Sunday, 21 August 2016

When curriculum becomes my inspiration

Last year I challenged myself in two ways...I started my MEd and I taught three different grades. I chose both these changes, I embraced them. I had the full support from my team and administration to be creative with curriculum. I also had the full support of my family to take night classes, have Sundays to catch up on my readings and write papers, and be almost non-existent the month of July.

It was no doubt my busiest professional year to date. My first year I taught Science and Social Studies to grades 1-3 for a term but this was different. This was almost all subjects and to grades 6-8. Plus my students wrote EQAO at the end. The curriculum is complex, instead of sorting between living and non-living things, I was now teaching about the properties of flight and the parts and functions of the plant and animal cell, many concepts I had to learn before teaching. Not to mention the learning styles of three age groups. However this was my third time teaching these grades and some of this content...but instead of pulling out my old binders with overheads and notes from the textbook, I was more confident in inquiry based learning and how much more engaging that could be. Instead of marking 90 tests or lab reports, I was marking 15 group projects. Because I know my curriculum well, content seemed to be popping out of everywhere: tweets, news articles, Ted Talks, conversations... It was a great year, I feel confident that I covered my curriculum and that my students learned.

I've never once questioned the curriculum, who writes it and why we must teach it. Well, that's not true, I do question the Math curriculum, but I don't have any suggestions just yet, so I keep plugging away at it. Other than that, I like my curriculum, I like that it guides my teaching, I even find inspiration in it. Especially as new curriculum documents keep coming, e.g. Health and PhDs Ed.

We are in an interesting place in our profession. Curriculum is what we must teach, and what students must learn. Before, students learned solely at school and probably from books, at least the facts, and the curriculum. Traditionally teachers gave notes, students took notes, students studied, students took a test. That was learning...but yet, we know that learning is much more than that. Yet there are generations of teachers that learned this way, and now teach this way, and even thought there are better ways to teach and learn, these traditions are deeply rooted, normalized and perpetuated.

I recall being in teacher's college and learning about new pedagogies, but then we would go on our practicums and even though we knew there were better ways for teaching and learning, we reverted to traditional ways. We reverted to how we learned, out of comfort, because our associate teachers were teaching that way. Even now there are union issues should we question a colleagues professionalism or practices.

Slowly, the more I share, the more others share, the more changes are coming, the more people are willing to push themselves just a bit outside of their comfort zone. So when Aviva Dunsiger started posting her thoughts on the new K document, and since I was done summer school, I couldn't help but follow along and join the conversation. When the FDK program first came out, there were many nay sayers. Even now there are primary teachers who are very vocal about how the kids are not prepared, there are far fewer readers and writers, etc. etc.

In my opinion and observation, I don't think it's so much the FDK program that is not preparing the children, but rather the high class sizes that some schools are experiencing...we are taking kids from being at home or in a 5 to 1 ratio at daycare to a 15 to 1 ratio in some very small rooms...but again, I don't have suggestions just yet...My youngest is going into Grade 1 in the fall and I  know her FDK teacher, a long time K teacher, was traditional in many ways, so Gabby came out of that program reading at grade level and "ready" for grade 1. The following came home closer to the end of the year, and knowing that Gabby could very well write these sentences, she had very little motivation to do so after school and I rarely pushed it. She knew it, but would not demonstrate her knowledge.

Having taught grade 1, I know the expectation is a paragraph by the end of the year, and really that's from the OWA. I have no doubt she will get there. But she may refuse to show what she knows, she may be given traditional ways to show her learning, she may not like that, she may not demonstrate knowledge of grade level content. I hope she has a good year and I wish her teacher luck.

But who decides what grade level is? What knowledge kids must gain in K or in 8, or 12? Gabby can retell movies, books, memorizes lyrics of songs, but if she does not write sentences, she will not be achieving grade level expectations in writing.

Ironically my MEd so far has taught me patience. I've learned I cannot impose change. If someone is comfortable teaching from the textbook and giving tests, the best I can do is carry on and hope they come along. But these new documents, these are imposing change, and naturally there will be many resistors.

How will you help the resistors this year?


Capra, F. (2002). The hidden connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.
Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2011). Sustainable learning communities: From managed systems to living systems. Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, 22(1), 19-38.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

This is only a test....I repeat, this is only a test...

I've been thinking about how we measure accountability of learning. There have been several discussions amongst my co-workers or online about assessment of learning. Is a test the only way to assess learning?

My opinion is no.

Towards the end of my undergraduate, I don't recall any exam, or maybe one out of my ten courses had an exam at the end. The question arises, why do we continue to test our students as a way for them to demonstrate their learning? Why does the test seem to be the only way to measure learning?

In life there are tests. In the classroom, almost everything is a test. Can a student work independently? That is a test of their ability to stay on task, not disturb others, find an alternative spot in which they can get their work done. Can a student work collaboratively? That is a test on their ability to keep their conversation on topic, respond positively to being questioned or someone not being on task in their group and assuming different roles among the group. There may not be a paper with a grade at the end of the task, but after several times to practice, the assessment of their learning will need to be judged.

Teaching an EQAO year, I do think Math tests are in order. Or rather Math quizzes. There's a different stigma to a quiz vs. a test. I was a student teacher and my teacher associate only gave "Assessments" on Thursdays. Never any tests. I remember being in Grade 10 Math, were my teacher gave us quizzes, every couple of days, never a test. They had about 2-3 questions each, he wrote them on the board. I now realize they were more exit tickets so he could inform his instruction, but he never gave us a test.

For the last two years, my current Grade 8s whom I teach in Science only had one test in the fall of their Grade 7 year. I had warned them that the last unit was going to be fast paced and would have more tests and quizzes. I have never seen them so motivated. They take note from conversations, they all do their homework, are they motivated by the test? Have I been robbing them of their learning because I have not given any tests?

In the end my last assessment for them was a collaborative lab report on our squid dissection. I couldn't let this group move on without one final "fun" learning task, sometimes I have to sneak in the learning.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Teaching Innovation

Since I am a Science teacher, I feel that my curriculum really lends itself to problem solving and inquiring. My students, some whom I have taught for three years now, have gotten to know that I don't want one right answer, but rather I'm interested in their process and as many answers as possible. So when I went to a workshop from Spectrum and was given six Lego pieces and challenged to build a duck in 60 seconds, I immediately thought of doing this activity with my class.

My modified six pieces

My seven year old daughter and I spent about two hours sorting her Lego so I could provide a similar  experience to my 7s and 8s the next day. Below are some of the ducks the classes created.

Some students were a bit frustrated that their pieces were not exactly the same, others were thinking there was one right answer for a duck, and tried to improve upon their duck once they looked around the table. I think those students missed the point.

In a post-modern world where there is rarely anything "new," I could see why my students would think that they can't come up with something innovative. Maybe it's all about remixing?

I personally wanted to build my duck the fastest. When given the tower challenge later on, I wanted to build the most aesthetically pleasing one. Last week, I had challenged the Grade 8s to build card houses, but rather than assigning tallest, strongest, etc, they need to come up with what their goal was.

Their learning goal all along was teamwork and collaboration. They knew that from the start, and were supposed to encourage each other, listen to group members ideas and hopefully build on them. I hope they realize that innovation can be accomplished as a team.