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.