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It takes a village…

I am so very excited to announce that our DVD is complete and ready for others to see. In November of 2015 we visited three high schools in my district where we entered the classrooms of some fantastic educators to see what they do around grading, homework, unit plans, re-assessments and creativity. Special thanks to the team at ASCD for capturing digitally what is seen every day by the students of these amazing teachers. Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 5.06.20 PM.png

You can purchase your copy here through ASCD.

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Sharing Circle – My foray into the unknown.

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Last Wednesday I went looking for a branch. It was just prior to my first grade 9/10 leadership class of the year, and I found myself searching frantically for an ‘object’. Never before had I needed an ‘object’ to start the year, but this time was different from any of my other 18 starts to the teaching year.

With support and encouragement from two SD67 colleagues, Naryn Searcy (@nsearcy17) and Judith King (@judithaking), I decided it was time to try a sharing circle. It seemed that all of the pieces just fell together at the right time to push me out of my teacher-centered comfort zone. Just last week I attended a fantastic professional learning day put on by Judy Halbert (@jhalbert) and Linda Kaser (@lkaser). They started the day off by splitting the large group into two sharing circles and gave us these prompts: (1) share with the group one highlight from your summer and (2) let people know something you are looking forward to in the year to come. It was a great start to the day as everyone had a voice! Linda made an interesting comment to the effect that sharing circles have been a part of human existence for thousands of years, and should not be discounted as a powerful tool to aid in our communication and understanding of each other. This argument certainly caught my attention.

As the start of my leadership class drew near, I sought advice. Naryn was incredibly helpful in sending me a link to her site including the background and protocol for sharing circles. 

Back to the branch. Advanced planning has never been my forte, so it came as little surprise that i did not have an object ready for the first day of the circle. Five minutes before class I found myself removing a branch from a tree at school as there were none on the ground to choose from. For the record, the branch I selected looked to be one in need of pruning. A student passing by asked why I was removing a branch and I told her I needed it for class. As fate would have it, she was one of my leadership students.

DAY 1: The first attempt went quite well. I started by relaying the protocols listed by Naryn, but I did not post a sign on the door. There were only 14 students in my class, so I thought I would wait until the class lists were solidified. After covering the protocol, I asked the students to tell the group a little about themselves and I asked them to consider the two questions used by Halbert and Kaser.  The sharing circle start to the year was well outside my comfort zone, and I let the students know about my discomfort in trying something new. I also commented that leaders need to take risks and model that for others, and on that note I decided to go first. About half the class kept their responses very short, but a few students went into detail. I left class energized and excited about introducing a new element to my teaching. I was certain we were going to do another circle the following day.

DAY 2: During our second circle, we must have been interrupted about five times as new students entered the class. Clearly the counsellors were sorting out the grade 9 class lists as my class population of 14 soon turn to 28. As we expanded the circle by adding more chairs, I repeated the protocols for those new to the class. The sharing topic asked students to share their favourite movie or book, tell us a little about the premise and why they liked it. Naryn had advised me to give the students a few minutes to consider the question before starting. This was sage advice. The responses were much more detailed compared to day 1. As each student held the branch and shared their favourite entertainment portals or book choices, I could see that students around the circle react with gestures and expressions (silent) that showed agreement or approval. Based on this observation I decided to pass the branch around the circle again and let students respond to whomever they liked. One student started with, ‘I can relate to {student name] as I too like that book series.’ This stated a chain reaction with many students using the same intro statement. I watched students reach across the circle with their words of agreement, support and connection – it was really neat to see.

DAY 3: Students could choose between two questions: (1) What are your plans for the weekend? or (2) What is the scariest experience you have had in encountering an animal? The sharing went really well, with the more detailed responses entering around the second choice.

DAY 4 (Monday): To be fair to the animal kingdom, I asked students to share something about their favourite pet or animal, or they could choose to share a highlight from the weekend. The conversation was slow at first, but when I passed the branch around for the second time, there was a lot of responses to what others had shared.

Compared to last year, the first four classes have resulted in developing community much faster and I already get the sense that students are willing to share on a level usually experienced further into the year. I agree with those who promote this method of communication and community-building in that students feel empowered by either speaking or choosing to ‘pass’.

I will make a sincere attempt to  continue sharing of this experience as the year progresses. My intention is to start each week with a sharing circle. To be continued…

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Week 5: We have started off each week with a circle and once in a while we run one mid-week. Some topics have included ‘scariest/funniest animal experience’, ‘defend your favourite fruit’, and a few others. Todays’ topic, ‘LOST & FOUND’, resulted in our best sharing circle yet. I shared a quick story with my students. Over the weekend I left an article of clothing at the hockey rink where I was part of a coaching clinic. In the pockets were my wedding ring, watch, $200 US, and my phone holder. Much to my delight, when I returned to the rink this morning the rink attendant had picked up the item and all contents were still in the pockets. I asked the students to select one of the following topics:

  • Tell us about something you have lost.
  • Tell the circle about something you found.
  • Share a time when you lost something and later found it.

The results were amazing. We had the branch go around the circle 6 times and the stories were funny, interesting, and even sad. Some students passed the branch four times and felt safe to share on the fifth lap. Before I even noticed, 50 minutes had gone by and students were still busy relating to one another, sharing personal accounts and listening to the oral histories of each other. It was incredible. I am seeing students beginning to weave in personal elements that up until now have been left out. A student mentions that he/she has not seen a family member for a long time, another mentions the closeness he feels with a sibling that has moved out, someone shares a now funny account of being terrified while lost in a crowd.

Today I asked students to reflect on their thoughts on the sharing circle experience thus far. Here are two journal entries that are typical of many. To be continued…

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She met the learning outcomes…but she doesn’t deserve to pass.

It is that time of year.  Some schools call it ‘evaluation’, some refer to it as ‘transition’, and others call it ‘adjudication’. Whatever the title, this week in high schools across BC, gatherings of teachers, councilors and admin will be held to determine the academic standing of students on the pass/fail bubble.

These conversations bring to the forefront a philosophical divide when encountering the “dilemma” of what to do with some at-risk students who either pass a given course, or come surprisingly  close to it.  In some cases the criteria for determining whether or not a student has shown sufficient evidence for competency around learning outcomes gets rather blurry.

Take the following scenario, which may or may not be from my own personal experience:

Claire, a 14 year-old grade 9 student, has missed a lot of school time, some of which certainly appears to be of her own making.  When she is not sick or skipping class, she clearly struggles socially and has few friends.  As her grade level administrator, I have met with her and her mother on numerous occasions, and besides my comments and questions, little else is offered by Claire or her mom. I have informed all of her teachers that there certainly appears to be issues within the family.  Claire’s mother never comes out for Parent-Teacher interviews and often excuses her daughter from missed classes for being ‘ill’.  Despite all the meetings and behavioural consequences like DTs for missed class, Claire’s behaviours have deteriorated.  Perhaps of little surprise, academic penalties for missed tests, late work and poor participation have not had the desired effect either.  In short, Claire has had a rather dismal year.

Her four terms in a linear Science 9 class have resulted in the following percentage grades and comments:

Term 1:     56             Claire needs to complete homework and improve attendance.

Term 2:     51            Greater participation would improve grade.

Term 3:     42            Missing assignments have resulted in a lower mark.

Term 4:     30            Missed classes and incompletes have resulted in failing mark.

Term Average: 44.75%                         Final  Exam: 65%

With the average of the four terms accounting for 80% of the final outcome and the exam the remaining 20%, Claire’s final course standing was 48.8%.

At our adjudication meeting, there are three possible outcomes for Claire.  For one, she could retake Science 9 in order to qualify for regular Science 10 and later be eligible for Chemistry 11, Physics 11 and Biology 11.  The second outcome could see her get an SG (Standing Granted) for Science 9, but this would relegate her to Science 10A and eventually the less academic stream of Science and Tech 11. Lastly Claire could enroll in 2 weeks of summer school, possibly boost her academic standing, and if she passed she could enroll in regular Science 10.

In a chance hallway meeting between Claire’s classroom teacher and myself, we struck up a conversation around the various outcomes for Claire.  Despite me mentioning that Claire clearly passed the final exam, it was obvious that the teacher was vehemently opposed to Claire be granted a passing grade based on the evidence to date.

We had the following conversation:

I asked, “Would you be open to counting the final exam as sufficient evidence to have Claire pass the Science 9 course?”

“Absolutely not,” the teacher responded.

“Why not?”

“She has a final mark of 48.8 percent and according to school policy that is not a pass.  She needs at least 50 percent overall.”

“But she did get well over 50 percent on the final exam,” I argued.

“The final exam makes up only 20 percent of the final grade.”

Pausing for a moment, I decided to explore another avenue.  I asked, “Is your final exam a comprehensive sampling of the course material?”

“I think it is a solid exam, and it covers all of our course,” the teacher replied.

I continued, “So, you do think it covers all of the learning outcomes?”

“Yes.”

Perhaps in response to seeing the direction the conversation was about to take, the teacher countered, “She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She has skipped way too many classes, she has missing assignments and she has a horrible attitude.  She needs to be taught accountability and the importance of coming to class.”

To be honest, I could not quite wrap my brain around the comment, ‘She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.’

From this conversation I propose the following points:

  1. Let Walmart, or whoever might employ her this summer, teach her that regular attendance and punctuality really matters.
  2.  If some universities, trades and other institutions reserve the right to use ONLY the outcome of a comprehensive exam to determine academic standing, could the teacher of a public school not also have this right?
  3. Given the arbitrary allocation of 80/20 term to exam weightings, would the result of these weightings not at best be a guideline to determining final course standing? (Had it been 60/40 like many provincial exams, she would have passed easily.)
  4. With so many variables impacting the regular course grade such as homework completion, attendance, family stability, hunger, poverty, social issues, maturity, drugs and alcohol, would a solid exam result not be considered especially valid to measure the extent to which a student does or does not meet the learning outcomes?
  5. Could we develop grading policies that allow teachers to use all tools at their disposal to determine the most accurate grade at any given time?
  6. Could we stop proposing that one established, and arbitrary, weighting system provides fairness to all?

Until this same time next year…

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