Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Connections are Essential for Student Learning

If you have time, watch the TedxTalk by Johann Hari, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong. Johann has been researching and writing about the War on Drugs for a number of years. But during his research about drug addiction, he realized that all kinds of addiction, such as gaming, gambling, sex & pornography, internet, cell phones, and other kinds of issues had one common factor in the lives of those who were living the addiction. Each person struggling with addiction had or were experiencing a loss of connection. Many of those caught up with addiction replaced relationship for alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, etc. Johann states very clearly that what individuals struggling with addictions need most is connection to people who love them and surround them with hope. He says, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.” 

It has been my experience that relationship building is hard work. We are flawed, imperfect individuals trying to make something beautiful in our lives. No matter what we do with building relationships someone will mess up, make mistakes, say something they will regret along the way. But when we replace connection for something other than something living and breathing we get into trouble. Where’s the relationship in playing video games for six or seven hours a night? Or what about the youth who can’t live without their phone for five minutes? I’m worried about our next generation that would rather resort to texting or Snapchatting, than sitting down and actually talking face to face where you can engage all five senses. 

I say all this knowing full well that relationship building is a lot of work. It’s no different for us at the school. We have families, spouses, children, and friends in our lives, in which, we strive to maintain healthy relationships. So it is only natural that we extend that relationship building to our students. It’s been said that very little learning goes on where relationships have not been first established. All of us need to work on those relationships, first between staff members and then with our students. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that from time to time because we get so busy and our priorities get misaligned. We have a saying in our home, “family first.” That means we put relationship first over everything. We want our school to be the same way. We need to operate like one big family working through challenges and coming up with ways to work together in order for learning to happen. But it doesn't stop there, we need to have the relationship with parents at home too. We know we have some work to do to build stronger relationships with parents. Our hope is that this year will be a turning point that engages the home more and increasing student success.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Learning is not a Competition!

I was walking down the hallway today and passed by some students talking rather excitedly about the subject matter they were studying. I stopped and said, I was thrilled with the learning that was going on in the hallways. The four students bantered back and forth, until one student asked if we were going to use percentages on the report card, because the 4 point system was stupid.

We implemented the 4 point assessment system this year and I would have to say the majority of the students love it. They find that it has taken the pressure off of testing and allowed them to learn freely. We have a lot more practice, feedback and formative reviews, so when students do summative assessments, they are much more prepared for it. The other side of it is that students now have a chance to redo assignments, retakes tests and make the corrections. However, there are a few students, usually the high achievers that are very competitive, that don't like the new system for a variety of reasons.

One of the girl's in the hallway said, "All of the students don't like the 4 point." I replied, "Careful. We can't use the all inclusive 'all', when I know there are students that love it." She smiled and said, "I'll just move to another school that uses percentage." I said, "Good luck with that, because we are all changing to the 4 point over the next year." So one of the other girls said, "I like the percentage system, because I want to beat my sister. They use it in high school, and I want to average out my grades so I can beat my sister."Just then another student interrupted and said, "It's a competition, so we need the percentage system." I replied, "Sorry, that's exactly why we need to change the system, because we want you to learn for learning sake, not to beat another student." I went on to add that learning is about self-respect and dignity. It doesn't matter what another student gets for a grade, what really matters is what the individual student learns. And what most students don't understand is that percentage grades are incredibly subjective, as illustrated in the example below.

Coming back to the students in the hallway, I can't help but think we have created a monster in our schools around the percentage grading system. The focus tends to get placed on the mark and not the learning. Who cares whether you got better grades than your sister? Really, especially when they are so subjective to begin with. I want students to care about what they are learning. I want teachers to care that students are learning. I want administrators to get more interested in assessment for learning.

I have to share what Justin Tarte tweeted today, and I couldn't agree more.  He called it "10 truths about educating students that are often ignored."

It's going to take awhile to change deeply ingrained attitudes about learning and assessment in our schools. But the change needs to happen, not for the sake of change, but because it's what we need to do in our schools. The old system was so punitive and hard-hearted that is robbed many of our students of the desire to learn. It's a philosophical shift in our thinking; it's a change of heart or even putting the heart back into education. In any case, change is necessary for the students' sake. We need to be open minded about what we will gain from change and not focussed on what we will give up.

If you want to have your heart stirred to embrace change, watch this TedTalk by Linda Cliatt-Wayman.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

Project-Based Learning Samples via Video Production

Over this past semester, the students have done a lot of different projects. I want to highlight just a few to show the depth of understanding that these students demonstrated in shooting and editing video.

The first one was by Davy Jerry and Treston Bear.  They chose to do a freestyle format for shooting the video. I love the humor they incorporated into it. They use the Jurassic Park music in the background.

The second one was called Zombie Sequence by Ty Iron Shirt. I really loved this video, as gross as it was, but he worked tirelessly on Garageband editing the audio until he had it perfect. When he had it, he exported the audio out and imported it into Premiere Pro. Excellent!

The hockey playoffs are in full swing, and Wyatt Baxter and Gary Doherty are big fans. They scoured hours of video in a couple of days and made up a compilation video highlighting the two teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's a smooth flowing video that really comes together well. These guys also worked on the Brooks Bandits live broadcasting this winter as well and did the promo video as well.

Or the Kyrie Irving Video Remake by Wacey Many Bears, who used the audio and demonstrated his own basketball skills on the court. Well done, and lots of fun.

Finally, the School was asked to video readers at the Family Literacy Night at Brooks, and the students then took the video and used the book to illustrate the video for students to view later. Despite some audio issues, it was a great effort.

Wacey Many Bears and Braden Good Eagle worked on a video project for Alberta Health and Alberta Education highlighting the effect of the flood of June 2013. They did an amazing job of this video.

What Learning Style are You?

I can hardly believe how fast the year has gone, and summer is fast approaching. It has been an incredibly busy year. It seems only like a few weeks ago when I was sitting down in my office and thinking about the upcoming year and imagining what it would be like. First impressions? It's been a good year. However, either I'm getting old because I'm tired a lot of the time, or we have packed so much into the school year that we've worn ourselves out. Summer is going to be a time of rest and rejuvenation. Many of students need that rest too. So I hope they slow down a bit during the break and get some much needed rest. But I digress.

As a teacher, it's important to reflect over the year and think about what we taught, how we taught it, and how we assessed learning. If I just motor through the year and do the same thing year after year, and don't review my lesson plans, or examine the curriculum outcomes, or think of new ways to present the material, or do new activities for the upcoming school year, I'm not doing my job as a teacher. I wouldn't go to a dentist who did the same thing the same way for 50 years. There have been some significant changes in practice and technology over the years that I would hope the dentist would adopt. I would hope that they are continuously bettering themselves as a professional so that it makes my visit less stressful and painful. As a teacher, I need to do the same thing. I need to constantly be learning. Reflecting on my past school year is part of that process in learning. Already I'm thinking about how I will do some things differently. Some of my lessons and activities missed the mark with the students, so I need to differentiate (a big word for saying use a variety of methods to teach a concept) the instruction. 

You see, not every student learns the same way. That's why Howard Gardners 7 Styles of Learning are so important to education. Not everyone learns the same way. So when I'm teaching a class, I need to be aware that in a class of 20 students, there may be up to 7 different ways each student learns a concept. As a teacher, I must vary or differentiate the instruction so that different learning needs are addressed, and students get the greatest possible advantage available to learning that concept. Take for example, I'm a visual learner. I need the visual, hands-on instruction. If I am trying to figure out how to fix something at home, I go to Google and watch a video showing me how to do step by step. But once I've done it once, I've got it. So I've added a visual, because some people need the visual to understand what I'm talking about.

As I am reflecting on my teaching this year, I realize there are things I need to improve or change for next year, but I'm also concerned by what I see from some of our students. Despite all the efforts to make the curriculum more engaging and mix it up in how we teach the material, I'm sensing an apathy among some students about school or learning. Being a small school, we try very hard to compete with the city schools and offer as many extras as we possibly can so that students feel they are getting as close to equal as anywhere else. Staff cheerfully immerses themselves into coaching, travel club, field trips, music festivals, video projects, and more, because we want those extras for students. But when it comes to learning in the classroom, we seem to be losing ground on engaging every student on the importance of learning starting at about grade 8 and up. I recognize we live in a very social society, and that trickles into school as well. But schools have become more about a social get-together than an opportunity to learn for the future. Don't get me wrong, I want students to have a social life, and they need that social interaction, but there needs to be a balance. Have you ever gone on a trip with your kids and they spend most of their time on their phones, while you are taking in the sites and wonders? That seems to the norm for our teenagers. They spend a lot of time on their phones with Instagram and Snapchat. The result is that they are so visually stimulated by all the visual images and video clips it isn't really a surprise that sitting in a classroom and taking notes and listening really doesn't meet their expectations on the excitement meter. Homework is constantly interrupted by the ding of iMessage. How can they possibly focus on the task at hand if they are checking their phones every minute?

So when it comes to school and learning, it's not enough for teachers to provide a lot of busy work to students, we need to engage students so they are learning. There's no easy fix for this other than we need to do a better job of differentiating the instruction so that we can cover the 7 learning styles. They are:
  • Visual Learning - when the student prefers using pictures, images, and spatial understanding,
  • Solitary (Intrapersonal) Learning - when the student prefers to work alone and self-study,
  • Social (Interpersonal) Learning - when the student prefers to work in groups or other people,
  • Logical (Mathematical) Learning - when the student prefers using logic, reasoning, and systems,
  • Physical (Kinethestic) Learning - when the student prefers using body, hands, and sense of touch,
  • Verbal (Linguistic) Learning - when the student prefers using words, both in speech and writing,
  • Aural (Auditory-Musical) Learning - when the student prefers using sound and music.
So what learning style are you? 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Outcomes-Based Education Means Outcomes-Based Assessment too!

With report cards, making their way home, it seems appropriate to talk about some changes we are gradually making to how we report to parents and students about their progress. As I explain the process of assessment, I hope to simplify the explanation so everyone can have a basic, foundational understanding. Yet it is not a simple matter to understand; it took me a few years to make the changes to my assessment practices because I was rooted in how I was graded as a child and then how I graded as an early teacher. But the more I read up on assessment, the more I argued with a friend of mine, it finally broke through that I needed to change how I assessed student learning. Sadly, for years, I marked the old percentage method which doesn't accurately tell us what students really know and understand of the outcomes that we teach in the classroom.

The Challenges!

Have you ever sat down and thought about how teachers derive the marks they do for students? We really do try our very best to make sure that we are being fair and equitable, but it's hard to keep subjectivity out of the process. Robert Marzano points out that "the score a student receives on a test is more dependent on who scores the test and how they score it than it is on what the student knows and understands." That's kind of scary when you think of it. But subjectivity in the grading process isn't always bad, because as teachers, we know our students, understand the range of students' work, and usually have a clear sense of the progress made over a period of time. At Bassano School, our teachers teach the outcomes for each AB Education course or subject, we call that outcomes-based education. So it would make sense then that when we measure students' understanding or proficiency of learning, that we are measuring how well students know the outcome and can demonstrate it other than just recite facts. We use multiple forms of assessment to determine students' knowledge of outcomes. We use lots of formative assessment, (informal or formal assessment like portfolios, projects, checklists, and more) to provide ongoing feedback to students, which becomes part of the learning, that's what we call Assessment for Learning. We aren't just assessing how well students get it, but we use the assessment as a method for adapting the instruction to ensure students are learning. When we mark or grade a student's work, we are looking for evidence of learning against a standard determined by Alberta Education required at each grade level as mastery. As teachers, though, it's important to look for evidence or proofs of learning. It's not about looking for what is not there or missing from the answer, but what is present as proof of learning. When we look for what's missing, it's easy to turn assessment into a punitive exercise.

Zeros - Unfortunately, over the past forty years, schools have been great at pointing out student shortcomings even to the point of being a form of punishment. What do I mean by this? How many times have students received a zero for something, when that couldn't be further from the truth of what the students knows about a subject? Giving a student a zero is like saying a student doesn't know anything; they have zero knowledge or understanding about the outcome that was being taught simply because they didn't turn in the assignment. They may have had the work half completed, but they are being told they get a zero because they didn't turn it in. Is the grade supposed to tell us what the student knows, or punish them for not turning it in?

Averaging - Another area that poses some challenges for schools is the 100 point/percent averaging system. Thomas Guskey says that the averaging of grades "falls far short of providing an accurate description of what students have learned...If the purpose of grading and reporting is to provide an accurate description of what students have learned then averaging must be considered inadequate and inappropriate." Doug Reeves goes further to say teachers "must abandon the average, or arithmetic mean, as the predominant measurement of student achievement."  Why? Typically what has happened in the past is a student might get the following marks for five different assignments 93, 70, 87, 55, 90 in an outcome or unit. What does a student get on their report for the first term then? Well, if we average the marks, they have a total of 365 points, which we divide by 5 and they get an 79% on their report card. But does this really give us an accurate measure of what they know? No. They have clearly demonstrated mastery understanding in 3 of the 5 assignments when you measure it against the proficiency standards. In reality the student should have received an 87% average because that's the median. But Alberta doesn't do that for our students doing the diploma exams. They take your school mark and your diploma mark and add them together and divide by two, and that's your grade. Take a student that gets a 90 in Math 30 from their teacher, and gets 60 on the diploma. They get a 75% for a final grade. How unfair was that? When you look at the test anxiety our students have experienced on exam day, because a comprehension exam that was taking a 3 hour snapshot of what they learned over the entire semester. So because they were stressed, they were punished for doing poorly during that testing period. I realize that AB Education is changing the spread from 50-50 to 70-30. But it's still an averaging of the two grades.

Time Factors – In other Alberta school, students are penalized for late work, or not allowed to resubmit work or rewrite tests after a period of time. But in reality, life doesn't put limits on us to demonstrate learning. If I fail my driver's test, I can retest as many times as I want. Time shouldn't be a barrier to learning; however, it has been in many schools, but not at Bassano School. We do not deduct for late work, and we allow for rewrites, and redo’s. If a pattern develops of chronic lateness, then measures need to be put into place to make provision for getting the work done after school or during lunch hours. It's more important that the students learn the value of doing work well and in a timely manner with a hope to improve things.

Some Changes!

We have been making some assessment changes over the past few months in the junior high, and some philosophical changes in the high school to reflect fair and equitable assessment practices. Kindergarten – Gr. 6 uses the 4 point scale, much like in the figure below. 

We are starting to implement the 4 point scale into the Junior High for grades 7 - 9. Already we have seen significant changes in student performance. As Rick Wormeli says, it is important to provide students hope for them to feel more engaged and take ownership of learning. So one of the ways we do that is by encouraging students to strive for proficiency and mastery as a minimum of learning. We use the slogan, "If it's not a 2, it's a redo." We will not accept anything less than adequate learning which is a level 2. So students redo assignments, rewrite tests, and fix or correct their mistakes. We don't make them redo the whole assignment or rewrite the complete test. They only have to redo or fix the problem areas and make the necessary corrections to demonstrate proficiency. The buy-in from the students has been huge. We've had to get them to change their thinking about assessment from thinking about grade point averages or a total average of grades, to do I know this outcome, and how well do I know it. The grade doesn't motivate like a sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing you know what is being taught.

Some might say it's best to make these changes after the summer holidays, or when everyone is ready to be on board. The quick response to that is that's not really how life works. If we expect students to learn and grow during the school year, as teachers, we need to learn and grow with change as well. We needed to make this change for our students benefit, because we value them so much. The benefits we've seen a few short months are huge. Already students are working harder to learn the outcomes. Levels of engagement are up. Students are giving more effort to learn, where they once sat in their seats giving up. So that's why we didn't wait. We believe it was worth it for the students.

Our Commitment!

We are committed to:
  • support and encourage students to meet the high standards set before them,
  • being fair, and equitable in our assessment practices for students,
  • using multiple forms of assessment to help students build on their knowledge base and expand on their opportunities,
  • building meaningful relationships and rapport with parents, students, and community through regular and positive communication,
  • creating a flexible learning environment that leads to students being responsible and accountable for their learning,
  • eliminating barriers, such as time, through continuous learning opportunities for mastery learning.
If you want to watch some videos that speak to good assessment practices, watch Rick Wormeli: 

Monday, February 23, 2015

It was the Best of Times...It was the Worst of Times.

The last thing I want to do is create panic or fear, but I think we need to be thinking about current economic trends and the impact it may have on Bassano. I don't know how many of you have ever been unemployed for a short or extended period, but it's no fun. I used to pride myself that I was only on unemployment for four months when I was 22 years old. So for thirty years, I was fortunate enough to be employed even through college and university. My dad taught all of kids the value of work, he has been a great example for me over my life. At 76, he still makes his way back into the bush behind my parents house and cuts brush, limb trees, plows, hauls, and whatever he can find to keep himself busy. So I have learned a lot from him, and I have tried to model myself after him in terms of working hard. But sometimes life hits you, and hits you hard.

Many people from the area probably don't know that in May 2014, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) cut our funding for our school that we created in 2005. Credenda Virtual High School laid off all its employees on May 16th, 2014, and yet most staff volunteered their services until the end of June with no pay just so students could get their credits. The fact that AANDC did what they did is still a sore point for me, especially since we had an agreement until the end of August. But that's for another time. What I want to highlight is the tremendous stress being unemployed puts on families. Going from a decent salary to waiting for unemployment to kick in and then trying to live on less than 50 percent of what you were used to was extremely challenging. Then add into the equation, both of us lost our jobs because we both worked for the same organization. It was a difficult time, and we have spent months trying to get caught up. I don't share this for people to feel sorry for us, but for the purpose for people to know we didn't come to Bassano under the easiest of circumstances, and we understand tough times. We are very thankful that this opportunity opened up for us, and we have adapted well to our new surroundings. We have no complaints about the weather. We gladly left the cold north!

That brings me to what is happening in Alberta at large and specifically here in Bassano. A few weeks ago, I caught wind that CPR was closing our local maintenance shop. Quite shocking since CPR is reporting record profits of $1.76B for last year. When I spoke to Tom Rose, Mayor of Bassano, he had this to say, "There are a myriad of reasons as to why I'm concerned with the potential closure of our CPR maintenance shop. First and foremost, I'm concerned about public safety. Fewer workers servicing more track will most certainly lead to more derailments. There is a tremendous amount of dangerous goods passing through Bassano on an hourly basis, so I find it reprehensible that CPR is considering cut backs of this nature and putting not just our community, but others as well, at risk." 

Tom and I reached out to Jason Hale, MLA to see what he could do to help. Jason had a couple  of conversations with the VP of Gov Relations for the CPR regarding the closure. "I asked him to look into keeping the Bassano shop open, but it was a decision made above him. Although he explained it as a corporate restructuring with no effect on safety, I agree with Tom, the fewer people looking after the track, there are more chances of derailments and increased safety issues." CPR has already been quietly making cuts though. Unknowingly to the general public, we only have three CPR workers stationed in Bassano, instead of the designated six, because CPR didn't fill the other three positions when they became vacant. So we have three fewer workers sharing the workload of six people and covering more track. In addition, it makes more sense to maintain Bassano's shop that is heated and only one mile off of being half way between Calgary and Medicine Hat. Take these three employees from Bassano and the impact to the community could be even more significant economically. If we lose these three families, that's seven students from the school (which amounts to about half a teacher's salary), fewer local shoppers at the local grocery store, restaurants, and other businesses.

Now add to that reports of other layoffs from the oil and gas sector, which could affect more families. The drop in oil prices is going to hit Alberta hard. The government needs to find ways to make up for lost revenue if it's going to keep programming at the same level. Hiring freezes are in place at various government levels. In addition, the government is proposing health care premiums. And let's hope that the BSE cow in Spruce Grove doesn't add to matters and affect that industry as well.

Once again, I don't say this to scare folks, but because we need to rally around and support our affected families. In order for our small communities to survive difficult economic times we need to be resourceful and very creative around economic development. Alberta cannot build its entire economy around oil and gas. Saskatchewan learned this lesson through twenty plus years of economic drought. They invested heavily in multiple industries and diversified their resources so that when one resource dropped in the market, it didn't collapse the entire economy. That's why Saskatchewan is growing. So if Bassano wants to continue to grow, we need to attract businesses that do not depend strictly on oil and gas. 

This gets personal for people like Jason Hale, who added, "I was born and raised in this town and this is where we have raised our children who are the 4th generation of Hales to live in Bassano. The current financial situation in the province will have a negative impact on many businesses and families. But we must all work together to come up with solutions to keep our communities and businesses sustainable. I care deeply what happens here and will help however I can." So when we have our Bassano Vision meeting on March 3, 2015, maybe you need to come join us and give your input. This is a time for action and not just sitting back and talking about it.

We've already one family move away up north to secure employment this year with two students. It's hard on kids to relocate, make new friends, or become accustom to new surroundings, such as schools and teachers. Sometimes we have to move, out of necessity. However, lives are affected. So what do those who find themselves in these situations need from us. Most importantly, empathy, not sympathy. Empathy is that coming alongside someone in need, listening, and understanding what they are feeling. We don't empathize from a distance, being overly detached and unfeeling, or even self-centered caring about only our own needs.

What can we do from the school side? First of all, we can't assume we know what is happening in people's lives at home. So please contact us if you need to talk. Maybe there are things we can do by way of recommending retraining programs. We are currently in talks with Medicine Hat College about bringing the University Transfer Program to Bassano School. Maybe it's time to start working on the university degree before transferring to the University of Calgary, or Lethbridge. But why not do it here in Bassano without having to move. These would be evening and weekend classes. We only need 15 people to register with Medicine Hat College, and sign up for the Fall to make it run. We are also looking at the Healthcare Aide program as well, since we have the simulator that was donated by Cenovus, Dick Haskayne, and others

There are a few things we can do help those in need in the community, but we need to all pull together with one concerted effort. Reach out to those in need, or call us if there is any way we can help with pointing you in the direction of training, upgrading, or just listening.