Category Archives: Classroom Ideas

The Power to Choose Nothing

“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”

The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.

After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.

I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.

So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.

As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.

If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.

1 Comment

Filed under Classroom Ideas, Reflection

Attentiveness and Participation Assessed! Sort Of.

In an attempt to reframe effort in the classroom I’m trying to sift through the more traditional elements of effort (attentiveness, participation, compliance, focus, organization) and save the learning kernels after the chaff has drifted away. In my SBL and TTOG classroom I’m finding the learning outcomes that help students see the reason we tried to value effort by awarding points.

My less-than-effective way to encourage and grade classroom conversation: Track how often students participated in class activities. Award points to frequent talkers, hand-raisers, and question-askers. Remind infrequent participators that class participation is part of their grade.

My less-than-effective way to assess attentiveness: Observe the body language of 20+ students while I lecture. See who can answer the occasional pop question. Prod the inattentive or slumbering with a walk down the aisle and/or a reminder of the importance of attentiveness to their participation grade.

Even though it has been a long time since I practiced those methods, it’s pretty embarrassing to see them in print. What specifically did I think I was teaching those students? And while I stopped using such methods (which were far more about filling up a grade book than about learning) I didn’t find alternative ways to help teach the skills that I was ineffectively trying to value with my participation grade, skills such as speaking and listening.

Speaking and Listening are two of the language arts that appear in my curriculum, and they are a big part of what I was trying to encourage when I stressed the value of participation. They are valuable tools for learning and everyday skills that can improve quality of life in and out of school.

Here is my more effective way to teach and develop attentiveness and participation in class:

The beginning of the year includes mini lessons on speaking and listening. For example, I try to simplify speaking to the intentional use of face, body, and voice in order to enhance meaning. A good speaker will use a gesture to emphasize an important point or feeling; they will use a pause or change in volume to draw attention to a key idea. Other teachers use other methods (PVLEGS for example), but once the basic instruction for speaking and listening is in place, the classroom is ready for some practice.

Next I will ask the students to listen for moments of quality speaking in class. Perhaps, Jason shrugged emphatically when he replied, “I’m not entirely sure,” to a question. Maybe Sherise paused effectively when challenging Greg’s line of reasoning. I will also point out a few quality moments as a model.

Once a few examples have clarified the type of observations that I’m after, I will more formally assign a minimum number of positive observations to be made in a set time period; something like five observations in the month. I’ll have students post their observations using Google Keep notes. If you haven’t used Google Keep, it is basically a Sticky note app with variety of helpful functions like tags, sharing, and colour-coding. I will have students tag their observation notes with tags signifying standards/skills (eg. speaking, voice) and then share the note with me and the observed student speaker. When it is time for me to track or assess progress, I can search and filter my Keep notes by standard or by student.

There are many benefits to this assignment:

  • It creates artifacts of learning that can be tracked over time for both individuals and the entire class.
  • It creates teachable moments for speaking and listening.
  • It offers insight into further instruction based on which standards/skills are underrepresented or observed without adequate sophistication.
  • It values attentive listening and quality speaking in everyday classroom conversation.
  • It builds community and reflection through the encouraging, positive observations of peers.

That’s my rough draft idea, one way to reconcile “effort” and standards-based assessment. Already I can see the potential to teach responsible social media use by having the observations shared class-wide, but at this moment I haven’t imagined how to make the tech happen (a Padlet wall? A class social media account? Any ideas out there?). I’m excited to try it out in class, and I will report on field testing during the semester.

2 Comments

Filed under Classroom Ideas

Meaningful Learning Over the Measurement of Learning

Note: This post is one in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

Have you ever had one of those moments? The bell rings to end class and every person in the room jumps with surprise because the engagement level was too high for a trivial detail like the time/space continuum to distract anyone. As everyone begins to transition to the next class period as if waking from a really great dream, you steal a brief moment to revel in the joy of learning as it should be–filled with collaborative curiosity and exploration.

What price would you put on that class period? What would you pay (or how much prep would you be willing to do) in order to guarantee that every class period resulted in the same level of learning as that class period?

Here is a different set of questions: What grade would everyone get for the learning during that class? How would you fit that class into your grade book or share it on the parent portal?

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I’m afraid that too often in school meaningful learning is subordinated by our over-emphasis on measuring learning. I know that the dream class as described above (they do happen!) involved quality learning, but I don’t have to think long about a string of those classes in a row before I start getting this nagging sense of guilt from the empty columns of my PowerSchool grade book (see my post on individuals over tools). Even though I know that great learning took place during that dream class, the difficulty of measuring and reporting it in the context of a typical school system actually makes me question myself and the planning that led to the highly engaged class.

“But if I can’t measure the learning, how do I know there was any learning at all?” Agile education and I are not saying that measurement of learning is unimportant, but rather that the learning is a higher aim and priority than our ability to measure it. And, when it comes to learning, measurement isn’t the exact science we attempt to make out to be. It can be falsely comforting to stick with easy to measure assessments that are “straightforward” and “airtight” on PowerSchool or during Parent/Teacher conferences, but that tendency helps perpetuate a culture of chasing after grades instead of focusing on learning.

We can assess the learning of that dream class, but it won’t be communicated by a 7.5 out of 10 on a quiz. No, the dream class learning will be revealed by observation and conversation, reflection and anecdote. This type of evidence is no less valid or important than neat and tidy columns of quiz scores. Formative assessments and professional observations are vital components of practice that prioritizes meaningful learning over the measurement of learning.

Of course, let’s measure learning, but let’s find ways for our measurements to support meaningful learning. Collect anecdotal evidence and video feedback from students. Paste urls for Padlet walls or Google Shared folders into columns/comments in your digital grade book or parent portal. Pack portfolios full of formal and informal artifacts of learning. As the new school year begins, let’s commit to finding and sharing practical new assessments that better support a long string of dream classes and that communicate all the dreamy and essential learning to parents, students, colleagues, and ourselves.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Classroom Ideas, Reflection

Google Forms for Record Keeping and Formative Assessment

I should probably take my own advice more often. Today I’ll try.

Every time I use Google Forms, I wonder why I don’t use them more often. Ten years ago when I first tried reading workshop (inspired by Nancie Atwell‘s In the Middle) I had clipboards and several trees worth of paper charts to keep track of student reading. Looking for trends and growth was a time consuming process. Now I use a very simple form (see photo) that has several key improvements on my paper charts:

  1. Instead of me writing 20-30 entries on a chart, which takes 15 minutes at least, now students fill out the Form each week, and it takes a few minutes.
  2. The Form doubles as an open invitation for students to communicate with me.
  3. The data the students send through the Form are stored in a spreadsheet.

IMG_3192

Number three may not seem like a big deal at first, but it is the most important improvement. It means I can sort the data to measure growth and trends over time. Viola! Formative assessment that requires very little time and effort in class, but provides a wealth of information about the reading habits of the class and individual students. Sort first by date and then by student name, and you have a list of each student’s reading progress. Find out which books or genres students enjoy or quit. It is a simple form, so the sorting options are limited, but the concept can be scaled up.

Recently I developed a Form to help a number of teachers and Educational Assistants support a student with an individualized education program. The Form made use of Google Form question styles such as checkboxes, grids, dropdowns, and linear scales, in order make data entry easy and consistent. Teachers and EAs could all access the Form and someone filled it out each class period in the student’s schedule as they worked with him. Once the spreadsheet was populated it offered an impressive number of sorting options that helped better understand patterns of behaviour for the student and the support staff.

  • Is there a connection between optimum learning and the time of day? The subject? The teacher or EA?
  • Do behaviour incidents correlate with lunch? Days of the week? Medication administration?

We are still learning how to design Forms and interpret the data, but I think the potential is clear.

Recently on Twitter, Jenni vanRees asked,

and I immediately thought of Forms. I teach high school, so my experience with running records is limited to my role as parent. It seems that there is a huge variety of styles when it comes to running records, but in the right circumstances, a Form that uses linear scales, checkboxes, etc. could save time when working with students and really increase the usability of the data afterward. Certainly there would be time invested in the design and creation of a running record Form, but that investment would pay dividends all year. After creating the first Form, additional Forms could be created by making a copy of the original and tweaking some questions. If there are prompts that need to be changed, the original Form could be edited and the data would continue to compile.

I think it could be done with a little creativity. Anyone out there using Google Forms for Running Records? I’d love to see how you approach the task (Jenni, too).

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Classroom Ideas

Edusight Notes: Simple, No-Nonsense Assessment Aid

I often know the right thing to do, but my execution is regularly lacking. I know the power of writing conferences and their many benefits, including mentorship, relationship building, deeper learning, and occasionally outright joy. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t what it used to be. After a few weeks into a semester, I can’t recall what Savanna is working on, whether Tyler needs practice with voice or structure, or even what advice I offered Faith that led to a great moment and revision. Once I start second-guessing my memory, my conferencing slows down and becomes much more tentative. In my head I’m thinking, “I should know this. I’m going to damage a relationship that we’ve built if I can’t even remember this. She/he will think I don’t care when I really do care.” 

Now I show how I care by finding ways to remember and keep track. Edusight Notes is one of my go-to ways to remember. It is sometimes billed as a student portfolio app (and it can be), but I use it as a note-taking app for conferences, and anecdotal evidence of learning that too often disappears into the mist at report card time.

Edusight Notes is an iOS app that does one thing simply and well. It takes notes. The simple interface begins with card icons for each class. Tap on a class and the students appear by name (and picture if you’d like. How about a first day of school selfie for everyone?) in rows of icons. Tap a student and you are directed to their timeline/portfolio where you can review past notes or add a note in the form of a picture (from the camera or roll) and/or text. That’s it. It isn’t fancy, but it is exactly what I need. My only minor complaint is that you have to type in the names of your students (though it will remember them for future classes).

Now, my memory of that great conference moment is only a few taps away. I take my iPad to all conferences and record anything I wish to remember, including pictures of perplexing paragraphs and items to review during the next conference. In a day or two when it is time for that next conference, I review the notes and pictures of work in progress and pick up with the student where we left off.

Now I don’t forget…because I do care. Edusight Notes helps me show it.

2 Comments

Filed under Classroom Ideas

Learning From Setbacks: Next Steps

My last post discussed how some of my standards based assessment plans went awry. The next post or two will document the adjustments I’m making in the new semester in order to improve the process. I’ll begin with communication.

The SBA grade book I created worked well for me, but it was difficult to share with students who only were able to see a PowerSchool summary of my much more detailed assessments. This semester I’m using the =importrange function to open up my grade book for each student. It requires some initial setup, and there is probably an easier, more elegant solution, but this is how I’m getting the job done on the fly.

The =importrange function allows me to take information from one spreadsheet and display it in another spreadsheet. In this case, I created a spreadsheet for each student in class and imported only their grade information to their personal sheet. Then I shared the sheet with them on Google Drive. The best part is that whenever I make changes to my grade book, the =importrange function updates the student sheets, so after my initial investment in time, the grade information flows to the students without any extra work on my part. Here is a quick look at part of a student spreadsheet. (And, here is the link. Feel free to make a copy.)

Importrange Capture

I could explain how to use =importrange, but anyone really interested in the details should check out Alice Keeler‘s posts (like this one). I don’t have anything to add to her already helpful explanations.

Some tips:

  • importrange moves information in cells but not formatting
  • Create one student sheet as a template and include any colour formatting you would like, then duplicate the template for each additional student using FILE–>make a copy…
  • My grade book is one spreadsheet with a tab for each student. Once I set up my first student sheet each duplicate sheet only required me to change the tab name in the formula to import the student specific data (No need to rewrite the entire formula). For example, in the photo above, if I change the tab name, “Student Sample” in the formula to the name of the next student tab, “Jane Smith” suddenly Jane’s grade information is connected to her spread sheet.

Once the setup is complete, I’ll assess as I did last semester, but the communication (and hopefully conversation) around assessment will drastically increase. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is an important next step.

Leave a comment

Filed under Classroom Ideas

Padlet: A Quick and Easy Collaboration Tool

Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) is hardly a new tool, but it is easy to use and very versatile, so it is definitely worth checking out or revisiting. Basically it is a blank wall online, and people add sticky note posts to the wall which will expand as needed. Posts can include text, links, video, and pictures, so there is potential for a rich variety of information and interaction. With a free account at Padlet.com you can create walls with a variety of customization options, including privacy settings that range from completely public to email invitations to collaborators of your choice.

A Padlet wall can be used in the classroom in many ways. Recently a colleague and I combined our different grade level writing classes in order to begin some group writing projects. We are hoping to teach/learn about various government agencies and use writing to inspire positive change through those agencies. We want student choice driving the projects, so we had students brainstorm individually and then post their interests to a padlet wall so that they might benefit from other’s brainstorming and find partners with similar interests with whom they might collaborate. Teachers and students could see all the posts and even rearrange them into groups and categories. It sure is handier than writing all the ideas on a whiteboard only to erase them at the end of the period.

Once again, imagination is the limit to how you could use this tool. A student could use it to curate their knowledge of a topic and submit it like an interactive poster. Students working in a group could organize their research and writing on a wall. Here’s a wall I set up last year as a welcome back to school activity that also measured my students’ comfort with using their iPads in a 1:1 environment.

Padlet1

Padlet offers handy embed codes, but they don’t play nice with my free WordPress account.

Padlet has great features such as embed codes for your class website, social media sharing, QR codes, privacy settings, moderating, and all kinds of customization to fit your classroom application, and it is a web-based tool that works with laptops, tablets, and phones. Show this tool to your students and see what they can do with it.

2 Comments

Filed under Classroom Ideas