ROLE Rotation

On Friday, I met for coffee with two amazing Grade 5 teachers in the Board — Michelle Fawcett and Adele Stanfield — to do some planning for this year. Just as we were about to begin, Adele mentioned a book that she read called Role Reversal that really had her thinking. Thanks to the wonders of Amazon’s “one-click” shopping, I had the book downloaded in seconds and started reading it that night.

Now that I’ve finished reading it, I’m left with many mixed feelings. Numerous ideas shared in Mark Barnes‘ book excite me!

  • I love that a ROLE (Results-Only Learning Environment) classroom emphasizes the importance of collaboration, the importance of feedback throughout the learning process, the importance of using feedback to make changes to work and develop “mastery,” and the importance of doing all of this without the use of grades. Students learn because they are intrinsically motivated to learn. Reading anecdotes about students that went back to correct their work, even when there was no mark assigned, makes me incredibly happy as a teacher. This desire to push themselves to do better is something that I want for my students as well. 
  • I love the year long assignments. As I reflected on last year, two areas that I really wanted to focus on for this year were having the students read more and having the students write more. Mark’s book challenge and diary activity would allow for both increased reading and increased writing. I can also see how these assignments would align with my desire to increase the use of inquiry in the classroom. Many of the ideas mentioned in Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action could be used for these assignments: from reading with a question in mind to sharing their learning in various ways. The possibilities are endless!
  • I love the emphasis on self-evaluation. Mark shows different ways that students can evaluate their own work and eventually determine their grade in the class. Having options for student conferences as well as written feedback allows all students to share their thinking behind their evaluation. (Please note that in the book it appears that “assessment” refers to a mark and “evaluation” refers to feedback, where in the past, I’ve been taught the opposite. I use the terms here as I’m used to hearing them, with assessment meaning feedback and evaluation meaning a mark.)
  • I love moving away from worksheets, workbooks, and textbooks. These open-ended projects allow for such meaningful student work. By using various resources and taking control of their own learning, students can dig deeper into a variety of topics. As Mark mentions, learning can be “fun,” and I love having fun at school with the students!
  • I love the idea of eliminating tests and quizzes and replacing them with assignments. Especially as it’s described in the book, these assignments move away from regurgitation of ideas and onto application of facts. Last year, I only gave tests occasionally and only in math. Often though, even in math, I would assign projects instead, that would allow students to show me what they learned and de-emphasize memorized details. Could I teach without the use of any tests? Maybe.
  • I love that the teacher talks less and the students talk and work more. Yes, I like to talk, and I probably talk more than I should in class. I started to videotape my lessons to see how I could reduce my “talking time.” As I started to get students working on more projects last year, I started to talk less to the class and work more with small groups. I loved it, and I think that the students benefitted from the extra support. I’ll definitely do this again!
  • I love the use of technology for documenting learning and sharing learning with others. I am already thinking about how our HWDSB Commons Blogging Platform could be used for similar documentation options. I love how public blogs allow for an authentic audience for student work, and I’m wondering if Desire2Learn and private comments could allow for public sharing of work but private feedback.
  • I love hearing Mark’s positive news about standardized test results. As mentioned in Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action, standardized test scores increased with the use of inquiry in the classroom, and Mark’s results were the same. As a Grade 5/6 teacher in Ontario, some of my students will be writing EQAO this year, and I’d love to have similar results. When e-mailing my principal this summer about inquiry, I jokingly mentioned that this could be a focus for my Annual Learning Plan. Considering the statistics shared in the books, maybe it will be!

I also have numerous questions after reading Mark’s book.

  • Mark said that a ROLE classroom works well for students with various learning needs, but when he shared stories about these students in his book, I read about more problems than success stories. Some students mentioned that they didn’t understand the assignments. Other students struggled with the freedom in this kind of classroom environment. How is this environment be successful for them? 
  • Mark mentioned earlier in the book that he successfully taught students with autism in a ROLE classroom. This really interested me, as I have a student with autism in my class this year. If this environment would be successful for her, I’d love to know more about it. He didn’t share a specific story about a student with autism though, so I don’t know the specifics of how this classroom environment met his/her needs. My concerns would be that ROLE classrooms can be louder and less-structured than other classroom environments, and many students with autism struggle with increased noise and decreased structure. How is a student with autism successful in a ROLE classroom?
  • While I love the independence that a ROLE classroom provides, it sometimes seemed like there was a lack of parent/teacher communication. Students may not be completing their projects on time, but the teacher is not communicating this information to the parents. While, come report card time, students know that they deserve a C or a D because of their work performance, parents are surprised by low marks or even decreased marks from a previous term. Is there a way to give students autonomy while also communicating student performance regularly to parents? 
  • While I see tons of value in small group and independent work, I’m confused by Mark’s comment about the problems with guided reading. Wouldn’t this type of reading support be perfect in this small group environment? Even if students are reading different books, they can be in the same guided group based on reading strategies. Guided groups don’t need to be levelled groups. While working one-to-one with students is great, it takes much longer to see and conference with all students. I think a teacher can give fantastic support in a small group environment. Maybe a balance of small group and one-to-one is ideal. Why would teachers want to eliminate guided reading? I think that I need more information here. 
  • I struggle with giving students complete control over their marks. While I know that Mark has strategies to help students realize an appropriate grade value for the work that they’ve submitted, what about that one student that is insistent on a A even if he/she deserves a C? Mark mentions a similar situation in his book, and things worked out well, but that may not always be the case. Grades may not be as important as feedback, but they do give parents an impression of student achievement and next year’s teacher an impression of student achievement too. Shouldn’t this impression always be accurate? If feedback indicates a certain grade, is there ever a reason that grade shouldn’t match?
  • I love the emphasis on feedback, and students using the feedback to improve their work, but how do they know the focus areas for their feedback? I’m thinking now about the importance of Success Criteria. This Success Criteria is based on expectations from the curriculum document, and the feedback is based on this Success Criteria. With this approach, students always know the “look-fors,” and can even check and improve their work before it’s submitted to the teacher. Is there posted Success Criteria in a ROLE classroom? If not, is there a similar option?
  • I’m struggling with the “no homework” component of a ROLE classroom. In Mark’s book, homework comes across as just being meaningless worksheets, and I understand why we would want to avoid these. Homework can be more than this though: it can be book talks and open-ended writing prompts and math questions. Students are not marked on this homework, but receive feedback on it. It also contributes to their Learning Skills, especially under the area of “responsibility.” I try to keep a homework routine that is not too taxing on time, but allows for meaningful review of what the students have learned in class. Students have a week to return all homework, and I’m very flexible on deadlines. Parents and students loved the predictability of this homework routine, and they appreciated that it was meaningful work. As teachers though, we need to be responsive to student needs, so if there’s a reason that some students cannot complete homework, then I’m happy to explore other options. How do other teachers deal with homework? How would the parents in your community respond to eliminating it?
  • I don’t think that I can tell the students that there are no rules in the classroom. The funny thing is that I agree that we don’t need a long list of rules and that students can be trusted to act responsibly in class. Mark’s follow-up statement to his “no rules” announcement is about the need for respect, and in my mind, being respectful is really the only rule. Could I avoid saying that there are no rules, and instead say, that in our class, we need to respect each other so that we can learn together? Thoughts?
  • While I can see this ROLE classroom environment being very successful in a Language Arts, Social Studies, and/or Science class, I wonder about math. I loved the use of open-ended projects in math, but can students just “uncover” their learning? Are projects enough? I’m curious to know what others have tried, and if anyone has made this format work in a math class.

I also know that not all teachers teach in the same way and that a ROLE classroom is not going to be embraced by everyone. Showing its success though is a great way to get others to try it out. So I may not be ready for a complete ROLE reversal, but I am ready for a ROLE rotation, and embracing at least many of the concepts. This is going to be an exciting year!


9 thoughts on “ROLE Rotation

  1. I’m going to reply as well, but Aviva, I thought you’d be interested to know that Alfonso’s blog is where I found this book! Small world :). Reply to come!

  2. Aviva, I’ve had more time to digest your thoughtful post. There are two of your questions that have interest in:
    1. No homework–I don’t have homework during the week but I give it on weekends. It is a free writing journal where they can practice any text form from recipes to adventure stories. Sometimes they use the journal entries for our literacy block to edit/revise, get feedback and publish. It kind of saves classroom time because they have rough drafts ready to go. Some of my parents are concerned over the lack of homework. They are typically parents who are traditional and who remember the way it was when they went to school. When I explain that homework is not assessment-worthy (if it’s not done under my supervision I can’t assess it) and that students have plenty of time to practice within the school day, this is sufficient. Let’s be clear, not every parent is satisfied, but that’s okay.
    No Rules: I am not sure I’m comfortable with that either. I feel like I need character-based rules such as be respectful to others, be responsible for your work/supplies and always do your best work. I do like to create these rules with the students so that they are invested in them.
    Thanks for the post and encouraging me to think harder about this book. I really enjoyed it, it was like preaching to the choir, but you have raised some good points here. Now I’m going to hop over the Mark’s blog and look at his response.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adele! I’m not sure that I’m ready to go to no homework yet because of the reasons that I mentioned in this blog post as well as in my reply to Mark’s post. That being said, I can see your rationale, and I do like the idea of a writing journal. For reluctant writers, have some ideas to work with in the classroom probably helps a lot. I may not go there quite yet, but this is an alternative, I could live with!

      I agree with you about the rules. I think that some basic ones have value, and I like to discuss them with the students and get their input. Last year, our principal did an assembly early in the year, and he focused on the need for “respect.” He really made it the #1 school rule. I liked that! I really emphasized this all year in the classroom, and this helped.

      Thanks for getting me to continue to think of Mark’s book as well!

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