Thursday, September 5, 2013

Communication with Parents

This year a school goal of ours is to send out "group" emails to the parents of the students in our classes.  We can pass on information that way.  Our PLC has decided that we will send out a minimum of 4 group emails each semester.  I hope to send more.  It is so easy once you have your contact list made up.   I'm sure there are some parents who don't want to hear what is going on, but I bet there are more that do enjoy hearing these things.  I wish I received emails from my kid's teachers.  I actually sent one to them this year telling them a little about each of my kids.

This year I sent one of my emails out prior to the first day of school.  The email simply introduced myself and the class I had the student in.  It reminded them of the schedule on the first day and the remainder of the year.  In the last paragraph I gave a brief overview of the course.  One of the other paragraphs I borrowed from another colleague:

"I would like to invite you to send me an email introducing yourself and/or your student to me.  I would love to hear about things that interest them, their strengths and weaknesses etc.  Be sure to include their name in your email."

Some of the responses I received were really neat.  I learned some interesting things about both the parents and the students.  I was surprised at the detail some put into their responses.   Although I did not receive a lot, the ones I did receive I enjoyed reading and was sure to thank the parents for their email.   This is something I will continue to do each semester.  I'm hoping more parents will start to respond.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My opinion on standardized testing

Last semester I had an opportunity to be seconded by our Ministry of Education to help write questions for the math departmental exams.  My students do not write these as I am an accredited teacher.  However I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from others and see where our Ministry is headed with standardized testing.  In the last year our government (Saskatchewan, Canada) has pushed out an initiative to give standardized tests to students starting in grade 3.  I have to say I was not a fan of standardized exams prior to my experience, and after it I am even less of a fan.  It is not that I am afraid of the test as some will say teachers who are opposed are.  I do have a number of reasons for my opposition and would like to share.  These are just my opinion.

My first reason is fairness.  I am struggling with the lack of uniformity for terminology and notation.  The curriculum is not specific enough in many of these cases.  Resources use different notations and terminology.  The pathways have used different terminology and notation!   The curriculum states that students do not have to know all strategies, but they have to be able to do one of them consistently.  I may show all strategies, terminology, notation in my class, but allow students to focus on what makes the most sense to them.  Now they write a standardized test where the developer has picked a notation that they may not have focused on.  Yes, they may have seen it, but it doesn’t mean they understand it, yet they may very well understand the concept, but be unable to answer the question because of the terminology.  I think of domain and range and interval notation vs set notation.  My studdents are split among those two notations.  Yet do they understand domain and range?  You bet.  But on an test like this some may get it wrong, not because they don’t know domain and range but because the notation is not familiar to them.  This is a huge concern for me.  If I had to give a standardized test I would lose the flexibility in my classroom to allow the learners to learn what is best for them.  I would still show all forms, but would say that “this will be what you will see on the standardized test so be sure to know it”.  That so defeats the purpose of our new curriculum and our learnings about learners. 

My second reason is the format.  I do not believe you get a good indication of what the student has learned through a multiple choice format.  There is too much guessing that can occur, or working backwards, or redoing until an answer matches (trial and error).  No one is looking at the work to see what has actually been understood.  How will the results be distributed?  Indication is they will go to the parents and teachers.  Will there be one score?  Question by question results?  Outcome results?  What outcomes will be assessed?   The indication is that they have to be able to be computer scored so the results can be returned asap so that these are deemed as "formative".   What outcomes then will be tested?   How will this be communicated to parents?  Will parents be told that this is simply a snapshot and that the score may be inflated or deflated?   If the test is given towards the end of the year then they are not formative in nature. 

My third reason has to do with the move towards standards (outcome)  based assessing/grading/instruction.  In a standards based classroom, every assessment is done according to the outcome.  It is assessed by level of understanding, with the same rubric each time.  It is not about accumulating points, but in growing the understanding.  In our classrooms, we do not assign a weighting to the final exam.  The students know that if they show growth of understanding they receive that level as their final.  If they do not maintain their previous level of understanding, their overall level will drop and they may even have to come back in for more learning.  We do not allow a student to skip/ignore/leave blank any questions at a low level of understanding or they will have to come back for a conversation.  As a result, the majority of our students actually improve their levels after the final.  This all changed when we took away the percentage weighting on the final.  At that point many students were simply calculating that they had enough “points” to pass or get the mark they wanted.  Now they have to demonstrate understanding on everything.  I think the standardized test will really hinder classes trying to do standards based grading.  They are not set up by outcome, using a common rubric, and assessed by outcome.  There is one score assigned.   This is not an effective assessment method.
I get that we are living in a world where accountability has become a huge issue.  However I do not believe that these will make teachers "accountable".  I do not believe the data will be an accurate indication of what is going on in the classroom.  I think that if the government wants to improve teachers and learning, they need to think outside the box.  Dylan Wiliam’s philosophy is that we can’t get rid of the poor teachers, but we need to work with them, support them and help them become better teachers.  I do not believe standardized testing is going to do this.   This is just my opinion.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Communication Tools

One of our goals as a department this year were to create some videos for parents and students to help with understanding our progress report and rubrics. Two of these videos have been created.

The first one is about “How to Read the Progress Report”. We know these can look different from elementary reports and from other subjects, so we want to help parents and students to understand them. They are a communication tool and need to be used that way! I hope this video will help with this.

The second video is about reading the rubric. Again, the rubric is a communication tool. It is not only for assessment purposes for grading. In fact, the student should be using it to prepare for assessments. It can be used as a checklist to be sure that they are prepared for the assessment. Here is the video on reading and using the rubrics

I hope these videos will assist the communication process and the understanding of the outcomes based system.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Step Backwards

I've been blogging about our school's journey the last four years towards being standards (outcome) based.   Recently I feel frustrated as I believe we are being pushed backwards into standards referenced.   Currently, and for the past two years, we have been truly standards based where a student has to meet the basic requirements on ALL outcomes in order to receive credit for the class.  It was at a supper meeting with Ken O'Connor where we decided to do this.  He asked us why we were allowing students to not meet a requirement in all outcomes.  When he said it, it seemed like a no brainer.   Robert Marzano promotes standards based.  Other researchers have done work with standards based.  We have worked hard as a department to promote and implement this.  Students have risen to the expectations we have set forth.  I know in my gut there are successes from this, and the data is beginning to show it as well.  More students are being successful.   A comment today in our math PLC was that students in the 30 level classes are doing very well.  It was almost a surprise to some.  Then when we thought about it we realized that it is likely because we have expected these students to learn ALL outcomes to a basic level in previous classes.  You now have students who just need a review of the pre-requisite skills, instead of needing to be taught them because they never learned them before.   Sure there have been a few hiccups along the way, but that is to be expected.  All in all, this system has been better for the students.  They are earning their credit, and even if they don't retain all of the math skills, they are learning work ethic and the satisfaction that they earned what they got.  They are no longer able to ignore something because it is a little difficult for them.  Education is about doing what is best for all learners and from what I have seen the past two years, this is a better system for the students.

Recently we have been informed that our expectations may not follow Ministry regulations and that we might not be able to expect a minimum level on all outcomes, thus not allowing us to be standards based.   We have researched and looked through Ministry documents and really can't find anything that doesn't support what we are doing.  We found a document, Renewed Curricula that the Ministry put out, and on page 12 found this statement:

Outcomes define what a student is expected to know and be able to do at the end of the grade or Secondary 
Level course . Therefore, all curriculum outcomes are required . Indicators clarify the breadth and depth of each 

To me, this is stating that all outcomes are required.  Today, at our meeting we discussed communication from the Ministry that stated a 50% is required to receive credit, but nowhere did it say how the 50% was to be determined.  It did NOT specify that it needed to be an average, or the mode, or the median.  It was just 50%.  Thus I don't think what we are doing contradicts anything in Ministry documents.  I would love for someone to show or explain to me how we are.  Until someone can do this, it saddens me that we might have to move away from standards based.  We have seen success in the past two years with it, and there are multiple research studies showing the benefits of this system.   It's a little frustrating to think that we might be taking a step backwards.  I'm open for change, but I want the change to be forward thinking, not backwards.  I am hoping that this is just a conversation that is happening and it will not become a reality.      

Friday, May 3, 2013

Questioning Techniques

Today I attended SUM 2013.  I was very excited to hear Dan Meyer speak.  I've mentioned him in previous blog posts.  We have tried to model his teachings, but it is not an easy task!  It was great to hear him today and have him take us through a three act math activity, modelling to us what a teacher's role is.   He has a very good way of questioning so that everyone feels like they CAN ask a question and that every question is valid.    He shows a problem/situation/activity and then asks for "the FIRST question that you have".   He typed out any question a person asked and never made you feel like it wasn't good enough.  

Fast forward to the last keynote speaker.  This person would ask for questions, but if they weren't what she wanted she responded in a way that I can only describe as somewhat rude.  There were two questions in particular that I didn't like how she responded.  One wasn't along the lines of what she asked, but instead of thanking the person for taking a risk, she more or less shrugged it off and asked for a question "with words".   Another time she was asking what questions could be developed from a picture she was showing, and with one of the responses, she turned her back to the person and commented "I don't think students would find that interesting."    Really?   If I did that in my classroom with my students I would NEVER have a student risk taking!   After the second "snub" I basically tuned her out.  I didn't find her respectful of her audience. 

The two differences between the keynote speakers really opened my eyes to how a teacher can turn on or off students in a heartbeat!   We have to be very careful how we respond to student's questions and comments.  We need to encourage thinking, and thank students when they do take a risk, even if they aren't necessarily on the right path.  I definitely want to model Dan Meyer's technique, and avoid at all times, the second keynote speaker's technique!