Throw out the day plans and follow your students 

Many educators today are faced with students who want to discuss nothing other than the US election… even in countries outside of America. My class was no different. So when one of my students asked “Can we spend some time today talking about the election?” I had two options.

1. Say no and offer an explanation about our lack of time due to assessments, report deadlines, and being behind in our unit…

Or

2. Throw out the day plans, clear the schedule and go for it.

I chose the latter. I told the students that if they were interested they could come participate in a class discussion about the US election. About 90% opted to be part of the discussion and the rest of the class followed along with their pre-planned schedule. I decided to take on the role of facilitator, to allow students to explore their own and each other’s perspectives and ideas, instead of listening to mine.

It was great on so many different levels:

From a social/emotional stand point…

My students had very strong emotions about the US election. This gave them a safe place to share that they were sad, worried, upset, nervous, and confused. There were moments of tears and moments of laughter – lots of big, genuine emotions… noticed, named and shared within the safe space of our classroom community.

From a learning stand point… 

We learned about democracy. We learned about the US electoral system. We learned about the US branches of government. We inquired into the composition of the house, the senate and the cabinet. We learned new words like “advisor”.  We learned about the different states in the US. We discussed concepts of power, influence, and prejudice.

From a critical thinking stand point…

We discussed the importance of reliable sources and recent information. We learned how to ask the very important question “how do you know that?”. We talked about facts, opinion,  bias, rumour and propaganda.  We compared sources of news (BBC, CNN, SnapChat, ,YouTube).

Students wondered if you could ever be sure about the reliability of a source. Students questioned whether the current electoral system was the most fair way to choose a president. Students challenged the notion of children not being able to vote. Students were curious as to why there can only be one president and why it can’t be a shared position.

From an international mindedness stand point…

Students compared the US electoral system to that of their home country – Canada, Portugal, Kuwait. Students explored the concept of open-mindedness. Students discussed the desire to learn more about their own country’s government. Students discussed international relations. Students explored the common humanity of all people, regardless of colour, culture of religion.

It was open. It was honest. It was amazing.

As educators, we often spend hours among hours trying to plan for learning that is significant, relevant, challenging and engaging… when often times the most significant, relevant, challenging and engaging learning is not something we plan for in advance, but instead something we need to listen for and notice.

And most importantly, when those moments of opportunity appear, we must be willing to throw out our day plans and follow our students.

Are our authentic assessments truly “authentic”?

Most educators around the world are currently committed to creating “authentic” assessments. A way to measure students’ learning in a “real life” way.

But here are some examples of authentic assessments I have seen or heard about:

“pretend you are a designer”

“imagine you write for a magazine”

I began to wonder… if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something in their “authentic” assessment, isn’t that by nature inauthentic?

So I looked up the definition of the word “authentic”…

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-9-16-04-am

and the word “inauthentic”…

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-8-21-14-am

It seems like if we are asking our students to do something that is not real, accurate, true or sincere then it’s not really authentic. We’re merely mimicking what happens in the real world, without allowing our students to participate in or contribute to the actual real world.

I’m not discounting that these types of assessment tasks are an improvement from traditional tests and quizzes, but calling them “authentic” might be a bit of a stretch. I think if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something, then that’s quasi-authentic or pseudo-authentic at best.

Should we settle for quasi or psuedo-authentic tasks? Or should we be aiming for truly authentic ways for students to demonstrate their learning and apply new skills?

I vote the latter.

In this day and age, with the help of technology, students don’t need to pretend to be bloggers, magazine writers, podcasters, advocates, speakers, inventors, creators, designers, teachers, publishers….

they can actually be and do those things. Authentically.

A class misunderstood…

I knew this year was going to be hard. I knew that I wanted to take risks, innovate, and try new things. I knew that many people would have different perspectives and opinions about what I was doing. I knew that I would have to stand up for my beliefs, my philosophy and what was happening in the classroom. I knew that I would probably have to explain myself… justify myself… defend myself…

I just didn’t know my students would have to as well. 

Today one of my students was chatting with me at recess and sharing his frustration that many people think all we do is play.

“Miss, it is not okay that they think all we do is play all day because we do a lot of learning and they don’t think we do. It’s not fair.”

I tried to sympathize with his frustration and tell him that we can feel confident in the amazing learning that takes place in our class and that I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. The he told me something very interesting.

“Miss, it’s not only students who misunderstand us, it’s also teachers.”

… oh really!? Tell me more about that!

“I was walking to the library with myself and a teacher stopped me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the library. She asked my name. I told her. She asked who my teacher was and I told her. When she found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class, she asked if we actually ever do any learning in there. So I told her, yes we do so much learning. Then she asked what we were learning about it. I told her we were learning about relationships and perspectives. Then she asked if all we are learning about is relationships and perspectives how are we doing any math. So I told her were learning about perspectives and relationships in math. Like how everyone has a different perspective when solving  problem and that numbers and shapes are connected in many ways.”

Then a different student who was sitting close by chimed in…

“Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me! I was walking in the hall and a teacher stopped me and asked my name and my teacher. When they found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class they also asked if we ever did any learning. So I told her we do a lot of learning. She asked about what. I told her about relationships and perspectives. She asked if we were learning any knowledge. I told her we were learning so much knowledge like relationships that happen in nature, human relationships, perspectives in art, how technology affects relationships and more!”

I can’t remember a time where I felt more proud of my students. Not only are they able to understand our approach to learning, but they are able to advocate for it, and defend it! When confronted by a teacher, they were able to explain our concept-based approach to acquiring knowledge. They were able to point out the transdisciplinary way that we have been approaching math and literacy. And most importantly they were able to be critical thinkers and confidently share an opinion different from an authority figure in a respectful, but self-assued way.

They might not get us…. but we definitely get us!

The initial frustration at being misunderstood by students and teachers has turned into a class inside-joke. Now my students kid with one another and me by saying  “we don’t learn  anything”, “no learning in Miss Taryn’s class”, “all we do is play all day”.

The cherry on top (as if it could get any better!) was a student who came up to me after this conversation and said…

“Miss I’ve been thinking. What are the point of grades? They are just letters and numbers – but it’s so hard to make a letter or number that measures our learning. I think I’m going to write a blog post about it to share my perspective on this issue.”

My school’s mission focuses on creating critical thinkers and contributing world citizens. Check and check.

… even if that comes at the cost of being misunderstood and misrepresented…

we can take it.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators when faced with rethinking traditional educational practices and embracing new practices, literacies and technologies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-52-59-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-53-20-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-54-40-am

And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-05-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-02-52-am

One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-29-amscreen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-43-am

Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-35-am

Through thinglinks:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-00-10-am

Through blogs:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-06-03-am

Through memes:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-07-38-am

This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to prepare students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators to embrace new practices, new approaches to teaching and learning, new technology, and new literacies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced that this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-52-59-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-53-20-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-54-40-am

And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-05-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-02-52-am

One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-29-am screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-43-am

Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-35-am

Through thinglinks:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-00-10-am

Through blogs:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-06-03-am

Through memes:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-07-38-am

This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to preparing students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

image

My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

screen-shot-2016-08-31-at-3-43-31-pm

screen-shot-2016-08-31-at-3-41-55-pm

screen-shot-2016-08-31-at-3-41-18-pm

screen-shot-2016-08-31-at-3-41-06-pm

Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-4-50-19-pm

I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.