Poverty and the Grading of Homework

The conversation around how schools can react to poverty typically centers around reduced breakfast and lunch programs.  On a few occasions I have heard people express concern as to the access that poverty-affected students have to sports programs, band and other extra-curricular activities.  I have never heard people discuss specifically how the grading of standardized homework is but one more hurdle for students living with poverty.  I think the time has come.

I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids and what schools can do about it”.  In the first three chapters alone, Jensen dumps upon the reader a stifling pile of challenges faced by students living with poverty.  Here is a small sample:

Students living with poverty…

–       are more likely to live in a crowded home

–       inherit low self-esteem

–       own fewer books

–       watch more tv

–       inherit negative views of school

–       have a 50% chance of dealing with evictions, utility disconnection, overcrowding or lack a fridge

–       have mentally adapted to suboptimal conditions

–       have higher tardiness and absentee rates

It should be clear to just about anyone that this litany of hurdles would make completing homework difficult, if not impossible.  To subject students to the grading of standardized, impersonal homework is questionable on so many levels, and I would argue that poverty-related challenges should be at the top of the list.  When any student arrives with incomplete homework, we as educators can never be certain of the reasons.   We should never assume that it is due to a lack of effort, but perhaps a safe assumption is that our most financially-challenged students have faced negative factors well beyond their control.


Filed under Assessment, In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships, Sound Grading

“That is a nice BIG target, especially if I can see it.”


I really enjoy my subscription to Scientific American Mind.  I stumbled upon a small article from July/August 2011 about a visualization experiment conducted by researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam.


The experiment was really simple:


  •  Ask three different groups to putt a golf ball at a target 5 feet away.
  • Let each group see the target first, but then change the landscape for two of the groups.
  • Make one group putt under a curtain so that they cannot see the target.
  • Make another group putt through a small obstacle enroute to the target.
  •  Allow the last group to see the target with no obstacles.

 After each group putted the golf ball, they were asked to estimate the size of the target on a computer screen.  The group that was able to have an unobstructed view of the target during the task described a bigger target.  This outcome is interesting, especially considering that each group was allowed to see the target first.

 It is obvious that golfers in the first two groups clearly understood that the path to the target had changed.  Most surprising however, is that it would appear that barriers to a target negatively change people’s perception of the nature of the target itself.

 Perhaps our students would perceive learning targets to be more attainable if they had a clear idea not only what these targets were, but if the targets were in clear view any time they needed them.

 Something to think about…


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

“Take as long as you need…”

Ok, so apparently the Georgia Senate is looking at passing a piece of legislation – Bill 364.  To read it in full, visit: http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/2011_12/versions/sb364_As_introduced_LC_33_4469_2.htm 

The Assembly is opposed to ‘standards based achievement’, ‘formative assessment’ and ‘assessment for learning’ (page 3). Here is what most leapt off the page for me regarding GA Senate Bill 364… 

 The General Assembly finds: “The assessment focus is on equal outcomes for all students, referred to as mastery of minimal standards, in which students can take as long as they need through the school year to meet standards without incurring grading penalties, and further, it removes grade averaging for all students, with the sole outcome based focus on meeting standards”

 Now, I may not be well-versed in Georgia politics and as a foreigner I obviously do not have the my finger on the pulse of the educational issues there.  I have read this bill in its entirety, but there may be more local sides to this debate.  Qualifiers aside, I do have a few thoughts on this bill.

First, I would think that mastery of minimal standards would be a good thing, regardless of the political jurisdiction.  If I am  misguided on that, I hope that someone will enlighten me.   

 Secondly, as an educator who has taken on some non-traditional grading and assessment methods, I have never stated nor implied that one of my students can ‘take as long as he/she need’.   Rather, I have endevoured to put intervention systems in place to support learners who do not get work in.   For that matter, maybe I should try to allow a student whatever time they need, but perhaps not as much time as they want.  Even that may be questionable…

I think across the board, we need to accept that general human conditions exist in every sector of society – including schools.  I know a few adults who procrastinate as well, but who will deliver great pieces of work when pressed to do so.  If we measure their understanding and ability according to a set of learning outcomes – they would score very high.  If the measure is their ability to meet a deadline, it would perhaps be quite low.  Arguably, placing grading penalties on work that is late will not get I, nor the educators in Georgia, the data that is most helpful.  I have come to believe that including late penalties only obscures the results in my gradebook.  Penalties, if required, are most effective when they come as close as possible to dealing with the real issue – in this case it is time.  I have always recognised that some students need to put in more time in order to get things done, and thankfully in the past few years I have stopped penalizing them academically for it.  Homework rooms, academic support blocks and work completion sessions often socially ‘sting’ students who would rather socialize with friends at lunch or after school, but introducing these interventions tends to result in more work completion.  If we allow students to get work in ‘whenever they feel like it’  we can anticipate that they will act like many people do; they will stretch it to the last minute.  Sound Grading practices need not fall into this vague and limitless trap of apathy.  Many students need guidelines and a set of corresponding consequences if they are not followed.  I know that  applying behavioural consequences to behavioural infractions  not only works better than academic penalties, but doing so still allows me to accumulate grading data that is a measure of learning outcomes.

Furthermore, schools are increasingly asked to take on the role of the ‘judicious parent’ and in many cases the table in the classroom is the replacement of the kitchen table in years past.  Mentoring, coaching and indeed parenting is about working with students, not incessantly grading and ranking them.

In my experience, people who champion the case against AFL and Sound Grading by arguing that students can ‘do whatever they want whenever they want’ have lost sight of the real issue.  Students need and expect guidelines and support – regardless of the task.  The real quest for me as an educator is to find the line between measuring academic merit and modeling behavioural norms. 

I hope this determination does not fall into the realm of legislation.


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

The Art of Keeping Your Head Down

Last week my wife and I were in Greece as I was presenting at the NESA Leadership Conference in Athens.  As we arrived in the city, it became really clear that strikes had impacted the normal flow of people and services.  Garbage piles littered the city and many local attractions were temporarily closed.  The taxi driver who brought us to our hotel explained to us on the 30-minute drive the many things that personally concerned him about Greece’s financial and political future. The austerity measures being considered by the Greek government in order to be eligible for European bail-outs were indeed opposed by many people.

The next morning, on October 19, we decided to take a walk through the downtown, or Plaka, but we were warned that most stores and attractions would be closed and that there would not be public transit of any kind.  Athens was on a general strike.   Furthermore, we were strongly encouraged to avoid the downtown areas were protesters were expected to gather.  Both the hotel staff and the organizers of the conference warned us that violence was expected from some protestors.

I have to admit that the social studies teacher in me yearned to walk close enough to the downtown area to at least gain a flavour for what large-scale public protest really looked like.  For weeks I had followed the story on BBC World News, and I was drawn to take a closer look.  As we walked towards Constitution Square, it was not hard to know the direction of the protests.  Streams of people flowed through the narrow streets all heading towards the Greek Parliament buildings. Many people carried signs and wore common colours which I assumed represented their respective organizations.

As we arrived at the central square we saw thousands of people standing around and chatting.  There was a very casual feel to the crowd and to the groups of police and military personnel who occupied the government grounds.  The tone changed slightly however, as around noon a lot of people began to arrive who were carrying large pieces of wood to which red flags were attached.  Clearly the diameter of these ‘flag holders’ suggested that they might serve a dual purpose.  Perhaps more distressing was the arrival of many younger protesters who were wearing black hoodies and carried motorcycle helmets and/or gas-masks.

Noticing that a local hotel had a roof-top restaurant, we decided to head up for a better view.  Once we were seven stories up we could see the protest taking shape.  The vast majority of the people were setting up formation in order to march, whereas a separate group was beginning to clash with the authorities over by a barrier to the government buildings.  The din of the crowd grew as more people arrived and this noise seemed only to encourage the more radical sect confronting the police.

Over the next hour or so, we watched as the protesters laid siege to the crowd barriers.  We watched people disassemble railings and proceed to throw the iron bars at the riot police.  Large chunks of concrete were hurled through the air along with chairs, signs and Molotov cocktails.  I could see people defacing walls with spray paint and I watched as a young man smashed a window with a metal bar, only to then hurl the pipe once the window was shattered.  I was absolutely mesmerized at the sight, but at the same time I was distinctly saddened to watch so many people destroy a space that 2 hours earlier looked unscathed.  The whole time I had been taking a lot of photos.

After tear gas wafted up to our rooftop, and we understood why it is called ‘tear gas’, we were asked to leave the balcony area.  Once inside I wanted desperately to get to the ground level to continue watching the protest and to get pictures from the street.  Despite once again being encouraged by the hotel staff to just remain indoors, we asked to be let out of the hotel. The front lobby doors were barricaded with riot shields, so they escorted us down a hallway to a back alley.

As we left out the back door, we found ourselves in a scene of chaos.  In what would normally be a quaint alley lined with trendy coffee shops and stores, now burned large piles of rubbish.  Many people’s faces were white from the tear gas and others forced themselves through the crowd carrying makeshift weapons.  The explosions from the Molotovs were booming through the air as the smell and feel of tear gas was everywhere.

Despite the scene, neither my wife nor I felt in any imminent danger, as long as we just blended into the crowd.  Most alarming to me was that the courage I thought I had moments ago on the seventh floor of the hotel had vanished.  Though I watched a protestor spray painting the marble wall of a bank, just steps from a police officer on a BMW motorcycle, I did not dare take out my camera to shoot the scene.  I somehow sensed that if I were to start taking pictures something bad would happen.  My wife took a few pictures with her miniature camera, and that is why we have a few pictures from that alley.

We eventually drifted out of the downtown with thousands of others who felt they had experienced enough of the demonstration.  After walking 4 blocks or so, I conjured up the courage to take out my camera and take a few pictures.  It had been a remarkable experience.

I have thought a lot about this event in the week or so since it occurred.  I think I am still processing it, but a few distinct thoughts have emerged.

  1. I really respect and admire the journalists who each and every day bring us the stories from around the world where violence and danger abound.  All my life I have watched scenes on the news of such events, and only when you really hear, see and smell the scenes found on the news do you get a sense for the contribution these people make to our understanding of world events.
  1. Not since sometime in grade school had I found myself in a position where I just wanted to vanish for my own good; the desire to just keep my head down and blend in.  Fearing for one’s safety from the larger population, regardless of the reasons, is an experience worth feeling from time to time.

I don’t know if it is too much of a stretch, but I did think of students, who for their own safety, drift through the school trying to remain unnoticed.  Though they may or may not face physical violence, they do find it preferential to keep as low a profile as possible.  I think it was good for me to feel this way too, even for a little while.


Filed under Personal, Relationships

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?”


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…


Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading, Uncategorized

Why are we doing this? (Part II)

How We Designed our In-School Suspension System

In my last post I detailed the process that saw a number of us at Pen Hi arrive at wanting an alternative to the traditional method of sending a student home for a drug suspension.  As stated, there were a number of reasons why we wanted to initiate a new system, and in this post I will describe the process we have implemented.

We had a number of  goals in structuring our In-School Suspension (ISS) System, most of which surrounded the desire to remove the student from his/her normal social circle, while adding interventions designed to help him/her address the problem of drug use.  Perhaps as the most important side-effect, wewanted to see the student return to class in a better position academically than when he/she had left.

With this in mind, we wanted…

  1. to find places in our building where the suspended student could work in ‘supported isolation’.
  2. to efficiently and effectively notify the student’s teachers of the suspension and collect work from them.
  3. to connect the student to adults in the building who could address the issue of drug use.
  4. to connect the student with academic supports that would last for the duration of the ISS and beyond.


We identified places in our building that could serve as appropriate locations to place ISS students.  The obvious rooms to use were our Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) rooms, both of which had teachers on hand at all times who had experience in assisting at-risk students.  It was nice to have the option between two of these rooms for a number of reasons:

  • If the student had friends working in one room, we could select the other location.
  • If one room was full or some other conflict arose, we could direct the student to the preferred environment.
  • We could make strategic decisions as to which LAC instructor might be better matched to the student.

If both LAC rooms were unavailable or considered to be in contrast to our stated goals, other locations were also considered, if even for a temporary period.  Some of these places included the counselling area, the front office waiting area, our conference room or a classroom.


One of our counsellors designed a table that came pre-loaded with information fields and a checklist for all appropriate information such as the date, student name, location of ISS, duration of ISS, etc.  As well, the table was embedded in an email that was preloaded with all of the addresses for the counselling staff, administration, youth worker and front office staff. All the administrator issuing the suspension had to do was select ‘reply to all’ and add the emails of the classroom teachers of the student serving the ISS.  Once this email was sent out, every adult in the building who needed to know about the ISS was informed.  The table also indicated where the teacher could send work for the student to complete.

Drug and Alcohol Support

We have benefitted greatly from our association with Rob McGirr from the Surrey School District.  Todd Manuel, one of the leaders of our ISS inquiry, had previously worked with Rob and knew about the fantastic work he did around drug use. The scope of Rob’s work in this area is too broad to share in this blog post, but in essence he directed us in three significant areas:

  1. He shared with us how to administer a drug self-assessment to a student found to be using drugs or alcohol.
  2. He has modeled for us the process of facilitating a group meeting of drug-impacted students.
  3. He has been able to address the most common concerns and general challenges in working with drug-impacted youth.


We have been using this model for over a year and personally I could not imagine going back to our previous system.  While there are still isolated situations that call for us to send a student off-campus, we probably administer about 90% of our suspensions on an ISS format.

In talking with any of the adults that are a part of the ISS system, it is clear that all of us have recognized the increased connectedness with our most at-risk students.  Following a 3-day in-school suspension, it is common to hear a staff member comment on how he/she has a clearer idea on the interests and character of the suspended student.

About a year ago we started writing down anecdotal comments from our ISS students and the staff members who worked with them.  Many of these comments not only entrenched our existing views of the ISS system, but they highlighted benefits we had not considered before.  Here is a sampling of a few of these comments:

  • ‘This in-school suspension system sucks, but it works!  I mean i got all caught up in my homework and I have never had that before.’ (male student, gr.9)
  • Man I am caught up!  Seriously, I don’t know if you know how big a deal this is, but I am caught up on my homework and that hasn’t happened since…what…grade 6?’  (male student, grade 9)

From a staff member who worked in one of the LAC rooms:

It was a very positive experience, I think for both of us, in many ways.  John* was able to get caught up on all of his homework. He worked very hard both days. It also provided a great opportunity for him and me to connect on a much stronger level. I hadn’t realized how very at risk he is before these two days as his marks and attendance are quite strong. He’s not one who would have stood out to me as needing a tremendous amount of support. Now, he stops and chats with me in the hallway about things like basketball, novels we’re reading, assignments he’s working on. Because of this ISS model, he has now made 4 significant, strong adult connections in the school: his counsellor, the youth worker, his vice principal, and his LAC teacher. If we had opted to send this boy home for his suspension instead, I think we would have risked beginning that push out the door when school is the one stable, positive force in his life.

* the student’s name has been changed to protect anonymity


We are into our second school year of developing and implementing an ISS system.  It has been incredible to see the way in which we have transformed the manner in which we react to situations that traditionally have resulted in us ostracizing students.  We are building stronger relationships, improving academic success and connecting with students least likely to be connected.  Above all, personally I have dramatically reduced the number of times I have had to walk students to the door and say goodbye for a 3-5 days – especially at a time in which they can least afford it.

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Filed under In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships

Why Are We Doing This? (Part I)

Our experience in implementing an in-school suspension system.

The Problem

When I first filled the role as Vice-Principal of Penticton Secondary, few decisions were clearer than what to do with students caught using or possessing drugs at school.  A student caught in such an offence was given a 3-day suspension of they agreed to visit an outside drug counselling agency and was administered a 5-day suspension if they declined to seek counselling.  I followed a fairly simple routine: bust student for drug use, question him or her, call parent, write suspension letter, and wait for the parent to pick the drug-impacted student.  Those steps were pretty easy to follow, but the part that became increasingly difficult, was when I walked the student to the door to meet the disgruntled parent.  I found myself saying something like:

‘I really hate saying this, and it is the least favorite part of my job, but you cannot be on our school property for the next 3 days.’

The problem was, I really did hate it.  Too often I handed the student off to a parent who was not in a great frame of mind or position to deal with the situation. Too often the parent was heading straight back to work and I knew the student would be alone.  Too often the student lamented the fact he or she would be missing class and would be even further behind when he or she returned. Too often I feared a violent or critical incident might  ensue at the parent hand-off, or worse, after the parent and student had left the grounds.   Simply stated, it did not feel right, and the more times I went through this process, the more I felt resigned that we [the school] were somehow missing the mark.

On days when I would send a student away for 3 to 5 days, I heard myself  debriefing to my wife things like:

‘Every bone in my body tells me this is not the right course of action.’

‘I hope (Michael) is ok for the next 3 days.’

‘I wonder how we will every get (Susan) caught up after her suspension is over.’

The Solution

One of the best days I can recall from my first year as a high school vp, was when I realised that I was not the only one questioning our suspension system as it related to drug-impacted and affected youth.  The teachers who worked most closely with some of the students I suspended would cringe at the thought of losing contact with them, especially when they worked so hard to keep these students caught up.  One day a few of us who had been questioning this practice went for lunch  and began to share our frustrations.  It became clear very quickly that there were obvious reasons why conventional, out-of-school suspension systems, were failing our most at-risk, drug-impacted and affected teens.

The moment an out-of-school suspension was given, the teen…

  1. fell further behind in his classes and was left in a position of returning with even less understanding of the material
  2. felt even more isolated from the school the longer she was ostracised
  3. was separated from the adults he most needed…at the time he most needed them
  4. ran the risk of being further stigmatized and labeled as a  ‘drug kid’
  5. was able to partake in, or further entrench himself in, the very behaviours that led to the suspension (smoke up in a vacant house!)
  6. often set into motion plans to pull other students from class during the suspension period

Once we were able to articulate and isolate the reasons we had questioned our practice, we began to shift our paradigm around what we did with our at-risk sector – we were able to get around to building a new system.  No matter which direction we took, our conversation seemed to come back to relationships.  Our most drug-impacted students needed to be linked to positive adults in our school community and it was incumbent upon us to build a process accordingly.

We started with an inquiry question:

“If we introduced and implemented an in-school suspension system, would we see an increased level of school connectedness with some of our most at-risk students?”

Todd Manuel, a Special Education teacher at Penticton Secondary, took over the helm and has been absolutely instrumental in the design and implementation of this inquiry.  Along with a team of focused educators we now are feeling that we are supporting our drug-impacted students like never before.
The results were amazing…
(Next post: How we built the system and the results.)


Filed under In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships

Social Anxiety in Students

I just read a very good blog post – one that should give educators cause to reflect.  I suggest you read it.


William Chamberlain poses the following questions:

  • What are you doing in your classroom for kids like me that some days are barely hanging on until they can get back home where they can relax?
  • Have you actively sought out the quiet kids or the ones that don’t seem to make friends and spend a few minutes with them?
  • If you go out of your way to make them more comfortable, they will be more successful in your classroom.

Looking at these questions reminded me of a student I had in History 12.  Let’s refer to him as Jon.

Jon hadn’t been very successful in previous Social Studies classes, but he wanted to take part in History 12.  His attendance was good, he scored approximately 60% on most assessments and he NEVER contributed to the conversation.  When it came time for presentations or group work he disappeared.  At first I didn’t figure it out, but soon it became apparent that he knew what we were up to and as soon as I was about to return to my normal lecture format he would miraculously reappear.

Once I tried to get ‘tough’ and I attempted to force him into taking on a speaking role in our Holocaust Coroners activity, but he did not want to play a role and rather left me a note.  I have kept it…

‘Mr. Dueck you are a good teacher and I really like your class.  You seem like a nice guy and I love the material.  I will not however, be taking part in any public presentations.  It does not matter what you say or do…I won’t do it.  Nothing on earth scares me more than speaking in front of others.  If you force me to do it, I will probably end up telling you to F*** Off, you will be forced to react to my comment, and we will all be worse off for it.  I will just avoid class until it is all over and you can give me a zero.’ –  Jon

I went home and shared this with my spouse who is not a teacher, and she leveled with me as well, explaining that her worst days of high school, without a doubt, were the public presentation days. ‘You guys [teachers] get up in front of people all the time, everyday – you just don’t get it.’

The next day I found Jon, nowhere near my classroom or the library where the rest were researching their presentations, and I asked if he cared to do a personal project on his days off.  He jumped at the chance and I told him that regular classes would resume on Monday.  After the weekend he was in his usual seat as predicted, the imminent threat had passed.

A few weeks later I noticed him doodling on his desk and instead of ripping into him about graffiti, I asked if I could buy him a sketchbook.  The resulting collection of artwork, a day-to-day account of our material as seen through the eyes of an artist, is a book I cherish to this day.

I see Jon from time to time and I carry his sketchbook to nearly all of my presentations.  Jon taught me a few things, or at least entrenched what I had suspected:

  1. It is my job to lower stress and anxiety in the classroom, not exacerbate it.
  2. I was the dictator in my classroom and the ‘keeper of the gate’ when it came to who could demonstrate knowledge, how it would be done and when.  The avenues in which I allowed a student to display knowledge would directly impact the extent to which he or she was able to.
  3. Learning is number one, engagement is critical, the method is malleable.  Let students, ‘Show what they know’.
  4. It is all about relationships.

ps.  Today Jon is a successful artist and lover of all things History…especially WWII.


Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

Let’s Dream for Moment – What if courses could be approached like a house project?

When I approach something in which I lack confidence, the ‘door prize’ that pulls me into the process is knowing that I can make errors – as many as it takes!  So when I was confronted with a house that did not have soffits, gutters, or facia, I called as many contractors as I could.   I had insulation sticking out of the sides of my roof and someone told we that I needed soffits, gutters and facia.  I knew that we had purchsed an unfinished house, that was clear, but I didn’t know I was a landlord to a family of squirrels, numerous birds and other creatures – all calling my roof ‘home’. 

First of all, I did not know what facia or soffits were. I knew they were located near the roof and not in the kitchen, but I would not have been able to speak with much authority beyond that.

I had the summer to figure out a solution and I called 3 different contractors, all of whom neglected to show up, so I started at the contractors counter at my local building centre. Armed with a digital camera and 102 questions I got a start. The guy told me, ‘Do the step I just explained, and when you are finished, ask me what to do next.’ I told my wife, ‘the worst case scenario is that I totally botch this up and I tear it all down.’ Disguising her doubt as only a great wife can, she said ‘go for it’ .

Many more questions, a number of errors and 5 weeks later, my house had soffits, facia and gutters. More importantly, I had the confidence to start the next project.  I will share more on that later.   If I hadn’t had the luxury of error, the latitude to figure it out sans unreasonable penalty (mine was the cost of time and materials) and time to tinker, I would never have started the process at all. I wonder what would happen if we could build an education system that resembled the way people take on hobbies, interests and projects? It is uncanny the way in which hobbyists delve, learn and conquer what they don’t know about  their own interests. I wish the same for my students, and I know that letting them make mistakes and LEARN from those errors is a window into increasing their levels of motivation. Take any group of people, a group of teachers would be no different, give them new information and tell them that the measure of their knowledge retention will be a one-shot test. The evidence of stress would be immediate, and for good reason. Retests, practice, simulation, modeling – call it what you want, but I think it is imperative that we construct learning environments in which mistakes are welcomed and examined, but most importantly, a natural part of the process.


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

Blogging and LEGO(tm)

This morning was a little bizarre.  My son and I found ourselves with the run of the house and wondered just what to do with the opportunity.  Before long, we had the dining room table covered in LEGO pieces and one small corner of real estate was set aside for my laptop.  While he continued to construct a Star Wars AT-AT Walker that we started at Christmas, I tackled the task of starting my blogging venture.  It turns out that the two activities are not all that different.  While I struggled to figure out widgets, Twitter links and avatars, he muttered that Daddy wasn’t helping as much on the LEGO as he had hoped.  Pardon me if I stretch this idea just a little, but I see a correlation between LEGO and a lot of things I am into these days.  In my professional life, as a vice-principal I sort through a lot of pieces, attempt to fit them in where they best belong, and strive to help out others as much as they have hoped I would.  In working through the challenges and successes of assessment and grading, it too is a matter of sifting through the known and the new to arrive at a product that was better than the last version and not as good as the one we will arrive at when we get more time to look into it.  Building, welding, electrical and construction – these things are what ground me and what I often work on late at night.  The parallels with LEGO are obvious.  And family…well…anyone who is juggling 2 kids, a job, a house, a marriage, a dog, and the myriad of other distractions knows how that can be like digging your hand into a pile of plastic pieces looking for the right one.

So, here begins this blogging thing.  I will try to sift through the pieces of my family,  profession, interests and ideas to form something that is of value, but at the same time not too daunting to become prohibitive.  We’ll see how it goes.

the AT-AT Walker

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Filed under Personal