perfect-everything

light streams in

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  ― Jean Vanier 

I still remember the expectations during our teaching practicums: handouts and materials out on desks BEFORE students arrive, every minute of the class accounted for, a hook, a review, and don’t waste any time.

The deal with school seemed to be: perfect-everything.

When I didn’t accomplish it ALL, well you know…I felt like I had failed. I wasn’t perfect, at everything. Somehow, my shortcomings managed to overshadow my successes. Somewhere in my brain, I had the belief that I should be perfect at EVERYTHING. I was supposed to be all these things, all the time. When expectations were given, then the object was to be good at ALL of them.  If you were a “good teacher” then you were supposed to be perfect at all the teacher-y things is how my faulty logic went. As an extension, I believed my ability or inability to be perfect at everything, somehow correlated to my student’s ability to be perfect. I had warped thoughts like: oh, look at that teacher, she is so neat and organized, I bet her students will do better! I thought the object of school was to be perfect at everything, do everything expected without question, and live up to ALL the expectations.

In my mind, the deal with school was: perfect-everything.

Years go by.

One day in class, I notice the look in her eyes. She is sitting in the second row and I see that she, too, is trying to be perfect. She doesn’t want her mistakes and shortcomings to be noticed. She is focused on being the person she thinks she is supposed to be; the person she thinks school and teachers want her to be. The uncertainty I see in her eyes haunt and pull at me (and have for many years). Her eyes say: if I get perfect grades, do my assignments perfectly, and ask clarifying questions, then I will be perfect, right? Then, will you think I am perfect?

In her mind, that is the deal with school: perfect-everything.

When I see her again in grade 12, she doesn’t look up. She keeps her head down and avoids eye contact. When I try to engage her, she is distant and vague. She isn’t trying to be perfect any more. She isn’t even there anymore.

Finally, she shares that the 11 years of trying to be perfect-everything have caught up, and she can’t do it anymore. There is no joy in the perfect marks anymore, in being the perfect student, and in being who she thinks she is supposed to be. Exhausted and conflicted, she has hollowed out.

Who am I, she wonders, if I am not the person who makes everyone happy? If I am not the perfect-everything girl…then, who am I?

Is perfect-everything the deal with life, too?

Years go by.

We begin to move away from letter grades. We start to write and use student friendly learning targets.  New scales, that remove numbers and use strength based language, become popular. Self-assessment and student portfolios are more widely embraced. These are solid and concrete steps, no doubt. But will they shine a light for each child, on their specific and unique strengths?

Have we given the design of meaningful learning experiences, the same focus and priority? What comes first: the checklist of competencies or knowing what you might check? It is a chicken and egg question. Regardless of phrasing, a person who is sensitive to external suggestions, will always remain so.  Identity creation can quickly slip into role fabrication, if we don’t yet know who you are.

Can the deal with school be, that we figure out who we are, in school, not after?

When I see her again she is 28, married with 2 youngchildren. She looks me in the eye. No uncertainty. After high school, she traveled. Nothing exotic or far-flung, but along the way she figured out who she was.

Finally, time and space, allowed her to know who she WAS supposed to be. But this time, from the inside out.

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“We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.”  ― Mawhinney and Sagan

 

 

 

 

 

Does planning need an update?

free_to_learn

“…to be educated is to be ever open to the call of what it is to be deeply human, and heeding the call to walk with others in life’s ventures.”
~Dr Ted Aoki

When I was in teacher training, we were asked to make elaborately detailed unit and lesson plans. To be honest, I never used said unit plans. The lesson plans were useful, in so far as they prompted me to think through the flow of a class in advance. This was helpful, for a while. In my first year of teaching, when I had 5 preps, lesson planning went out the window. I didn’t show up to class unprepared, but the detailed, step by step, static lesson plan became unrealistic.  I quickly realized that to survive and thrive, I had to become more responsive and make decisions mid-stream. “Nope! That plan for a jigsaw is not working!” “Three quarters of the class is struggling with a certain type of problem, press pause and try something else.”

I felt a bit betrayed, as no one had mentioned that I might have to be responsive to the humans who sat in front of me every day (although, it does seem rather obvious to me now). The tool I was given was: plan, plan, and plan some more. Create year plans, create unit plans, and then finally, create lesson plans! Somehow extensive planning did not create the classroom of my dreams.

Does more content equal more learning?

Never mind that one year, I didn’t even get to the Fungi unit in Biology 11. Instead, we had decided to build a model rainforest in our classroom and it took longer than expected (you know those types of projects!).  At year-end, the science department-head heard that my class had not covered the Fungi unit and let me know that this was unacceptable. As she explained it, Fungi was on the departmental final exam (the same one given each year) and it was required content for Bio 11.

Obviously, my “haphazard” planning strategies had failed me. At the time, I felt a fair amount of guilt, but I also felt conflicted. The rainforest project felt worthwhile. The students worked together as a class, everyone participated, and the process was filled with laughter.

What matters or what works?

As I moved on in my teaching career, I eventually became a super-planner. Teaching content heavy courses, such as Bio 12 and APBio, caused me to plan the year out, in detail, day by day. And I never deviated from this plan. I did my photocopying in August and had the unit packets lined up and ready to go in my cupboard. I did this because it worked. The advance planning allowed me to efficiently cover the curriculum and get students well prepared for a high stakes final exam.  Planning was an effective tool for scaling the brick-like wall of content, each brick a unit of content, immutable in arrangement. Planning was a tool that ensured that I never left any bricks out (as with the Fungi unit).

Every once in a while, a situation would arise that reminded me of what really mattered, and I would feel conflicted again. Except this time, my hyper-focus on the content-wall that caused me to ignore the ideals and values that had brought me to education in the first place.  Students didn’t have time to develop deep understanding of biology or to discover their passions, and I didn’t have time to get to know them, as people. Regardless, the planning worked, so I carried on.

Trapped in a living contradiction

At the time, I felt trapped in a space between what worked and what mattered. The over-the-top advance planning worked as students were well prepared for that exam. But, I was trading in my idealism for efficiency, and my idealism began to give way to cynicism and doubt.

Does planning need an update?

Now, years later, does it seem we are trapped in the same living contradiction? On the one hand, we talk of inquiry and personal learning, and on the other, we create year plans, lesson plans, and curriculum checklists. We want to move forward but we also want to drag the tools of the past with us. We talk of beliefs and values as vital to change, but make little space for inner reflection and dialogue and the shine from our busy badges blinds us to everything, except what is deemed urgent. Have we mentally dismantled the content-wall for ourselves? Or, do we continue to tinker deferentially in its shadows?  Until we topple the wall and free the bricks, can students authentically construct their own unique understandings? Have we moved into the uncomfortable tension between curriculum as prescribed and curriculum as lived, and acknowledged that despite our plans, students often take away learning that is vastly different from our plans? We talk of creating student agency and empowerment, but, as Will Richardson reminds us “students already have complete control over their learning. Our hubris is to think they don’t.”

Will the tools used in the past to scale the content-wall, still serve us in this new landscape? Is planning something we can do for children but without out them? Or, do we need to harness our finite energies and lean into the messiness of planning, emergent and responsive, in concert with students?

When we reach for yet another tool or template can they quickly become a panacea for real change? Do we mistakenly hope the tools and templates will do the heavy lifting of change for us, as our energies continue to be consumed by doing what works? How do create the space and time to clarify for ourselves what matters?

Does planning need an update?

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The Gift of Competence

 

Competent                                                                                                                Shared on Flickr by djemili amin

That you do for me, without me, you do to me.

 

One small bone of contention between my husband and I is the unloading of the dishwasher. If I begin to unload the dishwasher but pause for a second, say to rearrange the pot drawer or maybe wipe a spill on a cupboard door, he swoops in to complete the task.  In that moment he sees himself as being so helpful. In that moment, I see him as being very unhelpful! He is doing for me what I wanted to do myself.  And in that moment, I feel incompetent.

In comparison, if I bring to mind a context of when I feel competent, say like planning a lesson or creating a vision for a learning experience, boy, do I feel like a different person. I am open, I feel positive, I want to help, I want to add to. I feel like a good human! I even feel so good I might consider unloading a dishwasher!!

When I look back to my first year of teaching, my principal at the time helped me to see my competence. He presented me with the contexts in which I was becoming a competent teacher. At a time when I was uncertain about my competence as a teacher, he created the space for me to move into my struggles and missteps, rather than away from them. I felt empowered to find workable answers, I felt valued and valuable. I felt I could do for myself what I needed to do to be competent and I began to believe I was a competent teacher!

The gift of competence was not in what was given to me. Rather it was the space that was created for me to move into, to see myself, to know myself.

To this day, I still feel his gift of competence. Of course, the competency was mine, but he held up the mirror, he created the space for me to own it, for myself. He never did for me what I could do for myself. He pointed out my competencies, and in doing so, he created a place for me to identify my next steps forward, for myself.

To a large part, he helped define for me the contexts in which I felt successful and competent. I recognized that I felt confident and competent when I could forge relationships. I came to understand that I felt confident when I could connect and make real-time meaning with people. I came to see that my confidence grew when I knew I was making a difference. His gift wasn’t that he told me that I was competent. His gift of competence was that he helped me to identify and shape the contexts in which I was competent.

And I wonder:
What contexts and experiences might allow all leaners to see and feel their competence? What contexts might reveal the specific and individual competence of each child, for that child?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the dishwasher cycle ending.

 

 

 

10 Reasons to Consider Standard Based Grading (#SBG)

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. 
~ Todd Rose

When we begin to tinker with classroom assessment practices, there are many changes we can consider. Maybe add an exit interview? Or maybe increase the formative assessment opportunities (using quizzes as feedback instead of as a mark to collect)? Or maybe create a re-do policy? Whatever you choose, it might be easy to change or add a single practice. However, it might be trickier to shift from a culture focused on points to one focused on learning. Enter standard based grading (or outcome based assessment)! And if you are looking for some #SBG articles to get started, scroll way down!

Some reasons you might consider #SBG as you continue to tinker with assessment:

1. Shifts the focus from points to learning:
Previously, my conversations with students revolved around how many points they did or did not get. With the conversation was an implicit power struggle: I had points to give and they wanted them. When learning standards entered our conversations,  the focus shifted from points to what students did or didn’t understand. Our conversations began to explore what activities or experiences might grow their understanding or competency. We were now talking learning, not points!

2. Represents learning as a process instead of as a product or task:
When points were used, students saw learning as a single test, assignment, or answer. I did the test, got those points, and the learning is done. Moving on!
When learning was explicitly connected to learning standards and tracked over the course of several activities, students began to consider learning as something that developed over time and through various experiences. Suddenly, there was value in point-free activities because the activities helped with learning. The new meter stick for whether an activity was valuable of not, was no longer the points assigned, but how the activity helped with the learning. Magic!

3. Conveys a growth mindset:
When learners have only one shot to show what they know, we convey the belief that ability is fixed. When students have the opportunity to see their learning change over time, they begin to recognize that their learning is impacted by their efforts, and that their ability is not fixed. Mindset shift!

4. Redefines assessment as an ongoing conversation instead of as an algorithm:
Almost every course outline I created had the break down: homework 10%, labs 30%, tests 60% (or something similar to it). It was a formula which represented how the final mark would be calculated. I entered marks into these bins and then pressed calculate. I was free and clear, the computer did the work.
When I started with #SBG I had to talk to students, a lot. I had to talk to them all the time. I had to find out from them, what was going for them. I didn’t have numbers to hide behind or algorithms to prove the accuracy of the mark. Instead, we knew, by way of conversation, observation, and assessment, where learners where at in their learning journey.  

5. Makes opportunities for differentiation obvious:
When all the standards are in play all the time, learners can pick and choose which standards they are developing and exploring. This might sound chaotic, but no one is more aware of what they can and cannot do, than learners themselves. When students realize they can tackle a concept again, and one that they previously were challenged by, they are motivated to try again. It might not be the exact the moment that seems convenient to us, but if we believe that learning takes time, learners learn at different rates, and all students are capable of learning, #SBG allows us to put these beliefs into action. Amazing!!

6. Improves the specificity and detail of feedback:
Nothing says general and nonspecific quite as quickly as comments such as, very good, keep it up, or try harder. When standards are used to describe the learning instead of a number, feedback is unique and specific to each student, and unique to each situation. Conversations can now clearly communicate how each student is experiencing success and where they are challenged. Conversations can move away from justifying a number.

7. Provides authentic self-assessment opportunities:
With #SBG students can track their own learning journey. Gone are awkward statements such as, the computer calculated the mark and I don’t know why you got 64%! (I am ashamed but I actually did say that).  Instead, I talked with students to find out what was going on for them, from them. No one can tell you more about how a student is doing, than the student themselves. Although it may be at first unfamiliar to them, students are capable of accurately and honestly talking about their areas of strength and weakness. When learning is not about point collection and power, students open up about where they hope to improve and where they need support.

8. Shifts the ownership of learning to students:
There is nothing as demoralizing as when learners ask repeatedly, what’s my mark?  It is as if you are the one who is magically granting them the mark and it has nothing to do with their learning. When students are given the standards and they begin tracking their learning, it is now a question they can answer for themselves. Presto!

9. Makes the big ideas obvious to all:
When I started teaching, I had columns and columns of marks. I thought that if I collected enough marks, the average at the end would be accurate! But how many times did I find myself in the middle of marking something, thinking that the questions were trivial or in fact unrelated to the big ideas of the course. Many times!!
Once I worked through the curriculum and pre-determined the learning standards, projects and activities that were busy work became blatantly obvious. Now we could focus on what really mattered!

10. Communicates that learners are multidimensional in their abilities:
In Todd Rose’s phenomenal book, The End of Average, he talks about the jaggedness principleHe says:  “Human beings don’t line up perfectly There is no average learner. They have strengths and weaknesses. Even geniuses do.”

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When we talk about learning in relation to learning standards, we can represent the individual learner and their unique jaggedness.

How are you shifting the culture of learning in your classroom or school?

Resources Round Up

What story of learning are we telling the learners in our care?

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‘There’s a difference between doing things right & doing the right thing.’
                                                                                       ~Peter Druker

Reflecting back on teaching Biology 12, I spent a lot of time improving the tests I was creating.  I linked the learning outcomes to each test question, I created detailed test outlines, I did intense review sessions, and I simplified test instructions.

In my mind I had nailed test creation!

And in fact, I was improving the tests I gave.  But was I changing the story of learning for the learners in my care? Was I telling a new and updated story?  What did using tests, as the sole way to reveal student learning, say about what I believed about learning?

As I look back now, I see that although I was improving a practice, I wasn’t necessarily changing or examining the beliefs that underpinned the practice. I recognize now that the real change I was after didn’t reside in the updating of tests. Rather, the real work resided in me understanding and exploring my beliefs about learning. The work lay in reflecting on and examining my practices, and teasing out what story of learning I was telling the learners as a result of these practices.

I was doing things right but I wasn’t necessarily doing the right thing.

“An important leverage point for transforming education is changing mindsets that gave rise to the system in the first place.”
                                                                                                                     ~Todd Rose

Imagine you are in a dimly lit room trying to read a fascinating story. Every time you get to the best parts of the book the lights go out completely. Finally, someone enters the room and hands you a nimble and unobtrusive clip-on reading light. You snap the handy light on to your book and presto! You are reading the story effortlessly! 

Then, your handy light goes out. Another person enters and offers you a massive, bright, free-standing spotlight. They turn the light on and you are immediately blinded. You squint as you try to read the next couple of words but it is near impossible. All you can do is to remove yourself from the glare of the light and huddle in the corner with your back to the light. There you try to get a few more pages in.  

As we navigate the myriad of educational initiatives out there, which initiatives will be like the nimble and adaptable snap on light, and reveal the story of learning for our learners? Which initiatives and practices will be like the blinding spotlight, and act to overpower the story of learning?

Sometimes it seems that “the light” becomes more important than the story. How might we create environments where “the story” is at the center?

Before we even consider which initiatives to undertake, we might want to determine what story of learning are we currently telling the learners in our care. Will Richardson challenges us to do a story audit to reveal the story we are telling learners. He suggests going out in to the hall and walking into your classroom. What do the posters on the classroom door say about learning? Then, walk into the room and look around. What does the arrangement of the furniture and presentation setup say about the story of learning? Sit down in at desk or table, look around. What story of learning is being told from this perspective? Continue on through the day from the learners’ perspective.

What story of learning are you telling the learners in your care?
How will you tell the story of learning to the learners in your care?

Resource Roundup

A collection of belief sets complied by the ILT in SD23

8 Cultural Forces That Define Our Classrooms based on the book Cultural Forces by Ron Ritchart