Tag Archives: community

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.

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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.



Filed under Classroom Ideas

Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

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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.


Filed under Reflection

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.


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.


Filed under Classroom Ideas

Spreading a Little Sunshine

The Sunshine Award or the Sunshine Elevens or one of several other versions of inspiration and encouragement for bloggers has been rapidly circulating the blogosphere. Thank you, Sheri Edwards, for nominating me. It seems that no matter where I turn on the web these days, @grammasheri is doing something thoughtful and helpful. She practices what she teaches. Inspiring this blog post is further evidence of her thoughtfulness.

(CC BY 2.0) Dhaval Jani

(CC BY 2.0) Dhaval Jani

Here’s how this chain letter of inspiration works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

 Eleven Random Facts About Me

  1. I ride a bike to work year round. -38 Celsius (no wind chill) is my coldest ride.
  2. As a student teacher I auditioned for a movie with a class of drama students. I lost the part in callbacks to Paul Walker.
  3. I once spent 7 days (168 hours) without human contact. I did have some decent conversation with squirrels once I warmed up to them during the final few days.
  4. I’ve lived as far south as Phoenix, AZ and as far north as Winnipeg, MB.
  5. The first time I laid hands on an iOS device was just over a year ago, and it fundamentally changed some of my thoughts about the future (in education and in general).
  6. I live in a house filled with women (wife and four daughters).
  7. The strangest summer job I worked involved shaking tea bags to ensure they were properly sealed.
  8. I have a Masters degree in English: Creative Writing
  9. I’m one of the six people on the planet without a Facebook account.
  10. I brew beer with my dad for the pure enjoyment of the beer and the company.
  11. The first movie I experienced in the theatre was Star Wars.

Answering Sheri’s Questions

When did you know what you wanted to do for a career? How did you discover that?

In grade nine I knew I wanted to teach. It was a deep-down knowing, but there were some more conscious moments of clarity. For example, my literature teacher was discussing a poem with the class and asked us to consider what could inspire someone to leap off a cliff (this was a dramatic love poem). Before thinking I blurted, “A push!” and the teacher laughed. It was a simple moment, but instead of the scolding I was expecting for my rashness, I received a human response. Teachers were suddenly human beings! I was a human being, too, and perhaps that meant I could really become a teacher without morphing into some caricature of a grown-up. Teaching could be about relationship. Ah Ha! I was hooked!

What are your top three favorite books of all time?

This question is too difficult for me. I’m cheating and naming three authors (which is difficult enough).

C.S. Lewis

Garret Keizer

Flannery O’Connor

If you could only read one blogger next year, who would it be?

George Couros

What advice do you have for educators today?

Relationship, relationship, relationship! Craft, credibility, assessment—these are important elements of education, but they all rest on the foundation of relationships: with students, with colleagues, with parents, with administration.

Teach students, not standards.

Say you’re sorry. (It’s a real relationship enhancer.)

Collaborate generously and humbly with colleagues.

Learn without fear of mistakes.

What is on your bucket list?

Design and build a bicycle by hand.

Finish a full-length writing project.

Grow my own ingredients and turn them into beer.

Get a hole-in-one.

Catch a notable Rainbow trout.

If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?


Travelling is wonderful, both around the planet and in the mind, but nothing is as fine as truly coming home.

What is your favorite quote?

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.” –C.S. Lewis

What song lyrics move you?

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace, U2

If you could sit with any 5 people dead or alive around your dinner table, who would you choose and why?

This is an easy one. I am married to a wonderful woman and have four lovely daughters. There are no five people, dead or alive, with whom I would rather dine. Christmas break has been delightful, not because I’m away from school (I love school), but rather because I enjoy three squares a day with my favourite people.

What are your five favorite verbs?

Love, reflect, embrace, wonder, laugh

What six words sum up your philosophy [of life or of education]?

Foster growth mindset soli Deo Gloria

Bloggers (some of these good people have been through this exercise, but they are worth taking a look)

Eleven Questions for Bloggers

  1. What do you do for escape or relaxation?
  2. What is one concern you have about the future of technology?
  3. Share one Ah-Ha! moment you’ve had (in or out of a classroom).
  4. Which books (one fiction, one non-fiction) would you recommend to new teachers?
  5. What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
  6. If you had to change careers, what new career would you choose?
  7. When you’re not immersed in the present, do you find yourself more often looking back or looking ahead?
  8. What is your favourite season? Why?
  9. If I handed you $100, what would you do with it?
  10. What metaphor/simile describes your writing process? (eg. My writing is like a tube of toothpaste. It flows quickly at first, but at the end it’s hard to squeeze out the last little bit and finish the tube.)
  11. Which Twitter hashtag would you follow if you could only follow one?

Happy blogging in 2014! Thank you for your inspirational words and efforts.


January 3, 2014 · 5:08 pm

Out of the Pool; Into the Ocean


image via Post Ranch Inn

About two weeks ago I hopped out of the ETMOOC pool in order to kick start my second semester. That feels like yesterday, but I’m typing my first post in February, and it’s after Valentine’s Day! ETMOOC has been quite the immersive immersion (Sorry, I shouldn’t mix technology and water terminology ;-)). I’m new to Twitter, Google+, Blackboard,YouTube, vlogging… I wasn’t drowning, but I felt I needed to focus on my students’ classes and not my own.

Somewhere in the midst of prepping for second semester, I realized that my subconscious pool metaphor was shortsighted and wrong. Suddenly, I didn’t see myself climbing out of the ETMOOC pool and diving into my Second Semester pool, but rather, I knew I was swimming in the ocean. The two bodies of water weren’t separate at all, but connected in ways that I hadn’t seen. My learning is an essential part of student learning.

Why was I compartmentalizing my learning and my students’ learning? I discovered that in the past I connected my learning to student learning in a very linear way. I learned so that I could better help them learn. Notice how that thinking sets up a Me-Them relationship? I work intentionally to build relationships with students, and yet, my thinking about my own learning has been holding me back from greater depths of relationship and learning in class. My learning needs to take place far more visibly during class with my students, not only before and after. When students and I are learning together, much of the Me-Them dynamic switches to We.

So now what? Well, I decided to share my ETMOOC experience and learning with my students, and, to start learning more visibly with them. I committed to turn one of my classes (a small group of grade 12s) into a learning lab. I started by ensuring every student had a mobile device. Next, I handed them the provincial outcomes for the class, and we began re-writing them in more student-friendly (read people-friendly) language. They sat, stunned, as I explained that they could demonstrate their ability to meet those outcomes in any way they liked, using content they liked and that I’d help them do it.

We’re two weeks in, and the shock is beginning to wear off. We’ve set up blogs to use as learning logs and, possibly, portfolios (You’ll find mine here). The students use a shared Google doc to take notes. One or two students each class handle the notation while the others engage without the extra responsibility. The practice has allowed several students to participate at a much higher level while others are improving their note-taking skills because of the accountability of others relying on them.

The group wanted to start something together before branching out; they’re unsure about how to exercise their freedom (I’ll have to give them improved support). We decided on poetry, so we’re using the poem of the day on Writer’s Almanac to authentically learn together. I sit with them as we discuss the poem projected on the screen. We make meaning, and tease out relevant terms and concepts for the notes. It’s liberating and exhilarating for me to not only avoid leading students through a poem with heavy hand, but also to see real proof that previous lessons about poetry in earlier years have taken root. It’s empowering for the students as they participate in dictating the direction of their own learning and discover that they can read poetry far more independently than they thought. They suddenly see evidence of their own learning in action, which is far superior to a good test grade. It’s been a fine start to our semester.

So did I really get out of the ETMOOC pool? Well, my developing PLN gave me the inspiration and encouragement to recognize and rectify my situation. The tech challenges of ETMOOC gave me several new tools for school and the confidence to use them. I’m hoping to continue to collaborate with ETMOOC participants and that my students may even work with their students. Did I get out of the pool? No, I just saw the ocean for the first time. Ain’t she grand?


Filed under Uncategorized