So I found myself frustrated last week.

I spent the afternoon with a group of teachers who had explored Project Based Learning this year through a variety of formats. As we reflected on what worked, what didn’t, and what we’d like to see changed, one of the teachers made a comment along the lines of, “Our division is a top-down division.” He further commented that what’s fair isn’t always equal. I sensed that he was frustrated, and I know several other teachers and administrators around the division feel the same way. I can’t really disagree with him. As a division we have mandated a focus on math and writing this year as priorities for schools – based on data from AFL and our division writing assessments. PLC’s were to be formed around these 2 areas as much as possible, and professional learning is to connect to these division and school-wide focuses as well. So yes, in many respects, the division is mandating the work that people are doing.

Being cognizant that people are feeling this way, I try to provide people choices within some of the constraints they are working in. For example, later that day I was doing a short presentation to a staff about the writing trait of “Organization”. As part of my presentation, I was sharing links to various websites where they could access graphic organizers to use with their students. The request was made that instead of just providing them with links, couldn’t I just provide them a package with the graphic organizers they should be using? I was baffled slightly when I heard this…here I thought I was being helpful by providing them with different choices – when in reality some of them just want to be told what to do. 

I guess really these situations are emblematic of our classrooms, aren’t they? Some of our students want to forge ahead, figure things out on their own and  not be constrained by the expectations of teachers/administrators/curriculum. Others want to be told just what to do – give me the assignment and show me how to do it.

So my question is – how do we deal with this dichotomy on a school division level? How much autonomy should schools and teachers have? How much direction should be given??

Should our schools be left to set their own goals and determine their own professional learning entirely? Or should there be some input from a division level? Where is the balance…and how do we manage it??

 

 

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I’ll be very honest…my initial reason for taking this course was entirely motivated by a desire to NOT have to drive during the winter months to Regina for classes. That I could sit in the comforts of my home and participate was a huge incentive, so much so, that I overlooked my insecurities about participating in a course focused on technology. As I recall in my first blog post, I acknowledged that I was not a techno newbie entirely, but certainly had plenty of room to grow. I think I’ve certainly done that.

In terms of course structure – I enjoyed having different guest speakers every week. It was great to be exposed to a variety of perspectives and issues regarding education and technology. While some guest speakers appealed to me more than others, I was always able to find something to connect to – even those presentations that got a little technical on me!! More important, however, was the dialogue among participants that emerged from many of our presentations. It was great to connect with so many people and hear how our struggles/challenges/successes were often similar, but in many cases also different. I enjoyed hearing what initiatives were happening in other divisions, and being privy to exemplars of wonderful ways to integrate technology into our classrooms. The power of the network has certainly been impressed upon me.

In addition to enjoying great conversation with fellow classmates and our instructors, the next best part of the course, for me, was reading other participant’s blogs. So often I would find posts that echoed my own thinking and ideas…which was affirming, but in other instances I would be challenged to think differently or more broadly about issues. My own blogging began with trepidation, and admittedly, I’ve yet to become a prolific blogger. I found I often preferred to read blogs and respond than write my own. What is so interesting to me, though, is that recently I’ve actually had the urge to blog…seriously. I would have never thought it possible, but as I’ve been heavily involved in some professional learning lately, I found that I wanted to write some posts – not necessarily because I had a huge desire to share with others, but more importantly to consolidate my own learning. I am dumbfounded by my density at times; I know how important “writing to learn” is…and yet, it has taken me until semester’s end to recognize the potential of my blog to serve as a tool for that powerful metacognitive strategy. It’s a struggle some days, I tell you.

One of the more challenging aspects of the course for myself was definitely the class collaborative wiki. I felt from the beginning that I didn’t have much to contribute as I lacked the expertise and/or knowledge to do so. As many of the tools we explored were entirely new to me, I wasn’t sure how to share useful information on them. Also, it became quickly apparent to me that much of the software/tools I am more familiar with were not open source -which while still useful, lose some of their appeal when subscription fees are attached.

As I’ve blogged on my digital project earlier, as well as reflected on it during our last session, I’ll not say much more except that I am hopeful I find a way to engage teachers in online, collaborative professional learning. While I’ve chosen a format that I think is useful for now, I’m cognizant that it will undoubtedly change and develop over time, ideally in the hands of teachers. The nature of my job is such that I know I will continue, indeed be required, to find ways to use technology both in my work with teachers, and also with students. That I could authentically connect this project to my current work was of huge benefit also.

Perhaps one of my greatest understandings I’m taking away from this course is the type of learner I am…or perhaps was. I always perceived myself to be a motivated, self-directed learner. Surprisingly, I found out that I struggled with the openess and flexibility available to me in the course.

When I initially discovered we wouldn’t have to write a formal paper, I was ecstatic…but about half way through the course…I was wishing that is exactly what I would have to do! It would be much easier – find a topic, research it, and write a paper – or two! Having the freedom to choose a digital project, thinking and rethinking what might be useful and manageable, was challenging. I was wishing that I was sitting in a classroom, being told exactly what to do and how to do it. How lazy!! But, I guess I’m from the generation of “sit and get” – so that is what is comfortable for me. The blogging, digital project, collaborative wiki – it allowed me such freedom that I wasn’t sure how to manage it at times.

I couldn’t help but think of our students, and how in our zest to provide them with authentic learning opportunities through avenues like project based learning or inquiry, they sometimes find it difficult to make that shift to being a self-directed learner. I recall having students say to me, “Can’t you just tell us what we need to do??” and my response to them was usually, “God forbid you’d have to think!”…and yet, here I was, wishing that someone would tell me what to do. I’ve come to realize my hypocrisy, and am more sensitive now to the reticence of our students to participate in learning activities that are outside their comfort zone.

The hallmark of true learning, of course, is that it moves beyond our current context and we apply it to a new situation. Well, I’m happy to say I’m now using google docs to manage my ball team. I’d have never thought of it before this class – and while I’m no expert – it is meeting our needs and helping us manage things in a more efficient manner than via email all the time. Who knew??

So I’ve been having a boo at all the great work many of you are doing with your students through your digital projects, and it really makes me miss a classroom environment! Fortunately, I recently got a Mac that I get to play with while I work with teachers and students from Lindale School through a pilot project that Dean Shareski organized. I haven’t had much time to dabble just yet, but I’m certainly excited to get engaged with some of the tools available on the Mac. That Garageband alone may steer me to my true dream of becoming a rock star yet!! LOL…

I realized that I haven’t reflected on my digital project at all to this point, and while we will be sharing them shortly, I became acutely aware of the difference between what many of you are doing and what I’m working towards.

For most of you – you’ve had the kids engaged and involved, working with the tools we’ve been learning about in this class – experimenting, becoming frustrated, having some success and experimenting some more no doubt.

My project is very static at this point, and has the potential to remain very static unless my intended audience truly buys into it’s purpose and engages with it. As I listened to D’arcy Norman and Brian Lamb’s discussion of repositories again recently, it occurred to me that I was possibly creating the very same thing – and I’m not sure I really want to!!

Without describing my project in it’s entirety, suffice it to say that my goal is to create the following:

  • first and foremost, a collaborative workspace where our Grade 1 ELA teachers can discuss best practice, assessment and instruction.
  • a place where they take control of their own learning – creating spaces of inquiry where they can work with their colleagues to work towards improved student learning
  • a space to house resources (documents and multi-media) – downloadable and modifiable for teachers
  • a space to house model lessons, exemplary student work and resources that will support student learning

Because some of the documents being housed in this space were created with Sask. Learning and we are not yet sure about copyright issues, I need to keep them private at this time, so I am using our division Forum site. While I am grateful that it will mean the documents remain private – I am concerned about the ease of collaboration. I think a wiki would have likely been a better avenue, but for now this is what I will work with. (The whole privacy issue is also something I’m struggling with, but I’ll save that for another post!)

My greatest fear, though, is that teachers won’t take the initiative to collaborate. And I’m not sure how to deal with that. I’m hoping that if I even get a handful of teachers who buy in, perhaps there will be a snowball effect. Of course I could subscribe to the old adage “You can lead a horse to water…” – but that feels like a bit of a cop out. Having said that, I know that unless I find something useful, I won’t subscribe to it – so this space needs to be user friendly and purposeful.

Time will tell….

I was just reading Ewan McIntosh’s post about Finland, and his discussion about why they seem to be so ahead of the game with regards to education. While I haven’t read about Finland extensively myself, it’s no secret that they are world leaders when it comes to education. Ewan brings to light some key points -namely the flexibility that students and teachers have, and the trust that is placed with them, using a particular Helsinki secondary school as an example.

Some points that particularly stuck with me were:

  • No two timetables are the same… There are core lessons, but also huge flexibility… They do 90 courses over three years, in 14 of which they are free to do as they wish – if a student wants to fill it entirely with maths or art, that can be done.
  • Another factor in the school’s quietly productive feel is the structuring of the day into three two-hour periods (similar to Stovner School’s two four hour seshes).
  • Classes can sometimes have students of different ages.
  • As I read through these points, I was reminded of some of the comments Stephen Downes made during his session with us around the network approach to learning, and the idea that what counts as “good” varies from person to person. He discussed how the wisdom of networks is people doing things their own way, rather than trying to come to aggregation of ideas. It seems to me this is somewhat the approach taken by students and teachers in this school. No two timetables are the same…isn’t that an interesting concept?

    And students of different ages may be in different classes? Another interesting concept. Under our current structures having students in multi-grade settings usually poses a huge challenge for teachers, although I know from my experience there is great potential in them. As always, curriculum, timetabling, physical environment, etc. seem to hamper efforts at innovation. And yet, this Helsinki secondary has clearly tackled some of these issues, with apparent success.

    I think one of the most telling points made, though, was the following:

  • Pupils lead and teachers play a supporting role.
  • Again, not a new concept, but one that really scares us as educators. I loved the question Stephen posed to us when he started his presentation, “How do you teach when you no longer have power over the students?”. I would love to throw that out to a group of educators and see what kind of discussion ensues. I think it needs to happen, sooner than later. 

    Just came across an exciting post in Leadertalk, about a school that is working towards developing student learning expectations (SLE’s) – with the intention of encouraging school reform. They have developed 5 key areas:

    STUDENT LEARNING EXPECTATIONS What a student should know and be able to do when they graduate from 8th grade. (based on NETS)

    1. St Elisabeth students will apply creativity and innovation to the development of new perspectives as they interpret and remix previous knowledge and pursue new learning.

    2. St. Elisabeth students will be effective communicators who practice 21st century literacy skills, model digital citizenship, and global collaboration.

    3. St Elisabeth Students will demonstrate effective research and information fluency by developing original conclusions, re-evaluating and interpreting their assumptions, and assessing the reliability and validity of their sources.

              4. St. Elisabeth students will apply high level critical thinking skills, effective problem-solving strategies, and content specific   methods of data interpretation when exploring curriculum content.

              5. St. Elisabeth students will demonstrate behavior reflective of our faith and the Six Pillars of Character in all aspects of their school work and in interactions with their peers, teachers and the global community.

          As I read through them, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to our CELs, which I think should be the driving force of our curriculum. This school seems to be on the right path to creating environments for students to engage in authentic learning experiences, as the author, Barbara Barreda also mentioned how they have been discussing topics like 21st century literacy, moving beyond textbooks, classroom as studio, etc. Some really innovative thinking going on…and I’m anxious to see how things go on for them.

          Somewhat disconcerting, though, was the very first comment she received to her post. This individual, who chose to remain anonymous, immediately found fault with their five key areas because of the lack of reference to what kids actually have to “know”. I’ve inserted it here because I think it is indicative of the mindset of many…

          “What a student should know and be able to do….” Funny, but I don’t see any evidence of actual required knowledge — in the traditional sense of knowledge — in any of these five expectations. The goals you’ve outlined are excellent habits of mind and personal characteristics, but they ignore the “what a student should know” aspect of school.

          School improvement will remain a unattainable goal until administrators and school boards are willing to tackle the curriculum question specifically: What, exactly, do we want our students to learn? Ignoring this important component of education is foolhardy.

          Still stuck on the content…how will we ever move beyond it??

          I recently watched “Stupid in America“, a documentary which basically questions why American students performed so poorly compared to Belgian counterparts – and quite readily points the finger at teachers. It’s a bit scary, in many ways – as I think there were some gross generalizations, but I must say I was intrigued by the discussion on teacher competence and the power of the unions. The fact that New York District and several other states didn’t seem to want to open their doors to the public (granted, the media isn’t exactly Joe Public) rings alarms for me. I thought the comment by the teacher from one of the charter schools was really telling when she stated, “I’m a good teacher. I don’t need tenure to protect me. I need to get rid of tenure to protect kids.”

          I’d have to say in some respects, I agree with her. While controversial, I think it’s safe to say that anyone involved in the education system could identify teachers who simply shouldn’t have been in the profession – for a myriad of reasons. And so in many ways, I think transparency and accountability are not all bad.

          But how do we decide who is and isn’t competent? Is student achievement our sole marker? Should it be? And who makes those decisions? And what happens if someone isn’t competent? Do we simply close the school, as is the case in the U.S.A.? Fire the headmaster, or teacher, as was my experience overseas in England? Is more money to schools the answer?

          While I don’t think any of these are a suitable response, I also think it’s equally irresponsible to have NO response in situations where teacher competence comes into question. It’s not fair to kids. I am very intrigued to see the Competence Code that our STF is developing. Right now, especially after amalgamations, teacher competency issues are falling on the shoulders of our administrators. As a former administrator, I can say this is not a comfortable place to be. Hopefully this competence code will offer a framework that will encourage teachers to be reflective practitioners, as opposed to posturing on the defense, and help to support administrators with the task of teacher supervision.

          Teaching is complex; students are diverse. There are no silver bullets, certainly, but I think one of the first steps we need to make is to be upfront about what we’re doing in our classrooms, in our schools, in our divisions…is it really meeting the needs of our kids? If it’s not, we better be open to at least having the conversations about what IS best for our kids.

          Dean Shareski shared this article with everyone in our division just last week. In light of our discussion last night about Media Awareness, I thought I’d share it…

          “How Dangerous is the Internet for  Children?”

          Essentially, the author David Pogue points out that despite what is portrayed on the media, there is really very little threat to most kids who are online. I must admit, as a fan of the Law & Order t.v. shows, I figured online predators must be a dime a dozen…but apparently not!! Imagine, television not reflecting reality…:)

          I’m totally of the camp that we need to teach our kids how to use the tool…rather than simply ban them from it. I chuckled when I thought about the mother who dove across the room trying to stop her child from seeing pornography, as opposed to Pogue’s reaction. Cripes, most of our prime time television is inappropriate for kids – but you don’t see people banning Grey’s Anatomy and Nip/Tuck, do you?

          I was reminded me of a discussion I had with a tour guide while I in Amsterdam a few years ago. Obviously renowned for it’s liberal practices with sex, drugs, and alcohol, I asked him what impact such freedoms had on adolescents?

          I expected, that given that amount of freedom, alcoholism, teen pregnancy and drug addiction could be pandemic for them, so was shocked when he indicated quite the opposite.

          Really, though, it makes sense. The more taboo a topic/issue is, the more adolescents want to engage with it. In Amsterdam – nothing is taboo – so these things we often make a big deal of is just not really an issue for them.

          While I’m not advocating teenagers engaging in any of these behaviours, at the same time, I think it’s foolish to bury one’s head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. So just as we educate teens about the dangers of drinking, drugs, and unprotected sex – we better do the same about internet safety. Seems pretty simple to me.