Thursday, June 28, 2012

Perspectives on SS11

SS11 students re-creating a Great Depression Era experience for a weekend
A colleague from Ft. St. James asked me on twitter yesterday if I had any thoughts about BC Social Studies 11 curriculum review, so I thought I'd lay out some ideas in more than 140 characters.

Social Studies 11 is a fantastic course. Despite its many manifestations from class to school to district, it centres around the basic question of Canadian Identity. Who are we? What does it mean to be Canadian? We ask this of our students, they ask of of each other, their teachers, parents, elders, employers. We ask them to work this question through in terms of political choices, active citizenship, cultural expressions, societal change, historical evidence, environmental relationships, gender & race, international contexts, global issues, and the very history, identity, or experience of our students.

It is so important that our Ministry of Education and in some ways the entire province deems it (or something very much like it) as a requirement for graduation. The alternatives, Civics 11 and First Nations 12, ask the same big idea but with a specific focus on citizenship and Aboriginal identity respectively. We could probably ask powerful questions about Canadian Identity using variety of curricula or a reduced curriculum, but we (our province) have settled on 20th & early 21st century Canadian-centric history, civics, and human geography. I think we made a good choice.

The course is tightly packed (here's a sample course overview), so much so that some teachers complain about curriculum overload and having to rush through or survey topics rather than explore them in depth. There is a provincial exam at the end, a grad program requirement worth 20% of the overall mark, that has been in place for 8 years. Again many teachers complain that the exam drives the course, forces us to teach content over skills and deep understanding.

I'd like to call road apples on that. I think the course provides a challenging, creative, and fast-paced context to explore the big questions. The content areas can be broken down very well into powerful, focused inquiries, and that there is enough flex time for both meaningful projects, deep understanding of core topics, and the inclusion of current events. I have to manage my instructional time very carefully as a teacher, but I still have classes where we goof around, argue about the news, and watch stuff on youtube. I think an interrogation of Canadian Identity benefits from the backdrop of 20th century history, forays in politics & government, an empathetic survey of global development issues, and an ongoing effort to connect what students know and who they are with the story of Canada. This course provides it, and the students come away going wow that was intense and did I ever learn a lot. I'm serious, and I can say that because the same students don't necessarily say that about the other courses that I teach, and the students enjoy SS11 even when I'm not firing on all cylinders. When students come in with an agenda, a passion or deep interest (as many of them will given the space to do it), I feel the best way to abet their quests are with broad horizons of Canadian evidence across political, economic, environmental, and social landscapes.  Of course many deep interests awaken along the journey, so I'm glad it is not a short or easy path we follow.

I also think the exam is beneficial. The provincial exam features 55 well designed MC questions surveying basic curriculum (selective, not exhaustive), connections between important ideas, and short, precise opportunities for critical thinking. The questions use graphics like maps, cartoons, newspaper headlines, and quotes -- often to the embarrassment of old-school teachers who used to reward their students with 200 question text-only MC tests. They are balanced from each area of the course (Civics, History, Human Geography) and balanced in terms of knowledge (40%) and understanding (60%). The exam has 2 essay questions that require higher-level thinking and synthesis of learning from very broad topics in the course: French-English relations, standards of living, treatment of minorities, global poverty, international conflicts, climate change & water, the Great Depression, and so on. Some of the questions are worded in a difficult way, but the topics are not a surprise to the teacher or the students.

When the provincial exam first came out in 2004, many SS teachers across the province gasped and thought to themselves (or out loud) "you mean I'm supposed to teach this stuff?" Sorry to be cynical so close to the end of a school-year, but I'm embarrassed by how many teachers have never read the IRP or parsed the PLOs for the courses they teach, and stop with the textbook. The SS curriculum was revised in 2006, dropping PLOs from SS11 related to government structure, law, pre-1914 history, and aspects of human geography.  Some of these entered into the SS10 curriculum. This helped reduce the content/knowledge pressure without compromising the basic set of inquiries. Six years later (with a new, exemplary textbook) and some teachers haven't yet made this connection, as evidenced by the old course outlines and tests they work with. The exam literally kick-started an entire generation of SS teachers to re-examine how they designed their courses and gave them a once-in-their-career notice that fidelity to the curriculum was important.

With a tight curriculum that many teachers felt they now had to follow (because of the provincial exam), no doubt many things were dropped along the way. Like 20 hours of Socials videos!  Did I say that? Okay, like cool projects, such as the two-week long "build a sustainable city" project I saw in a colleague's class in the 1990s, or empathy building activities around important events (e.g. ties to Remembrance Day). Many other teachers started teaching population geography for the first time, and actually took the history course through the modern era in order to discuss contemporary Canadian issues. Others dusted off their government & law units and realized that the new curriculum was devoted to active citizenship and gaining insight into rights, social values, and our political system. There is still time for cool projects and presentation time in SS11, like the Depression-Era experience, the Echo Project, and Community Involvement Challenge (all involve home and class time), Letters from the Front (1 class) or the Rwandan case study (3 classes) placed before a "Canada's role in the world" activity (peacekeeping middle power vs peacemaking model power -- 3 classes). This year a colleague from Mackenzie built her WWI lessons around trench conditions... her class planned out and dug trenches in the huge Mackenzie snowdrifts and simulated a Canadian's day in 1917.  Garvin Moles, a respected Prince George/Nanaimo SS teacher (now-retired) and text-book author, told me he used to teach the courses he wanted to teach, and then spend the last week or two bending what they had done towards the exam, and actively preparing them for it.  Exams can be scary for students, but they are just one thing that needs doing in a course, and need not run the whole show.

The survey nature of the course allows us to work through what is means to be Canadian from multiple perspectives. This year alone I had students with family backgrounds that involved the Chinese head-tax, Komagata Maru, Ukrainian Sifton-era immigration, fighting at Vimy Ridge, Japanese Internment, Liberation of Holland, Aboriginal Residential School, and rallying with the FLQ. These connections came up precisely because our curriculum danced in and out of these topics, and because we made some time for Heritage Inquiry. Many of these student didn't know they had these connections until they both learned about the topics and engaged their families with heritage inquiry. Some needed the learning in order to know what questions to ask, and some needed to ask identity-based questions before they cared to learn about the content. The exam doesn't specifically exploit this learning, but it does say that our society values emerging citizenship so much that we're willing to apply standards and assess at a "grand" scale.

I do wish the exam "answer key" had a bit more encouragement for markers to look for personal connections to the curriculum like family stories and focused examples. Most markers are sane about this, but some are still looking for students to complete a checklist of facts and repeat what they were "supposed" to learn in a way that is easy to recognize. I also wish there was an opportunity to demonstrate learning with something other than an essay. Here's what two of my students wrote when I asked (on a closed notes test) what challenges were faced by developing nations trying to achieve a higher standard of living: example 1 and example 2. One of these girls happens to be a good writer, one is not, but I'd say they both have a great understanding of the issues behind the question. Without the provincial exam I'm sure we'd see a move to more diverse learning and demonstration of learning in the classrooms of our awesome SS teachers, but we'd also lose the healthy motivation to address a full set of learning outcomes. I think it is amazing that a group of young British Columbians (who more or less took SS11 from 2004-present) have a common expectation for being knowledgeable, active, aware, and empathetic Canadians.  Grab one off the street and quiz him... see if he feels the same way!

Perhaps we could tell an even more inclusive story of Canada by re-arranging the course, but I don't think it is the curriculum or the exam that needs shifting. I think we could do more with project-based learning (have you seen the cigar box project?), teaming with other teachers/students/courses (why not do the Rwandan Case Study in an English or Psychology class?), and simply beating down our PLOs into student-friendly focus questions and core skills. It is a hard habit for many teachers to break, but we also need to take perspectives out of the footnote category (women's history, for example), and start rather than end lessons with these. It would be great to sign stuents up for two senior Social Studies courses at the same time and mash the lessons together. I'm thinking about what SS11 and Social Justice 12 would look like taught together. The PLOs are different, but the curricular fodder is similar, so finding time for grand projects and inquiries would be natural. We could also conceive of Social Studies 8-11 as a continuum, in which we lay out goals around curriculum (e.g. Canadian history, environmental issues), skills (e.g. decoding images and interpreting evidence), inquiry (heritage connections, Canadian character), and themes (politics & gov't, autonomy & internationalism, society & identity, economy & environment), and relevance (heritage presentations, current events, community service, political/social action, interviews). Parts of these "classes" would be classes -- age-grouped, instruction based, content-centred but always aiming at higher level thinking. Parts of these "classes" could be cohort based and focused on the universal goals but responsive to current events. Parts of these "classes" could be community based, leveraging online/flipped/blended learning and centred around the themes and inquiries (more interaction with each other, for example, on "being Canadian"). Parts of these "classes" could be seminar-based and involve other disciplines, teachers, students, and even parents; I'm thinking about big project that tie many outcomes together and might span more than one year. Crazy ideas, yes, but not unprecedented in our province.  While I like that superintendent's ideas, the trick is make progressive changes to public education without allowing the personalization agenda to erode the parts of the foundation that aren't already cracked.

As you can see I'm looking more at education reform than curriculum review. I think our curriculum is fine as it is, it is just challenging enough to keep students and teachers alert and takes the fluff away from the corners of my lesson plans (so long, 6 page worksheets and Canada A People's History except for a few pieces involving Trudeau!). What needs changing (for some) is the approach, not the curriculum, and maybe the teacher skill-set at taking down what they perceive to be a mountain of material and learning outcomes and getting them to realize they can slow down and focus on fewer, stronger inquiries without the BCED plan or the IRP telling them to do so. The permission is already implicit in the existing expectations, and I think the exam doesn't ask much more than this.

Please, comment on what I've written, challenge it, and provide something from your own bias and experience. There are hundreds of ways of getting SS11 "right" and I know some of them are far more creative and successful than mine. I'm proud of how my students fare on the provincial exam re their class assessment and the provincial averages, but I'm way more proud of how they navigate through a challenging and engaging curriculum and emerge with sense of their own place in Canada past, present, and future. In particular, please share how you slow down on important outcomes -- these are the activities that tend to engage students and make me reconsider my arguments for a fast-paced course.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Year in Review

Guest Post from Jacqui Dockray, a committed parent of elementary students and a member of the SD57 District Parent Advisory Council.  She is a tireless advocate for public education and gave the following address to the senior administration and trustees at the year-end board meeting last night.  Thanks, Jacqui, for your creative consensus-building work on so many levels and for allowing me to share your thoughts here.
As another school year comes to an end, I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who work so hard to ensure that our children receive not only a quality education, but also a rich educational experience in our public education system.

The Board and the District ensure that what needs to be in place is in place (policies, money, resources, staff, maintenance, etc.) and also set standards and future goals for achievement in many areas within the district.  Thank you for your hard work, and especially for the attempts to move toward open, transparent and more consultative process as well as more equitable and collaborative discussion amongst partner groups and parents.

Collaboration, as is defined in Policy 4100, Employee Relations, “means one or more persons successfully working with other persons to attain common or agree-on goals and objectives.  Collaboration requires mutual respect and trust, clear commitments to common beliefs and values, meaningful consultation and involvement, shared decision-making, open, honest, ongoing two-way communication, risk, creativity and mutually acceptable processes and outcomes.”  This policy is brief and reasonably straightforward – (could we perhaps encourage similar treatment of policy 5119?).  It states that “The Board of Education shall promote cooperation in its dealings with individual employees and employee groups, strive to maintain a positive work environment for employees and students, and seek to maintain a collaborative school district.”  A’ collaborative school district’ is one in which the professional autonomy of staff and the managerial responsibilities of the Board are harmonized around the common goal of providing the best educational opportunities for students.

I believe being a collaborative school district is sincerely worked on here in SD#57.  However, I am concerned that “open, honest, ongoing two-way communication” often does not take place in the district because “fear of reprisal and mistrust” stalls that process.

I would like to see the District encourage all feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly – from all teachers, staff, and administrators, as well as parents and students.  Let people know that they should not hold back any concerns they have with proposed programs or changes in philosophy and that they need not fear reprisal for being honest and constructively critical of what is proposed.  Allow enough time for these consultations to take place so that meaningful data and feedback is collected and can actually be utilised to improve the proposal.

It is with the utmost respect for those who welcome our children into our schools and classrooms day in and day out that I take this time to ask you – the Board and the District – to ensure that you value to the highest degree, the people who form the base of this institution that we call public education.  Without teachers, TA’s, administrators and others at the school level, you have nothing to administer or manage. Without their true and full collaboration, your attempts to move this district into an actual working model of 21st century learning, however that ends up looking, will lack the lustre it should have.

So thank you teachers, school administrators, TA’s, secretaries, custodial staff and all other people in our school communities for making our children’s experiences at school rich, rewarding and worth returning for.  I, for one, value your opinions, constructive criticisms and desires to contribute to the continued improvement of education and exemplary practice in this district.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

finding a home for 21st century learning

Students learning about tree measurements on a woodlot
in School District #91. Their teacher established learning
objectives for this project from Math, Science, and
Planning PLOs. photo: Chris Mushumanski 
When I read through the volumes of material about project-based learning (PBL) and 21st century learning (21CL) on Twitter, the BCEdplan, educational journals and blogs, I'm struck by a few assumptions. The first is that students learning will improve by breaking down the structure of a traditional classroom and relying more on mobile technology and distributed learning environments. The second is that students are inherently capable of independent learning and just need the right support in order to flourish. The third is that personalized learning is both a description (attitude) and prescription (educational reform) for  honouring different learning styles and trajectories. I would like to challenge these assumptions and suggest that we should put our 21CL emphasis on our at-risk and struggling learners rather than seeing it as a panacea for what ails the education system in British Columbia, and that PBL should be the vehicle by which this happens.

Here's an idea about what I mean by PBL for struggling students. Every year we teach a few students who are wildly unsuccessful in regular courses. In the third week we recognize the pattern of resignation and by the mid-point the students usually figure out they are just waiting for the course to end and never really intended to succeed. We know that under the surface there is often a student who wants to do well, but there are many layers of resistance that aren't about to loosen in your class of 27. They shouldn't have to sit there for an entire semester assuming they are a failure, killing time and generally making things rough for the others in the class. There should be a dignified place or method for them to address missed learning outcomes to achieve passing grades. In my experience, these are often students with some rough backstories (drama in their past and present homelife that impairs their ability to function), capable and creative in their own way but unmotivated and not very good at adapting to most teachers' expectations. That's a generalization, but I teach about 10 kids like this every year and while I find them frustrating, I also wonder what more we can be doing for them. These aren't necessarily students with learning disabilities, although they have been shunted along in our system and account for a disproportionate amount of teacher time and stress. Our "pyramid of intervention" is not working as intended for these students and the only other default is punishing them with detentions to get "caught up" on stuff they don't care about or understand. There is no money for the kind of one-on-one attention that might mitigate the students' barriers to success, and it would be wishful thinking (and perhaps a bad move) to think we can shift the whole culture of a school to make room in every class for the most reluctant learners. We collect random data on struggling students and process a few with school-based team meetings, but the majority languish in their classes with failing grades and diminishing respect for school, or get a mercy pass and sent on to the next level even though they have met few of the learning outcomes. This is an epidemic in BC, and has made teachers very cynical about Assessment for Learning (AFL) which, among other things, tries to place assessment focus on Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and not things like work habits or attendance. AFL is about many other things, too, and like most educational theories, rarely grabs hold before something new comes along. If we actually took AFL as a prime directive and measured student success directly on reasonable expressions of PLOs, these students would be locked in Grade 8 for a decade. We take social progress and non-academic goals seriously, though, so it is not realistic to simply fail a student over and over again, even if we think it is teaching them some kind of lesson.  Nonetheless, a school like mine with 750 students has 50 or more kids that are a bad fit for regular classes... it is for these kids that the BCEd plan was written, whether the authors know this or not, and we don't necessarily need to "21C" the whole system to make space for students that have checked out.

So what do we do? 
Many BC schools have taken on this challenge, and I'd like to throw an idea into the ring -- contracting missed learning outcomes to a PBL Centre. The school sets up a Learning Project Centre (pick a better name, please; I'll call it the Centre) very much like an Alternate Ed room, with access to a couple of decent computers, a large work table, maybe some storage and a few ipads or tablets to compliment what students carry with them. It is staffed by one or two teachers who understand Alt Ed, PBL, 21CL, and are versatile in more than one subject area. The Centre can operate as LA support or Learning Commons overflow while it is waiting for its first referrals, after which it can operate with continuous intake capped in whatever manner the school uses for Alt Ed (e.g. screening or hard number). It would work best if it operates at least a few times a week outside regular instruction time (e.g. lunch, tutorial blocks, after school). Students go to the Centre to construct dynamic projects that are specifically designed to address missed learning outcomes from courses they have failed or are failing. The referring teacher/s "contract" the outcomes, and the student (with the help of the Learning Commons teacher/s) makes a bid proposal for addressing the outcomes. The project must be something the student is passionate about, and should be versatile enough to incorporate cross-curricular outcomes. Students form accountability groups that provide support, help, direct contributions to each others projects, and follow a check-in timeline. The teacher sets up PBL opportunities, develops "flipped" resources (e.g. online content or PBL templates), guides the students' work (e.g. directs their inquiries towards viable research), says yes and no to a few things, provides formative and summative assessment, and communicates with vested partners like the referring teacher, parents, and administration. Very guild-like.  Funding comes from wherever Alt Funding comes from, plus there is potential for the Centre to be registered as a DL school within a school and bill the Ministry for students taking on a composite of courses adding up to some ratio of a recognized course. This already has precedents in BC.

An example
Let's talk about "Liam," a composite of the boy that we've all taught in one form or another. Half way through my Social Studies 10 class it is clear that Liam is not doing well. He misses assignments, doesn't engage in the class activities, has no clue what to do with the test, and blew off significant parts of the big project. He skips once or twice a week, gets stoned drunk every weekend and stoned when he gets the chance.  Liam doesn't access the "flipped" resources for my class online, doesn't want to try make-up or alternate assignments, spends 8 hours a day on his phone, and resorts to confrontation or denial as frontline defense for lack or progress. He simply won't put in the time, using the structures and resources I have available as his teacher, to address missed outcomes, and there is no magic make-up assignment at the end of my course that erases 5 months of apathy. But, and this is important, he is someone's child, he loves mountain biking, he can be respectful, funny, and often surprises you with what he knows. He deserves our best effort, even if he doesn't always earn it. From my course outline, I note that the first half of the course dealt with two big themes (big ideas for the course), about five skills, and nine core learning outcomes, phrased as question. I spend a few minutes with Liam's records in my gradebook program and try to match up the expectations with what I've assessed. Liam has not demonstrated 2 of the skills (as shown by key assignments and quizzes), has not satisfactorily met 5 of the learning outcomes (as shown by a project and some formative quizzes), and has not shown understanding of either of the themes (as shown by 2 summative tests). Yes, there are some zeros there or "in-progress" which will turn into zeros (remember, our "pyramid" never got built), and his mark stands at 36%. This process suggests to me that Liam has not met expectations for about half of the course outcomes so far. I tell him this and ask him to take a look through his work and marks and agree or disagree. He paints a somewhat better picture and we settle on 40%. This is what I contract to the Learning Centre. Liam can do PBL for up to 40% of missed learning outcomes in the first half of the course.  He will use both of the skills he has not demonstrated (plus others!), and his project must incorporate both of the course themes from the part of course he is contracting to complete by PBL.  The students and the teachers involved can figure out what this means in terms of a course mark... the outcomes are the important part anyways.

Perhaps Liam is also stumbling in English 10 (missing skills and 4 core learning outcomes accounting for 30% of the term), and is doing alright in Science 10 but has missed a key learning outcome that accounts for about 10% of what was going on in class.  Liam is now looking at some kind of cool project that employs a handful of skills, brings him to a higher understanding of four big ideas (2 course themes from SS, 1 from English and 1 maybe one Science), and shows accomplished learning related to 10 outcomes from three disciplines. Now that the formula stuff is out of the way, the fun begins. Liam and his PBL teacher in the Centre work through what this might look like, and develop Liam's ability to structure inquiry around his new goals. They develop a timeline, involve a group of students from within or without the Centre (or teachers, parents, or admin for that matter), and work out some basic expectations about where the student will be and when (no reason why part of this can't be "blended," "flipped," or "out in the community." Liam will still skip and smoke weed and drive his mother nuts, but the Centre allows him a more realistic chance of progress than his other classes until such time as he is willing and able to be serious about the other issues. Typically, Liam has already been assigned a block of LA, Distance Ed, Alt Ed., or repeat-the-class and now he can actually use it to create something of lasting value rather than slog through modules or remedial assignments. The PBL can address missed outcomes for whole courses (e.g. in a subsequent semester) or can happen alongside the courses in question (e.g. for missed outcomes from a single term). The PBL could take a month, or it could take a whole year, and could even be used to address extended absence due to illness or travel. The PBL could be completed by a group (each trying to get something different out of it), and the Centre's teacher/s should have an eye for how to celebrate and archive the results so that these "Alt" students' work sets an example for the whole school. The beauty of PBL in this context is that Liam doesn't have to hope that a module or distance ed package exists that will "get him through" with something approximating his missed learning, he can design his path and avoid the kind of learning he has already shown he is unwilling to do.  Modules and DL course take a lot of teacher time to create; directing a PBL contract can be done on the fly and personalized for each candidate.  This takes place on a scale, Liam's scale, that can't be comprehended or replicated at the school, district, or provincial level.

To be clear, this post is a quick draft and I've used many generalizations. I don't mean to imply that my school's Alt Ed program needs to go. Our Alt Ed teacher is an amazing caring person who has helped many kids overcome incredible personal and learning difficulties. I'm thinking more about the dozen or more students I'd like to refer each semester for some kind of help that can't or won't fit with a Alt Ed class, and also trying to sort out where (and if) PBL & 21CL have an appropriate context in a typical school with limited resources and facilities. The number of kids who need some kind of intervention is staggering and growing, and our traditional array of alternative programs and services (and glacial intervention processes) need a new kid on the block.

So what about the assumptions? 
1. Students learning will improve by breaking down the structure of a traditional classroom and relying more on mobile technology and distributed learning environments. Some perhaps, but not all. Students may live on their phone, but they don't learn as much as the folks at Pearson would like us to believe. The trick is not to have students replace traditional tools and teaching with technology, the trick is to realize that technology is an extension of identity and needs to be brought under discipline the same way we socialize for productive, creative behaviours. Sorry to burst the digital immigrant/native bubble, but the current generation of students is not enamoured by technology or tech-savvy, they are impaired by it even as it empowers them to do cool things that were not possible 10 years ago. They are generally less tech-savvy than students from 10 years ago, thanks in part to how the tech is wicked cool and easy to use, and can scan very wide knowledge horizons but do so with less depth or sense of significance. They aren't necessarily dumber for it, but their brains are different and they have had to adapt to a faster pace for everything and less unstructured, quiet, wistful time.  Can't go back, but we shouldn't design systems that make this worse, we should be finding balanced environments and learning pathways that acknowledge the new brain and retain what works really well right now.

2. Students are inherently capable of independent learning and just need the right support in order to flourish. Again, some are, but these are the ones that excel in "regular" classrooms because they arrive with intrinsic motivation and soak up good teaching and class interaction like a sponge. What we do for them already works and is our source of pride. The students least capable of independent learning are the ones we send to Alt programs or Distance Ed schools to complete work or repeat courses. Most BC Distributed Learning programs take the best of the classroom -- inspired teaching and dynamic interactions --  and replace them with dry digital tools. Then they take the worst part of the class -- worksheets and repetitive seat work -- and make this the basis of course delivery through content management systems or stack of paper modules. DL should be about distance inquiry, students taking risks and conducting research on phenomenon, issues, and problems that they wouldn't get near in a regular classroom.

3. Personalized learning is both a description (attitude) and prescription (educational reform) for  honouring different learning styles and trajectories. That's all great, but our system would fall apart if we tried for differential pacing, multi-age groupings, cross-curricular learning environments, selectivity of learning outcomes, and a parent-student-teacher negotiated learning plan for every student. Admin would retire early, parents would balk, teachers would self-combust, and students would enter into a glorious age of entitlement from which our society would not recover. Private schools for the rich, a form of public school "service" for everyone else. O.K. maybe it wouldn't be that bad but my point is that radical personalizing of education doesn't make sense for everyone, but it might make sense for at-risks students that face developmental hurdles from home and school.

Learning paced for each student makes no sense in a regular class that is part of a rigid timetable (something not about to budge any time soon). but it does make sense in the Alt Ed environment reborn as the Centre. Taking the "sage" off the "stage" makes no sense when that teacher is inspiring students and creating a powerful course experience. Sometimes the best place for the "guide on the side" is among students that actually need guiding the most.  21CL, to be taken seriously, would shake up a timetable and teaching assignment in ways we are not ready for, but allowing a specific place to be a 21CL sandbox allows us to see what happens without messing up a whole school. Wild, imaginative ideas, yes, but in a safe environment, i.e. one that does not create fear and chaos.

I think a project-based learning centre is the place to test this hypothesis. Imagine how fantastic it would be for our "weakest" students to show how creativity, inquiry, and a learning environment that honours their identity can set example for everyone else. Our "strong" students do this all the time. Let's see what happens if we give others a little push by way of a crazy scheme that not only expects but trusts that they have something to offer.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

the burger bash

3rd annual D.P. Todd year-end Burger Bash
How does your school end the year for the students? A nice three hour exam? Unreturned book fees? I suppose these will be with us for some time to come, a little pain for some gain. I would argue that exams can still be about assessing meaningful learning rather than ranking the little darlings. The exam pressure isn't all bad, it brings out some interesting resolve in students that is sometimes absent earlier in the month.  Some kind of final assessment clears away any doubts about whether a student is ready for next level and gives a few of them a final chance to establish that they've met the learning outcomes.

Three years ago, our school's bon vivant Socials teacher turned Culinary Arts teacher Mr. Ian Leitch hatched a plot for doing away with anything resembling an exam. He came up with a twofold assessment to allow his Cafeteria students to demonstrate their learning and celebrate their accomplishment.  The first part assesses individual competency and involves the documentation of a multi-course meal the student prepares for their families. Each step is justified, explained, and prepared with care, often tapping into cultural themes and family favorites that have significance for the student and his/her family. Back in class the student shares the story, pictures, and photos of how it went, complete with family evaluation. Assessment measures performance and learning re outcomes, but it also places a value on the work and personal learning that students self-describe (ultimately more lasting  than learning based on external standards).

Mr. Leitch's Cafeteria students work hard all year to provide amazing, healthy, tasty meals 2-3 times a week for a school that has no cafeteria, no industrial kitchen, not even a place for kids to sit and eat lunch. Carts of food scuttle down the halls in anticipation of lunchtime to the little snack counter that serves as a staging area for food service. The creative (sometimes experimental) student-designed meals are served up to about a third of our 750 students, who line up with $4 and a hunger for artfully arranged offerings such as 1) pulled pork on bannock with with cole slaw, 2) New York steak on a potato tart with prawns and sundried tomato cream reduction, 3) trio of Indian dishes (based on a student's parents' wedding meal), 4) garden veg sandwich with aged cheddar and mango chutney on foccacia. Etc! Stuff that Veg would be proud of.

The Cafeteria course uses some great blended learning -- student time is divided between classroom based lessons, independent group meetings, food prep, food service, and other work. They have a regular block, some of which they need to attend (not all of it in their foods classroom), some of which is optional, and they also give up some of their lunchtime. There is also an expectation for online/mobile contributions, e.g. recipe development, check-in with their group and teacher, and facebook promotion of their lunchtime food service. In my mind this is the right "blend" for blended learning -- the face-to-face time is very structured and involves powerful teaching, the independent work is group-based to provide accountability, and the online work makes the other parts go better and doesn't require students to be zoned out in front of a computer. They call their program/operation "Te Amo" (Spanish for "I love you," which was what one of our exchange students said when he tasted their food for the first time in 2010). The teacher is compensated with two teaching blocks for a single class, which recognizes that he gives up most lunches and spends parts of his evenings picking up food orders, stocking, and working with student groups face-to-face or by mobile phone. I'd call that a "flipped classroom" but this is becoming common enough now that we have to start seeing it as part of the spectrum and not a reversal of old-school teaching and learning.

Watching Mr. Leitch teach is a pleasure -- he opens up their thinking and senses to how important food is in our culture, our lives, our emotional and physical health, and brings them, step by step, to a place where they create beautiful dishes that could be served in restaurants. His manner is so full of joy and respect, inclusive without pandering and humorous without losing focus, and always about the students being their best. Mauri Bell, a dynamic Ed Assistant connected to the class and program acts as sous chef and negotiator/facilitator on the long list of duties performed by students, in addition to working with some special kids in the program. The class structure runs very much like a professional kitchen, with students rotating through important roles from dishes to top chef. They have "iron chef competitions," hour-long intense workshops on single ingredients, student submitted food "problems" to solve (e.g. how to turn a family recipe into an event production line), some keynotes on process and safety, and group accountability for pulling off orders, planning, and production. They even made cheese.

The second part of Mr. Leitch's course wrap-up benefits the whole school and assesses teamwork, very important in a program that will/does lead many into the food service industry. At the end of June, the Te Amo Caf students form groups and design the ultimate burger -- secret sauces, the right cheese, crazy good toppings, and usually a special twist. They build a demo burger, photograph it, market it around the school, and sell tickets to buy them. A bit of friendly competition and a chance for them to act and talk about food to the whole school they way they have been doing in class. How's that for a final exam? The rest is pure anticipation and celebration. In the staff room, teachers are going on about which burger(s) they have bought tickets for, talking about what the students said to convince them to buy it. On the last day, the grill is going before the last class is out... of course the doors are open and my hallway is filling with the smell of cooked meat, so much for my lesson plan! The burgers are cooked on one grill, and each team has a station out on the grass to assemble their prized creation for all the students who picked their burger from the others.

Our school's leadership class (Mr. Balazs) teams up to coordinate the rest of the burger bash. The yearbooks are ready for distribution, and are given out as the students end the last class. Our admin team has dragged big tables out to the fields, and the students pour out to wait for their burgers and sign yearbooks. We've done this for three years now and it is so cool to see the interactions and conversations. Signing a yearbook brings out some pent-up sentiment in everybody. From signing big Canadian flags for our exchange students, or listening to the music DJ'd by our talented leadership students, the event had a great vibe. I want to use the words joy and respect, even if these don't normally fit with the idea of a year-end party (you'd think some of them would want to break stuff and get the heck out). The students left the field after a couple of hours, not even much to clean up (although our admin and the leadership students were there for that, too).  The first year we did this, it struck such a need that we finally had to ask kids to think about going home at 6:00 after they had talked, danced to the music, and signed yearbooks for 3 hours.

This year was no different -- joy and respect (perhaps modelled by their Culinary Arts teacher) were what the students delivered. I had the Royal... it had a spicy honey garlic sauce, monterey jack cheese, and pineapple. A bit messy but tasted fantastic. The mix of food, conversation, sunny skies, and yearbooks also provided some serendipity, neat encounters that don't happen elsewhere. I heard one student, while signing the yearbook of another, say "I didn't really get to know you that well this year, it was nice talking to you." Lots of hugs and laughs and teens being teens, but no booze or funny business, go figure. I was especially pleased this year to be asked to sign the yearbooks of a few special students whose progress and resilience I really admire. Some of our students are rough around the edges, including a bunch of kids that take Mr. Leitch's Cafeteria class, but you'd never know it from watching them at the burger bash. Your teachers are proud of you.

A very nice way to end the year, even if there is that other messy business -- a few exams to take the edge off the post-burger-bash glow.  Thanks Mr. Leitch, Ms. Bell, Te Amo crew, staff and students for a great finish.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Echo Project

For a few years now at D.P. Todd Secondary we've been using a special "Echo Project" for Social Studies 11 to put student identity at the centre of the course.

The idea is fairly simple -- students interview someone to learn more about Canada in the Postwar Era with the goal of making a personal connection to the curriculum. The thing that turns this basic idea into something memorable is the urgency we place on the task.

The SS11 students we teach right now (and over the last few years) are at the tail end of the Echo Generation, the children of the late Baby Boomers or early Gen Xers. In turn, their grandparents were mostly born before or during WWII, and their great-grandparents were around before the Great Depression. What an incredible resource -- we have people beyond the 50-yr gap all around us, many with incredible stories to tell. There is a retirement complex across the street from the school, for example, that has at least five WWII vets in residence.

I believe that societies need robust connections over the 2-generation gap (about 50 years) if the society is to remain whole and progressive.  Breaking the gap, breaking the continuity with grandparents for example, leads to confusion of values, dysfunctional habits, and narcissism.  Maintaining conversations with the elderly among youth is vital; these students truly are the Echo -- the voices of something deep (powerful) and distant (at risk of being lost) that skips past the immediate horizon and comes alive when it is least expected.  In other words, students will learn stuff from the elderly that they can't learn from their parents or other adults (teachers included). Surprisingly, what they learn often involves risk-taking, living large, and being really good at a few important things.

I think the students involved in the Foxfire project knew what this was about -- they knew the urgency of collecting knowledge and perspectives from the elderly. For those students in Georgia of the 1960s and 70s, the rapid disappearance of Appalachian culture compelled them to gather stories, recipes, crafts, wisdom and lore from the locals. It is the same urgency we try to instill in our students -- the pre-war generations (arguably with the best perspective on postwar society) are fewer in number each year (and were fewer to start with). One of our students "found" an interview subject that was 102 -- this is someone with personal memories of every major event from the SS11 curriculum, and an authentic view on our course themes: politics & gov't, autonomy & identity, society & culture, economy & environment. Soon it will be difficult to find anyone with firsthand experience of the Great Depression and eventually WWII. We were studying WWI in class two years ago when Canada's last vet of the Great war died.  Our WWII vets average age is 88 and number less than 125,000.

In SS10, most of our students built Heritage Projects around their own family or cultural backgrounds, exploring themes like traditions, migration, cultural values, subsistence, and lots of cool stories and connections to historical events and motifs. This SS11 Echo Project is a chance to pick up one of the strands and follow-up with how their "heritage" evolved in the postwar era. Most of our students pick a grandparents to interview, but many gravitate towards an elder they know in their community. Like the Heritage Project, the results are amazing -- students making bold connections to ideas and learning outcomes from our course with passion and scholarly insight.

I've just finished marking the various Echo Projects that have come in over the last few weeks from three SS11 classes and I must say I am overwhelmed. They learned so much from their interview subjects, they asked such meaningful and profound questions (even if it was sometimes just about music or fads), and they spoke and write so respectfully about the unique and eccentric knowledge they gained from the process. As one student put it, you just don't learn this kind of thing from Google.

It is no surprise that student learn more, faster, and deeper when their identity is on the line. For example, many students are bored by the details of the Avro Arrow story... not so the student whose grandfather was an actual engineer for the Avro project. His passion in understanding the nuances of the Avro story came alive for the other students and they caught the idea that the story was important (as it once was to many Canadians). Another student walked us through the emotional toll of military service and the question of what Canada's role should be on the world stage, focusing on Cyprus where his dad served as a Canadian Peacekeeper. His presentation coincided with a class activity looking at Canada and the UN and whether Canada should aim to be a middle power or a model power (activity and an 11x17 evidence page which they use as a study buddy for a unit test). I'd wager the class learned more from the authentic student presentation than my complicated middle/model power exercise.

I'm still haunted by one student's family story. Her great-grandmother wrote diaries from the 1920s to the 1960s chronicling her own life and also how she felt about the world around her, including WWII and her family's immigration to Canada. When she passed away in the 1970s, her daughters and son were left with the task of sorting through the boxes and boxes of journals. The daughters wanted to break with the past, to forget about Old World grief and grievances, and so they set fire to the journals.  The son (my student's grandfather) was devastated and had a falling out with his sisters that never really healed. My student interviewed him for her Echo Project and tried to recreate what her great-grandmother must have seen in her life. As you can imagine, the student now feels an urgency to begin a journal of her own, to write about her life and the world around her.

Another student learned about an 92-yr-old man and got the nerve up to interview him. He and his wife were the parents of my student's grandma's best friend... that's how these things work! He was hard of hearing, hard to understand and my student tried to get as much down on paper as she could. It turns out he had served on Lancaster Bombers in the Canadian Airforce in WWII. Then serendipity takes over. My student's great-grandafther had also served as a Lancaster navigator. He was killed in action, but was an important part of the student's documented family history. Interviewing a veteran navigator gave her an insight into what her relative went through in the airspace above Germany before he was shot down, something missing from the family record. Of course, it broadened her understanding of Canada's role on the international stage and was a point of connection in the course that had previously been lacking. I started the course worried about this student's progress but am now so proud at her level of engagement. The cool thing is that she decided how and when to get interested.

I'm teaching 4 for 4 right now and I haven't had the time to archive the projects and blog about the individual results as I had wished, but I wanted to take a few minutes and lay out the excitement I had for the students' work and give a sense of how this project is set up. I'll put some more comments and excerpts from the student projects together as I find time.

Here's generally what I tell the students, in bits and pieces over many weeks, leading up to the actual assignment:
You are the Echo. Generation Y. Born in 1996, most of you. What does that mean? Your parents, for the most part, were the last part of the baby boom generation that followed World War Two and lasted until the mid 1960s. Some of you are the children of Generation X, the ones that followed the boomers in the late 1960s and 1970s. The median year of your parents’ birth was 1967, your grandparents, 1940. 
What this means is that your grandparents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, when Canada was quite decidedly not a British colony but was in danger of becoming an American colony. When the Soviet Union was the bad guy, the commies were coming, and the world would probably end in thermonuclear war. They know a thing or two about hippies, about cars, about jobs, food, clothes, hobbies and jokes that don't really fit in anymore. 
They observed, or joined in, as minorities, women, and Aborginal Canadians gained more rights. They witnessed the big events of the postwar period and probably harbour opinions you won't find in a textbook. Some came to this country as a new homeland, and were able to test Laurier's theory that "Canada is the star to which all men who love progress and freedom shall come." Some of them were called DPs as kids, and did not like it. They'll have strong thoughts on Trudeau, on the Quebecois, on Americans, on environmentalism. A substantial number of them grew up on a farm, and were adults before they ever boarded a plane.  Medical care was not universal for them, and they sang  "God Save the Queen" in school while looking at a different flag than we have now. 
Many will start a conversation with "you got it easy these days" and many will finish a conversation with a telling look that says "I can't believe we haven't talked about this stuff before." The important thing is that when you reach past a couple of generations, you will learn something important from people that hold memories that will soon be forgotten. If you ask the right questions, you'll find that everything they say will give you an authentic perspective on Canadian Identity and other big ideas from our course.   
The task... 
Structure your Echo Project around what you have learned from an interview with someone who lived through and understood some of the key issues of the postwar period. Your research, work, and presentation could involve documents, photos, artifacts and other primary sources. You may end up talking about some of the research topics from our "Postwar" list, or something completely different. You should also try to address a few of the elements of Critical Inquiry (the circle graph we looked at in class). For an interview subject, three things are desirable (but not always necessary): 50 year gap -- born before 1947, experienced -- they have interesting stories to tell, and important to you -- someone you would really like to talk to. The rest of the project details are explained on the handout, including suggestions for format and sample interview questions.