Celebrating the things we don’t measure

It’s that time of year when we take a few moments to stop and reflect. More formally, it’s time for our mid-year reviews to see how we’re going towards our performance and development goals.

One of these goals for me is around ‘student outcomes’ and, every year when I reflect on this, my biggest pondering is what a very, very narrow set of outcomes it is asking me to review. Specifically, the goal asks whether my students have made 6 months’ growth against state standards. I agree that this is certainly something to aim for. Some of them have made more, some have made just that and some have made less. However there are a lot of things these standards and, therefore, this goal, doesn’t measure and here are a few of the ways they’ve grown:

  • how much more my students now speak in weekly literature circle discussions and how well prepared they are for what they want to say;
  • how engrossed they are in reading and how invested they are in the characters they identify with;
  • the quality of their questioning and the deep thinking they do about what they read, identifying themes, ideas and wonderings that hadn’t occurred to me;
  • their heightened understanding of how certain text types can be very powerful and really get things done, as seen through the number of them wanting to write to different levels of government after our parliamentary excursion;
  • their confidence in managing their own learning and identifying their own goals, inside and outside of the classroom;
  • their growing time and resource management skills that now see some of them much more able to find the key items they need at the start of the day and end the day feeling organised;
  • the coping strategies they have developed to deal with their own times of stress or anxiety and which they now avail themselves of without any need for a reminder from me;
  • the empathy they have developed towards not only each other but towards fellow human beings in the world beyond our classroom, as evident in the ideas they have about how they can improve their world for everyone’s benefit.

I know, to other educators, this blog post is nothing new – we all know that the state standards will never capture all the things our students are and do however it’s more a reminder to be kind and fair to ourselves, particularly at these times of year. Our students are growing and developing in ways easily measurable and much less so and we should be proud of them and of our own impact in both sets of skills and attributes.

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Image file from http://www.publicdomainfiles.com/show_file.php?id=13546590029845
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Assessment in the digital world….with a pencil

I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and there is one component of the job I just don’t ever seem to be able to fully, effectively manage – paperwork. Specifically, assessment paperwork. I start the year off with good intentions and, quite often, a folder neatly organised and labelled with appropriate headings, all ready to sort the rich evidence of learning of each of my students.

Regardless of what system I’ve devised over the holidays, I’m usually happy with it initially. Until about week 4. That’s when I start to see the flaws and it starts to become a little unruly before building up to unmanageable and I spend the rest of the year trying to backtrack and put band aid solutions, hobbling along and swearing next year will be different. Which it always is…with the same results.

I think the crux of it is that my digital life is very organised and orderly, my paper life less so however my assessment is a real mix of the two. Finding a way to merge all of that without duplication (because who has time for that?) has been the challenge which I feel like I might have got on top of this year.

Two things have made a real difference to my assessment this year – Microsoft OneNote and my Apple pencil.

I wasn’t initially a convert to OneNote – I found it to be a bit glitchy and wasn’t entirely convinced it did enough to warrant me moving over to it. It was pretty but didn’t have any additional functionality that I needed. However the real clincher was my Apple pencil – suddenly the benefits of OneNote were clear – an organised space for my digital records with multiple sections that I could type in and write on as well as store documents. All in a friendly, vaguely paper looking format.

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My current setup for my reading conference notes looks like this – a summary page at the start with hyperlinks to individual pages for each of the student records. The different colours on dates are for the fact that I share my grade with another teacher so this solution allows us both to take notes and know where the other teacher is up to.

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The individual pages look something like this. You might be wondering where my handwritten bit comes in as it’s all looking very spreadsheet-ish at the moment. Firstly, I take my running records on my iPad. No longer do I have to waste paper or ink on printing them out, only to file them then shred them at the end of the year. I take them in Notability, save them and attach them directly below the notes of that session so it’s all accessible.

Below each student’s record, I also keep a copy of the ‘Fountas and Pinnell behaviours to notice and teach’ and I (physically) tick & date each of the behaviours when I see them to help me figure out the student’s next area of learning in reading.

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So far, so good. I love the fact that it’s all tidy and in one spot as well as the ease of use when multiple teachers need to access student’s assessment results. Their writing records are being kept in a similar way and have allowed me to take snapshots of students’ work, annotate it and keep it all organised. Who knew that all it would take to bring me over to digital record keeping was…..a pencil?!

How do you organise your reading conference notes? Do you prefer digital or paper records?

I’m back…and still a macgirl

This blog has been around for rather a long time. I believe I started it nearly 8 years ago which, in internet years, makes it at least 25. However it hasn’t held the allure in recent years and I have been pondering why. I still love writing and am a lot more prolific on my running blog. I still love teaching and learning, both within and beyond my classroom walls. For some reason, the spark doesn’t seem to carry through to writing about it once I’m at home. And there are lots of reasons for that – some simple and some a lot more complex. Perhaps they should become blog posts of their own. But I digress.

Aspects of my teaching have been revitalised recently by my new purchase – an iPad pro. While I might (thanks to Department policy) be limited to using a PC during school hours, I really am still drawn to Apple and am a macgirl at heart. My new toy is proving this, especially with the addition of an apple pencil which has been a complete game changer. Despite only having had it for a short time, I’m lost without it. Whether I’m at PD, in a meeting, in front of the class or sitting next to a student having a conference, it’s given me a huge range of options I didn’t have before. I promise to elaborate soon – I’m brewing a blog post about how I’m using my iPad to turbo boost assessment and record keeping in my classroom and will publish soon. For tonight, I just wanted to put it out there that, while I didn’t go away, I’m well and truly back. And absolutely still a macgirl 🍎.

ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

ALEA conference 2016 – day 1 reflections

Well timed to end the school holidays on an inspirational note, this weekend is the ALEA conference being held in Adelaide.

Literacy & imagination: schools as wondering places and spaces?

The conference started with a keynote from Barbara Comer  encouraging us to consider teachers as ‘imaginative designers, weavers and researchers’ rather than bound by templates and programs which restrict us and limit opportunities for our students. It set the scene for the rest of the weekend well – these conferences are always an energetic mix of new ideas and revisiting more familiar but forgotten ones and I always leave feeling full of possibility. So being reminded that, as teachers, we are responsible for researching, interpreting and implementing ideas, woven as an intricate and specifically crafted tapestry was exactly what I needed to hear.

Students with literacy difficulties: Same and different

Anne Bayetto presented about the needs of students who experience difficulties with literacy and the message was both clear and reassuring – on the whole, all students, whether experiencing difficulties or not, have similar needs, including requiring cognitive level tasks and dignified access to a range of aural, visual, print and digital texts.

Most importantly, students who are experiencing difficulty need to speak, listen and read more. Activities involving cutting and pasting, colouring, drawing and, generally, doing ‘busy work’ are not likely to have any impact and will further disadvantage students.

Anne spoke of some great resources to encourage speaking and listening:

Embedding oral language across the curriculum

This presentation was full of both new material and reminders of things I used to do but which need to be revived in my classroom. The concept of ‘hands down’ to ensure all children have an opportunity and an expectation to speak and participate is an important one which needs to be developed as the culture of the classroom and school. Too often, quiet or less confident students are able to fly under the radar during sessions involving oral language, deferring to those who more confidently raise their hands. Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey suggested a number of different strategies to encourage greater participation during speaking activities, such as:

  • allowing adequate thinking time for students when using ‘think, pair, share’;
  • turning it into ‘think, pair, square’ with student pairs becoming a group of 4 to provide more opportunity for student talk;
  • compass partners (one name at north, one at south, one at east and one at west) so that students are quickly able to find a partner during oral language activities;
  • a listening triad where one student is speaking, one is purely listening/responding and the other is recording.

Another great reminder from this presentation is that, as teachers, we ask a lot of questions throughout our day and this isn’t the only way to prompt and provoke student discussion. Comments and statements can be just as effectively used to get students talking – the important part is that we provide quality and meaningful reasons for them to speak that are relevant to them. It would be frustrating for our students to be asked to talk about thing that aren’t worth talking about from their perspective.

This presentation in particular has given me food for thought – so much so that I went and bought their new book, The Oral Language Book. Looking forward to diving into that one and exploring more possibilities for student talk in my classroom.

decisions, decisions…

I’ve spent the day in Melbourne learning about Office 365 and doing a lot of thinking. That, to me, is what is the most valuable thing about professional learning days away from school – the chance to think and wonder without the pressures of ringing bells, pending yard duty and the ever present little people.

My hopes for today were to find out more about the online, collaborative version of Office which I have had very little experience of. Obviously, like most citizens of Earth, I have more than a passing familiarity with the Microsoft suite of products but had opted for Google Apps at my previous school for our online solution. Despite a few little quirks, I’m a big fan of Google and all it spits out but wanted to keep an open mind and scope out any potentially useful tool.

So, how did my pondering go? Good and not so good. Office 365 does everything it says on the (virtual) box. And, like Google Apps, there are quirks and ‘we’re going to build that functionality’ moments. OneNote looks particularly interesting although, knowing my generally questionable organisational skills, I could see my notebooks turning into repositories for all flavours of junk. Forms doesn’t impress me as much as Google forms did.

The problem with all of this is that a phrase about swings and roundabouts comes to mind. Which one to choose? My current school uses neither so I have to think about their needs in introducing a new tool, not just my own personal preference. Very hard to do when both tools really have the same offerings, are just as pretty as each other and have (some) support and backing from our Education Department. Both are able to achieve the goals we need – a collaborative tool for staff and students, an online repository and easy, cheap access to up to date and useful software available across multiple platforms.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, arguments for one or the other and things I might not have considered so that I don’t resort to flipping a coin. In a perfect world, I’d sign up for both and use the best bits they each had to offer but our ICT journey needs to take baby steps at this point so we’re starting with one. Over to you…

building our learning environment, one brick at a time

Six months into the academic year and I’m still on the journey to create the right learning space. Actually, 11 years into this teaching lark and I’m still on the journey however I’ve figured out a lot in that time as I move toward that perfect learning space (that I know I’ll never reach!). I’m definitely not a ‘sit in rows’ kind of teacher – completely pointless as I rarely have students do any task that requires them to look at the whiteboard or screen from their seats. I tried clusters of tables but found noise levels a little high as students called out across the space to those on the opposite side.

Here is my current layout which has served us well over the last term. The pods of tables are nested around central storage areas which also give a bit of flexibility for students to move chairs to the middle if they need to work collaboratively (but quietly!). It has also, somehow, given us the illusion of more space. We still have a carpet area which allows the class to sit in a circle when needed and a few hiding spots for those in need of quiet working nooks.

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However we still have further to go. The space we have is quite small and very boxy which is a bit of a challenge, albeit a common one faced in schools. We have a lovely outdoor area beyond our door with tables and seats which we have started to refer to as ‘our outdoor classroom’ which is in operation whenever the door is open. We’ve also adopted a shoes optional policy when inside the classroom which is making our carpet more sitting/lying friendly as well as having a positive ‘grounding’ effect on many of the students (and myself!)

Next, I’m on the lookout for a wider range of seating options – tall tables for those who prefer to stand as they work, a round coffee table for those casual meeting times, some blankets for cozy reading time. As a class, we’re getting better at noticing the way we like to work and making suggestions to change what we do or what we have to suit that. In the back of my mind, I’ve always got the amazing work of Stephen Heppell and others floating around, making me question, probe and push the boundaries of my current learning space and wonder what is possible. And I’m loving this journey 🙂