self-evaluation 2015

It's the end of the school year, so time to look back and look forward.
(For the record, these are the same questions I ask my students in their self-evaluation.)

What's gone well
Leadership & collaboration: We had some success in our subject area with the integration of media studies as language topics, and the emphasis on choice and individualisation of curriculum; while I have not generally loved collaboration, I did enjoy this process and saw the benefit to the students.

IBDP Film launch: I started a new course this year that went rather well, partially because I was transparent with my students and included them in the planning and reflection aspects of setting up the course.

Assessments: I have continued the process of varying the types of assessments students do, having them produce texts to benefit each other and more process-oriented assessments, allowing them to develop more specific skills.

Advisory: As an advisory teacher for year 11s (DP year 1), I I was able to push some initiatives in response to students' specific needs, including a mentoring program between classes, which we will develop next year to be a permanent part of the transition between grades 10, 11 and 12.

What was challenging
Accessibility: I have always known that some students are a little afraid of me. I'm not a mean person, but I am a large man with a loud voice and strong opinions, and I have used that perception as a scary guy as part of my teaching toolbox. However, it has hit home this year that a few students' fears have gotten in the way of me being as effective as I could be with them individually. I need to address that.

Teaching the concept of concepts: I should post on this separately, but my basic mode of teaching (especially language and film units) is to give students texts, ask them to develop concepts based on those examples and apply those concepts to their own experiences, interests and curiosity. They have trouble developing those concepts independently, and out of impatience and frustration, I often just give them a concept which they dutifully copy in their notes. The problem is that they haven't internalised them as the produce their own work. Anyway, that was a problem I noticed more this year.

Goals for next year
Accessibility: I need to have a think about this, but I need to make myself more accessible to both students and other staff members.

Concepts: I need some specific lessons on concepts for the first week of school that we can refer back to throughout the year.

Inquiry in decision making: As I've given students more choice, I've noticed they sometimes make really bad choices. I need to look at how to use inquiry cycles and the like to help students make better choices.

Making the 'workshop classroom more effective: Because my students all have laptops, my class is often a self-directed workshop, where students can work on assessments and use me as a resource. Right now it's fairly unstructured, and so it works very well for independent learners: I worry that students with less-developed learning skills languish and don't get pushed enough. I want to work on this, putting in some mechanisms to formalise more individualised learning.

Blogging and Tweeting: I'm frustrated by educators on social media: they tend to talk theory and share articles, but they don't do enough sharing about what is happening in their classrooms. I want to shift that in my own small way. #whatididinclasstoday is too long, and I need to find a better hashtag. But I definitely want to be doing tweet-worthy stuff in class.


Why I've stopped marking essays

This is what I don't do much anymore.
Why do we write? Why do people put words together and share them? What kind of response do we want?

When a student writes, how do I as a teacher respond? What do they get back from me? Does my response match the motivations central to the process of creation? Will it encourage them to create more?

There are two problems with marking the way it is traditionally done:
  1. Nobody has ever written anything hoping to have all of their errors identified. The feedback I need to give my students needs to focus on the purpose of the text and how that purpose is achieved. I need to identify elements of the text that work and don't work for the reader, and some of those elements might be specific language errors and usage, but specific 'errors' of the text should not be prior to the more holistic response to the ideas and purpose of the text.
  2. Red-pen marking (even when done in blue) is essentially proofreading. There is a time to proofread, and it is before the text is published, and it needs to be done by the student with support from the teacher and peers. Students need to own that process. *
The purpose of a written assessment is to communicate first and to identify areas for growth second. My response to a student's work should reflect those priorities. I need to respect their efforts and voice, and then point out what they might do differently the next time, identifying process issues as much as outcome issues. If a student struggles with structure, I need to define that, but also discuss how their process might be adjusted to allow for more focus on structure.  

What do I do instead?
  1. I still comment on the text, but it tends to be more about my response to the content and my process of reading. If something is interesting, I say so: if something is confusing or unclear, likewise.  
  2. I use a rubric to respond to students more holistically. The rubric breaks down the different elements of the text and allows me to isolate them In terms of language usage, I will identify general issues (sentence structure, sloppy spelling, comma use) and sometimes link to resources for them to get more help. 
  3. As we work on a text in class, I require them to look at the feedback from previous assessments to see where they're at and what they need to concentrate on or compensate for. Because they have laptops in class, they are working during class and I am much more involved in the process, helping with developing proofreading skills as we go. I can work with individuals to identify their own strengths and challenges and develop a process for progression.
A rubric I use. This is from the IB MYP Language & Literature criteria. The highlighted text is task-specific clarification.

Some of this is prompted by my own time management. I want my students to write a lot, and if I am doing very detailed proofreading-style marking, I don't have time to get it back fast enough for them to do more.

When I have written something, whether it is a blog post or a story or a lesson, I want feedback. I want a dialogue. But I don't want a proofreading. And so I will extend the Golden Rule to my students and provide more of the kind or response that creative people seek.

* I know that some teachers take the approach that no text is ever finished -- that you can always go back and re-work and edit. I can see some merits in that approach, but part of creating is completing. We can reflect after we publish, but that is a different thing than reflecting as part of the immediate process.


New Phone pedagogy: experience & information

One way of thinking about learning – a quite traditional model – is that first we learn, and then we do. 

As a composition teacher, I used to teach students long lessons about structure and process and the nature of a good thesis and all of that, and then they would go off and write. This is also how traditional math classes work, and it is how I remember science classes working when I was in school.

At some point, I realised this doesn’t work: my composition students weren’t applying the detailed, abstract principles of composition to their own writing. The dichotomy between learning and doing is false. I needed a new model.

As we all move through a task or work toward an objective, we will find the information we need and solve the problems as they come up. As a general principle, I definitely believe in that.

However, to be totally successful, students need some background to make sense out of their experience. I’ll use reading Shakespeare as an example: in the best of all possible worlds, I would take students to see a performance of Hamlet, and then we would read the bits they thought were the most important, and then they would develop their own reading of the text and demonstrate their own reading in a coherent and interesting manner.

But in reality, there are some bits of information – about Elizabethan England, about drama, even about basic critical theory – that I know will make this a better experience for them. To give them that information will make it possible for them to access the play at a level that makes more sense.

To put it another way: I was talking to a teacher of grade 6 Science. He said that he would love to have students just do experiments that may or may not validate their hypotheses and then respond to them. The problem is they don’t have a very developed scientific framework, or as he put it, ‘enough information to ask the right questions.’ On the other hand, you don’t want to give away all of the answers and have experiments that just validate or illustrate things that have been explained. There is power to the surprise, but they need to know enough to make sense out of it.

Experiential learning is the right way to go – where assessment experiences drive the learning rather than respond to the learning – but it needs to be supported with some theory or background information.

New Phone Pedagogy

When I get a new phone, it might come with a manual. But I’m not going to read the entire manual before I use the phone. I’m going to look at the ‘Getting Started’ instructions.

This allows me to turn the phone on and understand how it basically operates. Then I’m going to play with the phone. If I come across a problem or a feature I don’t understand, then I go to the manual and look it up, but mostly I learn how to use my new phone by using my new phone.

When I start a new unit, I ask myself, what is the bare minimum of information students need to be able to discover things for themselves? 

I could spend a week on the context, or have students research these topics, or have them watch documentaries as homework, but I really want to get into the play. This doesn’t mean students won’t want more information while reading the play, but that will grow out of honest inquiry as we read through the play: Why would he act like that? Why would the author use that word? Why is this so hard to follow? etc.

Likewise, I boiled down the elements of a student essay, which I encourage students to stray from as they are ready to do so. We can get through this very quickly and get writing, asking and answering questions as we work.

I’m interested in inquiry-based learning, but I’m interested in its practical application rather than as an ideal. New Phone Pedagogy is a way for me to understand the role traditional learning might play in empowering students to have learning experiences that invite greater inquiry.


teaching & learning in a 1:1 classroom

A few weeks ago, each of my IB Diploma students (grades 11-12) received their own MacBook Air laptop and started bringing it to class. I'll admit that I hadn't really thought out how this would change my classes as well as I should have. I knew I wanted students to be creators, not just receivers, I knew I wanted them to share and collaborate, but I hadn't thought out what it would look like on a practical level. I've been experimenting, so I want to blog about what I've done and how it's gone.

My grade 12 IB Diploma Language and Literature class are doing a unit on bias and journalism. (For #langNlit peeps, I'm doing HL part 1 and part 2 topics setting up for written task 2s.) Last year, we went through some readings and examples of journalism displaying both ideological and structural bias, and more significantly efforts to avoid bias and evaluating how successful those were. I am really pushing the whole 'We Learn by Doing' mantra, so I gave them some readings and videos to look at one day, and then gave them an assignment that started fairly vague and got more specific as we worked on it.

And when I say we, I mean we. I had never given this assignment before, and I wanted to see what it was like to produce the thing I was asking for. So I made my own.

In class, they were working on theirs and I worked on mine, and we asked each other questions about the concepts and the process. As I faced challenges, I asked them if they had the same issues, and we talked through those.

For example, a significant addition to the assignment was suggested by a student. She said, as we all worked in class, that she found it difficult to talk about her news story without recognizing her own bias. Should that be included? It was a revelation, and once I was able to recognize my own bias, it made my assignment so much easier. So we added it to the assignment, and I think next year that will be an even larger part of the unit and the assessment.

For years, I have read about guiding students through a process by doing it myself. With the technology, as students work in class rather than at home, I have the time to do that work along side them, communicating as a fellow creator rather than just an assessor. I have no idea how the actual assignments will turn out -- I finished mine early with the hope that my example would spur them on to better things -- but regardless, it has been a good experience for me, creating a pattern a plan to follow more often.

I wonder, though, if I do a similar assignment next year, will I make another one? We'll see.


on teaching writing

By ed_needs_a_bicycle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/omcoc/3050378171/
My approach to writing has been evolving over the past 20 years. I started teaching writing as a peer tutor in a university writing center, working with students on specific assignments. I was teaching a highly prescriptive style, but one that worked for the type of writing they were doing, and one that served my 'clients:' people who needed to write rather than those who wrote for the joy of putting words together. That experience of sitting with students and going through their essays carefully has served me extremely well over the years.

I find that I want to talk about principles of writing as much as as I want to talk about rules of writing. However, most of my students need a firm handle on the practical matters before they are ready to talk theory (if they ever are, for many of them). So, like so much of teaching, I am balancing between the concrete and the conceptual, and helping students find the bridges between the two.

In no particular order, here are some of the principles I use as a composition teacher:
  • Students need a basic boilerplate which from they can start, but it is only a start. I've never liked calling it the 5 paragraph essay, as if the number of paragraphs matters in the slightest, but the thesis-driven essay with topic sentences and specific elements of support transitioned together is a good starting point for most students. However, it is only a starting point. If a student can explain why they are doing something else, then by all means they should do something else if it serves their purpose and audience. The scaffold is not the building: once they are ready to do their own thing, then I let them go.
  • I have been emphasizing two-part essays as one way to work with ideas. As I've pushed tension as a literary and cultural idea, the two-part essay allows them to explore that tension in on way or another. That does not mean that they will have only 2 body paragraphs, however: they can have any number of body paragraphs with the effective use of transitions.
  • Process really, really matters. Good writing happens through a meaningful process, and again some guidance is usually needed for new or less confident writers. But at some point they need to adapt the process to their own learning style and time commitments. And the process can only be measured by the effect on the final product. In other words, following a carefully outlined process is meaningless if the published text is not effective.
  • Students need clear and specific rubrics. The MYP criteria work very well for this as long as I make specific annotations to make the application to the specific writing assignment clear. Students should be able to define the specific questions they need to ask themselves about their work.
  • Students also need models of solid, accesible essay writing, and I need the experience of writing them. I need to be involved in the writing process now, not recalling it from 20 years ago. Some teachers feel like the models limit student creativity, but in my experience the models give students a guide to how to work with mundane details so they can focus on being creative. 
  • I have been pushing audacity as a quality of writing, even the most basic literary essay. I find that many of my best students can write correctly, but they have little to say. It is the old problem of getting them to develop an idea that goes beyond stating the obvious or repeating class discussions back to me. I try to write prompts that allow for a level of audacious thinking, and I encourage them to give me their reading, their understanding. We talk more about making an argument than writing an essay.
  • Technology makes it possible for me to be more involved in the process. In the olden days, I set essays and they worked on them at home, bringing in (maybe) one draft. Now we schedule 2-3 blocks of computer use during class time to work on written (and oral) tasks, and I can go around and check on the process as often as I or they want. It has completely changed the way I interact with student writers, and class time becomes a workshop. I've returned to my role as writing center tutoring. Peer assessment and appropriate collaboration (running ideas past each other) are also a much bigger part of the writing process as we work together in class.
  • I encourage students to use feedback from written tasks to formulate their own goal setting and process assessment. When starting a task, I usually have them go back and look at the last written task to see what went well and what they might want to adjust, compensate for or focus on.


popular media, power & representation

This is a unit that I put together as a way to spark some ideas for Language and Literature Written Task 2, an essay that focuses more on context than content and that needs to be about language in context and/or language in mass media.

Here is the significant concept of the unit:
Popular media needs to be fairly well grounded in the values of the culture for which it is produced, even when challenging some of those values; the representation of groups who have power and those who are marginalized in that culture are related to those values.
So here's what I did:


To understand what we mean by popular culture, I asked them to come up with a list of 10 media and place them on a spectrum:

needs to be popular -------------------------------------------- art for art's sake

They cleverly sliced genres open to make it more effective, identifying that some films are made for arthouse theaters or to win awards than to make money, and so on. We had an interesting discussion about how publicly funded television and pay cable television can take risks commercial networks cannot, and how changes to music distribution in the last 10 years has changed the output of music. Anyway, it got us thinking about the function of popular culture and it's status as a product of, for lack of a better phrase, human ingenuity. 


I made sure everyone had a device (laptop or tablet) and asked them to find an example of popular culture that met two criteria:
  1. It is culturally significant in some way.
  2. As a viewer, you understand its cultural significance. 
We had an interesting conversation about the need to be able to understand popular media and at the same time be objective about it. In other words, if it's something aimed at me as a consumer, can I step back from my enjoyment of it or engagement with it and do an analysis of it? It was one of those wonderful TOK moments.

Students went to work and found a variety of 'texts,' all of them YouTube clips. Here is a rough sample of what they found:

Then I asked them to answer some questions about their text and be ready to share:
  • Does the text support or challenge the values of the culture to which it is meant to appeal? Explain which values and how it does this.
  • If it is challenging values, how does it do so in a way that makes it OK for the mass audience?
  • In the text, what social groups and/or individual attributes are shown to be dominant or more positive?
  • What social groups and/or individual attributes are shown to be weak or less positive?
  • What social groups seem to be significantly absent from the text? Why?
So far, we have only dealt with the first two questions. Students shared in small groups and were asked to come to a consensus, which they did very easily. They found that the popular culture texts are rooted pretty deeply in the cultural values, even if they were stretching them to some degree.

It may seem like a long walk for a fairly basic conclusion, but students were able to make valid observations about almost random texts, and they were able to learn by doing: applying general analytical skills developed throughout the course applied to different sorts of texts.

The next step will be to look at how different groups are represented in popular media. We might use some of these texts to jump into this, but I want to show how the representations are generally consistent with the values of the culture, or at least make concessions to those values.

Here's the text we are going to start with as a class:


experiencing language

I didn't really understand the concept of pi until I was in my mid 20s, long past the point where I was actually using it. I knew pi was roughly 3.14, and I knew how it fit into the formulas for finding area and circumference, but I didn't get the concept. In one of my teacher training courses, somebody did a sample lesson in which we measured the circumference and radius of several round objects and found the ratio each time. I was amazed to find that they were all the same! Suddenly I had a practical understanding of the concept of pi. It was an important learning moment for me as a teacher.

I am currently doing a fairly abstract topic in my grade 10 English class: we are looking at the history of the English language and identifying concepts about language use and change that apply to their own language experience. The facts of the history are less important than the concepts. I have devised some easy texts for them to experience Old English and Middle English on a manageable scale, and I wanted them to have even more hands-on experience with the reality of language change.

I devised this Google presentation. (If I have the whole class using the same Google doc at the same time, I tend to use slides. It's less distracting.) Slide 4 shows what they all looked like when we started.  It took me a little while to find appropriate lists of synonyms, but they did a great job with the etymology dictionary, and they were able to identify the differing levels of usage compared to the source of the language. They also were able to connect these words to the historical events we had studied. Yes, I could have handed them the concept that words that came into English through Latin and French have a higher status today than those that came through Old English and Old Norse, but because they discover that themselves, it creates a sort of mental muscle memory, to kill the metaphor.

I will teach the same unit to another class next semester, and I will probably adjust this a little to formalize the report of their conclusions. But generally, I was very happy with how this went.