Yes, No, Maybe So!

The other day, I was skimming through some tweets, and I happened to see this one by William Chamberlain: a teacher from Noel, Missouri.

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He was having a discussion with a Keely Shannon, a teacher from Florida, and I just had to chime in. You see, if you spoke to me on Monday, I would tell you that I hate worksheets. (And I know that hate is a strong word, and it’s one that I rarely use, but I really felt this passionately against using worksheets.) I speak in the past tense here because as our conversation evolved, my thinking did as well.

The problem is that I have images that come to mind every time that I hear the word “worksheet.”

  • It’s a blackline master.
  • There is no thinking involved.
  • It often involves fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice questions.
  • It’s a closed task.
  • It’s very low-level work.
  • There is no differentiation.
  • It’s rarely engaging.
  • There’s probably going to be some colouring involved. (As you can probably tell, I taught primary for 11 years, and I have images of the seasonal worksheets with the colour-by-number options or the huge graphs in one of the corners.)

When I read William’s tweet, it was these thoughts that had me replying with a barrage of tweets highlighting my many concerns with worksheets. I still have all of these concerns, and you will never find me photocopying class sets of worksheets, but it was one of William’s final tweets that really had me thinking.

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Students need to practice skills. There are many ways to do so. I think that inquiry can allow students to practice skills, but in a meaningful context. As they explore more, read more, and ask more questions, they also learn more. Even in math, a real world problem can have students practising skills, but also thinking and applying what they learned. I did this almost every day last year with my Grade 5′s, and as the year progressed and I learned more from others, I got better at making this happen. Much of what we did last year didn’t require a worksheet for practice, but sometimes it did (or at least for some students).

And then, I think about my students with autism. Every day, I broke down all of their learning into sets of task analysis. This was not a blackline master worksheet, but I guess that it was a worksheet of sorts. It explained, step-by-step, what they had to do. They checked off the steps as they went along. The activities were tailored specifically for them and their needs. There were always elements of choice. Sometimes this work was independent, and sometimes it was for group work, but the worksheet allowed them to take control of their own learning and meet with success. I would use this kind of worksheet again.

I won’t use the fill-in-the-blanks worksheets. I won’t use the colour-by-number ones. For almost all students, I won’t use the worksheets with reams of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and/or division questions spread out on them, but maybe for those few students that need to review these skills, I would give a few to parents – even if only as an option for at-home use. And it’s with this thinking that I realize that using worksheets may not be a clear-cut yes/no problem. Maybe we need to ask these questions instead:

  • Why are we using these worksheets?
  • How are these worksheets benefitting students?
  • Do these worksheets meet the needs of all students? If not, how might this impact on how we use them?
  • Do these worksheets address all levels of the achievement chart (something that is important when it comes to the Ontario Curriculum)? If not, how are we ensuring that we address all levels of the achievement chart?
  • If we’re not using worksheets, what could we use instead? Why?

Maybe it’s not a matter of just jumping on or jumping off the worksheet bandwagon, but instead, thinking carefully about our choices and realizing that sometimes worksheets might be good for some and not for all, and sometimes, we can just save the paper and explore a different option. I think that it’s also important to remember that not all worksheets are created equally, and our thinking may change depending on the quality of the worksheet and the opportunities for student choice and higher-level thinking. How do you decide when to use worksheets? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks you see in doing so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hot topic!

Aviva

Do We Always Need To Help?

I had an interesting conversation with my step-dad on the way to summer school this morning. My step-dad is a director, principal, and high school teacher at a private school, and over the years, he’s taught me a lot about teaching and learning. This discussion though really made me think.

We were talking about when students struggle. Sometimes they find the work challenging. Sometimes they’re not sure of the answer. Sometimes they don’t know where to begin. Usually, when students have difficulties, they ask for help from the adult in the room: be it a teacher, educational assistant, principal, parent, or volunteer. And as adults, I think that we want to help. We want to see students succeed, and often with our help, they do.

  • How much help though is too much help?
  • If we give students the answer, are we helping them?
  • How can we help students best?
  • When, if ever, should we (adults) choose not to help? What could we do instead?

Then there comes the next part of this problem. When students meet with success (either with our help or an alternate way) and can do the work on their own, what do we do next? There’s a certain comfort that comes with “success.” When all students know what to do, and all students can do the work well, teaching becomes easier. The classroom becomes quieter. There are far fewer issues. But when it gets to this point, are we really helping students move to the next level? How can we push them forward? 

As adults, and as students, learning new things can be hard. For the students that my step-dad works with, almost all of them have special needs. Learning new things is then usually incredibly hard. Often this learning comes with frustration. Sometimes this learning comes with tears. But letting students push through these difficulties, allowing them to struggle and then succeed, and balancing the need for support and independence, seems to make sense to me. If we want students to see that they’re ultimately in charge of their own learning, then in some way, don’t we need to give them the opportunity to take this control? 

As educators, administrators, and/or parents, how do you respond when student or adult learners need help? How do you continually push for improvement? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions!

Aviva

 

Does “Getting Along” Mean That We Have To Agree?

Last night, I blogged about the teacher/administrator relationship after a very exciting Twitter conversation yesterday. I really enjoyed reading and thinking about the varied comments on this post, but it was a combination of Jonathan and Kristi‘s comments that really got me thinking again. The ideas are actually best summed up in the comment below.

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These words actually made me go back and re-read my blog post. They made me reconsider some of my initial questions. You see, even if as teachers, we always start with the students in mind, discussions may not always result in what we want. Administrators are also thinking about student needs (along with teacher needs, parent needs, community needs, and Board requirements – and please forgive me if I left something else out). As Jonathan and Kristi mention, we need to assume “positive intentions.” Maybe we also need to realize that we might not always be happy with decisions.

But if we talk to administrators and hear these different perspectives, would our understanding of their viewpoints change? Would we develop a stronger relationship with them, even if we don’t always agree? Sometimes not agreeing, and having to try something new, can be a great thing! I think back to my first year teaching a Grade 1/2 split when we started learning about TLCP Boards and Bump It Up Walls. I had students with a wide range of learning needs, and I questioned how all of my students could effectively use these boards. I had numerous conversations with my principal expressing these concerns. The bottom line was though, I needed to give them a try. However, through the conversations, my principal asked me some great questions. I attended different inservices, including an excellent one that was put on by my last vice principal (who was a curriculum consultant at the time). These questions and inservices got me thinking, and tools such as the Livescribe Pen, helped me differentiate the TLCP Board and Bump It Up Wall so that everybody really could use it. Years later, I still believe that the initial concerns that I expressed to my principal made sense, but hearing her rationale and then having her support, helped me when I had to make the change anyway. Relationships matter, and even when we don’t always agree, we can come to understand and appreciate the other point of view.

How do you help understand different viewpoints in education (i.e., teacher, administrator, Board member, community member, parent, and student)? How does this understanding influence your own point of view? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Aviva

Can’t We All Just “Get Along?”

Today, I engaged in a Twitter discussion about technology, 1:1 devices, pedagogy, and change. This was the kind of conversation that makes limits of 140 characters a definite difficulty. I was glad when Sue Dunlop suggested the use of a Google Hangout, and I do hope that we can arrange something in the future. While this online conversation certainly made me think about many potential blog posts, there is one topic in particular that has me asking questions tonight: the teacher/administrator relationship.

Over my 13 years in education, I have worked with many different principals and vice principals. I’ve gotten to know multiple Directors of Education and numerous superintendents. I’ve listened to them speak. I’ve emailed them questions. We’ve discussed issues together. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we disagree, but I’ve always felt as though my voice has been heard. I’ve always felt as though we could work together. And with this in mind, it made me sad today to think that people would feel the way that Andrew Campbell mentions in his tweet (as part of our discussion on “change”).

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I would hope that the answer to this follow-up question of mine is always a “yes.”

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But the problem is that this is not the first time that I’ve heard similar comments to the one that Andrew made. This is not the first time that I’ve read tweets such as the one below.

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  • If we start our discussions with “the students,” how can our comments not be heard?
  • How can we share “problems” (at a school or Board level), while also posing “solutions?”
  • How can we take system and school requirements, and make them work for our students and their needs?
  • How can teachers and administrators work as a team, eliminating the hierarchy (if there is one)?
  • How can we consistently create a positive teacher/administrator connection, and what impact would this have on our students?

Maybe my experiences are different than others. Maybe in my ongoing attempt to be positive (thanks to my previous admin team, Paul and Kristi), I’m seeing the world of education through rose coloured glasses. Maybe I’m missing something here. But I can’t help but wonder, if we really want change to happen, and we want to sustain growth, don’t we all need to “get along” (i.e., having teachers and administrators that listen, share, question, and support each other)? How do we do this?

Aviva

 

A Blank Slate

Yesterday, I happened to catch Miss Night‘s tweet about the new Kinderblog Challenge, and as somebody that’s been constantly thinking about classroom set-up since the end of June, I’m very eager to participate in this challenge.

2014-07-22_07-13-34The truth is that setting up a classroom often overwhelms me. As somebody that struggles with visual spatial skills (my parking skills being the best example of this :) ), figuring out how to organize a classroom is very difficult. Here’s what I usually do:

  1. Get all of the small items on shelves or in cupboards. Then I can see the big picture.
  2. Move the desks and chairs to the outside of the room. I need to see a blank space.
  3. Start moving around and playing with furniture.
  4. Stand at the door and see what it looks like.
  5. Move furniture around again.
  6. Stand again and observe.
  7. Walk around and get the feel of the room.
  8. Repeat! Repeat! Repeat! :)

Then, when I feel good about the furniture arrangement, I take some photographs, tweet them, and email them to my parents (who are both in education and often act as my “classroom advisors” :) ). I ask for feedback, and then I start making more changes. I really need this outside perspective!

One of the most important voices in classroom arrangement though, comes a little later — at the beginning of September — when the students arrive. We look at how the room is arranged. We work and learn in the environment, and then we make changes based on all of our needs. My Grade 1′s may be young, but their voices are still important ones to hear, and often their voices are varied, so the room needs to match these variations.

  • Some students like to work with others. Some like to work alone.
  • Some students enjoy sitting at desks or tables. Others feel more comfortable on the floor.
  • Some students like lots of visuals to capture their interest and inspire their creations. Other students need the calmness of a blank wall and a quiet space.

But all students need room: room to think, room to spread out, room to converse, and room to create. So no matter what, I’m going to try hard to give them this space, and then we can work together to create the different areas in the room to match with the different needs of the students. A room is just a space, but it’s amazing the impact that this space has on student learning.

When the year begins, there will be a lot of blank bulletin boards, with neutral coloured paper, different desk and table groupings, alternate seating options, such as beanbag chairs and a bench if possible, and lots of open areas for students to learn alone or together and where furniture can be rearranged as needed. It’s a new year, a new school, and a new grade: together, we will make this “blank slate” into our classroom. I can’t wait!

A Look At My New Grade 1 Classroom

A Look At My New Grade 1 Classroom

How would you respond to this Kinderblog Challenge? What advice do you have for me as I keep thinking ahead to the September start-up? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Aviva

 

Is “The Pen” Mightier Than “The Tablet?”

I’m not a huge sports fan, but I’ve watched many people watch sports on TV before. There’s usually always somebody yelling at the screen. I’m often amazed by this: why talk to the screen? It’s not like the person’s going to hear you. Last night, I understood why people respond in this way though because I responded in a similar way – not to sports on TV, but to a Ted Talk on my computer.

Late last night, I saw a tweet and received an email from my new principal, Gerry, with this Ted Talk about “penmanship for the 21st Century.”

After a few minutes of watching it, some initial thoughts came to mind:

  1. I have no idea where I can find a pen at home. I’m not even exaggerating here. As I sat on the sofa viewing the video, I could pinpoint where I might find a marker and possibly where a crayon exists, but I honestly don’t think I have a pen. :)
  2. The “summer of cursive” continues. This is like the debate that never ends, and this Ted Talk had me thinking about it again.

The truth is that my thoughts on this Ted Talk evolved as I watched more of it. At first I was upset. I thought about the students that struggle with fine motor skills. In a world of “the pen,” how are we preparing them for success? One thing that people tend to notice quickly about me is that my hands always shake. I have a familial tremor, and sometimes this shaking is far more noticeable than others. Writing with a pen is a huge struggle for me. I have to put a lot of pressure to hold it still, and over time, this additional pressure causes me a lot of hand and shoulder pain. The computer completely changed my school experience! I still don’t know how to type “correctly,” but with the use of my thumb, one finger on my right hand, and two to three on my left, I can type up to 80 words a minute. Connect my computer to a projector, and now I can keep up with the thoughts that the students share with me and want recorded for others to see. A small device, but a big bonus!

That being said, I think that students need to see the modelling of cursive writing and/or printing. While writing may be a struggle for me, 14 years in the classroom have helped me improve, and my printing and cursive writing are neat even if I am a bit slower. I probably write as many notes on chart paper as I do on a computer because there is value to having certain items available for students to easily access later … even when the computer is in use. And while typing works well for me, it doesn’t work for everyone. In this Ted Talk, Jake talks about the creative process that happens as you write. I’ve heard about this before, and the value in cursive writing for remembering as well as developing ideas. The truth is, I’ve never experienced this though. When I type things, I remember them. I can take a piece of paper and try valiantly to compose a blog post, generate ideas, or write a letter, but it’s not until I get on a computer and start typing, that my ideas start flowing. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Nothing would surprise me. :) Maybe it’s because I often talk as I write: in fact, I find my mouth moving now as I compose this blog post. It could be the connection between hearing the ideas aloud and viewing them on the screen that helps with writing and recalling. Maybe it’s that everybody’s different, and one way — be it cursive writing or typing — doesn’t work for all. That’s why we need to use and model many options, and give students the opportunity to find out what works for them.

I also wonder, if as educators, we need to re-examine the connection between cursive writing and visual arts. Towards the end of the Ted Talk, I saw what Jake created – not just as a writer, but as an artist — and I really “saw” the elements of design. I started to think about visual arts and poetry, and what a wonderful link we could make between Language and The Arts by exploring the stroke of a pen. In many ways, I think that I have such an emotional response to “cursive writing” because all that I think about are the worksheets and the writing booklets, where students are not “writing” but merely “copying.” They start to judge their work not by the quality of their ideas, but by the neatness of their penmanship, which is only loosely connected to curriculum expectations. Copying is not creating, and just like I’m not an advocate of typing programs, I’m not an advocate of printing or writing ones either.

You see, in my opinion, a pen, just like a computer, is merely a tool. The tool is not what produces change: it’s how we use the tool that matters. And just like with tablets, laptops, and Smart Phones, we need to help our students make good choices about when and how to select different tool options. I may never write a letter, essay, or story by hand (this option doesn’t work for me), but I do print notes to students, I do write feedback with a pen (when I can find one :) ), and I do write To Do Lists by hand (often with a marker :) ) — for there’s something about that personal connection and/or the act of “crossing things off” that makes a difference. So as a teacher, just as I “think aloud” as I generate ideas for writing, maybe I also need to “think aloud” as I select my best tool for the task. (I think that I also need students to understand that it’s okay that everybody has a different “best tool.”) Hopefully this will help the students see the value in all tools – not as items, but as creation opportunities! What do you think? What role does “the pen” play in your classroom? Let the #summerofcursive — or maybe just the #summerofthepen – live on just a little bit longer! :)

Aviva

The Primary And Junior “Me” Trying To Come To A Decision

I’m about to begin my 14th year teaching. Twelve of those years have been in primary: from JK-Grade 2. For the past couple of years though, I’ve been in a junior classroom: both Grade 5 and Grade 6. I’m thrilled to be going back to Grade 1, and my mind is already on September. This is the first year that I’ll get a chance to teach students that have experienced Full Day Kindergarten, and I’m excited to get to extend inquiry into Grade 1. Among other things, what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is teaching math.

Last year, I was lucky enough to have numerous conversations with my vice principal, Kristi, about teaching math. Kristi’s hard questions – which I always appreciate – made me reconsider the use of games in the math classroom (especially board games). I tried all year to make math meaningful, and as the year progressed, my Grade 5′s really started to understand why we use math and how different concepts interconnect. We still worked on computations, but also stressed thinking. As you can see from this guest blog post, the students enjoyed this approach, and continuing to work on real world math and teaching through big ideas were areas that I wanted to focus on for this year.

But as my mind wanders to a new school year, the primary and junior “me” conflict. I can’t help but think back to the last time that I taught Grade 1 three years ago.

  • I remember the rote counting.
  • I remember the skip counting.
  • I remember the adding and subtracting games.
  • I remember the use of various math tools.
  • I remember the math centres.
  • I remember the computer and iPad games.
  • I remember the manipulatives that changed with the seasons and changed with student interests (e.g., dinosaur ones for those that loved dinosaurs).

I know that the students enjoyed these tools and activities. I know that they learned new math skills, and I know that they could show me what they learned.

  • Did the students learn how to think though?
  • Did the students understand why they were learning what they were learning?
  • Did the students see the interconnection between concepts?
  • Did the students see math as more than just something that we “do” in school?

I’m not so sure that I could confidently answer “yes” to any of these questions. I know that Grade 1′s are young. I know that they’re learning new math skills that will be important as they move up in the grades. I know that students learn through play, and I know that games are “play.” But inquiry is about more than “play,” and real world connections make learning meaningful. We need high expectations for all of our students … even our youngest ones. With all of this in mind, I think that I need a new approach to teaching math than I had the last time that I taught Grade 1. I think that my junior experiences have influenced my primary ones, and it’s time to make a change.

Here’s to examining video provocations, books, home experiences, and school experiences, and making math more than just a series of expectations to cover. Contrary to what I did before, I now want to let the students see the value in their new learning. This is where I need the help of my PLN though: how do you use real world math in the primary classroom? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Aviva – Determined To Make A Change :)