Monday, September 23, 2019

Both Grateful & Struggling with the New [School] Year

We are 3 weeks into the new school year. It was a bit of a rushed start for me with a lot of adjusting - learning D2L Brightspace to help with the ILC/Credit Recovery section I have this year, settling into married life and continuing to work on striking a work-life balance, missing my friend and colleague who was forced to change schools by the circumstances created in Ontario, and continuing to try to learn and grow as an educator while circumstances force us to deal with variables that we are not used to having. Regardless, I am grateful for my new husband, my job, and the innate love I feel for my chosen profession.

Some of the struggles I am alluding to have been in the media - an interview here and there with a grade 12 student expressing their frustration with missing courses in their timetables. For most people in Ontario this is something they hear about, maybe even sympathize with, but it is not something they are experiencing themselves. Perspective has a lot to do with how you interpret a story you hear and with the decisions you make.

Here are some perspectives on public education in the current climate...which one do you connect to right now? Can you put yourselves into the shoes of the others? In the end, what do you value? [*what follows is of course based on generalization and is not meant to depict any particular person, just to provide some of the perspectives I see]

Government/Tax Payers-at-Large
Education is an expensive major item in the budget that we like to say we invest in the future of others but that has been around publicly for so long that most of us do not really see the benefit in day-to-day (if you grew up in an educated circle, it is all you have ever known, so do you really understand why public education is so important?). The $$ value of what is invested into the system is the primary concern. [And depending on political beliefs] saving money on education and putting money in the pockets of private-sector folks benefits "the working citizens".

Parents of Elementary-Aged Students
(There is, of course, a variety of perspectives here but I will choose what I suspect is a majority.) Education is an important part of my child's life that is helping them have a future. It also serves as a place that my child has to go every day that is safe and allows me to afford a life-style that my family can enjoy (imagine if everyone had to pay to send their child to private school). Public education also exposes my child to a lot of things they would not otherwise get to experience and gives the opportunity for equity. I want my child to get the best education possible and need educators who care, resources that matter, and buildings that are safe.

Secondary School Students/Parents
Education is a means to get to a higher level of education and/or to a apprenticeship/job. I need marks that will get me to the next step and that is what matters. I have a specific goal in mind, which requires a certain mark in a certain set of subjects. I want to learn as much as possible but know that the system is built based on the number on my report card. I want to have teachers that care about me and have the opportunity to do as well as I can. If my classes grow, these opportunities decrease and I am forced to choose alternative options like night school and (if my family can afford it) private school to get my credits. (And if my family cannot afford it, I work my butt off and this year might have to be in online classes that make learning difficult for me or go to night school on top of day school and gave up something I loved to make the time for it).

Public System Educators
Education is an integral part of our province and country that can provide opportunities to students from all means and walks of life. We know that the system is not perfect (in fact is far from it) but we work hard every day to move it in the right direction. We care deeply about our students (even if we do not have children of our own) and want to see each of them succeed. We are fortunate to have stable jobs and be compensated with other benefits that allow us opportunities to keep ourselves healthy (though many of us are bad about it, putting so much of ourselves into our job and neglecting our own needs), but every fight we decide to engage in politically has a foundation in wanting what is best for students.

Of course there is probably some bias evident in the above paragraphs, but I am also trying to portray that I get there are different ways to look at a situation. My biggest personal struggle is pinned down roughly through the following connections:

1. Students seek marks --> marks provide entry into further education
But marks are a very capitalist way to determine achievement and were derived in a system where we want to "graduate" people who could follow instructions and be cogs in a factory wheel.

2. Marks are like currency --> students/families seek marks in whatever means they can --> too many private schools to "police" + expectation that "credit is paid for" --> credits granted to students with less integrity

3. Current/future job force needs require more well-rounded skills (including critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication) --> a need for courses that focus on these skills --> "marks" are more murky, they don't paint a real picture of a student (arguably they never did)

Needless to say, I find myself as an educator pinned down in a system and fighting against a current that sometimes feels much too swift to continue to want to try. I continue to believe that integrity matters, that preparing students for the unknown future is the best service I can provide and that we are in a huge system that is based on a "currency" that is out of date and does a disservice to our children.

Will you fight with me to build our system up, instead of tearing it down?

Friday, June 28, 2019

Bittersweet Year End



Every year of my teaching career has ended with some similar routines. Report cards are written, work areas are cleaned up and organized, report cards are distributed, commencement happens...generally wrapped up with some kind of staff luncheon with a few good-byes to retirees/LTOs/etc. And of course the personal "have a great summer, see you next year"s are shared and we are on our merry ways to some time to refresh & reconnect with life.

And these days are always filled with a few mixed emotions - but this year was more difficult than most.

It has been about 10 months since my last blog entry. This was not intentional or by design. It was something I thought of many times throughout the year but could never sit myself down (or make the time) to share. We accomplished some great things. There was probably a lot worth sharing. But I couldn't do it.

Personal time was more of a priority, in part. But trying to digest this year's political climate has come with a lot of emotion that makes sharing professional triumph and reflection a lot more difficult. I take it personally. I want Ontario to know what a difference this generation of teachers is trying to have on the future. There is a generation of teachers that politics wants to be ignorant of. It is easier to treat us like the past has treated us then to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what we can accomplish.

My Facebook post from May 12, 2019

Usually my year end would culminate with getting home to enjoy a refreshing beverage and blasting Alice Cooper's "Schools Out". This has been tradition since my university days. But I can't bring myself to bust out the positive vibe that comes with the knowledge that I can relax for a few weeks, decompress, and look forward to another year.

It is hard for me to admit that I am struggling with the idea of summer this year.

We had to say good-bye to some amazing colleagues today who had unfortunately been declared surplus to region weeks ago (and therefore could not have timetables assigned to them with us). Luckily most of them already know where they will be in September - though not all in contract positions and none with confidence that they won't have to go through this again next year.

I am tired of the misleading media (and blatant lies/ignorant statements from the Ontario government) and frustrated with losing rock-star colleagues. I am tired of feeling helpless despite being a front-line worker in our public system. I am tired of having to explain and justify to others as to why surplus to region was necessary and how there is ZERO mathematical support for the claim that "no jobs will be lost."

Today we watched the first graduating class of our school cross the stage. But we also watched the system, as we currently know it, walk out the door at the end of the day.

And it is not okay.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Midterm Conferences & Term Reflection 2.0

Another overdue blog entry! Better late than never.

I wanted to share the new experience with midterm conferences in second semester (as students were more involved with the learning map and I made some tweaks to the reflection they were doing).

Student Reflection

This time around, students were better able to make use of the learning map. Since they had since it since the first week of the course they had a better understanding of what the map meant and how to use it. This meant that student's evaluation of themselves was generally more realistic. It also meant that students were better able to identify what they were doing well, and what they needed to set out as a next step (which meant that the report comments they helped me write were more meaningful).

Student Conference

Conferences were close to student-led conferences. More of them were prepared to show me evidence of their learning and defend their self-evaluation. Some were still under prepared, but there were a lot fewer that needed to go back to do the reflection before re-booking their conference.

Overall there was still some separation between where students believed they were and what I had seen, but it was a lot easier to ask them for evidence of the learning, which led to students doing some reflection in the moment and often realizing that they had not yet shown me something. They were productive conversations and students sometimes expressed they wanted to have more of them (they are time consuming, but I hope to find more and more ways to give students this individual time that they need).

Term Reflection

Some student feedback and personal reflection led me to realize that the reflection I was having students do was not as productive as it needed to be. At midterm I still had students identify a strength and need for each OLG and then evaluating using the learning map. Problem was, they were not engaging enough with the evidence of learning they had identified (and it was a little redundant), So I changed the first chart they were willing in to look like this: (note, you can see the previous version here)


Feel free to borrow and tweak this if you are interested!

Send me a tweet or comment on this blog if you have any other suggestions, ideas, or questions. Would love to hear from you :)

Friday, July 6, 2018

"Gradeless" Math 2.0

Well the blog updates got pushed to the bottom of the to-do list in second semester (not unusual) so this is a tad overdue, but I wanted to share some of the changes that my reflection on first semester lead to.

Some context:
- first semester did not have a learning map with descriptors until after midterm (I did not find I was able to write clear descriptors that I liked until I had evidence of student learning to use to write them)
- the learning map was not clear to students and since they had not engaged with it during the semester having them do final reflections and self-evaluate their course mark was difficult for them
- students relied heavily on the teacher for feedback

And so I set out in the second semester to make some changes. As many of you will be able to relate to, my thought process was more ambitious than life would allow for.

The new iteration (Gradeless 2.0):
- I added to my deconstruction of curriculum to include the learning map (read here for a description of the first week of class in Semester 1, I kept the math processes part and then the grades 10s did the following instead) by cutting up the map into pieces and giving it to them to put together (this forced them to read at least parts of the map and start to become familiar with it)
- Trying to spend more time modelling the use of criteria and feedback for students and giving them more dedicated time to do assessment as learning (trying to help them be less reliant on the teacher)
- Having students engage in the learning map by self-evaluating at the end of each set of summative evaluations (admittedly, this happened after the first set but did not get done in explicit class time after that)

New reflections:
- The new iteration was time well-spent. Students definitely had a better grasp of what the map was intended to do and were more comfortable using it (not all of them, there is still some work to be done, perhaps a more pointed effort to conference with students more often)
- I want students to refer to the map more to increase their focus on identifying where they are and what their next steps might be (keep the focus on noticing and naming the learning and reflecting on their progress)
- Students seemed to appreciate the transparency. One going as far as to say "I finally know what it means to be a level 4 in math" and used this as a way to help himself set goals
- The feedback at the end of the course from my students shows that even the ones who rated the learning map on the low side liked the idea of it, they just found it confusing at times

So it seems like the learning map is something I should continue to pursue and should put a focus on helping to make it more student friendly - I am just not sure what that would look like yet. I wonder if there is  way to make it a bit more interactive so that students can see examples of some of the more confusing parts or read explanations of terms.

If you have any suggestions they would be welcome!

Happy summer!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

JALI Assessment As Learning Reflection

As many of you who have read one of my blog entries already will know, I am have been on a journey to improve my understanding and use of assessment in my teaching practices over the past few years. In semester 1 of this year I had the opportunity to participate in one of my school's "mini courses" offered for teachers. This one was lead by one of my colleagues and was to work on our use of assessment AS learning.

This is an area that I feel I have continued to struggle with but know that I need to tap into better. In order to survive in my quest (see recent post on this quest) for a feedback-focused math classroom I need to tap into the skills of my students to give themselves (and each other) effective feedback. Students deserve feedback, and getting them involved in the process engages them in the learning better, makes evaluation more transparent, and makes teacher workload a bit more manageable.

I was able to be exposed to some strategies I had not considered in my classroom before the JALI course and am now trying some new things in semester 2. My goals are for students to:
- engage in the learning map more regularly
- do more co-construction of criteria
- explicitly use criteria to give each other (and self) feedback on their work
- (and by extension) for students to better self-identify their needs

I am grateful for colleagues who are so willing to share their experiences and expertise with others and found sharing with the other course members was a reward in itself!