Archive for April, 2008

“For every nine people who denounce innovation, only one will encourage it. . . . For every nine people who do things the way they have always been done, only one will ever wonder if there is a better way. For every nine people who stand in line in front of a locked building, only one will ever come around and check the back door.

“Our progress as a species rests squarely on the shoulders of that tenth person. The nine are satisfied with things they are told are valuable. Person 10 determines for himself what has value.” -Za Rinpoche and Ashley Nebelsieck, in The Backdoor to Enlightenment (Three Leaves)

The pessimistic side of me wants to say that in schools, the proportion is probably one out of every twenty, or perhaps even higher. But that’s just me being whiny.

What this book excerpt reminds me of:

  • Ian Jukes’s Committed Sardine metaphor
  • about 203,094,820 faculty meetings I’ve been to where one person speaks out about doing something differently, and gets verbally crucified
  • the feeling I have after I finish a really good yoga session, when I have the most clarity about what I determine as valuable for myself

Questions I have:

  • Is it in a person’s nature to be that 10th person? Or can one learn to question and be curious?
  • How long before that 10th person becomes tired of always being “the only one” who’s encouraging innovation, asking if there’s a better way, and going around to the back door? How many times before s/he gives up?
  • What would happen if the proportions shifted? What if, in a group of 10, there were 4 people who were always asking the questions and finding new ways of doing things? What would that look like?
  • Should leaders in our schools be the 10th person?

Photo credit: Mozzer502

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All this talk about writing, grade books, and “the unthinking habits of grading” has given me so much to think about. My mind is swimming.

The thing is, I think about this stuff all the time. It is only recently, after reading hoards of comments and postings (and all the bits in between) that I begin to understand my naivety. Or is it ignorance? (Hint: not everyone thinks about this stuff all the time.)


First, a bit of background, for the sake of context

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and attended Catholic, publicly funded schools. The teachers I had, with two notable exceptions1, all used criterion-referenced assessment to grade my work. I always (other than with the two notable exceptions) knew how I was being graded, even if they did average my scores and turn them into percentages. I graduated from an unusual work-at-your-own-pace high school in 1992.2

After completing an English Lit degree on the West coast, I entered Education. I did not realize at the time (1997) that the program I was in was progressive compared to most Ed programs out there. Thinking, ignorantly, that what I learned was what all teachers-to-be learned, I eagerly entered the world of K-12 education, armed with what I thought was Everything A Beginning Teacher Should Know.

One Epiphany (of many)

Fast-forward to 2001: I entered the realm of international education, working at an MYP school. Before this moment, what I knew about MYP could have filled an ant’s mouth. Sitting in an MYP training session, my then-mentor flashed the subject-specific criteria for Language A (MYP’s equivalent to English Language Arts) on a projector screen.

Thought #1: “Hey, that’s cool! That’s the same criteria my grade 7 teacher used to grade my writing, and it’s the same criteria I have always used to assess student work.”

[insert hmms and haws of other training participants here, as they ponder the criteria on the screen]

Thought #2: “Wait… doesn’t everyone use this?”

It wasn’t long after Thought #2 occurred that I learned the answer: No, not everyone is using this. Plenty of conversation and interaction with my then-colleagues (from various backgrounds in education, as expected in an international setting) taught me that what I had taken for granted my entire (short) life was indeed not “the norm.”

The Interim and a Confession

Over the past 7 years, plenty more colleagues, students, and their parents have shown me that other ways of assessing are indeed rife and plentiful. Just yesterday I engaged in three different conversations with three different families about this very topic (parent conferences were timely). Witness a verbatim quote from one of those discussions:

“Wow, this is so different from what we’re used to. You mean you want your students to come show you their work before they finish? You won’t take points off?”

[I won't even get into the connotations implied by the use of the words "want", "before", and "points."]

Don’t get me wrong — I do not think the same way about this issue as I did 10 or even 3 years ago. I have learned more than I can express on this small page about how to assess meaningfully. I have spent many, many teacher days fantasizing about not assessing at all, and like Dana Huff, I still have those days. I am guilty, in past years, of assigning my students the most boring five-paragraph essay you’ve ever read, just so I could be bored to death reading it and they could be bored to death writing it.

A Question … and Answers?

I have offered some of my thoughts about assessment before — indeed, the reason I initially began this blog was to reflect on what I was learning in an IBO PD course on MYP Objectives and Assessment. Now, having learned so much, I feel my philosophy of assessment is still evolving, and I do think long and hard about why I assess my students’ work and how I do it.

(And, please know that I mention MYP only because I feel it is one of the best educational systems out there for student learning. Is it the only one? No. Are there others that do the same? Yes. Is it just about best practice? Yes.)

So here’s the thing: I know there are other methods of assessment. I know about them well enough because I took the required courses in university, and I have seen them used in classrooms. But here’s what I still don’t understand — and please don’t mistake this for a rhetorical question:

Why are we still using them? (Do they facilitate learning?)

I’m starting, today, with just this question about criterion-referenced assessment, but know that I’m not limiting my thoughts to only this aspect of assessment. I anticipate that those thoughts — and more questions — will follow as my assessment philosophy further evolves.


Mid-evolution

So far, here is what I believe. Assessment is…

  • primarily for learning; the assessment of learning is secondary.
  • real and not “fabricated” just to put a number on a paper or in a box.
  • goal-focused, and those goals should be based on where the students are at in their learning.
  • varied, with a wide variety of opportunities given for students to reach their goals.
  • frequent and woven into every aspect of what we do, while we are learning. (I am uncomfortable with the thought of students being either too excited or filled with dread at the mention of assessment; I want my students to see assessment as something we do all the time.)
  • part of the natural learning process, not something tacked onto the end.
  • not driven by reporting terms, boxes that need to be filled, administrative software, or any other nonsense that has nothing to do with the learner.
  • applied when needed for learning, and not at calendar dates specified a year in advance.

1Okay, so really it was three notable exceptions. And they were notable because they were exceptionally bad teachers. I’m not naming names, it’s water under the bridge, yadda-yadda-yadda — and the truth is I learned many life lessons from these poor teachers.

2The dates are important, because I refuse to believe that the concept of criterion-referenced assessment is “new” and “progressive“. The dates, although applicable only to my personal experience and not bodies of research, further give credence to my personal belief that education is painfully, mind-bogglingly slow to change.

Photo Credits: Nice Hat by cwalkatron; Question mark by Leo Reynolds

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I follow Clay Burell’s blog and found myself really interested in what he has been saying about teaching Lolita.  And then I saw that he had responded to this meme, originating from Paul C at quoteflections, and the whole thing sounded pretty cool to me.  I’m especially intrigued by Clay’s situation because he is (currently) teaching within the context of an AP English course.  I have never taught AP, and never will — let that be said now.  I have, however, taught English A1 at the IB Diploma level and although I am not teaching it currently*, I know how frustrating it can be to put together a course syllabus that meets all the requirements of an outside body.  I do think that DP English A1 is broader and more open than AP is, but I digress.  Back to the meat of the meme…

The rules: 

  • Select and briefly review one teen novel, classic or modern, which is a sure antidote to the daze of high school.
  • Title your post Meme: High School Daze to Praise.
  • Include an image with your post.
  • Tag four blogger colleagues

Sex, Religion, and Other Juicy Bits

The novel I have chosen is not a classic, and is not really modern either, as it has been around for quite a while.  Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War was published in 1974 and has all the issues you’re “not supposed to talk about” in the classroom:  covert bullying, the pitfalls of organized religion and its leaders, secret societies, sex, masturbation, and violence.  A quick Google Search will tell you how many schools and school districts have banned this book due to its “sensitive content.”

If you haven’t read it, a nutshell summary is this:  Jerry, who is new to Trinity High School, slowly uncovers the secret society at the school called The Vigils — headed by a guy named Archie and supported and overseen by the headmaster-in-waiting, the evil Brother Leon.  Through a series of “assignments,” The Vigils bully and make life miserable for everyone at Trinity, gaining more power as they do so.  Brother Leon gains their support to sell chocolates as a school fundraiser. The clincher is when the Vigils give an assignment to Jerry to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days but then accept after ten days.  Jerry continues to refuse to sell chocolates and mayhem ensues as Jerry grapples with his own answer to the question hanging in his locker, “Do I Dare Disturb The Universe?” (which is from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).

The novel deals with several “OMG!” adolescent issues — conformity, raising your voice against the status quo, challenging authority, and many, many more.  One chapter is entirely a description of a masturbation scene — a chapter which turned many heads when I taught this novel a few years ago in the UK.  (If I remember correctly, parents had no qualms about anything being taught in my classroom until “that chapter” and suddenly the e-mails started pouring in.)

And that’s my contribution to the high-school daze antidote.  This novel probably sits best at about grade 9 level, but could easily be given to some mature 8th graders or struggling 10th graders.

And now, the tag:  Clint Hamada, Morten Oddvik over at Mortempo, Alanna Shaikh at Blood and Milk (am hoping for a developmental-world perspective!), and Kevin Gamble over at High Touch… and you know what?  None of these people are English Lit teachers!  :)

*Currently I am teaching only within an MYP context, because I love the quirkiness of Middle-Schoolers and I often feel they get left out of the bigger world of K-12 education. 

Photo credit:  nicolevity

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This article from the lovely Creative Commons Blog caught my eye today, particularly because the forum aims to look at “how digital technologies and new media are changing the way that young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.”  Definitely cool (and no surprise that it’s being hosted at Stanford, either).   However, I am rather curious.  They say that proposed topics include:

  • Teen Socialization Practices in Networked Publics
  • Understanding New Media in the Home
  • Hip Hop Music and Meaning in the Digital Age
  • New Media from a Youth Perspective
  • (emphasis mine)

    I feel like this is one of those segments on Sesame Street:  “One of these things is not like the other.”  Socialization and networks – OK.  New media in the home and from a youth perspective – OK.   Hip Hop Music and Meaning – huh?  This stands out rather unusually to me.  My questions:

    • Why hip hop?  Why not other genres of music?  Or maybe there is another topic:  “Classical Music and Meaning in the Digital Age: from Chopin to Garage Band”?
    • Why only music?  Why not video, television, and podcasts? (although perhaps these are the other “new media”)

    Anyone else?

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    My reports were due this morning at 8:30.  They’re not done.  And they probably won’t be until Monday.  There, that’s my confession.  Actually, I’m not feeling any guilt about this but it is surprising how many teachers I’ve mentioned this to in the last 24 hours who have responded with a gasp of surprise.

    “Really?  When are you gonna do them?”

    The truth is I will probably get them all done this weekend, but not because I think they should be done this weekend.  I’ll get them done this weekend because someone is telling me they have to get done.  And thus, I must ask, Is this a good reason to write reports?  Just because they “have to be done”?  We are writing them because it is an appropriate time for the organization (i.e., the school) but is it an appropriate time for our students?

    Fact:  right now, on this date, is not an appropriate time for me to be giving grades for every student.  Some kids are having difficulty figuring out what’s been happening in our new unit.  Others are right smack-dab in the middle of a major autobiographical writing assignment.  And others have hardly given me enough evidence for me to arrive at a grade.

    About a month ago I was considering sending home a handful (maybe 10) progress reports on some of my students — some reporting good news, others reporting the not-so-good, or some changes.  I was warned that a progress report, because it goes into the students’ permanent file, was “too serious” for reporting on some of the things that I had wanted to say.  Too serious?  So, like, where should I report it, then? 

    Option A: wait until the quarter report (i.e., now)

    Option B: send an e-mail / call parents (less formal, just a heads-up but not “written in stone”)

    Option C: write the report anyway

    I chose Option C, primarily because I felt that at that moment was the appropriate time to let parents know how their child was doing. 

    So now I have all this marking and reporting looming in front of me, and I’m sad that all of it is just to arrive at a number to go in a box on a piece of paper.  There are days that I fantasize about teaching and learning without formal assessment.  I know it’s completely unrealistic and that learning must be guided by assessment (I KNOW this), but sometimes I like to fantasize.  Can you forgive this Piscean dreamer teacher?

     And on that note, I will now immerse myself in Twelfth Night stage ideas (pretty funny), original short stories (some funny, some sad, most good), and drawings of Roald Dahl characters (absolutely hilarious).  At least it will be interesting!

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    Courtesy of my school director, this article landed in my Inbox today.   The United Nations and Google are teaming up so that Google Earth users can now see where refugees are all over the world.  It’s there as a layer in the regular Google Earth service, showing the operations of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

    What a great learning tool — for community service, for Humanities / Social Studies classes, for learning in general.

    My favorite quote:

    Johnstone [UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner] stressed that the agency had to change how it works to keep pace with technological developments as well as the increasing complexity of refugee issues, with economic migration and displacement due to climate change adding to traditional patterns of refugees forced from their homes by conflict.

    (MYP teachers, see how many references to Areas of Interaction you can find in that one statement!  :-) )

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    Having just returned from two back-to-back trips, I am now in contemplative mode before the craziness of the school week sets in. Trip 1: a conference for international educators in the East-Asia region. Trip 2: a vacation on the wonderful island of Bali, a paradise for so many reasons. (I will stop there lest I begin to wax lyrical about this inspiring land, as I realize plenty of others have already done this, so I really don’t need to. Plus, it could honestly take up another blog site altogether. Or a book, even.)

    Trip 1 gave me plenty of insight into the world of education, particularly international education, and was a good “refresher” of both the positives and the negatives about being in this world.

    Positives:

    • There are some super cool things going on out there, for lack of better wording (and, well, it’s late here in Hanoi, and I’m bone-tired). Cool things like Jeff Utecht‘s talk about the movement of connectivism and such. I hope lots of teachers — and administrators to boot — were paying attention to him, particularly to his bits focused on the philosophy and theory rather than the nuts-and-bolts of RSS. While both are useful and necessary, the former is more revolutionary to the world of education than the latter, I believe.
    • There are some super cool people out there, and lots of them happen to be educators. I know lots of other super cool people too, and have found myself wondering why they aren’t educators, too. Hmmm…
    • I’m happy to see a dynamic duo coming together, even if in name rather than philosophy. I’m talking here about the IBO and EARCOS. Too often organizations like EARCOS seem (to me, at least) so overly focused on American schools overseas, which most IB schools are not. Props to both organizations for coming together.

    Negatives:

    • Sadly, there are still too many educators who are teaching in traditional classrooms. I went to at least 5-too-many sessions led by professionals (many who have been in education longer than I have been alive, and I’m 33) who think about school as a place where students sit within 4 walls and at desks. When can we move away from this?
    • There are also a number of educators, from all backgrounds, ages, and disciplines, who think that all this “IT stuff” is about technology. There were a few tense moments for me when I wanted to jump up and shout, amongst 45 or so of my peers, “It’s not about the technology!” but I refrained, mostly because I am just tired of explaining it to those who don’t get it.
    • The staff at the Shangri-La had a difficult time remembering that I was actually staying in room 303. I was beginning to think that no one ever stayed in that room, or that it did not exist, or perhaps only existed in some strange 5-star hotel bad-karma vortex. Long story, but it was a pain in the neck.

    Trip 2 – oh, there is always plenty of insight to be had when one is on vacation, isn’t there? :-) I won’t share it all with you, as most of it is journalled anyway, but I will share one particularly intriguing and relevant find:

    The Green School.

    I am really intrigued by this school. I have to admit, at first I was skeptical, thinking it was just another international school start-up by some over-zealous businessman. My partner showed me the advertisement in an edition of the Bali Advertiser, and I kind of shrugged it off at first. But he persisted, and upon our return to Hanoi, urged me to check out their website.

    WOW.

    I am rather floored, to be honest. And I was so very wrong! What a wonderful, innovative, forward-thinking and un-school-ish idea they have for their sustainable, eco-conscious, whole-child oriented school. Their school is definitely on my watch list, and I daresay that I would love to stop by and visit the next time I am in Bali. They have a unique vision and philosophy, one that I dearly hope more schools latch on to, and not just by lip service. I imagine this school would be a wonderful place to work, learn, and experience all around. Props to the Hardys of Bali!

    And on that note, I will end this post as I continue to contemplate the future, education, and my place within all of it. Hopefully it won’t keep me awake at night, as I have a busy first-day-back-post-Spring Break tomorrow…

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