Tag Archives: communication

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.

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Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

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

I do love my gadgets and tools. I rarely leave my local bike shop without another freewheel remover or cone wrench, and I’m always up for a conversation about which apps you are using. There is nothing inherently wrong with tools. I could not have prepared my bike for its daily ride to school without my bottom bracket adjustable cup wrench, and it would take a mighty big plan ‘B’ in my class if Google Drive went down.

It would be easy for this post to devolve into a rant about how smartphones in our classrooms distract us and that we get so hung up on the tools and learning how to use them that our focus drifts from the learning outcomes to the tools themselves. Certainly the tools could distract us; especially when they are new and we are learning how to use them. However, I generally believe practicing teachers quickly recognize distraction and do a pretty good job of owning their tools instead of letting the tools own them. No, the real potential danger of tools and processes are much deeper and more subtle than simple distraction.

Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly) in a conference keynote at the end of the 20th century said:

Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.

Beyond technology’s potential for distraction is the bigger question, “How are our tools shaping us?” What prejudices and values are inherent in the tools we use? The Agile Schools manifesto wants us to value people and their interactions more than tools and processes. I think many people would agree with that priority. However, it is my contention that prioritizing people is only possible if we are thoughtful and intentional about our tools. If we are unaware of the value-shaping tendency of tools, then it is entirely possible that any time and energy spent on relationship building will be undermined by our tools. I’ll give an educational example.

Several years ago, many schools began using digital grade books and parent portals in order to increase and improve the efficiency, transparency, and communication of assessment (For now I’ll avoid discussing the other, more pessimistic reasons for open grade books). The early digital tools only allowed for columns of numbers that averaged to a percentage. This encouraged and reinforced a task-based classroom structure, and while parents were potentially more knowledgeable about classroom assignments, communication didn’t necessarily improve. Parent/Teacher conferences focused more and more on the tasks and the marks rather than the student and his/her learning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the answer to avoiding an awkward conversation about the validity of my marks was…more tasks and marks to justify my marks! (Yes, I’m confessing here.)

The tool that was hailed as a way to improve communication actually inhibited it. Instead of discussing students and their learning with parents in a way that would allow us to build relationships and learn from each other, we were discussing marks. The tool’s bias in favour of tasks had me creating more tasks to satisfy administrative guidelines and justify marks which actually inhibited my relationships with parents, students, and administration! Yes, I was using the tool poorly, but the tool itself was biased toward process, not people.

Others, like George Couros has here, have already written about how technology can be used to build relationship. Teachers want to build relationship because we know it is an important way to set the stage for quality learning. In order to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we need to support each other in selecting tools that are biased in favour of relationship. For example, this semester I chose to use the tool, EduSight Notes (as I wrote about here) precisely because it would create a routine that would help build relationship. I think it will help infuse community-building into the very structure and processes of my practice. The tool will support, not undermine, what I value–the students I’m teaching and learning with.

That, paradoxically, is how I can write an entire post about valuing people over tools while focusing mainly on tools. Through collective reflective practice, let’s find the tools that best support our values.

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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.

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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.

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