There are  days when I am fortunate enough to have conversations that are deeply significant to who I am as a teacher.  Lately, they seem to happen more often.

Three conversations today deeply impacted me.  Furthermore, we had a staff meeting in the afternoon that was like no other I’ve been to.  Let me tell you about my day.

The first conversation was with a colleague. I expressed my reservations about giving my ELA 20 class a midterm.  I stated that I was planning to discuss it with my class to see what they thought. His response, “Dont’ do that.  Of course, they’re going to say no.  People always take the easy way.” 

Really?  I don’t.  In fact, when it comes to my learning I find the hardest thing I can possibly do, and push myself to do it.  What if we modelled that for our students and it caught on?

I disagreed with his assessment, and chose to have the conversation anyway.  I was not disappointed.  I expressed to my students my ambivalence about exams, that we didn’t necessarily need an exam to measure the outcomes, but yet, for any going on to post-secondary education, they were likely going to need to know how to write a mid-term.  I explained that exams aren’t part of the curriculum, and yet for it to be absent, I might not be helping them to develop all the skills they need.  They listened.

Then we talked about the possibilities of format.  They liked the idea of it being one question that they would choose from several options.  They liked the idea of being able to choose which text they would argue/critique.  In the end, they chose the exam. Given the choice, kids often know what they need.  I think when we honour our students, we actually enable them to honour themselves. 

On Monday, I’m going to let them know they can use their notes too.  They’re going to fall over dead. You have to understand, I’m one of the hardest teachers in our school.  I consistently push my students to reach beyond what they currently can grasp.  And yet,  I don’t think allowing them access to their notes makes the exam easier; instead, it may actually make it more difficult.  They’ll need to make judicious decisions on how to use their time and resources.

Since information is ubiquitous, it isn’t about seeing what they can memorize, it’s about evaluating how well they can use the information they have access to, whether it’s through technology or books.

I’d let them use the web too, but because this concept is entirely new to them, I think the freedom would be paralyzing or, at the very least, distracting for many.  But I’ve decided a future goal is to teach them how to find sources on the net that they can use to construct, or support, their argument during an exam. 

The final conversation, for me, was the most telling.  A number of us were discussing the curriculum changes occurring in our province.  A few teachers lamented the lack of direction. My immediate thought was, “I would almost kill for less direction; I long for the ability of my students to take control of their own  learning.”  Some of us are in very different places. What seems like a lack of direction to some, is an opportunity for students to explore, to others.

My curriculum, in Biology, is jam-packed.  We skim the surface and keep moving, in order to cover all of the units and objectives that have been stuffed into it.  Currently, we’re learning DNA & genetics.  My students love it, and I hear that from them everyday.  They’re excited and engaged.  We could spend several months deeply exploring the intricacies of DNA, cloning and current research.  But we can’t; we have 10 hours. 

I’m tired of teaching 30 miles wide and an inch deep.  I’d like to teach fewer units in a semester, but with much greater depth.  I’d love to give them the chance to explore, but how do you do that when you have approximately 10 hours for a unit?

I wonder how many kids are in our schools, enduring four years, and hoping university will be better?  Every time they discover something they might be interested in, we have to move on.  I’m not sure how this is in the best interests of our students.

I’m not sure giving a student a smattering of everything is what they need.  Our current high school curriculum seems to attempt to cram in facts about everything before our students finish high school, as if they’ll never learn anything again afterwards. What if, instead, we taught them how to learn, and learn deeply in fewer areas, so they would have the skills they need to educate themselves for the rest of their lives? 

During this conversation, the comment directed toward me was, “at least you have a text-book.”  I do.  We could have used the $3,000 we spent on them for something else because we rarely use them. Instead, this semester, we’re using our wiki to create our own on-line text. 

I’ve found my students don’t learn well from textbooks.  They’re visual.  I assign reading, but in the end, I’m always drawing it on the board, showing you-tube videos, creating models, or we use manipulatives.  I do not consider it money well spent.

However, the best thing that happened today, was our staff meeting.  And trust me, I did not think I would ever say that.  Usually we have typical staff meetings.  We go through the list of stuff, nobody says much, we put in our time, we leave.  Not today.

After the typical list of staff meeting topics we had PD on why teaching needs to change. Could it be?

We heard about the reality that students who don’t graduate today, don’t have the options they used to.  It used to be that if you didn’t graduate you still had options to make a decent living, not anymore.  We looked at the stats on people who are incarcerated, or drawing social assistance, and how this directly correlates to their education and literacy levels. Because of this, teaching needs to change.

There are basic objectives that are need-to-knows, and others that are nice-to-know.  If a student graduates with only the need-to-knows, they should be reasonably successful in life.  However, many of our students don’t have the need-to-knows. 

So if this is the reality, how do we need to change?  What if we were to change the way we teach so that those who don’t have the basics, could get extra help, while those who do can dig deeper?  We would need to change the way our day is structured. There might even be multiple grades put together at some points.  We would have to figure out how to make it work, and it wouldn’t be easy.  But to be honest, the way we’re teaching now isn’t easy either.

The amazing thing is, that to many teachers, this made sense.  Teachers started talking about what this could look like.  How this would be so important to those who are struggling, and are at risk of being left behind.  Elementary teachers agreed.  High school teachers agreed. 

This is the only staff meeting I remember where teachers started animatedly talking to each other, and our principal, about the matter at hand.  This makes sense.  Not everyone talked.  I’m sure there are some that are terrified by the idea of this much change.

But then we were reassured that we wouldn’t necessarily be looking at making big changes for next year.  My honest thought was why not?  Why are we talking about this for an hour, if we’re not going to do anything?  But more than that, if we know, and agree, that what we’re doing now isn’t working, why would we keep doing it? That seems ludicrous to me.

As I was about to say this, minus the ludicrous part, another teacher said it for me.  I was ecstatic.  My fear is, though, that we’ll move on, and even though most of us agree that things must change, they won’t.

Consequently, I have a proposal for my administration.  I think I, partially, have a solution for how to make this happen.  My inspiration for it is Wendy Drexler’s video:

I love this idea.  I love the thought of our students as young as grade 5 being able to do this.  I’m not sure what this could look like at younger grades, but I believe it’s possible for older students.

I’m going to propose that for part of my contract I “float” to different classes; while teachers do tutorial work with students who need more help, I take those students who grasp the  need-to-knows, and we work on nice-to-knows. 

Since content is easily accessible, I don’t need to know every detail of what they’re studying.  Instead, my role would be to teach them how to evaluate sources, create meaning with the knowledge they find and use web 2.0 tools to pull it all together.  With these students I would help them to create PLE’s, just like in Drexler’s video. Their work could be checked by experts in the field they’re studying.  Imagine the excitement that would create in our students.  And final projects could be evaluated by their teachers. 

What if we create a school of students who know how to learn?

I think this is crucial to our school.  Consequently, I don’t want this discussion to be forgotten.  It would be so easy for this to fade, and us to continue doing what we know doesn’t work. So, I’m going to push for this change to occur because I think it’s plausible. 

But I honestly wonder how to do that.  I wonder how possible it is to create change when you’re not the administration, which also pushes me forward in my thinking towards becoming an administrator.

I think the bottom line is that we need to do what is best for our students.  I just hope we have the courage to do so.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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10 Responses to Conversations

  1. carla arena says:

    Wow, Shelley, wonderful reflective post, and you’re right, don’t let the conversation you had in the staff meeting die with words simply fading away. Take action (and you already have a plan!), and show that “yes, we can change and things can work in a different way for us and our students”. I’d love to know the results!

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  3. courosa says:

    “What if we create a school of students who know how to learn?”

    If only. This should be one of the most important guiding principles of any 21c school.

  4. Great post Shelley! I have often felt the same way… Having taught in high school, middle years, and now primary, I strongly believe that the “need to knows” should be really taught well in the primary grades so more “nice to knows” could be approached later. Good luck in pushing forward with your ideas!

  5. Rob Nyland says:

    Hi Shelley-
    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve become really interested in Open Learning recently after hearing Alec speak at a conference in Washington state.

    I really love your ideas about integrating your students into the assessment and learning process. I’ve been thinking about starting a wiki of my own that my students can add onto. Can I ask you how the process has been? What platform did you create the wiki on? Have you found success with the students using it as a replacement for their textbook?

    • This process, for me, has had a huge learning curve. At times, it’s been exhausting! But I would never change it. I’ve seen my students come alive in ways I never could have imagined.

      I’ve been using wikispaces. I find that it’s very user friendly. If you’d like to take a look it’s at For some of my classes, I have them add to the wiki themselves. I’m currently doing that for English. We’re creating a study guide of the major themes of the novel we’re reading. Each student is responsible for one chapter.

      For Biology, I’m creating an on-line interactive textbook. Some students use it, some don’t. For the ones that don’t, I think it has more with them not being used to it, and so they haven’t really discovered the value of it. I think if students were introduced to this idea at a younger age, they would think nothing of it.

  6. byrnesa says:

    The debate about midterms and finals has been one that is on-going in my school. A few years ago I was a strong believer in final exams because students attending post-secondary institutions need to be able to write them. Over the last couple of years, however, I’ve been rethinking this. What benefit does memorizing facts have? What does this teach our students?

    In my ideal world, K-12 and post secondary institutions would get together and discuss what’s best for our students. What’s going to help them in the future where they might change careers 5-10 times? As K-12 educators, we can create students who know how to learn, but what about when they take a university course and 80% of their grade is based on their final exam? It’s right back to memorizing facts… I don’t know about you, but when I don’t know something, I google it 🙂 Wouldn’t teaching them how to effectivly find information be more effective than teaching them how to memorize it?

    Anyways, I am now rambling. Thanks for this reflective post Shelley. You’ve given me a lot to think about and again, have inspired me to speak up and have these conversations with others in my division. Good luck with your plan.

    Oh, and I think administration might be in your future!!

  7. Great post Shelley! You have posed so many great comments, thoughts and ideas on educational change and reform as well as the way in which we involve our students in the process of self and classroom assessment. We must begin to take a look at the depth of our students knowledge rather than the breadth of what we are trying to teach them. I think you and I were on some of the same wavelengths this week with our blogs. 🙂 I enjoy reading your thoughts every week!

  8. Phil Ashman says:

    I know I’ve thrown a few comments on your blog today, but I just found it and have been working my way back through your posts!

    “On Monday, I’m going to let them know they can use their notes too. They’re going to fall over dead. You have to understand, I’m one of the hardest teachers in our school. I consistently push my students to reach beyond what they currently can grasp. And yet, I don’t think allowing them access to their notes makes the exam easier; instead, it may actually make it more difficult. They’ll need to make judicious decisions on how to use their time and resources.”

    This is the same point a colleague of mine and I often discuss. Although it does pose a challenge for assessing a course that is fact based and intended to prep for an industry certification exam that doesn’t allow notes. I’m slowly migrating one of my courses away from the traditional learn and dump approach and moving toward simply telling them what they’ll need to memorize for the cert exam from a 30 mile wide 1/2 inch deep perspective. This leaves us with more time to spend exploring some of the areas in way more depth than we ever did before.

    I’m at the post secondary level so I see students later in their educational path than yourself. It is definitely sad to see how some of their natural curiosity and confidence in their learning ability has been shattered! Unfortunately the high school system has been groomed to funnel into the post secondary system which on the whole is a shambles when it comes to teaching students how to learn. As more and more of the content becomes available for free on the net those institutions unwilling to adapt will pay a heavy price. The following short clip of an interview with Sugata Mitra on the future of universities says it all:

    He also did a Ted talk on “New Experiments in Self-Teaching” this year as well:

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