask questions, and have students dig deeper into their learning in inquiry. I can also have students set goals, reflect on those goals and gather evidence of their process and products to support those goals. But evaluation is about me assigning a standardized value (marks or grades) using standardized criteria (curriculum expectations) on non-standardized learning that I didn’t necessarily direct nor do I understand completely.

Within this quagmire are several distinct problems.

1. I have standard expectations and my students have led their learning in directions not captured by the expectations.

2. Since students are owning their learning and not just receiving it from me, they know more about this topic/process than I do. If I don’t understand it all, how will I know how good it is?

3. Feedback helps students to further their learning whereas grades tend to bring it to a full stop. How do I assign a grade while at the same time encourage my students to keep learning?

4. What relevance does a grade have on student-led inquiry? Am I moving the impetus to learn from an internal motivation (I want to learn because this is good stuff) to an external motivation (I want to learn because I want an “A”)?

I personally think we could do with more feedback and fewer grades, whether we are engaged in inquiry-based learning or more traditional forms of learning. I think we all need to be self-motivated life-long learners because it is good for us and not because we’ll get a gold star for it. However, I do think the angst we face in grappling with evaluating inquiry learning actually has a few advantages.

1. It forces us to know – really know and understand – the foundational knowledges and skills that we want students to learn, apply and translate in a variety of situations. And (here’s the kicker) where we find those in our curriculae.

2. It forces us to really communicate what students need to learn to students (and parents). All that practice targeting learning goals and success criteria will help us here.

3. It forces us to look beyond the pretty product or the interesting factoids of learning and observe what we really see happening to change how a student thinks.

4. It forces us to rely on the expertise of our students to help us understand how much and how well they have learned. Metacognition valued beyond a quick post script on an exit card? How refreshing.

My little shadow chaser was frustrated but worked through his issue, with support, only to be foiled again by a new variable. If his shadow had co-operated like he expected it to there wouldn’t have been tears, or help needed, or surprises along the way. It wouldn’t have been HARD and it probably wouldn’t have been memorable.

Evaluating inquiry is hard. We will repeatedly need help, or be surprised, or need to cry. But I’m willing to bet that what we learn along the way will be good learning.

How are you at chasing the shadows of inquiry evaluation?

Tis the Season

Posted: 1st December 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

And so it begins. For the next three weeks schools will be filled with many holiday movies (let’s just say it, they are Christmas movies), holiday crafts (and I purposely say crafts instead of art), and cards and lists for Santa.

We all know that behaviour tends to get a bit challenging in schools this month. It isn’t difficult to figure out why. Fewer expectations, less structure, more thinking and doing Christmas.

As a classroom teacher, I had reservations about bringing too much Christmas into my classroom. Some students didn’t celebrate it or were embarrassed their holidays didn’t look like the Hallmark versions. Or there are the students for whom Christmas is a religious holiday but in the public system we water it down to feature only it’s non-religious elements. Worse yet, there were always those children who were too worried about two long weeks away from school and stability to think about Christmas. Real life is most certainly not always a pretty picture. And along with all of these differences and worries, there are also lots of people struggling with the season. Maybe it is the first holiday since the death of a loved one, a move away from friends and family or the loss of an income for the family breadwinner.

And I’m supposed to sit there and enjoy watching Rudolph with my wreath-shaped crossword puzzle in the back of my Santa letter and NOT be a behaviour problem?

I actually love the Christmas traditions that my family and I share. But those are mine and not something I’m going to inflict on my students. I want to value their feelings, their traditions, their experiences. Too much of what I see in schools in December is the opposite of valuing students – all students. I appreciate that many people love this season, but remember it is not for everyone.

Watch for those quiet or upset students this month. Or the ones that don’t want to participate. Or the ones that get sent to the office. Again. Are we valuing them?

Stickers, Great Job and Real Feedback

Posted: 24th November 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

“I’ll never remember the bad things but I’ll always remember the good things” (Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project)

I was a program consultant in the years immediately following the release of Growing Success in Ontario. I spent a good chunk of my time teaching administrators and teachers about the assessment continuum: learning goals, success criteria, descriptive feedback, peer- and self-assessment and independent goal setting. My favourite one to talk about was descriptive feedback. It just really clicked with me; provide students with meaningful, targeted feedback that causes student thinking. Asking students great questions to push their thinking, steering students to reflect on the clear targets provided, growing students who knew their strengths, next steps and strategies to meet their goals? That is one lively, inviting classroom of learning in my books.

So, now I’m an administrator. Most of the feedback I am asked to provide looks like this: “good job!”, “that’s wonderful work you are doing!”, “how about a sticker for that great work?”.

Stickers. I’ve resorted to handing out stickers as feedback. Now granted, they are fancy smelly/glow in the dark stickers, but still.

Here’s the thing. I am never happier than when I’m in a classroom asking students “hard” questions to push their learning (and mine). I love that look on a student’s face when you know the wheels are turning and something exciting is going to result. But what do you do when students are sent down to the office proudly displaying their hard work, clearly looking for accolades and not hard questions?

You give them a sticker. And you remind yourself to head into the classroom mid-process next time to offer real feedback Before We get to the sticker finale.

So, friends, I need some feedback. Am I a feedback sell out for trying to mix quality feedback with the sticker accolades?

My Progress Report

Posted: 23rd November 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Last week, two fellow educators in my board blogged about their greatest strengths and weaknesses – Sue Dunlop and Aviva Dunsiger .

At the same time, I had just finished reading many, many sets of progress reports for our students, and I was beginning some TPAs (Teacher Performance Appraisals) on some staff. It looked like the only one not getting a progress report was me. It seemed like the ideal time to do a little reflecting of my own. It is a little scary reflecting on oneself in black and white for everyone to see, but while I am camera-shy, I am not reflection shy. So here goes.

In Sue’s blog post, she talks about how often our biggest strength can become a weakness. We become almost overconfident with those skills; one’s heroic hubris, you might say. I think I can identify with this. I think my biggest strength as a leader is my ability to reflect and think through situations, people, motives, organizations and see them from another perspective. One of the problems with that, though, is I tend not always to see things the way other people would want me to see them, or the way they see them themselves. Is it good for a leader to have a varied take on things? Maybe. Sometimes. But the biggest effect of this on me is that I then second (and third) guess myself because I wonder how I should be thinking. It’s like holding a mirror up to a mirror. The reflection just keeps going and going and it is easy to get lost in it. As a result, I don’t always effectively communicate what I’m thinking or even try to. I think I have become that absent-minded professor.

So here is the funny thing. I have never been the most talkative person. I prefer not to be in the limelight. I like shared leadership over autocratic leadership. And I went into teaching. Should I have been a writer or a scholar or a stay at home mom? Maybe. My strengths tell me I’m better suited to those professions. But choosing the easy way isn’t the best way to find challenging learning experiences (which is not to say being a writer, scholar, or stay at home mom isn’t challenging in different ways). However, when your strength is reflecting you need something to chew on. So, I chose an uncomfortable profession. Then I chose uncomfortable leadership opportunities within that profession. Then I chose ways to make my thinking more visible (yeah, a blog all about me and my experiences is a little cringe-worthy from my perspective). But I will keep choosing uncomfortable paths because that is how I learn.

The good news is that I see lots of students/educators/others like me. They positively squirm when asked to try something or consider something. And then, the people-watching reflector in me smiles. They’ll learn.

Learning Together

Posted: 11th November 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Today is Remembrance Day, and it may possibly be the last one we (in Ontario) celebrate in school if legislation goes through making it a National holiday. That makes me a little sad.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love a weekday off as much as the next guy. But we are in the business of educating students – our next generation of citizens. We educate them in reading and math and science and music, but we spend as much time, if not more, on working on their skills as a good citizen. The proof of this can be seen in the several hundred progress reports I just finished reading. More space and time is devoted to learning skills than to all of the subjects combined.

I worry if Remembrance Day becomes just another school holiday, we will miss an opportunity to engage students in thinking about the importance roles reflection, respect, appreciation, remorse, pride, sadness, and hope play in our lives as Canadians. I realize that we can do all of these things all year long, but to miss a day that really capitalizes on the sentiment…that epitomizes a wasted opportunity.

Can we do this learning on November 10th next year? Sure. Will it be as meaningful if our students tell us they spent November 11th playing video games or sleeping in? I’m not sure.

Remembrance Day is evolving each year as history continues to offer us new things to reflect on, and as some of our older histories, and older vets, slip farther from our memories. If anything, the history grows more complex each year. To me, that means we should devote more time in school in helping students understand, not less. We don’t all have a Grandpa left alive to sit us on his knee and talk about the war. We must find other ways to teach students how to remember.

I don’t make a lot of political statements, but I do hope this one time that the effects of making Remembrance Day a national holiday are considered. I hope to be in school next November 11th.

Parallel Parking Math

Posted: 23rd October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Yesterday two colleagues, Jared Bennett and Gerry Smith, shared an interesting video. It’s worth the 45 seconds it will take to watch.

Math Video

Now, I am a pretty vocal proponent for the need for meaningful math in our classrooms. The phrase “Hey, let’s use the textbook to create a good math lesson” rarely, if ever, crosses my lips. Students should have the opportunity to develop their understanding of numbers and mathematical concepts in ways that really make sense to them. Encouragingly, in the last several years we have made some changes to how we teach math to get closer to this. There has been greater use of manipulatives, encouragement of non algorithmic solutions, demonstrating understanding in multiple ways. But is it enough?

Coincidentally, today I also received my youngest daughter’s EQAO results (Ontario’s standardized testing)from last spring. If you haven’t seen the parent communication from EQAO before, it not only provides results but also explains how parents can support their child. One point under mathematics struck me as an interesting one. It reads: “Let your child know that you think mathematics is important”.

That suggestion was intended for parents, but I would think it is equally important to educators as well. The makers of that nifty new math app clearly don’t think math is important enough to learn. I guess it has me wondering how important is it to educators if your main method of teaching math is the assigning of textbook-like tasks?

It made me think of when I learned to drive. I practiced parallel parking many, many times and crossed my fingers when I got to that part of my test. In the years since that day, I can probably count on one hand how often I have actually parallel parked. I cringe at the thought of having to do it. I only practiced enough to pass. Parallel parking is hard and just not important to me.

How many of our students say math is hard and just not that important to them? How many of those same students practice enough to pass the test and then promptly leave all that learning behind? How many parents and teachers perpetuate that idea by providing tasks that just help them pass the test?

I don’t want our students to be parallel parking mathematicians. Encouraging parents to stress the importance of math is a great suggestion from EQAO, but the educators providing those students with the tools to approach mathematics should be developing some better strategies too.

With that in mind, here are some of the strategies I think are our responsibility.

1. Real World Math Opportunities. I know, I know, this one is highly debated by people. But here’s the thing. Parallel parking isn’t important to me because I don’t use it. Those textbook questions rarely convince me that it is something important enough to learn. Real world…and I mean REAL life applications, not a phoney word problem encouraging me to calculate at what point Train A will pass Train B, give students a glimpse into how much math permeates their world. Even more importantly, I think real examples show students how math is often more complex and multi-faceted than textbook examples would have us believe. If we know student ability to persist in task is important to success, those real world examples also give students those opportunity to persevere.

2. Making it Interesting. Full disclosure. I cringe when people tell me that they are creating a board game for math. I’m not against board games per say, but I am when this is the main example of real world that we can come up with. Having said that, I do agree that Games, not just board games, can encourage enthusiasm in students. If the game is making math interesting AND is actually making it more meaningful then I promise not to cringe so much. But don’t just stop at games, there are other ways to make math interesting to them, including incorporating personally relevant context, linking to other learning, and letting students help create the learning to be done.

3. Make Math a Thinking Sport. Apparently this post is becoming a bit of a confessional for me, so here goes. Something else that makes me cringe is the phrase “Use pictures, numbers & words to show your answer”. When this mantra becomes a checklist that students use to fill a page with little thought about how each of those elements add to the reader’s understanding of the learner’s thinking then we haven’t set students up for very rich learning. It becomes the primary equivalent of a mysterious algorithm that you just plug in the numbers and hope for the best. Instead, I think our students will be better math students if we teach them that math is about thinking and understanding first, and finding the right answer a distant second. Teach students how to question, challenge, explain, explain in another way, compare and reflect. Devote major portions of learning time to these processes and good answers will follow.

There are other great strategies to make our students better mathematicians. What are some of your must haves in a math program to avoid the curse of “parallel parking unlearning”?

Mixing It Up

Posted: 14th October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Today was a great morning. I got to sit down with some of the educators in our school and talk about our students and their needs and the educators in the building and their needs. I was initially worried because a few of our groupings of educators were a bit of a mish mash, due to scheduling quirks. What would a grade 1 teacher have to relate to a grade 8 teacher? How could an arts teacher relate to a teacher who wanted to talk literacy?

As usually happens when I worry too much, it turned out there was nothing to worry about. Those uneven pairings elicited the best conversations. The surprise (and relief) educators felt about discovering commonalities in their students was fascinating.

We talk about how good mixing up groups can be for students. If I am a poor little tugboat in September and I’m still a little tugboat in June with the same 5 friends, I am likely to have some collaboration fatigue. But put me with different people – sometimes with obvious commonalities to me, but not always – and I’m going to have to work harder to be a good collaborator. I think I’ll also be less likely to be bored, or more likely to be engaged.

Too often, I think, we ask educators to collaborate based on obvious commonalities. Sit in your grade teams…departments…with the people you always work with… I’ve done that too, (um, a lot). It’s neat and easy to organize. But it’s maybe not the best for challenging the status quo, or pushing the thinking and practice of the participants.

Today I accidentally mixed up the groups and loved the outcome. I think it’s time to intentionally shake up PLNs some of the time to push our learning and collaborating potential. It may not always be comfortable, but maybe when we are comfortable we don’t know what else we are missing.

Step Away From the Lite Brite Pattern

Posted: 6th October 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

September is a funny time in a school. It is filled with fresh ideas and excited learners. However, it is also filled with ambivalence and tears, impossible problems and what I lovingly refer to as “start up glitches”. (The educators and learners in our school faced more than their share of start up glitches this year…lovingly may be a bit of an emotional overstatement.). It is an exhausting month and I must say, I’m glad it is over. One reason is because October usually brings a little more calm, less ambivalence and more manageable problems. Another reason is because you finally have time to reflect and consider those fresh ideas that people hit you with in their post-vacation excitement.

One such idea I have been pondering for the last few weeks (between glitches, of course) came from our director, John Malloy. While speaking about HWDSB’s new visioning document Transforming Learning Everywhere, he asked us to consider if we had created space in our schools for adaptive learning to occur.

Have we – educators – created space in our classrooms, our lessons, our use of materials/resources/programs, that allow our students to be adaptive learners? Have we – school leaders – created space in our allocation of resources, meaningful PD opportunities, and our support of collaborative learning to develop educators who feel comfortable and safe to encourage adaptive learners?

Now that I had the opportunity to reflect on these ideas, I let my mind wander. I needed to find a connection to help me make these lofty thoughts more manageable for my concrete brain. So my wandering led me to Lite Brite.

Does anyone remember Lite Brite? I loved my Lite Brite. It was a monitor-sized screen (like, old fashioned deep monitors, not those flimsy flat screen numbers) powered by a single light bulb and a plastic mesh screen. To accompany the screen, you also got pages of thin black paper with drawings on them and loads of little coloured plastic pegs. The play of it was to put a pattern over the screen and follow the numbers to use the right coloured pegs in the right holes to create a precise picture that glowed in the dark. But depending on how many coloured pegs you had (ie how many your mother had not yet vacuumed up) you sometimes had to make some colour substitutions. I always got frustrated by this. It never looked right. I would end up ripping off the paper and just used whatever coloured pegs I had to make my own pictures. While I always wanted to start with the pattern, using my own imagination and creativity was inevitably more satisfying.

So, here’s the problem I see. I think educators sometimes get stuck. We try to change one or two little pegs…I’ll use an iPad instead of paper and markers, I’ll sit students in groups instead of in rows…but they stick out in the big picture if they aren’t meaningful to the overall purpose. We need to build our experiences with our students from scratch and not rely on an outdated pattern because the pegs we now have to build our picture are different than what we started with.

In times past, a goal of education was to create students who learned everything we had to teach them. Now we want students to learn skills we don’t know, using tools we are unfamiliar with, to prepare for a world that they will function in better than us. I think we’ll find more and more of our traditional patterns will leave us unsatisfied, but to fit in just a few easy changes probably won’t help us either.

Creating adaptive learners will mean ensuring educators are also adaptive.

What I need to reflect on some more is how you help educators and learners be successful while rethinking the whole pattern. I’m beginning to think that the “everywhere” in “Transforming Learning Everywhere” means as much about the variety of learners who will experience transformative change as it does about the number of places in which change occurs.

I’m only in week one of reflective post-September. I will hopefully come up with better ways to explain my thinking than the Lite Brite. In the meantime, how do you break away from the pattern? What do you use to rethink the pegs you use?

Gone Fishing

Posted: 7th September 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

When I was a kid, we spent lots of time in Florida. A favourite family activity was fishing off the pier. Opposed to harming animals for sport, I insisted on not only releasing any fish the family caught (my family agreed to this one), but I also had a staunch aversion to harming the worms we used for bait (I was on my own with this one). As a result, I spent most of my fishing time letting my worms “breathe” until my Dad got sick of this and took me to Albertson’s to buy the most hideous purple plastic worms you could buy. I have yet to find any pictures of me actually catching a fish. Go figure.

I wrote a blog post last week about how homework is not really a black or white issue. You can’t be just for or against it; it is a balance of understanding many perspectives, potential gains and costs, and drawing a conclusion that you can live with, knowing that it isn’t exactly perfect for everyone, every time.

This week, I’ve heard and read about many educators who are reflecting on how to find the perfect balance between their ideology and the reality in their classroom. For the most part, it isn’t perfect. It requires constant reworking, reflecting and changing things up on an on-going basis. This is sometimes frustrating and usually thought- and time-consuming.

So why do we do it? Why not just take a stand, stick to it and be done with it?

As I now understand, that’s just not the way to catch a fish.

I am proud of every educator out there who is rethinking their teaching, their students’ learning experiences and even their classroom environment. September is a hard month, and you are making it harder on yourselves, but for a good cause.

Thanks to all of you who have given me warm and fuzzy feelings about our profession this week. You give teaching a good name. And if you haven’t yet spent any time reconsidering your program, how do you plan on catching your fish?

The Homework Debate

Posted: 29th August 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Once upon a time there was an eager young student so excited to start the school year. Our young hero couldn’t wait to see old friends again, meet new ones, jump into new learning topics and, yes, even get back into a schedule. The first few days were all that the student expected and all was good and right in the world. Then, as happens in all good fairy tales, darkness loomed on the outskirts of our hero’s perception. A ripple of unease made this young one begin to despair. How is it possible to overcome the tragic arrival of . . . The homework package.

You know what I mean. That bundle of photocopied black line masters intended to force our students to develop good organization and work completion habits while quickly numbing them into non-thinking, compliant creatures of habit. While I must admit that I have seen some good homework assignments in elementary school, most are not so good. They are often repetitive right/wrong, follow-the-same-pattern-from-September-to-June, time wasters that our struggling students dread and/or ignore and our high achieving students either whip through or ignore.

I was asked earlier this week what my opinion is in the great homework debate. I may have shown my hand a bit already here, (I have a horrible poker face, even in writing) but I actually hesitated before I answered. On the one hand, most of the research I have read shows that assigning the traditional black line master-type homework is at best minimally beneficial and at worst actually detrimental to student achievement in elementary school. On the other hand, I don’t want to provide a quick answer that could be construed to mean I think students should only think, read, write, and problem solve between 9 am and 3 pm, five days a week. On the other, other hand I also know that parents either beg teachers to send home daily homework for their child or stand around the arena/gym/school parking lot bemoaning how 8 year old Johnny was up until 11 last night in tears trying to finish the 40 math questions the teacher assigned.

Once I considered all of those hands, this is how I answered. Homework, I think, should mostly be about encouraging students to read and write in forms that interest and work for them. It should be about encouraging them to wonder, hypothesize, consider and problem solve about the world around them. It should also be about climbing trees, organizing bike races in the park, and having thoughtful conversations with family members. And it should be about students who eagerly continue following up independently on learning they started in school and are too excited to leave behind at 3 p.m.

I understand the problems with this kind of homework. It’s nebulous and doesn’t fit nicely on an 8 1/2 by 11 paper. Parents don’t know how to direct it, help with it, or how to use it to measure how well little Johnny is doing. It also relies on the student having educators who have supported that student to be metacognitively aware, intrinsically motivated, self confident, and passionate about learning. That is a tall order.

But at some point I think we have to consider how, if our expectations of what learning looks like at school are evolving, our expectations of what learning looks like outside the classroom might have to evolve as well.

How do we help our hero live happily ever after? I think we need to consider carefully how to add value to student learning instead of just maintaining it. We have to have conversations with parents, students, and other educators about what this could look like. We do need to consider how we can promote self regulation and the other learning skills in whatever we decide, since these are the skills that make our hero, well, heroic.

Fairy tales are often a battle of black and white, with so little grey to cloud our understanding. The homework debate still has lots of grey. How do you interpret the grey?