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?

Let’s Move It

Posted: 13th August 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

There was an article in the Hamilton Spectator today about how students who exercise do better in school in terms of their behaviour, attention and achievement.

http://www.thespec.com/news-story/4755989-behaviour-attitude-marks-improved-as-kids-got-more-fit

Next week I am fully expecting a study on how feeding children fruits and vegetables is healthier than giving them chips and candy. Really. Did we need a study to prove what every teacher (& I dare say, parent) already knows. Exercise is good for kids – physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and academically.

I’m fairly certain that you are still nodding your head and agreeing with me so far. But the article got me thinking about what we consider good exercise. Right now seems to be sign up season. Chequebooks out, parents – (seriously – I only have a chequebook anymore for my kids’ activities). We need to co-ordinate. Swimming lessons, hockey, basketball. There are only 7 days in a week and school eats up a big chunk of 5 of them. When there are multiple kids with multiple schedules, and sometimes in widespread locations, that co-ordination requires more precision than time tabling a school of 900. I speak from experience. Time tabling the school was WAY easier than figuring out how to get all my kids to where they need to go.

So why do we do it? Most of us understand that we are not raising a future Olympian. Yet we still devote so much of our time, money and a fair bit of our sanity to ensure our darlings get to the gym/pool/arena/studio on a regular basis. Why? The same reason we make them drink their milk, wash their hands, and go to bed at a decent hour. It is good for them.

However.

How good is it if our children are so scheduled they only know how to engage in physical activity with a coach standing over them? Or how good is it if all of those activities that we diligently take them to from the time they are 3 years old are out grown by them at 13 and now they don’t know how else to be active? How fair is it if some parents have the time and means to put their kids in physical activities but others don’t?

We talk about the work we do in schools to help make our students critical thinkers to ensure they have the skills to be lifelong learners. We encourage learning beyond the textbook to truly applicable life skills. The parent may choose to take their child to a tutor that does drill and kill activities to “teach” their child, but that won’t stop us from teaching them the skills we value in learners.

It shouldn’t be any different with physical literacy skills. Sports have their place. For some kids. At some times. But physical literacy in schools should be about educators teaching students how to develop life long habits to support their physical well being and understanding of self. I am thrilled that here in Ontario we have a Physical Education curriculum that places more value on teaching skills and self awareness over specific sports. We also have a provincial requirement that all students must be physically active during instructional time for at least 20 minutes per day. I’m thrilled that educators here are supported by resources like OPHEA (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) and amazing learning opportunities like our own local Ontario Physical Literacy Conference (physicalliteracyhamilton.ca) to foster this mindset of life long involvement in physical activity. Phys Ed teachers are some of the most passionate educators I know, but they also shouldn’t be the ones solely responsible for teaching our students physical literacy skills.

As we head into the fall, I want to reflect on a few questions. Maybe you might join me in them.

How are my students learning physical literacy skills?
How well do they know what their bodies can do, how to goal set to make them better, and how to learn and apply new physical skills?
What opportunities do my students have to explore activities outside of gym class?
What do we have to do to hook that student who declares he/she hates Phys Ed?
And how do you convince the “star athlete” that being physical literate means more than a being able to shoot a beautiful lay up?

I want my kids – my own home grown ones and the ones in my care at school – to be physically literate because of all those reasons mentioned in the article in the paper today. It is good for them as students. But I also want them to have those skills because once they leave school I want them to have happy, healthy lives and these skills can certainly aid in that.

A Lesson from Baseball

Posted: 30th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I was watching a baseball game on TV the other night – a totally NON school related activity, right? Some non thinking, summer time relaxation, right? Yeah, not so much.

The announcer was talking about a new player and how the manager had put a lot of trust in this young guy (ok, for the record, all of the players are now “young guys” to me…how did I get so old???). This player had evidently been trying to please his new manager. An obvious desire for someone who finally made it to the big leagues and didn’t want to be sent back down to the minors. And then, something pretty cool happened. The manager sent the player a signal while at bat. Basically, the manager indicated that he had confidence in the player and trusted him to make a great play. Go for it. Show us what you’ve got.

Of course, in true baseball form, the young player made a great hit and helped his team offensively in a way he hadn’t previously. And the announcer said something that really stuck with me. He said that when a manager shows that kind of confidence in a player, that player will work so hard to show he is worthy of that.

Huh. Baseball is not so different from teaching, is it? I’m no baseball player but that kind of confidence a leader can show in an employee is pretty impressive. As an administrator, I want to be able to, yes, provide guidance, instruction and structure for the other educators in the building. But more than that, I want to be able to encourage educators by saying “I trust you. Give it a try and show us what you’ve got”.
The teachers in our school do amazing things every day for our students. I do trust them to do great things, but maybe I need to let them know that they DO inspire my confidence more often.

A new school year will start in a month. I’m looking forward to learning from the baseball manager and make sure the educators know that I have such confidence in them. They are going to hit it out of the park.

Inquiry is NOT just for 5 Year Olds

Posted: 12th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

My son is heading off to university in the fall and I couldn’t be prouder. He is a smart, hard-working kid with big ambition and skills to match. But one of the things I’m most proud of is his choice of program. He does well in school, and, as a result, got into every program he applied to, but the one he chose actually matches my own teaching and learning philosophy – something I hadn’t really thought would be possible.
Earlier this week was an orientation for the program for excited students and anxious parents (it wasn’t actually billed for those specific audiences, but that’s an editorialized, general observation). The Dean got up and proudly announced that this program is unlike most others. Our children should be congratulated for getting into a program that accepts a very small portion of applicants. And we should know what our children are getting into. The secret, he shared, to success boils down to a single indicator. Parents here waited with bated breath. They NEEDED the secret because their child would be the best student this program had ever seen. They knew their child was already probably doing it. They waited.
The secret, said the Dean, was a student’s ability to do group work, collaborate and participate in inquiry. Marks and grades, on the other hand, would hold far less weight in their success.
Did I say parents were anxious? Make that horrified, angry, gobsmacked. This was not the answer they had expected or wanted to hear. Since all the students had achieved a high school average in and about 98% to get into the program, it made sense that in their experience, marks do generally carry a lot of weight and do measure success.
I smiled. This is the best news I’ve heard to come out of a university in a long time. I fully believe in the value of inquiry-based learning. Not just for kindergarten students, as our province more frequently highlights (and, in some way minimizes, by teaching the public to call it play-based learning when their preconceived notions of play can be derogatory). I have spent the last few years extolling the virtues of inquiry in our classrooms for all students (and for their educators, but that’s another story). Often push back comes from parents and educators asking: but how does inquiry prepare our students for…grade one, middle school, high school, post secondary opportunities…you name it, they ask it. Yet, here is an acclaimed university in a very auspicious program, saying inquiry is exactly what is most important for their students’ success.
I feel for those parents that the Dean spoke to. Their world just got turned upside down. But I couldn’t be happier. I now have yet one more way to convince the inquiry doubters. And perhaps, in a few years, that Dean will not see a sea full of horrified expressions when he gives his secret for success speech because parents and students will already know the benefits of learning in an inquiry-rich environment. Keep up the good work, Dean. I’m behind you all the way.image

Being Remarkable

Posted: 8th July 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

It is a few weeks into summer vacation here. Such a lovely time of year to allow educators a chance to recharge, catch up with family, friends and those honey-do lists. It has struck me this year how few educators just leave it at that for summer plans, though. Most educators I know spend at least part of their vacation reading professional resources, taking AQ courses or summer workshops, continue to think, blog, question, connect using various social mediums or dig into planning for the next school year in their classrooms or on their deck.
I’ve spent the last week working on a fall curriculum package, reading some books and getting a little much needed rest. But beyond the rest (and some fabulous deck parties) it is those things that keep me thinking like an educator that re-invigorate me. I love thinking about what I could do, change and refresh to make learning that much better for the students and educators in my care.
One of my favourite quotes is by John Green. In his book An Abundance of Katherines, he wrote: “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”
Most of the educators I know are constantly striving for remarkable…even when the public may think it is just two months off. Thanks educators. Keep being remarkable – our students are so worth it.
What do you do to refresh and re-invigorate your teaching practice?

High Expectations and Report Cards

Posted: 18th June 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

I am almost finished my first year as a school administrator and I have learned many things so far. One thing that has struck me is how challenging it is to be a leader with high expectations. It involves some stepping-up-to-the-plate modelling, courageous conversations, and a clear and steady ability to reflect on what’s the goal, where is it and how to get there. Did I mention it was challenging?
I am almost through reviewing this term’s report cards. Most teachers find them exhausting and difficult to write reports, but they are an important evidence piece for students, parents and educators. So, I want teachers to take them seriously and do them well. It means I sometimes have to offer feedback that is difficult to give. I have to decide what aspects to support an individual teacher in developing and when. (Note to self and other newbies…suggesting change or new learning in June is not always popular.) But the biggest challenge I took on was to attempt some modelling this term.
It’s June. That means I am up to my eyeballs in schedules, trip forms, parent requests, class lists, in addition to report cards. But I still decided to try. Using Growing Success as a reference, we have asked teachers at our school to personalize their report cards as much as possible. They should represent what the student specifically did, how well they did it and next steps to help them with further learning. So I wondered, is there a way that I can support personalization as well?
I decided to try. I committed to reading the reports I got to try to really see the individual student in them. To help me focus on this, I decided to write a personal comment for each student on the report. It was easy to do with some reports and more challenging with others but if we are asking teachers to know their students well and document their learning specifically, shouldn’t I be willing to try to model that as well? What do you think?
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Might I Have A Word?

Posted: 12th June 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

Do you remember that movie The Sixth Sense? (I’m totally dating myself with this reference, but you young’uns can google it if you like.) Bruce Willis was this child psychologist trying to help a little boy who saw dead people. It took me almost the entire movie to figure out (ok, I know this is a spoiler but the movie is 15 years old, people) that the doctor was dead for most of the movie. I never saw it coming. It took just 2 seconds of a scene with the doctor’s wife for me to realize what was going on and then it completely changed my whole understanding of the movie. What I thought I knew shifted drastically in an instant. Enough that I am apparently still remembering it 15 years later.

I love when those things happen in learning. When a quote, a graphic, a story shared, a picture – hits you and totally shifts your understanding of a concept. This week, for me, it was a single word.

I have been sifting and refining my understanding of inquiry all year. It helps that I work with a great bunch of educators – in person and in the cyber world – who push my thinking all of the time and let me see glimpses of how inquiry is working for them. One thing I have been pondering is the role of direct instruction and the teacher’s responsibility in inquiry.

At this point in time, I think there is absolutely a role for teachers to teach students concepts, ideas, and ways of thinking and processing directly. They need that and I don’t know if I see the possibility of that going away. But there also seems to be a need for teachers to spend much more of their time supporting students from a different perspective. I’ve mostly heard it as “facilitating the learner”, “teacher as facilitator” or “guide on the side”.

These are all good, and I have been using them quite a lot when talking with teachers. But what if it isn’t really facilitating? What if that doesn’t really capture what I want teachers to do?

Facilitate means to make something easier or to help something along. But I don’t want learning to be easier for students. Learning – good, rich learning about meaningful questions – isn’t easy. It’s very difficult. Kids need to grapple with that difficulty.

Then I heard a new word. It was at a lecture given earlier this week by Michael Fullan. It wasn’t really in relation to inquiry, but that is where my mind took it.

What if we described a main role for teachers in inquiry as not the facilitator but the activator?

Activate means to cause something to react, or cause to function. YES! I want students to act, react, function. I want teachers to jump start student learning. I want them to provoke students with rich, impossible questions. I want media and people resources to present different perspectives that make students reconsider their thinking. I want them to build excitement but find links between learning opportunities, current events, student passion and curriculum. That is way more than a guide on the side could offer.

It is somewhat comforting to think of inquiry educators as activators. One of the big challenges I hear about inquiry learning from skeptics is that it sounds like the student is doing all the learning on their own. This isn’t some futuristic movie where all the students wear their strange scuba suit type uniforms and learn in individual pods with just an electronic voice to keep them company. This is active participation by student AND teacher. In teacher as activator inquiry, teachers are not obsolete but crucial to good learning.

Maybe it is just me. Maybe activator doesn’t do anything for you. I’m ok with that. It is helping push my thinking about inquiry. I’d love to hear what has shifted other people’s understanding of inquiry too.

How can you activate my thinking?

Thinking Outside Teachable Moments

Posted: 27th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

This week I’ve had a few experiences that have caused me to think about teachable moments. A few years back, this seemed to be a big edu phrase. At inservices and workshops, we would talk about those teachable moments we jumped on, took control of in the moment and led our students to cure cancer, understand bringing peace to earth, and figure out how to all share one ball at recess. It was like our very own teaching Hallmark card.

I like the idea of teachable moments – those opportunities that teachers recognize and immediately figure out how to respond to create learning for our students…and then carry it out…and then it works. But that’s a lot of pressure. Teachers are skilled, observant workers with a huge toolbox of skills, but those teachable moments are a big order.

What made me think of this is a conversation I had with a group of co-learners. We talked about how we always feel the need to respond in the moment to situations and create meaningful learning out of it. Then we talked about how often it is more effective to have the time to reflect on a situation and strategically plan out your response. What questions will you ask? What information will you offer? How can you intentionally craft the learning environment and conditions to allow for the best chance for that moment of learning? Like all teachers, I am well practiced at asking questions on the fly, but I know that the questions I plan out are even better than those quick ones.

Our new world of inquiry based learning and honouring student voice and choice sometimes makes us live and learn on the fly more than we have been used to. While I love the buzz of an inquiry-filled classroom, it moves very quickly. Teachers often step up and move quickly with it as the facilitator, but are there those opportunities to also slow down and decidedly craft the learning environment, opportunities, questions and discussion as well? How does this work with a classroom of inquiry? Do you think it could be used effectively and still be supportive of a inquiry based program?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think?

A Lesson Learned from Gilderoy Lockhart

Posted: 24th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

One tradition in my house has always been to read before bedtime. Sadly, my three oldest rarely allow a good read aloud anymore (in part because their bedtime is later than mine) but my youngest daughter still loves our reading sessions. Currently we are reading through the Harry Potter series. Last night, Cana and I were reading and we came to this passage in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

When he had handed out the test papers he returned to the front of the class and said, “You have thirty minutes. Start – now!”
Harry looked down at his paper and read:
1. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s favourite colour?
2. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s secret ambition?
3. What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart’s greatest achievement to date?
On and on it went, over three sides of paper, right down to:
54. When is Gilderoy Lockhart’s birthday, and what would his ideal gift be?
Half an hour later, Lockhart collected in the papers and rifled through them in front of the class.
“Tut, tut – hardly any of you remembered that my favourite colour is lilac. I say so in Year with a Yeti. And a few of you need to read Weekend with a Werewolf more carefully – I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday gift would be harmony between all magic and non-magic peoples – though I wouldn’t say no to a large bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky!”

Oh Gilderoy, you have totally missed the mark about teaching and assessment. Your poor students. How engaging do you think that learning was for them? How meaningfully was their learning represented? Who was it that decided what was important to be learned? How much of the learning that you asked them to do was the easy regurgitation of facts?

I don’t know what teacher training looks like for the employees of Hogwarts, but I would suggest that perhaps some lessons in who the learning is really about might be in order. It seems to me that Gilderoy is under the mistaken impression that it is his job to transfer all the information in his head that he deems important into the heads of all of his students, regardless of whether this will actually help them in their learning of the subject (which, incidently, is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing Gilderoy’s favourite colour is unlikely to help Harry and his fellow students in defending themselves against the evils of the magical world, I’m afraid.) Gilderoy has been caught up in unfortunate cycle of thinking “What I think and say is much more important than what my students think and say, unless what they say agrees with me.”

As Cana and I will soon learn as we continue reading this book, Gilderoy Lockhart really doesn’t know what he is talking about. He really has no idea how to defend against any dark forces, so he has disguised this by reaching for things he does know about to prove how smart he is. As teachers back in the real world move more into the realm of teaching through inquiry, we are more and more frequently delving into learning with our students about things that we are not experts on. Instead of trying to mask this by spouting what we do know, as Gilderoy did, we should try some different techniques. Here are some ideas:

Admit that we don’t know, but we would love to learn it with them and from them. Talk about an engaging start.

Ask them questions. Good questions, not simple quick answer ones. Questions that make them think more deeply, with varied perspectives, with an eye towards bias and also towards real world application. Also, questions that help you as the co-learner better understand the subject matter. Nothing makes a student’s eyes light up faster than a teacher saying: “I never thought of that but it helps me understand it better.”

Think about assessment and how to balance it with good learning. We still have a need to assign marks to student learning, but generally the traditional forms of assessment just don’t capture good learning well. Gilderoy’s 54 question test (in 30 minutes!) is easy to mark and grade, but doesn’t really measure student learning about how to defeat Voldemort and company in a dark alley. Documenting the conversations you have throughout the learning process with students, having students demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, and having students capture their shifts in thinking and application over time will help you paint a picture of how well the learning has happened. To me, this is always the most difficult juggling act, but so worth it.

Give them something interesting to learn about. I may not know about all of the inquiry topics that students will investigate, but I’m a pretty good thinker and researcher myself (pretty good qualities for a teacher to have, I would say). I can find thought-provoking material, concepts, thoughts and ideas and provide students with them to encourage them to learn more deeply. We often call these provocations. It doesn’t mean we are providing all that a student needs to know, but perhaps pointing them in a direction that they wouldn’t have gotten to on their own.

Don’t immediately jump in with the “right” answer. Gilderoy does just that after collecting the tests, again proving how much smarter he is than his students. Unfortunately, all he has taught them is that if they don’t know right away, he will rescue them. No thinking required. If they don’t know the answer, they aren’t ever going to be motivated to learn it on their own.

Gilderoy Lockhart was a total fraud of a teacher. There is very little to recommend him as an educator. But it is easy to fall into some of the same traps he does in teaching. If we are to continue to strive to provide our students with the education they need to live in our fast-paced world, we have to move beyond the 54 question test and into the realm of real learning and assessing. We can’t let our own Harry Potters down. You never know what they will become after we teach them.

Seeking Good Advice

Posted: 20th May 2014 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

When I was first put into the VP pool for my board, I was given some advice by a seasoned VP.
“Never talk at meetings. Never disagree with those above you. Never share what you are frustrated about or what you don’t know.”
With that, I almost backed out. I figured I would be in trouble if those were the expectations I faced.
I came into this role to learn to become a better educator and work to find ways to support student learning. I can’t do that without asking questions, challenging my ideas and the ideas of others, admitting those things I’m struggling with, and asking for help. I appreciate that the structures in place to support leaders in our board actually complement my learning style. We use problems or challenges of practice to focus our personal growth plans and scaffold our learning in meaningful ways. I can’t tell you what a relief this was after the early advice I received.
But here is where I need some new advice. I have far too many problems of practice to help me focus on learning one thing at a time. My biggest frustration this year is never having enough time to do anything well (I hear all you seasoned administrators, teachers and parents chuckling at that). I have tried to find ways to focus my learning. What are my immediate concerns? (Too big). What are those things that keep me up at night? (Way too big). What does the system say I need to focus on? (Too big and conflicting with the previous two categories).
I suspect others have cracked the code to figure out how to focus down your learning ambitions into manageable parts. If you have, what factors did you use to help refine your learning goals?