your brain on grade 8

Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.     —  Elliot Eisner

Last Friday at W. Erskine Johnston PS we spent the day engaged in professional development around our School Improvement Plan.  Although we did devote a small part of our morning session to examining our latest EQAO scores, most of the day was spent looking at skills and aptitudes less easily measured, especially on a standardized test.  See my earlier post “nothing wrong with stilts” for a synopsis of the morning session for our Intermediate team.

After lunch we again divided up into our divisional teams for an activity around identifying those critical skills that we want all of our students to have by the time they reach the exit point for each division:  Grade 3 for primary, Grade 6 for junior and Grade 8 for intermediate.  After some initial brainstorming the teams split up and created “mind maps” to display our thinking.  Jen and I modeled one for the critical skills and aptitudes required for the Principal and Vice Principal role, and I will certainly post about that process in the future.  For now though, here is a short video highlighting some of the key skills the Intermediate division identified as crucial for our students heading to grade 9:

(Thanks to the kind folks at Thomas Tallis School (Tallis Labs) for the graphic organizer)

The process was fun and messy, with lots of play and energy. It was interesting to work together deciding which skills went where on the brain. We chose colours depending on a general feeling about the skill (purple for integrity, for example) and used plasticine and pipe cleaners to link related skills. As we wrapped up and prepared to join the other groups we all stepped back to look at our work and realized that we had not mentioned any specifically content-curriculum pieces. One of our team members reflected:

The curriculum isn’t really the important piece …  It is a means to this end.

I think that we all agreed that the content areas, while they are important, are the means through which we model and teach the skills that we feel our students need to be successful as they leave us and head to high school:  critical thinking skills, empathy, foresight, self-awareness and self-reflection, open-mindedness, etc…  The second part of the discussion, where we brainstorm the types of learning activities we need to provide to develop these skills and aptitudes, will be continued…

We are doing the same activity with our Grade 8 students next week. They will each create their own brain map and it will be very interesting to see how theirs compare to the one we created.  What skills would you add?

Report Card Day

Today reports went home for my Grade 8 students, so I thought it was appropriate to ask for some feedback from them on how I have done this past term.  I base my questions on the Onario College of Teachers’ Ethics and Standards of Practice.  The point is really formative – to help me set some goals for the coming term.  My students know that I value their insight.  I am committed to having them assume some responsibility for their learning, so soliciting their input was an easy decision.

I used a google form to create a short feedback survey that included several rating scale questions, as well as a “stop, start, continue” section.  I called it Mrs. Smith’s Report Card and gave students several minutes in our weekly computer lab time to complete the survey.  Over lunch I reviewed the results.  For the most part, I was not surprised by the responses – I have worked hard to get to know my students this term – but there were some exceptions that caught me a bit off guard and really made me think.  Of course, those responses are the most valuable, aren’t they?

Responses Worth Considering

Below are a few of the constructive comments that surfaced and made me reflect on how I might adjust my teaching to better meet the needs of my students:

Set Specific Due Dates:  I have stayed away from setting concrete due dates this past term, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, anything that I will evaluate must be completed during class time.  I do not believe in sending home assignments and projects to be finished for homework and then evaluated.  Also, I want every student to take the time they require to do a good job on any given assignment or project.  I don’t like to see students rushing to meet a deadline, thus producing less than stellar work.  I would rather students know that they may take as much time as needed in order to finish something.  Once most students have submitted an assignment, I offer time at recess to complete.  I am rethinking the whole “no due date” line not in terms of my philosophy, but rather to recognize that some students appreciate a deadline and like to know when an assignment is expected.  It could be that this helps them stay organized.

Give More Feedback:  This is one that I have to admit I have not been as good at as I would have liked.  I am firmly committed to the importance of timely and informative feedback as part of the teaching/learning/assessment cycle, but I think that I need to make a greater effort next term to provide feedback in the form of notes, conferences and comments on student blogs.

Give More Options:  Again, I thought I was doing this, but a couple of students felt that I was not offering a wide enough variety of assignments.  I admit that I require my students to write quite a bit – daily, in fact.  Reflecting on the Multiple Intelliegences surveys my students and I completed at the beginning of the term, I realize that I did not do enough to explore their areas of comfort and strength.  I will have to spend some time over the next little while thinking about and learning about other ways for students to present their learning. 

Less Technology / More Technology:  There was a very interesting and fairly even split in my students when it came to our use of technology.  Several felt that we use it too much and would prefer less.  An equal number of others felt that there was just the right amount of technology or that we could even increase the amount of tech. in the classroom.  This one really made me think.  I am quite happy with the amount of technology that we use to facilitate our learning.  I am very committed to using technology and exposing my students to the wide variety of tools available to enhance our collaborative group projects, as well as our individual inquiry.  I think that what I might need to do here is alter my approach by offering better support for students using technology that is new to them or that they might find intimidating.  I think I might have overestimated some of my students’ comfort levels with regards to the technology.

I was very happy to see that almost all of my students gave me a high rating on my level of caring – for their emotional well-being and for their academic progress.  That was a very deliberate goal for me over the past term and I feel that, through a lot of hard work and a ton of reflection, I succeeded.

A Renewed Committment to the Learner

Recently, I have been reflecting on the importance of Digital Literacy Skills.  I believe more than ever that if we don’t model and scaffold for our students the appropriate and responsible use of technology, including social media and collaboration tools, we are putting them at risk.  To use the often-cited analogy, I would much rather jump in the deep end with my students and teach them how to swim than lock the gate and pretend the pool doesn’t exist.  When the gate is up, it offers a false sense of security.  Without the skills to navigate the water, students are at serious risk because, let’s face it, they can all hop the fence.

If the web is the pool, I think it is my responsibility to ensure that my students know the dangers and risks, as well as how to stay afloat and how to protect themselves.  When it begins to appear as though they will spend a great deal of their adult lives navigating those waters, will I be able to say that I did my job if they don’t know how to swim?  If I believe that the locked gate is going to keep them safe, am I not in fact putting them at great risk for diminished meaningful literacy skills?

– image “car side mirror reflection” cc by just a name thingy

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– image “pool is locked” cc by redjar

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