Passion + Persistence = Perfect Practice

I have to thank our vice principal, Kristi Keery-Bishop, for the fantastic alliteration in this blog post title. I was so excited about our Social Studies Evaluation Activity today that I had to share the success story with her during bus duty, and she provided me with the perfect phrase to sum it up: passion + persistence = perfect practice. 

For those that have been following my blog this school year, you’ll know that I’ve really focused on the use of inquiry in the classroom. I love what inquiry has done for my students. They’re better thinkers, problem solvers, independent workers, and cooperative learners. For all of these reasons, I wish that I tried inquiry before this year!

That being said, one of my biggest struggles is with inquiry and evaluation. I have lots of formative assessment. With so much small group work, students constantly receive feedback and use this feedback to make changes. I find that I’m giving students fewer marks though, and since I still have to give a mark on the report card, I need/want evaluations prior to this. That’s where Kristi’s blog post on evaluating “process versus product” became so powerful for me.

Last weekend, I developed a “process evaluation” that I was very excited about, but for various reasons, the activity did not go according to planI reflected though, and today, I tried again. What’s wonderful about blogging, and especially blogging about inquiry projects, is that there’s so many educators out there that are willing to share their feedback and offer words of advice. I had people do this on my “failure post,” and it was actually Kristi’s words of advice on this post that resulted in an even bigger change for me today.

My initial modified plan was to write the three questions (from the last evaluation activity) on chart paper, and have the students Chalk Talk about the question that interested them the most. Then we would have an inquiry circle to expand on these ideas and create some new learning. As I was writing the evaluation questions out on chart paper this morning, I thought back to Kristi’s comment comparing my initial activity to the three-part lesson. It was the words, “three-part lesson,” that changed things for me. Maybe I needed to scaffold the learning more for my students. For students to see the link between the topic that they researched and the question that they answered, possibly I needed another step.

So as I was preparing the activity this morning, I made yet another change. Instead of writing the questions on chart paper, I wrote the topics on chart paper. My new plan was to put these topics out, and let the students pick the topic that interested them. Then they could use their notes on the topic, as well as additional research, to share their learning with each other. Using Chalk Talk, they could ask questions and answer each other’s questions too. My thought was that this would help the students think more deeply about the topics that would later act as “evidence” for their questions.

Once I wrote all of the topics on chart paper, my plan was to type up the questions that students would need to choose. I was going to use the questions from Wednesday’s activity, but as I was typing, I changed my mind again. I started to think about Kristi’s comment regarding “question stems,” and I wondered if what the students needed was a gradual increase in the complexity of the questions. Instead of typing up my initial one question, I wrote two questions on each page: one was slightly more complex than the next one. Students could then choose the “group of questions” that they wanted to answer: even choosing between the two questions on the page, or using the one question to lead to the next one. Again, students would Chalk Talk their answers: using questions to help push each other’s thinking forward. We’d then end with an inquiry circle, where students would further explain their thinking, and we could make links between the topics.

While this activity took longer than expected — and we’ll need to finish things up on Monday — the changes worked. Students all shared lots of information about the different topics, and then they used this information to answer at least one — if not, both — of the guiding questions. The first question on the page helped the students with the second (more difficult) question. Reviewing the vocabulary first, also helped. As a class, we took the time to go through the rubric together as well, which helped students understand the requirements to get the marks that they wanted.

I joked on Twiter that it took until “attempt 463” for inquiry to work, and while this is certainly an exaggeration, it’s true that I had to make a lot of changes before things started working well. Even this morning, as I was prepping for my changed lesson, I was making more changes. Change is good! As teachers, we need to be willing to make changes, try, fail, revamp, try again, and repeat this process many times … hoping, praying, and believing that success will happen. And it will. This is teaching. This is learning. This is inquiry.

How do you maintain that practice and persistence to ensure that you get to this “perfect practice?” I’d love to know more.


On Being Passionate

There are many things that I love to do! I love to read. I love to write. I love to spend time with family and friends. But the one thing that I’m passionate about — that makes me excited and happy and drives me to always do my best — is teaching. I am one of the lucky ones: every day I get to do something that I love. Every day, I get to teach.

As my vice principal, Kristi Keery-Bishop, reminded me in a tweet tonight, being passionate is a good thing.

2013-11-28_18-51-08Today had me really thinking about this, as my passion for education leads me to …

  • Think differently about we can do to help ALL students succeed.
  • Be vocal about what students need and why they need it.
  • Work closely with colleagues to problem solve together.
  • Always consider students with special needs.
  • Remember that ultimately, first and foremost, we’re here for the kids!

My passion for education drives me to constantly look at ways to improve my own practice, and I think this is a good thing. It also has me considering everything I do in the classroom, and how each activity can work for each student. One of my favourite educational quotes is, “If they don’t learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn.” This is the signature on all of my school emails, and it’s the quote that I think about every day as I plan each lesson. 

As I sit at professional inservices, I often think about this quote. I thought about it today. This afternoon, I was at a Board inservice on proportional reasoning. We read and explored this monograph, that had me thinking about proportional reasoning in ways that I never had before: really seeing how it’s a major part of all math strands. After reading and discussing the monograph, we worked in groups to explore different proportional reasoning problems from all five math strands. Before January, we’re going to give one of these word problems to our students, and then we’re going to meet with a neighbouring school to discuss the results and plan next steps. While we went through the problems together, I thought a lot about differentiated instruction. Some of my thoughts are actually captured in the tweets below.

My problem is that I’m not just looking at these questions as a teacher or as a teacher of some students with various special needs. I’m looking at these questions as a teacher with a learning disability of her own. I’m looking at some of these questions and realizing what would happen if you gave some of them to me.
  • I’d shut down.
  • I’d see myself as a failure.
  • I would stare blankly at the paper and not know what to do next.
  • I’d probably cry.

I’m a teacher. I’m a person that sees value in hard work and loves a challenge. But I want to know, I have to know, that there’s a chance of success. I understand the value in failing and trying again, but I know what failure means to students, and at the risk of generalizations, I especially understand the impact that it can have on students with special needs.

Today I struggled with these questions that I struggle with often as a math teacher: how do I not let language overtake math? How do I create word problems that will challenge ALL of my students: from those that are working well below grade level to those that are exceeding curriculum expectations? How do I consider the emotional and academic needs of my students, and balance both?

It was with these questions in mind, and it was with the image of the students in my head, that I fought for a change in our math problem selection (for our school and for a neighbouring school). Maybe I should have stayed quiet. Maybe I should have attempted to create a parallel problem. Maybe I should have let the students struggle and possibly fail. I couldn’t do that though. I strongly believed that the more open-ended math problem would lead to greater success for all. So I spoke up, shared my views, and stood behind my beliefs. We picked the new problem, and I’m happy about that. We view the other problem differently, but we’re continuing to discuss it, and professional dialogue is a good thing.

Today I was passionate. Yes, this passion made me somewhat emotional: partially there and partially later as I reflected on the day. Being passionate often makes me emotional, and I don’t love that, but I’m still glad I’m passionate: that makes me a better teacher. What are you passionate about? How do these passions benefit your students? I’d love to know your thoughts on this!


So now we try again!

Yesterday I was so excited about inquiry! I thought that I had finally figured it out. I may have spoken too soon. 🙂 Today, I planned on having the students complete this first evaluation activity based on all of their learning so far in Social Studies.

Social Studies Evaluation 1

In theory, I like the evaluation activity, but I made some errors.

  • Due to various reasons, of which I cannot go into all of them here, I didn’t thoroughly explain the activity. Rushing was the wrong thing to do. I didn’t ensure that everyone understood the questions. I also didn’t go through the rubric to emphasize what students needed to do to meet with the highest levels of success.
  • I realized my mistake early on, but I didn’t correct it well. While I called the class back together again to highlight the expectations for the activity, I didn’t take the time to write down and show the students what I meant. We had a quick oral discussion, and I didn’t check for comprehension. Yes, at the time, something unexpected came up, but I should have thought of a different solution. Taking one rushed lesson and replacing it with another rushed lesson, did not solve the problem. For the last month, I’ve been emphasizing for my student teacher the importance of providing visual instructions, and yet, I skipped this key step. That was a mistake!
  • I didn’t get students to reflect on their learning individually before pushing them further. I realized this mistake yesterday, but I hoped that our oral conversation was enough. Maybe it would have been if we had it right before completing the evaluation activity, but we didn’t. The gap in time mattered, and students needed this additional reflection. I should have started with that today.

Now this activity was not a complete disaster, but I do not think that the students’ answers fully demonstrate what they know, and this bothers me. I also think that any reason for this is my fault, and not theirs. So what am I going to do?

Conversations with both my student teacher, Yakira Smeltzer, and one of our Grade 8 teachers, Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper, helped me with a solution.

  • On Friday, I’m going to write out all three of the questions (from today’s evaluation activity) on chart paper. We’re going to discuss what each of them means. I’ll make sure to write down the key vocabulary words, and not just discuss them orally.
  • We’ll go through the rubric together. Students can ask questions to ensure that they understand the expectations for each level.
  • Then in groups, students are going to chalk talk about a question of their choice. All groups will have access to the print resources as well as any online resources. They can also use any research notes from previous classes. Students can use pictures and/or words to share their learning and to ask questions of each other. They can build on the ideas that others shared as well. Each student will have a different coloured marker though, and each student will need to write his/her initials beside any of his/her contributions.
  • After chalk talking, we’ll get into an inquiry circle, and students can orally share their ideas. Again, they can build on the ideas of others and ask questions. We’ll discuss all three major questions from the evaluation activity, and everyone will have an opportunity to contribute if he/she wants.
  • I will use a combination of the Chalk Talk contributions and the oral contributions to evaluate each student. Originally, I was going to get the students to use the information from the Chalk Talk activity and the oral discussion to complete one of the assignment choices, but after talking to Jo-Ann, I no longer think that this is necessary. Between writing, drawing, and orally discussing, students will show me what they know, and they’ll be doing so in the ways that work best for them. (I’m also prepared to do some conferencing during the Chalk Talk activity if the writing and/or drawing option does not work for all students.)

Maybe this is what our vice principal, Kristi Keery-Bishop, meant when she discusses “evaluating process versus product.” What do you think? Could this plan work? What other suggestions do you have? Another day. Another mistake. Another new adventure. Gosh do I love teaching!


Why Was Today Different?

Today was a day to remember. It was a day where I was actually inspired to send out this tweet:

Now I’ve had many wonderful school days, but today was different! It’s almost the end of November, and yet, today was the day that I finally think that I actually understood inquiry. As many of my blog readers know, inquiry is my area of focus on my Annual Learning Plan, and I’ve been exploring inquiry in different ways in the classroom since the beginning of school. Today my student teacher, Yakira Smeltzer, did a fantastic math inquiry activity on mean, median, and mode, and I did a Social Studies inquiry activity on First Nations and European Explorers. Everything was documented in our Storify Story seen here.

So why was today different than any other day? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and here are my thoughts:

  • Students had the time that they needed to really explore the topic. Yakira’s math inquiry was for a double math period this morning, and my Social Studies inquiry was for almost three periods in the middle block. Yes, mine addressed many language expectations and even connected with our current TLCP, but it was still three periods long.
  • Assessment and evaluation happened around “process” and not just “product.” Thanks to the videos, tweets, podcasts, and photographs from today, learning was captured and “pushed” throughout the process. Tomorrow, we’ll have a short Social Studies evaluation activity that provides a mark, but without a culminating task. I can’t wait to see how it goes!
  • We had an inquiry circle. I love the idea of an inquiry circle, but I know that I don’t have enough of them. Today for Social Studies, we took the time (over 20 minutes) to have an inquiry circle, share learning, ask questions, and solidify new learning. It was amazing! All students contributed. All students thought about the content and did not just regurgitate it. And all students built new knowledge. (A special “thank you” to Jonathan So, a teacher from Peel, that pushed our learning even further with a couple of his tweets.)
  • We scaffolded learning. I think that Yakira’s math inquiry activity illustrates this the best. With her varied questions at each centre, students could choose their entry point depending on their previous knowledge of the content. This meant that even an old concept became new, and all students left with a better understanding than when they started. If as teachers, we’re constantly pushing for “success for all,” then we need to remember this scaffolding component.

Now was today perfect? No. In retrospect, I really wish that I tied today’s new Social Studies learning back to the learning goal. This would have made an even clearer connection to the expectations. I also wish that I started with a gallery walk, where students could put out their work, show what they recorded, and reflect on any similarities and differences. This may have allowed us to address more specific examples and see connections between the various topics. Finally, I wish that I had the students reflect individually on their new learning. This could have even been done with a graffiti wall activity or a post-it note on a Linoit Wall. All students shared so much during our discussion that I didn’t include this individual reflection, but this may have allowed students to articulate their new questions. This could have been useful prior to our evaluation activity tomorrow. I’ll see how things go, and if we need to start with sharing and discussing questions first, then we will.

How has your approach to inquiry evolved over the past few months? Why did you make the changes? Where do you want to go next? I hope that we can share ideas here and grow more together!


Outside Of My Comfort Zone

This has been the most incredible week! It’s a week that I’ll never forget! I’m so overwhelmed by all of the emails, tweets, and kind words I’ve heard this week that I have a lump in my throat and feel as though my heart could actually burst. I’m so fortunate to have such amazing colleagues, parents, and friends (both online and offline) — thank you!

In between conferences today, I’ve spoken to many people (teachers, administrators, and parents), and as they ask me about the week, here’s basically what I’ve said, “The week was AMAZING! It was surreal! I’m glad to be back to some normalcy though. I missed school!” This week was way outside of my comfort zone.

The truth is that I really struggle in unstructured, social situations. I don’t like mingling. I find it hard to start a conversation with people that I don’t know. And in most cases, I’m actually a very private person. I don’t like being in the spotlight. This week was the exact opposite of that!

I had to get over that this week, and this was a very hard thing to do! Here’s what I did to help:

  • I tried to stay with my mom. She’s great at mingling, and she’s wonderful at talking to people (that she knows or doesn’t know). I wish that I could be like her! She was my guest for the week, and having her there was fantastic! Not only did I get to share an amazing experience with such a special person, but I also knew that she was there to support me, and this made all of the difference. After she started conversations, I could join in, which helped make me feel more at ease!
  • I talked myself into taking a risk. I set goals for myself, just like I do every day at school! My goal for each social event was to go up and initiate at least one conversation. Before I went to chat, I thought about what I was going to say, and then I did it! Yes, it was hard, and sometimes it was awkward, but I met my goal! This made me happy!
  • I found “friends.” One of the great things about an experience like this one is that you’re probably not going to be the only person that feels this way. I quickly found a couple of other award winners that felt like I did, and we enjoyed socializing together! I made some amazing connections and learned a lot from these conversations (especially in regards to Social Studies), and I felt so much more comfortable as well!
  • I laughed (and joked) a lot! There were lots of photographs happening this week, and I do not like getting my picture taken! (In fact, last year, I even managed to make it through the School Picture Day and Photo Retake Day without getting one done. Shhh … don’t tell! :)) I think it’s because photographs (especially in this situation) put you back in the limelight, and I struggle with this! So to help me feel more comfortable, I made LOTS of jokes! I can be quite sarcastic, and thankfully, the photographer and media coordinator found me amusing. There were many “let’s tease Aviva” moments, but these made me feel more comfortable, and that was a good thing!
  • I reminded myself that we all had to step outside of our comfort zone in one way or another this week. A great example of this is when I heard the number of award winners speak about how concerned they were about the “five minute teacher talk.” Many spoke about rarely talking in front of colleagues. For me though, presentations are what I do! I love to talk with teachers, and I especially love talking about my fantastic students! Realizing that we all have our strengths and needs (even as teachers) was a good way to help me get through the more difficult times!

So when I arrived home late last night, I saw a tweet about this article in The Hamilton Spectator. I so appreciated my principal, Paul Clemens’, lovely words. (I’d thank him again, but I promised him — somewhat — not to! :)) What really caught my attention about this post was that the “students plan to recognize [me] in an assembly on Monday.” What?! I emailed Paul and explained that I’m a very “private” person, but I guess that this assembly is already planned. 🙂 It looks as though I’ll be doing some more risk-taking come Monday. I can do this — right

How do you step out of your comfort zone? What are the benefits in doing so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!