We’re Not Even Getting Marks for This!

There was a quiet anticipation as we made our way through the old, winding corridors. I could hear the conversations as the students trailed behind me, this was a new experience for most of them, and it was clear they were in awe of their surroundings. This learning activity was set up by their Physics teacher, @ellen_verity , and the students only knew one thing, and that was that they would be completing a learning lab studying inelastic collisions. I was along as a chaperone and was just as excited. Part of the excitement was in the wonder of what we’d be learning, the other was the flood of memories as we walked by old classrooms where I had studied mathematics as a University student many years earlier.

We were met by two men, a lab instructor and a graduate student, and they took us to the science lab where we would spend the next two hours creating collisions. After an introduction and a brief discussion outlining the lab the students would be completing, the work began. The students were busy determining mass, calculating velocities, and wrestling with formulae that first-year university physics students would normally encounter. It was a treat to watch the students learning together as they completed the 90-minute lab experiment. One of the comments that stood out to me above all the others was from a grade 12 boy who had been struggling to determine the energy loss in the experiment. He had repeatedly tried and failed to calculate the correct answer, his only support was from the facilitator who encouraged him to “check his math” as his answer fell outside of the acceptable range that the instructor had told the students to keep in mind. He turned to his lab partner and said, “I can’t believe I’m still working at this, it’s not even for marks”. The boys laughed and then returned to their work. Eventually, they had found the error in their calculation, and when they had succeeded they could not hide their pride. They had persisted and were rewarded for their hard work. This ‘stick-withitness’ was demonstrated at all the stations, not a single group dropped their pencils and said, “that’s it, we’re done here”. It made me think about why, and I have a few theories.

1. Environment: the students were working in a different environment than they were used to, and it seemed to be a big change for them. In reality, there was not a lot of difference between their school lab to the one they were in on this day; the tables were similar in height, the stools looked and felt the same, the lighting and temperature were familiar, and one student even noticed the laminate on the counter tops was peeling, just like back at school! So while the different setting surely had an impact on their mindset, I do not think it was the greatest influence.

2. The lab facilitator: the students commented on how smart the lab facilitator was. One student marveled at how he would manipulate different formulas with ease, while another student found it interesting how the facilitator could predict the mistakes students would make. It was apparent to me that the students wanted to do well for this facilitator, and wanted him to know that they brought with them a solid understanding of high school math and physics. While this desire to impress was apparent, like the environment, I do not think this was the greatest influence either.

3. The challenge: this lab involved shooting a 60-gram steel ball into an apparatus that consisted of what I would describe as a cage attached to a pendulum that would swing up using the momentum of the shot. The challenge was to use simple measurements (i.e. height, distance, gravity) to determine the initial and final velocity of the ball. From there the students were challenged to use this information to calculate momentum and eventually determine if there was a conservation of energy. All of this flew straight over my head, but it was fun to watch the kids work through a lab that was not too difficult, yet not too simple. It was a task that was just right in terms of rigor. While the task, was in the Goldilocks zone, much like the environment and the facilitator, I do not think it was the greatest influence.

4. A sense of pride: above all else, I believe the students wanted to successfully complete the lab for their own sense of pride. It was wonderful to see the smiles on their faces when they had correctly calculated the velocity or the momentum. It was wonderful to watch them work together to compare their calculations and discuss what they had learned. It was wonderful to watch them traverse the highs and lows that are typically associated with deep learning. I believe it was this sense of pride that was the greatest motivator for the students, after all, like that student indicated, they were not getting any marks for this. This was truly learning for the sake of learning, and I could feel the engagement in the room.

Given that we are currently immersed in looking at and talking about our assessment practices, I could not help but think about how closely engagement is tied to our assessment work. In her book, @KatieWhite426  writes,

engagment is strongly connected to assessment. Not getting the best effort from our students and feeling like we are working harder than our learners are symptoms of a system not grounded in authentic learning” (p. 153).

Reading this took me back to many times in my classes when the kids were not as “in to” the learning as I had thought they would be. I felt like I had created a highly engaging lessons only to see slumped shoulders and partial efforts. I would have chalked this up to “kids being kids”, however there also numerous lessons when the exact same students were highly engaged and motivated. I had to come to terms with the fact that it was me, not them. I also had to be gentle on myself and forgive myself when a lesson fell flat. I had to have the belief that I could learn from it and improve on it.

This also makes me think of our mindset, as Katie’s quote invites us to view engagement as something that is within our control versus looking at it as something the students consciously choose (either they want to be engaged or they don’t). Of course, going one step further, this also takes me back to our school goal, every adult at #WaldheimSchool will develop a deep and thorough understanding of every student they work with as learners. If we really know our learners we can then begin to craft engaging learning opportunities which in turn will lead to authentic assessments. I’d invite you to think about this the next time it feels like you are working harder than the students are.

Here’s what is on the horizon for our final week before the Christmas break:

Monday:

  • 9 – 12 staff meeting (any 5 – 8 staff are welcome to join us as our meeting last week was cancelled)

Tuesday:

  • Final preparations for Christmas concert

Wednesday:

  • K – 4 Christmas concert matinee performance

Thursday:

  • K – 4 Christmas concert evening performance

Friday:

  • 7 – 12 locker clean up (schedule to be posted Tuesday to assist with your planning)
  • K – 6 Christmas classroom activities
  • 7 – 12 Christmas activities (pm) lead by the SRC

As always, create a great week!

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I Played My Best For Him…

“I thought my heart was going to come right out of my chest”

These were the words Bobby whispered to me in the church on Saturday afternoon at his piano recital. He had just finished playing The Little Drummer Boy for a room full of people he had never met before, and in his words, he ‘nailed it’. Every day for the past three weeks Bobby had been practicing in preparation for this moment. I remember when he was told the title of the piece he was learning, and how excited I was to share that that carol was his mother’s favorite Christmas song. With dogged determination, he practiced over and over and as the days passed we both began to hear the improvement (I wrote more about this here.) I recall the day when he went mistake free, start to finish, because all he did when he was done was let out a quiet, “yes!” with a subtle fist pump. All of that work led up to his performance, a solo that barely lasted one minute from start to finish, including his shy bow before heading back to my side. He did a great job, and I could not have been more proud.

In our work we often talk about learning and assessment in terms designed to help us wrap our heads around what is considered best practice. We talk about ‘practice time’ and ‘game day’ when we refer to formative and summative assessments. As I watched and listened to the kids playing their pieces at the Christmas celebration, I could not help but think about how I was seeing the results of authentic learning in it’s purest form. This was ‘game day’ for those kids, their guests, and their teachers. The students were given a piece to practice over a period of time, coming back weekly to their teacher to demonstrate their progress. It was during these lessons that feedback was given to the students and next steps were set up based on where they were at that moment. The students then went away and practiced some more, and the cycle continued. During this entire learning journey there was not one mark given, only feedback. Some of that feedback occurred in the moment beside the teacher, some of it was in written form in their journal. It was simple process; work with the teacher, practice at home while self-assessing, demonstrate growth for the teacher, receive feedback, practice with teacher, repeat.

The recital could be viewed as their summative assessment, a culmination of their hard work where they had one shot in front of the crowd to show what they know. Of course this does not mean that Bobby is done playing the piano, nor will he now put The Little Drummer Boy away. He has already talked about how he will be playing this for his relatives this Christmas, and we’ve discussed the possibility of creating a performance tying the songs he knows together in a longer performance. Summative assessment should not mean over and done with, it should be a snap shot in time. Katie White (@KatieWhite426) writes, “summative assessment is the way we verify learning and determine proficiency. It is an essential  part of the learning cycle” (p. 153). Note how she says it is part of the cycle, not the end of the cycle. Saturday afternoon was a verification of what Bobby had learned and an opportunity to show his teacher he is ready for the next challenge.

What about the cycle in our classrooms with 15, 20, 25, or 30+ students? It is through the art and science of teaching that you are making this happen at #WaldheimSchool. I’ve seen the creative ways teachers are carving out time in the day to listen to students read, to sit beside students as they wrestle with concepts, or to simply stand back and watch them work together to deepen their understanding. One of the best examples of this is watching the home ec students, especially when they are in their cake decorating unit. I love watching the students experiment, collaborate, and then seek feedback from Marla and Krisinda. I also secretly hope for a slice of cake when they are done! Assessment is not easy, and when I reflect on how I used to teach, particularly my math classes, I am embarrassed by the steps I failed to take. Here was the normal learning cycle when I taught:

  1. Tell the kids what they’d be learning (I’d post my objectives by writing, today you will learn…..)
  2. Have them copy notes off the board
  3. Demonstrate two or three examples from their upcoming assigned work
  4. With about 25% of the class time remaining I’d assign several questions for homework
  5. Get frustrated the following day when the kids hadn’t ‘figured it out’ on their own
  6. Move on with the next lesson because we didn’t have time to stop
  7. Get more frustrated when the kids failed their tests
  8. Repeat…

There were so many opportunities for me to do a better job with my teaching, and looking back now I have to pause, understand that I was doing what I thought was best in the moment, forgive myself, and move on. I wonder how well Bobby would have done had he learned how to play piano the way I taught math. Imagine him showing up for lessons to sit and listened to his teacher play The Little Drummer Boy so he would know how it should sound, but not getting to touch the keys for 75% of the lesson. Imagine the frustration he and my wife and I would have when he came home to practice, only to have us fail to know how to help him. Imagine him returning for lessons having experienced little or no growth. Now imagine how he would have felt in that church getting ready for his summative assessment.

I’m glad Bobby learned how to play The Little Drummer Boy the way he did. I’m glad he ‘nailed it’.

Here’s what is on the horizon this week:

Monday:

  • 5 – 8 staff meeting (hopefully you’ve had a chance to view the agenda and think about the reflective questions)

Tuesday:

  • Bruce & Jesse at ALT, Katharine is acting admin

Wednesday:

  • Tentative relocatable classroom walk through with contractors and facilities

Thursday:

  • Ellen & Bruce in Saskatoon all day for 11 & 12 math/science learning trip

Friday:

  • Laird Christmas concert (matinee & evening performance)

As always, create a great week!

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There Will Always Be Waves

Floating in the cold, northern waters, I struggled to keep myself upright. My life jacket kept my head above the water allowing me to focus on the challenge that awaited me. Ski tips up, rope between the skis, knees bent, grip secure. Dad waited patiently, watching me over his right shoulder, the smoke from his ever present cigarette circled up and around the brim of his navy Detroit Tigers baseball cap. With a deep breath I bellowed the two words I knew I would have to shout, “hit it!”

The motor roared and the boat reared up like a bull leaving the chute. The rope snapped taut causing me to lurch forward, I thought my arms would be pulled from their sockets. The boat pulled me against the water, and as I began to pick up speed it became obvious this was not going to work out well. Falling forward my skis fell off and I was being pulled through the water head first. “Two words” I thought to myself, “dad said remember these two words”. As the green waters of Waskesiu lake began to fill my mouth, nostril, and eyes the two words popped into my head. Let go!

Sputtering, coughing, and searching for my skis, I watched as dad came back around in a large, slow circle. Leaning over the side of the boat, with a smile I’ll never forget, he simply said, “you forgot to let go”. As we laughed, I prepared myself for my next attempt. The cycle continued. I’d yell, “hit it”, dad would open the throttle, and I would struggle to get myself up and out of the water. It only took a few attempts, but eventually I was being pulled behind the boat, feeling like the king of the world. Knees shaking, arms aching, I was doing it. I was water skiing! I felt like nothing could stop me, I felt like I could do this forever. That was until we encountered the wake created by another boat. With knees buckling and arms flailing, I went down in a glorious crash, causing water to fly everywhere. It was incredible, and I couldn’t wait to do it again!

How you think you look.
Reality!

As I have been reading Softening the Edges, with a particular focus on self assessment, these memories of first learning how to water ski came flooding back. My dad had supplied me with all the tools I needed, from the boat to the skis to life jacket to the rope, everything was in place. He had asked my uncle Jim (an avid water skier at the time) to share some words of advice with me. In the end, learning how to water ski came down to me and me alone. I was the one that had to live the experience, making quick adjustments in my grip and stance on the fly. I had to signal to my dad to speed up or slow down and I had to have the ability to predict and prepare myself for hazards that were coming my way. Eventually through a lot of practice which involved multiple spills, I developed into a pretty good water skier, even learning how to navigate a slalom course on one ski. I thought I was pretty good, until my friend convinced me to try ski jumping. Then it was back to step one….hit it had a whole new meaning!

Every day we are asking our students to engage in learning. Every class, at some point we want them to say to themselves, “hit it!” and let the learning begin. Writing about self assessment, Katie White (@KatieWhite426) helps us reflect on the importance of a safe environment where students are free to be vulnerable. She reminds us, “(w)hen students leverage an understanding of themselves, they can strive to achieve their personal and academic goals through purposeful actions designed to lead to a desired outcome” (p. 112). It caused me to reflect on how we are creating these environments. I thought about the discussion circles I frequently see in June, Cara, Sharlene, Shantel, Bobby Jo, and Brittney’s rooms. While sitting together on the carpet in a circle seems to suit students in K to 4, would it also be a powerful practice in grade 10, 11, and 12? I’ve seen Jesse do this with his grade 11 & 12 students in his History classes. Ask him about the impact it can have. If we believe that we are here to serve every student on their learning journey, what intentional moves are we making to create the safe environment these students need to take the risks associated with self assessment?

Katie also writes, “(t)o honor the whole person and soften the edges of assessment, we must invite students into the learning cycle. This includes daily reflection alongside teachers” (p. 113). As I read this I immediately thought about the way we view everything we do through MPSC and the importance of #side-by-side learning. However I also thought about my dad’s words, “you forgot to let go”. As I reflect on my time teaching I recall being guilty of either giving too much or too little feedback, and in the end not giving the students what they really needed in the moment. This week, as you are presented with opportunities to walk alongside your learners during their moments of self assessment, how will you ensure you are in the Goldilocks zone of support, not too much and not too little? After all, we can provide the equipment, but in the end it is our learners who need to develop those skills needed to survive the waves that will inevitably come their way.

Here’s what is on the horizon this week:

Monday

  • K – 4 staff meeting (Monday, Dec. 3, 2018)
  • Self assessment discussion with students during class visits

Tuesday

  • Bruce away (pm) for a classroom environment planning meeting
  • Self assessment discussion with students during class visits

Wednesday

  • Self assessment discussion with students during class visits

Thursday

  • EA meeting
  • Self assessment discussion with students during class visits

Friday

  • Self assessment discussion with students during class visits

As always, create a great week!

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