Welcome video

I wanted a new way to go over the usually boring “course expectations” with students on day 1 of classes… it needs to be done, but reading through a paper document wasn’t terribly interesting (for them or me).

I wanted to create something exciting and dynamic… I think this fits the bill, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

I’m wondering whether I’ll get any “how did you do that?” questions from my students this fall… and am kind of hoping that I do.

Believe it or not, this was made using PowerPoint.  Thanks to powerpointspice, whose tutorials were a big help and inspiration.

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I thought I knew PowerPoint…

I’ve been playing with the idea of putting together a short video to present class expectations to students… y’know, the “attend class, hand in assignments, ask questions, be nice to each other” ground rules.  I want to do something that’s more engaging than just a paper document, and I don’t want to take a huge amount of class time to develop these expectations with students.  I’m hoping to create something that will be a bit unique, flashy, and attention-grabbing.  Plus I think playing with digital media is kind of fun.

My big question was “okay, what program do I want to use?”.  I have Premier, but I’m not planning on using any actual video, so this seems like overkill.  And I have Flash, which could probably do what I want, but it doesn’t have much in the way of built-in effects.

What about PowerPoint?  To be clear, I don’t want what I create to look like a “traditional” PowerPoint.  At all.  But PowerPoint has some reasonably advanced animation features.  Still, I wasn’t sure it would be up to the challenge.  Then I stumbled across this…

All I can say is “wow”.  I thought I knew PowerPoint… but apparently I still have a lot to learn.

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Curiosity, trust, risk, and schools

Will Richardson has a very thought-provoking post up where he asks“Does Your School Have a Culture of Curiosity and Trust?”  He speculates that “Schools are by and large incurious and risk averse.”.   He suggests that “We incrementally, safely try to get “better” as opposed to bravely innovating our way to becoming decidedly “different” in our vision of what modern teaching and learning best supports our students.”.  This idea isn’t new to me, but I still don’t know exactly what I think.

It’s probably correct to say that schools are somewhat risk-averse… and I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing.  The greater the consequences of something going “all the way wrong”, the more adverse we should be to taking that risk.  That’s just living up to the trust that the public places in us.  The thing about risk, though, is that it can be mitigated.  Being risk-averse doesn’t mean never taking risks.  It means embarking on something with eyes open and managing the risk.  A good plan goes a long way towards doing that, especially if the plan includes how to recover from failure.  There’s also something to be said for doing things on a small scale first… running a “pilot” often helps initiatives to ultimately be more successful.

I’d like to think that having an innovative idea and doing the work to develop a plan for implementing that idea should lead to a favourable result.  I usually try a couple of new things every year.  Most of my ideas have met with approval and support, and most of them have worked out.  I think trust is somewhat of a feedback loop, being able to pull something off makes it more likely that your next project will meet with a favourable response.  I have also been told “no” a few times… not often, and if I’m being completely honest, I probably deserve to be told “no” sometimes.  And “no” often means “not right now” or “you need to do more work on this idea first”, both of which can be valid.

I have two major questions about going down unproven roads.  First of all, while it would be nice to think that all innovations will be positive, what if they aren’t?  There is research out there that says it takes students two years to recover from one ineffective year of instruction.  What if an idea fails colossally?  I’m not saying we should never try new things, but that the responsible thing is monitoring how well they’re working and being prepared to pull the plug when necessary.

My second question, which I fortunately don’t have to deal with at the moment because I’m not an administrator, is when it is justified to pursue a new, unknown idea when the alternative has proven itself effective in research?  That is, if there is a solid body of evidence suggesting that certain practices improve outcomes for students, shouldn’t there be some resistance to going in a completely different direction?

If it sounds like I’m still processing the whole balance between innovation and responsibility, that’s because I am.  Thanks for getting me to think about this more deeply, our society certainly has changed since our current model of public schooling was developed, so it makes sense that how we “do” school might need to change too.

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The challenge of grading groupwork

I was spending a leisurely early afternoon drinking coffee and catching up on some of the blogs I follow, when I happened across this post by Kelly Christopherson.  He was thinking about something I often ponder… how to “do” collaborative learning effectively.

Kelly’s post was a review of / reflection on “Productive Group Work” by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove… a book I think I need to add to my to-read list.  Like many teachers (I’m sure), I think collaborative learning can be a powerful and engaging learning experience.  I also know from my own experiences as a student and as a professional, and from watching students, that working in a group isn’t all sunshine and flowers.  Collaborative learning (the fancy term for group or team based work) is definitely “worth doing”, I’ve seen the young people I work with do amazing things when they combine their efforts… but if it’s worth doing, it’s also worth doing well.  Kelly’s post got me to thinking about what that means for me and my students.

Just so everyone knows, my current teaching role imposes some complications that are rather unique.  I’m not in the same room as, or even within 100km of, some of my students.  My students are in 18 different physical locations, and while I don’t usually have students from all 18 sites in one class, often I have 10 or 12 physical locations… some with one student, some with 3, 4, more students.  The whole “circulate, monitor, 30 second conversations” method is not going to work in this situation.  That has ramifications for classroom management, classroom climate / culture, student engagement, student-teacher rapport, and pretty much everything else that goes on in a traditional classroom.  I’ll probably write about some of this stuff in more detail later, but right now I’m focusing on groupwork.

My major question about collaborative learning is how best to grade group work.  Not assess, grade.  Assessing and giving formative feedback is easy.  Peer and self assessing group process, their contributions, their learning, etc. is easy.  Well, maybe not “easy”, but I know how to do it in a way that is meaningful. The challenge is converting this all into a number in a way that is fair, transparent, defensible, and non-onerous.  It’s that last one that is the stumbling block for me… I really do not want to be collecting surveys from 25 students on each of the 3 or 4 people in their group and calculating scores based on their assessments… for one project, maybe I could manage it (25 x 4 = 100 surveys to tabulate)… but I teach 7 classes, and there are certain times of the year when I’ll have 3 or 4 collaborative learning projects all nearing completion.  I try to be an organized person, but throwing hundreds of pieces of paper at me, from 18 different places, arriving at random times, sometimes poorly labeled or incomplete… and expecting me to make it all make sense… well, that would be pushing my organizational skills.

Then there’s the matter of what is an appropriate student contribution to a group?  One answer is “doing your share”, but this strikes me as overly simplistic.  I’m not sure equal contributions is always the right answer.  Students have different talents and abilities, and should be empowered to bring those strengths to their group, and that means that not everyone is going to contribute in the same ways.  Is a student who writes the script for a video doing more or less work than the student who films and edits the video, or the student who does the underlying research on the topic?  You see the challenge.  And editing a video is not a group activity, you don’t want more than one or two pairs of hands involved in a task like that, so it’s really not reasonable to say that everyone in a group should be involved in all aspects of a project.  Plus, projects in real life don’t work that way.  My current line is that everyone needs to “contribute meaningfully” to the group’s work.  What does that look like?  Well, to be honest, “meaningful contribution” is most easily defined by its absence.  Not a perfect definition I know, but it’s worked reasonably well so far.

Then there’s the question of whether group process should even be part of a student’s academic mark.  Right now in Manitoba, there’s a major emphasis on separating “academic performance” from “behavior”.  I could write a whole post on that (and probably will at some point), but I can’t help feeling that sometimes this is a false dichotomy.  Is attending class a behavior or academic?  Is turning in assignments a behavior or academic?  Is collaborating with others a behavior or academic? They’re all behaviors, but they’re also all academic, or at least they all significantly affect the academic domain.  Tell me that a student who never attends class, completes assignments, or works on group projects can be successful academically.  I guess in theory it’s possible, but in my experience it almost never shakes out that way.

So these are the things I think about.  What about what I do?  Well, I’ve had some good successes using wikis and other digital collaboration tools for groupwork across physical distances.  I’ve got a good sense of what effective digital collaboration looks like, and can model and coach effectively using digital tools.  I also get a lasting record of what everyone is doing in their group, and can digitally stick my head into group conversations, sometimes to ask thoughtful questions, sometimes to refocus a group on the task at hand, and occasionally to remind students about the standard for acceptable behavior.  This is working very well so far, and I’ll probably keep doing it.

The grading piece, though… well, I have a “contributes effectively to the work of the group” category on my assessment schemes with reasonably good descriptors, I am able to get a good idea of this from students’ digital interactions, I’m reasonably comfortable with my ability to defend my assessments, and in the few cases where I’ve needed to, I have been able to deal with the most egregious cases of students not contributing to their group outside the rubric.  Aside from the effective collaboration piece which is different for each student, though, I assess the product of the group’s work, and everyone gets the same mark for that portion.  I can’t help feeling, though, that my line “I’m assessing the product of your group’s work” is a bit of a cop-out.  This is something to definitely keep thinking about and tweaking.

So, thanks for provoking some thoughts on this issue of collaborative learning Kelly, and for the book recommendation.

As a final thought, I love how you refer to the teacher as “lead learner”.  I haven’t heard that before, but I think it fits.  The whole “what is the lens through which you view your role as a teacher” conversation, though, will have to wait for another time and another post (definitely want to come back to this in the future though!).

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Canadian students get a “high-quality education” – Conference Board of Canada

It seems to me that bad news tends to spread more quickly and widely than good news… “things are going fairly well” doesn’t make a great headline.  This is a basic reality of our media-saturated society, I guess.  So it shouldn’t (and doesn’t) surprise me overmuch that a lot of media coverage on education in Canada seems to be negative.  You know, poor test scores, high cost, overpaid teachers, failing today’s students, blah, blah, blah.

One could possibly arrive at the conclusion that education in Canada is hopelessly broken….  which isn’t the case at all.  In fact, some people seem to think Canada’s education system is doing a fairly good job.  Who?  Try the Conference Board of Canada.  They just released their education report card, and Canada scored second out of 16 peer countries.  Only Finland and Canada ended up with an “A”.  Not bad.  What did they have to say?  Well, lots, but this quotation stuck out:

Canada’s strength is in delivering a high-quality education with comparatively modest spending to people between the ages of 5 and 19.

So… I am not saying that we can rest on our laurels and become complacent.   There is lots of room for improvement in our education system.  There are some fairly large areas of concern that the Conference Board’s report doesn’t really expose (First Nations education inequalities and Manitoba’s PISA scores come to mind).  And locally, I know there are things that I could (and will be trying to) improve in my school and my classes.  Continuous improvement is the name of the game… standing still is not a good option, and never has been.  But panic and despair about the state of our education system as a whole are clearly unwarranted.  Canadian schools aren’t failing students, or society, or the economy on a massive scale.  And I’m not the one saying this… the Conference Board of Canada is.

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Hello world

Well, after many years thinking I should start up a blog and join the rich and vibrant conversations taking place online, I can cross this goal off my to-do list.

At the risk of repeating what I’ve already written on the “About” page, my goal with this blog is to learn, hopefully to grow as an educator and leader, and if I’m really fortunate, to contribute something meaningful to the mix every now and again.

Just as my in-person identity is important to me, so too is my online identity.  I’m a professional, and I’ve spent the last few years telling colleagues and students that they should not post anything online they would not want appearing on the front page of the newspaper.  I’ve told my employer and colleagues about this blog… and while I’m not going to advertise this place to my students, I have no doubt that someone will find it eventually.  So “professional” and “collegial” is the standard I’m holding myself to here.

I can’t promise that updates will necessarily be frequent, or that I’ll have anything to say that is worthwhile.  This is mainly for myself to reflect on some of the issues affecting public education today.  Having said that, I like to be useful, and hope that over time I will be able to give something back to the online community I have benefited from.

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