Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 in review

That was quite a year... I'd have to say the highlight was our summer travels. The cruise to Alaska with my parents & family and the preceding camping across three provinces made for a great vacation. Kate had it all planned out and I’ll admit to some skepticism about it all working out. Our tent trailer was thoroughly broken in and we got to see some amazing sights and people. Cookes, Zimmers, Gorbys, Campbells, and a Friesen for good measure. Onboard the Volendam our Thielmann party of 15 comprised 1% of the passenger list. We had some time to reconnect; it was a blessing to see my parents surrounded by such a healthy, loving, and individuated family, a real witness to their 50 years of marriage.

This year, I find myself growing more... hmm... I’m not sure what word to use. Not conservative, if that’s what you were thinking. Perhaps more cynical (see the school stuff below), maybe stalwart or something like disaffected (in the misanthropic sense), and overall more grim. This has something to do with the time of year and the fact that my chopped woodpile is empty and it is -21˚C right now. Balancing this is the love and joy from a very amazing family; I really can’t or shouldn’t complain. I think 2011 will be less grim.

Our school district went through a rough patch in 2010 with a massive deficit brought on through changes in government funding, declining enrollment, and some delayed financial planning at the board office. I invested far too much time trying to keep our district accountable and honest in terms of spending, the nature of cuts, alternatives to school closures, and some sanity around technology decisions. I was also able to work with an amazing group of parents and teachers who modeled “sustainability” for the district as it offered its own plans and recommendations based on rigorous educational and community values, excellent research, and diverse perspectives. In the end we saved the French Immersion program from being dismantled and exposed some incompetencies, but I don’t think we were able to shift the basic narcissism that guides our local system. In the area of technology, our BC school system envisions that teachers will be able to use digital tools to increasingly guide students at a distance, and that face-to-face classrooms where the teachers are experts in their subject is an outdated mode of learning. As problematic as this may seem, our school district has embraced this vision while at the same time restricting access and planning to the very technologies that are supposed to bring about this brave new world. My own school mirrors many of these disturbing trends and ironies. So, that provides some context for all this talk of grimness and cynicism, but I am growing weary of being a whistleblower, especially when it is off the side of my desk and has come at a cost to my family, self, and students. Thankfully, I’ve been able to share this load with a dedicated and humorous group of teachers we’ve dubbed the Pacific Slope Initiative. Kate forgave me of many evenings locked away at a computer or at meetings, and was always the first one to push me into a good debate.

This is my 15th year as a teacher and I still feel lucky to be in the midst of so many stories, so many discoveries. I’ve had some challenging Grade 9s in Social Studies but I’ve tried to put their high energy to use. I haven’t taught SS9 for many years so it has been constant experimentation on my part, some of it pure disaster. New lessons, assignments, resources, assessments. Two projects in particular stand out. The first centered on Heritage Skills -- how people made a live for themselves, adapted the resources at hand to their needs “then and now.” One student brought out his grandpa’s hand-made woodworking tools and talked about the objects in his house (made by GP) that had special significance. Another talked of canning salmon with grandma and how this was one aspect of her ancient culture that she was keen to learn, remember, and pass on. Some of the projects were a bit rough -- I’ll admit that the students benefit from exemplars and previous trial-and-error but one must do what one can. The second project involved students examining a cultural landscape of 17th and 18th century North America and reporting back on their research and conclusions. We used “benchmarks of historic thinking” (a critical inquiry model) to explore the topics and each student used a modern example to compare with their topic. Order of Good Cheer & the Habitation at Port Royal, the Seigneuries of the St. Lawrence valley, draining the marshlands of Acadia, and so on. One of the students came across information that linked her family to one of the first habitants that were brought over by Jean Talon as settlers in the Royal Colony of New France. Her great x 10 grandfather turned the earth a few miles from Quebec in the 1660s. Another student examined the Jesuit subculture as they made deep impacts on the Huron people. His modern comparison was the humanitarian interventions in Haiti. There were some interesting parallels between clashing cultural values and also between the spread of smallpox (Huronia) and cholera (Haiti). Again, some of the projects evidenced incredible learning and some fell flat, but I think I’ll try this again the next time I teach SS9 and try to work out some of the kinks. I was also lucky to be a small part in the creation of Pearson Education’s new Social Studies 11 textbook over the last year, and I also had a contract to create and write an online course for the Distance Ed Consortium of BC -- Sustainable Resources 12 Forestry. As of this exact moment, it is not 100% complete!

I hope 2011 brings you health, happiness, and insight.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Premier Campbell's Vision for Education

I've just read through the Premier's Technology Council (PTC) vision for education:

I think it is safe to say that the core of ideas come from John Abbott. This work appears to be the well from which the PTC has drawn most of its educational design theory.

Beyond that, the PTC vision has mashed up a few parallel (and not necessarily compatible) ideas from the Assessment for Learning "shift in global learning," charter/voucher school movements, technology-driven online learning as the future ("brick & mortar" is passé), and a right-wing privatization orientation.  It fits neatly at the conservative end of the growing body of "21st Century Education" research, near-research, and commentary. The PTC itself, the group that commissioned the vision, is comprised entirely of business leaders, corporate execs, and a few lawyers (see p. 40)s and handful of academics. The actual vision was written mainly by educators, albeit drawn from government, administration of various rank, and academia. There appeared to be a single practicing teacher on the team.

A lot of it is stuff our district has already seen. Some of it, in perfect world, appears positive (I am a fan of Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society" after all). Some of it will be ugly, teacher-strike ugly, if it ever actually comes to be. A lot of it seems open for local interpretation. The technology part is, of course, offensive in our School District 57 as we've left virtually every one of the "advances" mentioned in the report out by the curb. The "teachers don't need to know more than their students" part is bizarre... will we be like gov't service agents at a help desk? I don't get that part, sounds like decertification. The parent involvement part is very weak, too. It almost suggest that parents who are not able to get involved can count on the school system to provide the parenting for them.

Get ready for another round of "moving forward." We're very used to having something whole and interesting broken down to something lacking and ineffective, so learn to recognize the PTC vision as it flows towards us. If you don't believe me, here's the pattern:

PLCs started as an attempt to revive staff culture by improving structures and focusing on student achievement but ends up as forumlaic pro-d model that assumes group adhesion without examining how collaboration actually works. The buzzwords remain, but the thrust of what DuFour was doing in his American context is pretty much opaque to most teachers. The most offensive use of "PLC" occurs when schools announce they are PLCs when many of the teachers (and students) don't even now what this means, haven't been baptized at a PLC conference, haven't studied the PLC literature, or haven't substantially changed the school structures to move in a new direction. At some schools, just rearranging the timetable to allow for a collaboration/tutorial block was enough for the schools to be rebranded as PLCs. It didn't matter if collaboration meetings continued to be dysfucntional department meetings or the student tutorial was mandatory with random students supervised by random teachers simply to fulfill contractual instruction time.

AFL starts out being about discarding some of the "sorting" that teachers do and making assessment about accountability for learning outcomes. Instead the emphasis shifts accountability away from students by finding a hundred ways for everyone to pass. I've seen some notable exceptions to this among colleagues who have managed to walk the line between meaningful assessment and no child left behind. The NPBS, drawing off of the AFL namely the work of Halpert and Kaser, and locally by caring educators like Francis Roch, aims at putting dynamic, flexible instruction and interactive learning at the heart of the classroom. What we often end up with are educators that have used this as a portmanteau for education change in general, and think that if teachers have seen a powerpoint about the stategies and principles of AFL they are now accountable for a new paradigm, or that using a rubric somehow solves all the problems with sorting-based marking.

Collaboration and Inquiry models pushed from the board office as a model for school staff to follow, but there is resistance and structural design to prevent collaboration or inquiry with the board office on issues like technology paradigms or district sustainability. Collaboration, them, is not a leadership model, only a curriculum and student support model. this is not compatible with the vision articulated in the PLC literature, nor does it show fidelity to any mainstream definition of inquiry-based education articulated in the last 41 years (since Postman and Weingartner). Even as a model for staff within schools, it breaks down -- inquiry is not about asking big questions with open-ended answers, but about completing the School Plan for Student Success.

Data-based decision making was supposed to change everything and give us the direction we needed and the tools to get there. Unfortunately there were no mechanisms developed to assess qualitative data or educational context, so we exchanged this for quantitative data that rarely fits the study subject (real, individual students in classrooms with a specific teacher). The SPSS became the dumping point for all this data, and was touted as a school growth plan when most of it is compiled after the fact and almost universally ignored by staff and the school district. My favorite quote from the board office (in 2007) was that after 5 years of growth plans, district goal-setting, and coordinated planning for student success, there had no measurable improvement of student acheivement, but the DPSS/SPSS process was still important as it showed we were still committed to change. The district's plan contains some of these very data and change issues that are hard to reconcile. For example, on the same page that emphasizes the importance of personalized learning and assessment specific to strategies, the district admits it can't find any specific assessment indicators to measure progress and so falls back to completion rates and FSA results. There is no way of knowing, not even an attempt at knowing whether completion rates and FSA results have anything to do with the school and district-approved strategies for student success. Some teachers may actually know what their department agreed to, or invented, as a yearly goal. Few could tell you what their school set as a goal, and fewer still have even look at the district's plan for stuent success.

DPA was intended to get kids healthy but devolved into a record-keeping game, reminicent of TAG, Grad Portfolio, and School Planning Councils (do we still have these?).

We can take these half-hearted implementation back quite a while. I was not yet a teacher during the "Year 2000" push, but from what I gather it fit the pattern, too -- the message seems to be that the bigger the plan, the better the chance it will get really messed up before it gets to the classroom. This new one may fall into the same groove, but in one fundamental way, it will prove to be different -- because of money. I don't think the government will take no for an answer with the PTC vision, and I fully expect it will form the basis of any new Ministry of Education plan and a bargaining condition for our next teacher collective agreement. This sounds a bit much, but, unlike Year 2000 and all the other trends I mentioned, this one represents huge cost savings and thus will be natural fit with deficit-reduction strategies, user-fees and private options attached to what used to be universal social services in Canada, and a way to shift funding from Education to Health Care as our province ages. This isn't just an Education vision, it is also a Political and Financial vision. Looks to be a corporate strategy, too, with plenty of business leaders lined up in support and no doubt privatized services ready to take up the slack in a leaner public education system. When the vision turns into the next Education Contract, expect the Ministers of Education, Finance, Labour, and Social Development to be there for the photo-op with the premier.

A message for my personal learning network...

Anyways, a progressive thing that caring, intelligent teachers could do is to actually stay ahead of the banal curve that our district and province will inevitably throw at us as the vision takes root. Imagine the renewed pleasure of sitting through another staff meeting presentation about a 10-yr-old idea that we must all embrace (with half the room saying "whaaaat" and the other half saying "been there done that").  I can't wait to be told, in 2011, that we should get ready for 21st century learning. Read up on the John Abbott & Co. stuff and think about how we could provide avenues for parents to co-develop the kind of citizenship and sustainability education we try to build as Socials teachers. The model has already been set in place this spring with the activism we helped awaken. Figure out what it is about technology that we need more of, and definitely less of. Reaffirm why story-telling is at the heart of your classroom -- your stories, the students' stories, the stories you build as you travel. Realize that the narrative requires more than just passion, that the need for skill and knowledge among educators has never been stronger. I'm not sure we'll need to refute the PTC vision, but need to upgrade our "crap detectors" (as Hemingway put it).

Friday, November 19, 2010

trying to take the long view

The average tenure of a teacher at most Prince George high schools looks something like a decade or more. Most teachers seek stability in their job situation and this means becoming rooted in a school community and establishing a long-term relationship with staff, students, and parents. They become the guardians of policy and programs, the historians, the practitioners, and the futurists. While the teacher's role in the classroom has seen more "adjustment" than radical change over the long term, the teacher's role in school leadership has often been difficult to nail down and has been subject to some significant change in the last 10 years.

High school administrators have seen their role change, too, in regards to the school leadership. There was perhaps a time when principals and sometimes vice-principals were embedded in the school culture and community, five or ten or more years of service with staff, students, and parents. The recent pattern has seen administrators move schools more often, a result of a change in direction from the board office, but also a reflection of demographic necessity. The retirement pool in the last few years includes many ex-teachers from the cohort that was hired in the 60s and 70s to teach the baby-boomers as they expanded our school system. With the majority of this "bump" retiring in the 2000s, administrator turnover has been high and thus movement has been a necessity. The result? It is not uncommon for our principals to be at a school for less than 4 years before moving on, and the average age of principals has steadily lowered as the retirement gap has been filled.

This trend may halt, again due to demographics, but for the moment we are in the midst of a school leadership culture that features long-term tenants and short-term landlords.

What does this mean for school communities? Assuming that the pattern is not going to change over the next few years, it means that all staff have some challenges they need to face unless they wish to practice resignation. Administrators have to develop portable skill-sets that include robust communication skills, flexible strategies, capacity for inclusion, and ability to dialogue. This is in addition to their regular and important duties related to student success & discipline, management of staff, budgets, parents, etc. This also means that teachers need to own the culture at their schools, take responsibility for program success, be proactive with staff development, and be mindful of their role in making collective efforts at student growth and sucesss work. This is in addition to their regular duties related to teaching & learning in the classroom, curriculum design, marking, etc.

Is the challenge presented by the trend any different than it has ever been? Perhaps not, but to be blunt, teachers have to realize that adminstrators are guests at their schools, 2-4 years, and that teachers have to step up to the plate and provide or share leadership on key areas that used to be outside their purview. Or they can hope for the best and simply shut out as much of the school culture as they can and focus on their classroom. I'll admit I am torn between these stances: do I make the success of the whole school (students, staff, parents, other stakeholders, the physical plant) my concern, or do I retreat into my class and try to do my best by my students. They are not often complimentary as they require different investments of time and energy. For adminstrators, there needs to be a recognition that their legacy will likely have more to do with the relationships they foster and less to do with their impact on policy, progams, and long-term impacts on school culture. These latter pursuits are hard to achieve in 2-4 years, yet positive relationships can begin immediately.

Much more could be said about "vision" and the role it plays in both teachers' investment in their schools and the ability of administrators to make a difference, but I'm not really sure that vision determines tenure. It is a great mystery to me how leaders are chosen and jobs retained in the education system. There appears to be a set of connections, relationships, and criteria at play that are outside of my capacity to understand.  I don't think these connections are actually unknowable, but I do think that peering behind the curtain to get a better understanding of local leadership structures would leave me more cynical than less.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Peace and Remembrance and the White Poppy

My daughter came home from school and asked "what does peace mean for you?" I think I told her "when you and your brother get along."
What a tough question., though. I took this as a Remembrance Day question, so that helps me frame the ideas I have.

War is hell. The veteran that spoke at my school's RD ceremony reminded us of this, the dead, the devastation. There is some glory in war, honour in service and sacrifice, but I think few would agree that war is the best way to solve problems. I think wars are an easy way out for countries who have alternatives, and I think that wars usually create more problems than they resolve. We tend to remember WWI and WWII in RD, maybe Korea and Afghanistan, and we emphasize the defense of freedom and the sacrifice of lives. WWI in particular, the origin of our Nov.11th pause, features prominently. I understand the need to remember -- as a Socials teacher most of what I do is remember -- but I think we often forget the other important stuff, like why WWI took place and what it accomplished. We need to confront the ugly past, even when the cause and consequence don't support the glorious view we take of our history. We also focus on "our wars" and are hesitant to make the connections to Rwanda, the Congo, Pakistan, etc.

Red poppy, white poppy, green or black, I think we need to invest more thought and meaning into the symbol rather than being so symbolic with our meanings. I don't think a white poppy is disrespectful, I think it is an attempt to tell a more inclusive and historically relevant story about what is important to remember. We owe it to the war dead to find ways of solving problems without resorting to war. That would be the ultimate respect born out of remembrance.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

sense of relief

Nice to have a change... for five years (2005-2010), besides teaching I've had the small extra job of P.O.S.R. at D.P. Todd (sounds awful, I know, but it stands for Position of Special Responsibility). This involved Technology planning and assistance, Advocacy at school and in the district on educational issues, attending lots of meetings, supporting teaching & learning projects, and writing the annual "School Plan for Student Success." I learned a great deal from this role, not all positive, but it has certainly reinforced the need for me to pursue and model rigorous inquiry and self-governance. Our school system tries to accomplish too many things* (see below) to be great at any one of them, so it comes down to individuals and groups working together in free association for mutual benefit to achieve some of these things in context. To be succinct, I haven't got a lot of faith in groupthink, and I think this impacted the kind of job I was able to do as P.O.S.R. I think vision has a strong role to play in education, I just don't believe it comes from the places we normally look to find it. And I'm glad to take a break from it... I had unrealistic expectations of the system I worked in and found I had to keep setting the bar lower when trying to get issues taken seriously. This is not a criticism of my employer, but rather an admission that I was probably focused on criteria that was not shared by my superiors... my bad, so to speak.

*What does our system try to do?...
providing a general liberal arts education vs vocational training, addressing specific student needs while managing large groups of students, preparing citizens vs preparing consumers, sheltering/nurturing/warehousing young people during working hours, in-school attention vs distance learning, fostering inquiry vs coercing a focus on set outcomes, teaching responsibility vs vicarious parenting, socialization vs assessment of academic progress, class vs school vs distirct vs provincial-based goals and decisions. These and more each have their champions, their trends and philosophic underpinnings, and their political tendencies, and are at times incongruous, especially at the larger levels but even within a single classroom at times.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Trudeau's Memoirs

I just got around to reading this in the last couple of months... wow. I've got a lot more respect for someone who was already a hero to me, a deeper understanding of the Just Society, and a real sense that Canada would be in big trouble if he wouldn't have come to power. The vision of a caring, creative, resourceful middle power, not American but also not European is in such contrast to our current government's view. Trudeau's ego was a bit stunning at times, but admitted mistakes, too. Not to kind on Bourassa, Levesque, or Mulroney, but it's easy to see why.

Friday, July 02, 2010

thoughts on assessment

What kinds of values do I hope to encounter as I explore assessment?

fair, balanced, and reasonable measurement
balance of skills, knowledge, habits, means (process/path), and ends (outcome/goal)
strong orientation towards development of student identity
building self-governance, self-reliance, and responsibility in students
building community without coercion, interdependence not dependence
rigorous learning related to relevant and meaningful learning outcomes
respect for student inquiry and constructivist learning
creativity and diversity (multiple modes of knowing)
learning that is embodied, holistic, and well-rounded

What kind of assessment structures do I currently use in Social Studies?

1. Verifications of learning outcomes -- usually open-notes quizzes or assignments. These require the students to have made sense of some connected learning outcomes, most commonly through some notes or gathered evidence that answer focus questions and more detailed content questions. This tool is formative in that students are required to revise their work and responses if they have not met expectations on the first attempt (≥67%), and can also use other methods and formats to express their learning. It is “for/as learning” in that the assessment activity is a chance to reflect critically on the evidence gathered by students and prepares them for other learning outcomes and assessments in the course. It is also integrated (formative/summative/progressive), as their best mark for each verification is recorded, and their lowest verification score is dropped.

2. Projects -- usually long-term unit assignments and creative demonstrations of learning. Assessed with a rubric (usually one for students, one for teacher). I give a basic set of options for completion, often with use of exemplars, and sometimes with expected outcomes and products (e.g. a piece or writing or a class presentation). This tool is formative in that students are requested to revise their project if they have not met expectations on the first attempt, and can also use other methods and formats to devise their projects and express their learning.

3. Unit Tests -- summative assessments, usually closed notes, but sometimes taking the form of an assignment. Students not satisfied with (or missing) their first attempt are given an alternate test to complete (e.g. re-write), and can repeat this as many times as they like

The message is that i am interested in having students show what they have learned, by the methods I have designed or by the methods they have designed (by choice, i.e. if they have not met expectations or they wish to pursue another mode of expression).

I don’t give unalterable zeroes -- I have null scores that students can turn into a mark ≥67% any time within the current term. These scores turn into zeros if the student refuses all opportunities to meet expectations and reasonably address the learning outcomes. Why? Students can demonstrate they have learned something interesting or important any time it makes sense for them to do so. They get to decide when they are ready and they can decide what it is (if anything) they have learned.

I have due dates, but I do not have late penalties. The due dates usually coincide with natural breaks between topics, and often involve some class sharing (non-marks motivation). The due dates apply to unit projects, of which the number is few and the intake manageable.

What kinds of learning activities and formative assessment tools are used within these structures?

In no particular order, and probably incomplete: notes & written questions, exercises & problems, essays, maps, reports, presentations, timelines, readings, debates, webs & clusters, library work, posters, tests, portfolios, graphs, diagrams & drawing, scales & rubrics (teacher, student peer), journals, arts-based interpretations, group projects & groupwork (e.g. charts), video logs, field work, blogs, student-teacher conferences, digital mashups, direct questioning

How committed am I to this scheme?

I have set some core assessment values in front of me for 15 years, and every change I have made has been an attempt to draw closer to a system that embodies these values, more-or-less. I usually look at minor changes whenever they make sense, and I try to keep major practices in place for at least two years. I am currently one year in to a major set of changes, probably the fifth time I have done this. My values are, of course, the result of my own identity trajectory and an attempt at authenticity, but they also form an external horizon of significance, partly derived from the strong influences by the circle of friends and colleagues who have modeled successful pedagogy for me, and by the authors that have attended to my imagination.

How are students affected by my assessment practice?

The changes I've made to assessment over time affect students differently. Mainly, my concern has been how to find out if the students actually know or understand what is expected (learning outcomes and broader curriculum). Self-motivated students usually find a way to excel in any assessment context. Struggling and at-risk students have difficulty in almost every context as well. The rest will usually rise to the expectations that are set for them, but may often try to get through by minimally meeting expectations. I have developed structures now for helping (1) the weaker students meet expectations, (2) for ensuring that students in the middle are in fact meeting expectations and addressing the learning outcomes, and also (3) for any student to have a means to exceed expectations. These are all structures in addition to the regular assessment that establishes student achievement in my courses, and they involve the use of formative work, rubrics regarding expectations, alternate assessment, and multiple attempts. Some “quick research” on this semester’s classes reveals the following observations.

(1) within two weeks of the course’s end, about eight students of my current eighty-three were at risk of failing the course or term. Two of these would probably not thrive in any sound assessment regime within a regular academic stream, and six have some very clear and realistic means available to them to get through. These six would not have passed under the assessment scheme I have used in the past, and they will probably do and learn more under my present scheme. As of the semester end, the two did indeed fail, and the six ALL were motivated to complete some missing work, address some weaker learning outcomes, and fulfill some expectations regarding demonstration of understanding.

(2) I have a much clearer view of what students know -- as far as marks it has meant that most students are "repelled" from a mark in the 60s -- either they fall below this (no work handed in, no catch-up, no re-writes, etc.) or they have latched on to the support structures I've provided, found a way to meet the learning outcomes, and are getting 67% or better. It has definitely focused who I need to spend time with for certain purposes -- help for some, deeper learning for others.

(3) this is relatively untapped -- I've had only a handful of students try this out during this school year. Most students getting marks in the 80s or 90s are usually quite content and did not pursue more.

Success for all? 81 of 83 passed with an average mark of 75% (11 C-s, 10 Cs, 9 C+s, 30 Bs, 21 As). There are so many reasons why this is the way it is, but it appears to me an improvement on my classes from a few years ago, with no loss of “learning” as far as I can tell (i.e. I’m not “easing up” on expectations, if anything they are higher). The two that failed will be supported in an alternate program that meets their significant needs.
What was my previous assessment policy?

Same tools and similar structures, but they were used less “formatively” -- no requirement to meet expectations, less second chances, and 2 days dues, 2 days late (assignments due over two classes, then accepted for two more classes with 20% deduction). I used a series of technology solutions for dealing with missed or below-expectations work, and I did not allow rewrites on unit tests.

Why did I change it?

1. I saw other teachers using methods with their class and achieving similar goals more successfully
my understanding of multi-modal literacy convinced me that students needed a variety of ways to demonstrate learning that were authentic and elegant

2. the changes helped me draw closer to some of my values such as self-governance and non-coercion
the reading and research I have done on the inquiry method and role of student identity in engaged learning, as well as my work on ecosystem theory in education

3. my method did nothing for the students most at risk, it was superfluous to the high achievers, and it did not challenge the students in-between to wake up and try to really succeed at something

4. some students would “muddle through” and aim for the bare minimum in order to achieve 50%; the message sent was that mediocrity was encouraged and rewarded

What assessment tools or practices have I used through-out my career (sacred cows)?

open-notes assessments (test what they know as “larger selfs” not confined to a brain)
some form of self-assessment on major projects (what did you get out of it?)
some basic acknowledgement that student identity is the curriculum (the medium is the message)
reality timelines: the closer to the original assessment event, the more detailed and objective the marking and feedback
strong role for fairness: I want students’ final marks to reflect the degree to which they seized the opportunity to learn
not interested in marking for the sake of marking, e.g. collecting notes to check for completion or assigning new homework to see if they’ll work at home and then checking it off
students are ultimately responsible for their own learning

What should I probably do more of?

I’d like to use more co-creation of assessment tools, criteria, and timeline with students. I need to create shorter, tighter assessments more closely tied to focus questions, some of which need to be generated by students (inquiry-method). I’d also like to ensure that students know in advance how the assessment relates to marks, and to wean students from being motivated by marks and replacing this with intrinsic rewards and self-determined indicators of success.

What do I make of the current (e.g. SD57) emphasis on Assessment for Learning and some of the associated pressures on policy & practice?

1. I’ve come across some very good ideas, many of which I think I use in one way or another, and have used increasingly with time (e.g. more use of formative assessment, more use of multiple attempts to demonstrate learning based on student’s self-developed approach, more use of self-assessment).

2. Most of what I’ve read on assessment in the last six years seems to me to be educationally sound with some exceptions in the area of using coercion to follow up on assessment results and the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” metaphor. Some of the very best and most successful teachers I know, and have ever known, are story-tellers with spartan assessment techniques.

3. A general skepticism that “AFL” proponents have not fully grasped context -- the realities of the classroom, the limits of a teacher’s work environment, and the nature of our public education configuration in B.C. preclude certain idealistic, trend-based, or expensive practices. For example, the district plan for student success speaks about focused support in every classroom and with every teacher to address the “knowing/doing gap.” How have they determined what teachers know, whether it is relevant or important for them to know this, and what is gained or lost in a shift in practice related to what should be known. I’m not convinced of the problem that needs fixing.

4. “AFL” has been blended with PLCs, SPSS, Continuous Improvement models, and Data-driven Decision-making as part of a then/now mashup, a shift from the bad old ways to the good new ways. Combining educational theories like this is incredibly complicated and often contradictory and seems to be done in order to convince practitioners that coordination exists when none is needed nor asked for. Criticizing specific past practices (with relevant evidence) can be beneficial, but to sweep away “the old way” is not respectful of what has worked well in the past nor does it reflect the incredible diversity that exists among current pedagogy.

5. To the extent that “AFL” has been a “conversation” I applaud the implication of respect for teacher autonomy; I also fear that when these conversations have been invitation-only, many teachers voices’ have not been heard, and yet the “conversation” seems to be the first step towards policy language. First it is a popular theory, then it is saturates the district “offerings,” then it becomes a recommendation, then an expectation. I appreciate that to date the plan to implement assessment strategies has been to provide opportunities (e.g. learning grants) as opposed to the use of directives.

6. Our district plan for student success makes some assumptions that a particular approach to “AFL” is the best way to achieve it’s goals and that teachers and administrators should make the “paradigm shift.” This does not seem congruent with the “AFL” strategy of allowing learners to be actively involved. In other words, if we expect students to construct their learning, we should expect teachers to do the same in regards to assessment. Assimilating an externally-determined teaching philosophy, even if the goals are the same as our own, takes away from teachers’ ownership of professional learning and bypasses a key step in the inquiry process.

What are my views on adopting school-wide assessment policies, non-binding or otherwise?

I believe, generally, that a compromise or “median” position does not serve a school well as it excludes the creative and robust theory and practice that exists on either side of the median. Compromises work best when a single solution is needed to address a single problem but multiple solutions exist. What we are facing in our school is not a single problem, but a set of conditions (most of which are not problematic) to which an appropriate response is a variety of approaches, each matched to a condition. To state this for my own practice, I believe, with thought and evidence to back it up, that what I do is successful, intelligent, fair, non-coercive, and focused on student learning. I can think of ways to move this “forward” as they say, but to align with an unnecessary compromise that might erode what I am developing is a “move backward.” Many aspects of an assessment discussion will benefit from cross-curricular collaboration, but much of it needs to be worked out with my Social Studies and classroom context. I can govern myself and be a teacher for my students, but it is not just for me to impose norms on the unwilling or take something that is individual in nature and apply it to a perceived community without appreciating difference or context.

What would be my recommendation for staff regarding assessment?

Continue articulating to each other and to students how and why you structure assessment the way you do. Be willing to adjust, change, experiment, and take risks with assessment. Probably the most difficult and important person you have to convince for permission to change is yourself. Beware of global solutions to hypothetical problems. Avoid sameness for the sake of being the same (this is frightening); it is more interesting to differentiate in all areas (including assessment) and look for internal consistencies. Trade a discussion about zeros and penalties for a more productive and transformative discussion about assessment values and what we intend for our students.

Monday, June 14, 2010

why I quit my tech committee

Sent to my school tech committee today...

I have already supplied the committee with some suggested agenda items: listed Apr 29 for meeting on May 25; meeting postponed and virtual agenda itemized May 25, meeting rescheduled for June 15. The committee is free to add or subtract from that list for tomorrow's meeting. You may also wish to postpone your meeting until such time as the district supplies it's "informational/FAQ note" that is meant to address our needs regarding a transition and support strategy -- without this your work may be speculative. I had thought that being proactive with some of our own transition plan was possible (explained Apr 29 email), but it was correctly pointed out that "it would be prudent to wait until the final document is out and approved in regards to what and what can be bought and supported at the school level before we start making plans." Without this action from the district, my position as chair is counterproductive and requires me to withdraw from the committee (explained May 25), and so you will need to select a new chair.

I have agreed to attend tomorrow's meeting as an observer (set expectations May 27 re: "where's the district plan?"), and will try to limit my involvement to sharing some thoughts and questions in advance about the district decision-making process that could undermine many successful educational technology adaptations at D.P. Todd and elsewhere. These impacts are, of course, avoidable and could be absorbed but to date the district has not supplied the necessary plan, assurances, or information that should have accompanied their decision to consolidate platforms and engage on an unspecified change in tech direction for our district (requested numerous times including May 21 email). It is acceptable and normal for the district to make decisions that some of us disagree with, but it is less than satisfactory for the district to have pulled the plug on an integrated set of teaching and learning resources without having worked through even a few of the tough questions that must accompany this level of decision-making (see questions below). It is just as problematic to promote structured collaboration and meaningful assessment at the district level and then skip this when given a relatively straight-forward opportunity to do so, not even a response to the many offers by teachers to work cooperatively for efficiency on tech budgets. I understand the board office has had a very busy Spring, but an established mechanism (the DTT) exists for the very purpose of providing collaboration and assessment for technology decisions, and would have been (could still be) one way for the district to meet expectations. If I am incorrect, and some of this work has been done in secret, then I beg (have begged) the board office for some transparency and answers to questions.

To repeat what I've said elsewhere (May 26), a negative outcome of the district's decision is not a foregone conclusion, but is much more probable if they do not follow up with the kind of planning that should have accompanied their decision to consolidate platforms and embark on unspecific changes in tech direction for our district. Indeed, the district may very well be considering some of the solutions to the problems we face at our school, but if so this is not yet public. This planning has been requested, described, modeled, and explained to the district before and after the April 27th decision to become a single-platform district. The board and board office staff at that meeting did not appear confused by what was being asked for, and indeed committed to making decisions according to a plan and that a plan would be forthcoming. As a final attempt to elicit the "mind of the district" on this matter, I have attached a list of questions below that the tech committee is encouraged to consider and pass on in some appropriate manner or format to the district. Many of these items and follow-up questions may be useful for the school tech committee as well.

I realize this may appear didactic in tone, and not particularly succinct, but I am truly interested in holding myself, my students, my colleagues, and the institutional structures in which I work to a high standard of planning, provision of evidence, rationale of decisions, and affected behaviour. My comments are not a blunt criticism of a decision or decision-makers, they are an assessment of a decision-making process, call for reflection, and some information for our school tech commitee. These sentiments and similar concerns were expressed by many others in the lead-up to the April 27th decision; as one colleague put it: "this process of asking parties what they think AFTER the ball has been put into motion is the sort that breeds disenchantment and disengagement." I think a timely analysis of the decision is needed to avoid disengagement. Just as the district's financial challenges can be framed alternatingly with fearful scenarios and also opportunities for growth, the district's tech planning has a similar "worlds" to sort out. I have confidence in the ability of school-based planning and our staff to fill the gap and turn from uncertainty to growth, but this would benefit greatly from a district context that opens the process with a clear plan for support. In the absence of a plan, even a clear statement of what is being left up to schools to figure out would be productive for our school's (next) tech committee.

Unfortunately, it has become quite clear that no district tech plan exists, not is it likely we will see one again. The DTT appears to be dead, it was May of 2009 when we last saw minutes published from a DTT meeting. Maybe I shouldn't complain, though, this is perhaps just a symptom of a larger trend. I think the model for how these things happen is changing, a function of cutbacks among other things. I know I'm guilty of expecting more than can be born by the resources at hand, and must lower my expectations for what the district provides in support of my educational practice. We have to accept that district will no longer be equipped to have a teacher-involved, collaborative mechanism for developing a vision of technology for learning. At any rate we haven't seen this for a while, and perhaps it never really functioned as intended. This is not necessarily negative, it just means that we'll be more of a "community of communities" than a collective. If I think of it that way its actually quite positive.

Not having a "invested core" (teacher-involved DTT, District Tech Plan, tech coaching/leadership/coordinators, tech-based pro-d, Key Tech Contacts, ICT goals, etc.) means teachers and schools will need to become more self-sufficient, and it may be a sign that we have differing needs that can't be met by central planning. I think teachers and schools were more self-sufficient in the 1990s and the centralizing trends of the 2000s were necessary to cross the digital divide. Teachers and district staff needed common ground to make sense of emergent technologies and the many gaps in basic computing skills among teachers and students. Perhaps we've cleared these hurdles... the era of tech-specific workshops, TLITE, questions about how/when to use technology with students, increased reliance on servers and tech support, teachers getting a handle on what their computers can or can't do, etc.

Maybe we should just accept that the district (SBO, administration) as a managing and collaborative entity is out of the "tech for learning" paradigm. This "calling" is now in the hands of schools and teachers within the prescriptions of security, stability, and purchasing restrictions (which appear significant). This ground does not appear fertile at the moment, but it does show a path towards self-sufficiency that is begged for when the district bows out of its role as coordinator. Have we passed through the heady days of the digital divide? Is technology still a stand-alone focus area?

My school's tech committee, such as it will become without a table of teachers, knows where to find me... right across the hall in room 180.  I resign from the tech committee after 7 years of work, 4 years as chair.  This time has seen amazing change at D.P. Todd, with educators and students entering the 21st century of digital technology. I'd like to think the vision started with teaching and learning in mind, and included plans for networks, lab environments, desktops, laptops, screen projectors, scanners, video cameras, software for everything, tech support, teacher training, student orientation, renewal, and so on.  Our evergreen plan was cost effective (we spent less per student on technology than PGSS, for example), and had a focus on staff development and student use, digital literacy, creativity, and purpose.  We may well have entered a new era of technology, one in which school-purchased equipment will increasingly play a background role, and so I leave the tech committee at a good time.

I am also resigning my role as P.O.S.R. (Position of Special Responsibility), a formal teacher-leader position I've held for 4 years, Key Tech Contact (6 years), and the Pro-D Committee (4 years, 2 as chair).

The 2010s will be interesting for sure. I think I've got a handle on what I need to make technology and learning work in my classroom, I know the people that can help me and what I can do to help others. I can also dial down my expectations and adjust the way my students and I use technology if there is less money or planning to support my needs & wants. I can look for mutual accountability among colleagues and try to see the silver lining -- when the organization stops providing vehicles for leadership and innovation, a very creative and wild landscape opens up in which we can practice self-reliance.

I have raised these recent concerns about the lack of technology planning and support at every level from tech committee, principal, district technology coordinator, senior administration, and trustees.  Having received nothing more substantial than "thanks for sharing your concerns" I should feel burned out but I also realize that others are counting on me to continue as an advocate for a funded, supported, thoughtfully planned and managed public education system.  And so I leave you with questions that  need to be discussed if this school district wants student learning to benefit from the creative potential of well-used, pedagogically sound digital technology.

District 57 Tech Process: what’s missing?
  1. needs assessment, e.g. what do we use and why, what do we need, what do we expect, why students benefit from our tech choices? 
  2. detailed/accurate total cost accounting, e.g. is there any factoring in of software replacement or training requirements, short-term cost of induced greening? 
  3. meaningful consultation, e.g. under pressure, a consultation period was initiated but no forums were provided by the DSC excepting a presentation slot at a finance meeting... is this the new model for change? 
  4. impact analysis, e.g. what value is placed on the time invested by teachers and others for platform and software specific course learning objects and lesson material? 
  5. statement of intent, e.g. should we expect a reduction in service or quality of teaching tools, or should we expect reasonable replacement? how? when? by whom? 
  6. transition plan, e.g. how long for emacs? imacs? when do macs have to go off network? grandfathering? role of mini-labs? exceptions? 
  7. innovation plan, e.g. macs have been a key piece of adaptations for transformative learning... what's next? school-bought or teacher-bought? sandbox options? 
  8. consider social/human capital, e.g. some of the district’s mac experts have spearheaded district initiatives and tech pro-d in part because they were supported on their macs, what’s the message to them? 
  9. assessment timeline, e.g. no sense of whether this decision will receive further scrutiny... what process will be used to measure results and when will this happen? 
  10. engage in inclusive discourse, e.g. no acknowledgement of cost analyses that challenged district numbers, nor formal discussion or answers to questions, specifically invitation or use of existing structures such DTT, KTCs, or school tech committees... why not?
District 57 Tech Process: some discussion questions
  1. Do you plan a needs assessment for future district tech planning? Brainstorm some questions that could be used. 
  2. Are you ready to take savings seriously and use detailed/accurate total cost accounting? Think of ways an asset inventory could move beyond just hardware and software. 
  3. Will the district employ regular meaningful consultation on its future tech plans and decisions? Describe some methods of doing this, and groups that might be involved. 
  4. Will an impact analysis have any bearing on the expectations placed on teachers? List some professional engagements that can come off of teachers’ plates so that they have time to mitigate district decisions. 
  5. What is the district’s statement of intent concerning future levels of service and options for educational technology? Base your response on the premise that many answers to this question will be acceptable, but there needs to at least be an answer. 
  6. What is the district’s transition plan, including some specifics on existing configurations and unique educational programs? Identify some programs at risk given reduced tech capacity. 
  7. What is the district’s specific innovation plan and expected support for some of our rich-media adaptations? Decide what degree of program loss or failure is an acceptable outcome. 
  8. Will the district consider social/human capital for its tech future? Think of ways to rebuild the bridges with tech practitioners in the district. 
  9. Has an assessment timeline been developed? Discuss what future indicators or data would suggest another tech plan change is necessary. 
  10. Will the district engage in inclusive discourse on its transition plan or mitigation for affected programs? In your response, compare the pros and cons of a collaborative decision-making model, and consider to what extent the DTT has a role in developing ed-tech vision in the district.

Friday, March 26, 2010

spinning my wheels

i still hear guitars in the air as we sat in the sand

Sunday, February 28, 2010

where the wild things are

Just finished the 2009 film version. Like most people my age, I read that book a thousand times as a kid, imagined myself as Max whenever things weren't working out. This connection goes deep, and so watching the film was difficult. I felt as if my own subconscious was being payed just as Max's was given agency in the film. Powerful and very satisfying on some level, but I'm left a bit disturbed and I assume the fim is aimed at adults who remember the book, not for kids.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please don't segregate my child

The challenges facing our schools in Prince George are stunning. With demographic change, declining enrollment, transfer of provincial burdens, and spending of money on new school construction and facelifts, we are short $7 million. Sadly, there will be layoffs and cutbacks throughout the district. Shrinking schools, many of which are below 30% capacity, face "right-sizing" (as the superintendent put it). Rural students will face long commutes in exchange for a sustainable school with a range of services and programs. I completely get this; the district, due to past decisions and current economic crunches, has to cut programs that are not sustainable and look for ways to trim the fat off its self-admittedly top-heavy infrastructure (p 41 of the Sustainability Report).

The part that confuses me is why viable and successful programs have to be eliminated at the same time.

We have four successful dual-track French immersion schools in Prince George (English and French classes side-by-side). We've enrolled our daughter in one of these so she could learn French and reflect our vision of what it means to be an inclusive English Canadian in a bilingual nation scarred by separatism and racism. We have to drive her there (10 minutes each way), but it’s a school grounded in and reflective of its neighbourhood, the kind of place where English and French have a legacy of mutual understanding reinforced from kindergarten to Grade 7. We are very proud of our school and want to be involved with the school's success.

The district is proposing the idea of a segregated school where all the French Immersion students in our district would attend, no other options. The intended school needs expensive and extensive renovations to be ready for this, and the timeline is set for September 2010 (allowing two summer months for renos). It will likely require portables to house 650 students (it was designed for 450) or they'll simply have to cap enrollment. Families with one child suited for immersion and another not ready for it will now face the choice of sending siblings to two schools, or withdrawing one from the immersion program. This is segregation and it does not appeal to us on many levels.

Integrated French immersion is something our district does well and should continue to support. It needs tweaking, not dismantling. There are many alternatives to segregation (my wife and I have figured out at least 6!) that would save more money and keep one our district's success stories intact. I really hope the elected school trustees take French segregation off the table and focus on areas of decline, largesse, and mitigating the cutbacks on affected communities.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Going Prorogue

Further evidence that we have a vacuum in leadership, this latest move by Harper is not just a slap on democracy, it's a slap on our intelligence. Harper is banking on voter apathy and Canadians being cynical about what happens in Parliament. What an amazing leadership style -- count on apathy, push aside the democratic structures that normally keep governments accountable and press on with new propaganda.

Olympics, yeah right. Mulroney managed to run parliament during the 1988 Calgary Olympics... they took a one-week scheduled break so the politicians could attend events, and then back to business. This one is different -- the prorogue means all gov't legislation is dead, all committees (and accountability) are suspended, and the gov't can disregard the parliamentary order to turn over documents related to Afghan detainees.

Here's a nice quote on the subject of prorogation: “It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they decided to prorogue Parliament... I’m sorry if I sound a little cynical. This is a government (for which) the rules of engagement don’t apply. They’ll move the goal post, change the boundaries and bribe the referee.”

- Deputy Conservative Leader Peter MacKay commenting on unfounded rumours that the Liberal government planned to prorogue in 2005 (Nanaimo Daily News, July 18, 2005)