Facilitating Student Voice in the Classroom

 

finishing a podcasting session with Heather Swail’s Grade 7-8 class

I started out today watching a conversation between Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Washington press corps. I shouldn’t really call it a conversation. The reporters asked on three separate occasions about the current US policy on separating children from their parents when they cross the border. There was no response, just a lot of avoidance and some pretty insulting retorts.

Nothing was resolved, no questions were answered, no problem was even acknowledged. Both sides scored points, but an injustice is still being done.

In contrast, I have spent the last week listening to grade 7-8 students talk about social justice. What a difference!

I  got involved at the end of a month-long process that saw students choose a social justice issue, research the issue, debate the issue with peers then finally develop a persuasive piece that they then blogged about.

Their blog posts are all attached to their teacher Heather Swail’s blog and can be found here.

I really encourage you to read a few of these great pieces. The topics range from residential schools in Canada to water issues in South Africa, child labour, gun violence and racial profiling.

Little did I know that Residential schools were a lot deeper of an issue than just boarding schools that were wrongful to a misjudged people. They literally destroyed Indigenous culture for generations to come, and what really surprised me was that even after everything we did them, Indigenous people are still being treated unfairly today.

excerpt from student blog Residential Schools Revisited

All the posts are well-considered and intelligent. What makes the real difference is that this was a facilitated process. Students did not simply strike off on an issue, they had to go through a deliberate process with identifiable steps.

This is a well-known process that starts with the head moves to the heart and finishes with the hands. What is the issue, how does it make you feel, what are you going to do about it? A version of Heather’s methodology can be found here.

We took one final step by doing a series of five podcasts where the students talked about their issues. You can hear one of these podcasts here more will be coming out on VoicEd Radio soon.

It is at times like these that I really wish I was back in the classroom! My visits to Room 201 and to the student blog posts were a refreshing break from the media wars that are going on everywhere right now. Well considered opinion, well expressed, backed by evidence and part of an intelligent thought process.

When I see the faces of these children and when I read their words, I do think there is hope for the future. When students learn how to think, research and write well thought out pieces I know there is still room for intelligent debate and discussion.

My hope for all of these students is that they carry these valuable lessons into the future.

 

 

Education Reform – Why are we Rearranging the Deckchairs?

I started off my Twitter reading today with this comment by Matthew Oldridge

One thought about the assessment review Ontario: A Learning Province. It admits in there that we are keeping grades to appease the university industrial complex. Disappointing that the tail continues to wag the dog.

I think this is a great comment. Why do we keep grades? In most classes especially in elementary schools, many of our students are on IEPs modified at or below grade level.

We are getting so much better at assessing the learning levels and aptitudes of students, so much so that grades are becoming irrelevant. Grades were created at a time when it was assumed that everyone learned the same way and at the same pace. Such an idea today would be seen as ridiculous – so why keep grades?

To me, this leads to a bigger question. What else is becoming irrelevant in education?

While it was very encouraging to see the recent review of student assessment take place in Ontario, I was disappointed that the study did not have a wider scope.

We could do so much better than our current system, why stop at system-wide assessment?

Last week on a new show on VoicEd Radio, I made the comment that school boards as organized in Ontario are corrupt. I think this caused a bit of concern, but we didn’t have the time to get into it. By corrupt, I didn’t mean in the financial sense. I meant tainted, decayed, made inferior by errors, that kind of corrupt.

Much in education can then be seen as corrupt and in need of renewal. How can a 19th-century institution developed around the same time as the prison system not be seen as in some ways corrupt and in need of whole-scale change?

How are we served by a trustee system where local representatives are part-time at best and totally dependant on school board staff for the information they need to make decisions that affect thousands of children?

Do the rights of the student really come first in a system where hiring is done based on how many years you have existed on a seniority list?

How are we served by school board superintendents who are not accountable to anyone and have the ultimate authority over everything that matters to children in our schools? In a public school system, why are these people so far removed from public scrutiny?

Why do we still have four types of school boards in Ontario? How is this efficient or necessary? Why can’t we effectively challenge a system that was organized back in the 1840’s?

I think there are a lot more challenges that could be put forward here. I would love to see what other people would add to this short list.

What if there is really a long list of things that need to be reconsidered and debated? What if we really questioned how our education dollars were being spent? What if board officials felt they had to be held accountable, would this affect the decisions they make?

Why can’t we extend the dialogue? Education is not a sacred cow, we should be able to challenge conventional wisdom. We know more, we are very well informed. We deserve the very best education system we can get.

Can we do better than this?

 

Who Gets Hired in Ontario’s Education System?

Most of my friends are teachers. My wife teaches grade 7 and 8. I feel that I am a strong advocate for teachers and I did whatever I could for the teachers I worked with while I was an administrator at four elementary schools over a twelve-year period.

I feel I need to put this right out in front when writing about the topic of hiring and seniority.

I know this is a very thorny issue, especially in Ontario where government regulations have restricted who school boards can hire based on seniority. I am taking part in a debate on Voiced Radio this morning on this topic, so I am using my blog today to prepare for this session.

While I write, I am also checking out a Twitter conversation on seniority and hiring. Here is one comment that gets to the point – a hard thing to do using Twitter!

As an outsider, I can’t help but feel there should be a middle ground. I’m instinctively uncomfortable with the idea that you get hired because it’s your turn. But I also see scope for abuse in a free for all situation

The writer is not an educator, he is a concerned parent and he makes a great point. While the old way of hiring was open to abuse, do we really make things better by putting in place an arbitrary system that blindly imposes limitations on school board when it comes to hiring talented people?

School boards are terrified of teacher unions so there is no way to get around regulations that are negotiated between boards and the government. They know to do so risks legal action. So boards and more specifically principals follow the mandated hiring practices without criticism.

If I was still a principal I wouldn’t be writing this. Criticizing provincially mandated hiring practices, no matter how ill-considered is a really good way to get you sanctioned by your employers.

If you have read my blog, you know that I have a big problem with large public institutions, school boards in particular. Unions are big organizations as well and while they do great things for their members, they are susceptible to the same foibles as school boards.

Unions sometime promote policies that are great for their membership without seeing how these policies do not serve students. In Ontario, they are now using seniority as a blunt instrument to protect their membership. It is blunt and blind. There is no guarantee that you are getting an excellent teacher when you rely on seniority to hire.

Excellence, however, is what we should be demanding from our education system. Our kids deserve it.

The obvious retort that I will be hearing soon will undoubtedly be – well what would you replace it with.

To this, I don’t have a good answer, but that is no reason to make seniority the main factor in deciding who gets to teach our children. Sure there were abuses in the past. People got hired who shouldn’t have. This was because the people who were doing the hiring were abusing the system. It was dishonest and wrong.

But, this is not a good enough reason for developing a policy that is also wrong and protects a particularly privileged group of people.

We need excellent educators and excellent administrators who do not abuse the system. Maybe we get the system we deserve, but I have to argue we could do so much better than this.

 

Are Educators Talking to Themselves?

Every day I start by reading the paper. It is a longtime practice and it grounds me before moving on to other projects. This is not something I started in retirement, I did this almost every day while I was actively involved as an educator.

Now I have more time to check out social media as well and I spend time every day going through my networks on Twitter, Facebook and Discovery Education (The DEN).

There is lots of good stuff going on. An online conference planned for the May 5th weekend, an educators summer book study, a new education news show on Voiced Radio lots of conversations between educators involved in Discovery Education on a variety of edtech (mainly) topics.

There is something unsettling here.

If I contrast what I read each day in the paper with what I see educators writing about there is a very discouraging disconnect.

The world is in crisis. Last week we had the Western Alliance hurtling cruise missiles at targets in Syria with the potential of initiating a world conflict between the West and the Russians. Sea levels continue to rise as the Globe and Mail continues to report in an excellent series on global warming and sea levels. In Ontario, we are heading into a provincial election with stark choices between a populist right-wing party and a corrupt moribund government.

Yet, when I look to comments from educators, I see a group that seems oblivious to what is happening in the world. I see a group that seems comfortable remaining blissfully neutral to what is going on.

Maybe educators on social media need to wake up. Maybe the inclusion of a book like American War recently published by former Globe and Mail writer Omar El Akkad would be a useful inclusion in a summer book study too heavy with technical manuals on teaching.

I am watching the excellent series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. This would be a great topic for educators to discuss! One of the most compelling characters in this documentary is a man who was a young professor in the early days of the war. He is compelling because he was so committed to protesting against an unjust, wasteful war, years before this became the popular thing to do. Where are these voices today?

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a co-founder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society.

 

Where are we now? Why do we never seem to raise a voice of protest or even criticism of our system? Are we afraid for our jobs? Is it not the right thing to do? Do we even have an opinion?

A few weeks ago I took part in a training in South Carolina with American educators. Not once did we ever talk about politics. The whole world is coming apart because of a rogue president who takes his marching orders from Fox and Friends and we don’t even discuss this over a beer at the end of the day.

This is a problem. I realized this while I was at the training, but it seemed almost impolite to talk about this stuff. It is almost like educators are above this now and we have higher, better things to talk about.

This is distressing. I don’t think this is right. As educators, we have a higher purpose and we can raise the dialogue beyond complaining about testing which seems to be the best that we can do.

Can we do better? Should we do better?

Yes, of course we should.

What Brings you Joy?

Driving back from Montreal on a beautiful afternoon. What brings you Joy?

It is important to always reflect on what brings you Joy. This was a particularly challenging work week, we all have them and these are the times to reflect on the positive. This may sound a bit trite, but that is how things need to go. Staying mired in the negativity engendered by some organizations doesn’t help you at all.

Look for the things in your work and life that give you joy. For me, this was a particularly wonderful interview we did for a radio broadcast we do on a regular basis. The show is called First Hand Stories and this interview was done with Chris Nihmey, a mental health advocate here in Ottawa.

Chris has an important message for all of us and he displays the courage to talk about his story to school children and the general public whenever he can. Radio is a great way to communicate ideas, sometimes stilted by email, Twitter, blogs and Facebook. It is a great creative endeavour that brings lots of joy. Our time with Chris was magical and we feel so privileged to have had some time with him to discuss such an important topic.

Here is the interview.

If you want to learn more about the work Chris is doing, you can check out his website here.

The interview is a very small part of the wonderful burst of creativity that comes out daily from Voiced Radio. I have written about Stephen Hurley and the wonderful collection of broadcasters he continues to collect under his banner. Stephen really has something going. He really gets Joy. We are totally dedicated to Voiced Radio, not just because it is an incredibly creative project, but because it is always such a positive experience.

There is no bureaucratic malaise here, no negativity, no limiting hand that slaps you down, just a positive creative pulse that sustains and provides inspiration.

What brings Joy?

Working with accepting people who appreciate your work and the time devoted to creative projects.

There are so many other organizations that really could learn a lesson from this. Do those you work with create Joy?

A photo with Chris Nihmey after our First Hand Stories interview.

 

The Proust Questionnaire for Educators

Last night we tried something a little different for our Voiced Radio broadcast – First Hand Stories. Heather had the idea of doing the Proust Questionnaire for educators. You may have heard of the Proust Questionnaire on CBC Radio. The real questions are below and are certainly more meaningful and weighty than ours. But, our last broadcast was a bit heavy so we wanted to do something light.

The idea behind the original questionnaire was to reveal your true nature. Could our edition reveal the true nature of the educator? I’m not sure, but I have included our 15-minute broadcast below so you can decide.

Our Proust Questionnaire for Educators 
  1. Indoor or outdoor duty
  2. Keurig or drip coffee maker
  3. Online or paper assessments
  4. Whole summer or stretched out in increments
  5. Mr. D – funny or not funny?
  6. Hockey or soccer?
  7. Blogging or podcasting?
  8. Bluegrass or jazz?
  9. Staff meetings in the morning or after school?
  10. Favourite month of the school year?
  11. If you were a school mascot what would you be?
  12. Muffins or doughnuts at a staff meeting?
  13. What superhero would make the best teacher?
  14. Snow days – good or bad?

If you want to see the originals you can see them here.

One Word for 2018: Radio #OnewordOnt

I am always looking for good writing prompts. Without prompts, it is hard to keep inspired enough to come up with new posts and regular writing is something I plan to continue to focus on as I start my second year in retirement from a formal position in education.

Today’s prompt came out of a discussion on Voiced Radio with Stephen Hurley and Doug Peterson. These two are an inspiration to me and much of what I write these days comes from discussions initiated by one or both of these active educators. Their show, This Week in Ontario Edublogs is broadcast every week and they have now reached their 40th episode.

While discussing blog posts from the past week, they came up with a post from Julie Balen, #OnewordOnt Introduction.

She writes:

There are many reasons why one would take on this challenge, but for most, it comes down to focus and intentionality. Having one word through which to “see” your practice, to guide your work, and to reflect on your professional learning gives you a chance to be really intentional about your professional growth.

If you continue reading, you can see lots of great bloggers who have added their words to the One Word Challenge. It came out in discussion today that none of the contributors came from men! Julie responded via Twitter during the broadcast making the conversation even more dynamic!

So, I need to take up the challenge. I choose Radio. Maybe not the kind of word that is used as part of a challenge like this, but this is what I came up with and I’m sticking to it.

I choose Radio because it offers wonderful learning and connecting opportunities for the new year, especially through Voiced Radio.

I also choose Radio because I was inspired by my partner and fellow broadcaster and blogger Heather Swail. Heather wrote a great post about radio last week – here is the beginning:

A single voice punctuating the dark. Light, bantering voices filling your head. Storytellers mesmerizing with pauses and intonations. Music lulling you to sleep. Radio has been my companion for so many years, in light and dark

Heather SwailThe Seductive Power of Radio

Radio works for me because it represents the opportunity to connect with others. Last week we did a great broadcast led by Brad Shreffler capping off a week of creative connection making all under the hashtag #voicedgratitude. We talked live on radio for over two hours. It was a great community discussion and very interestingly, very few of the discussion participants knew each other a year ago.

There is still something magic about radio that Twitter can’t replace. Radio allows you to hear the other person. Radio tells stories, radio fuels the imagination.

So Radio is my word. What will the new year bring? What will year two of VoicEd Radio be like? For many of us, this is a new barely tried medium, there is lots of room for growth.

A year ago, even before the first broadcast on VoicEd, Derek Rhodenizer and Stephen Hurley talked about the concept. You can hear the first of many rich conversations here.

Connecting and learning this year involves Radio. Where will we be 12 months from now?

 

 

Conversations on Improving Ontario Schools – EQAO, Assessment, Reporting

I want to thank VoicEd Radio and Derek Rhodenizer for alerting me to this very short public consultation on assessment and reporting in Ontario. Huge topics to be considered and a shame the consultation period is so short.

I agreed to take a look at the consultation questions and take part in a VoicEd Radio discussion on this topic. Today, I decided to look at some of the questions, especially because the role of EQAO is being discussed.

Join the province-wide conversation about how best to improve Ontario’s approaches to classroom assessments, large-scale provincial assessments including Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments, and Ontario’s participation in pan-Canadian and international assessment programs.

How can EQAO assessments be improved to realize the provincial goals?

I tried to answer the questions posed, I have included some of my responses below:

The best thing we could do with the EQAO infrastructure would be to get rid of it. Assessment is done best by the classroom teacher using a variety of tools much more sophisticated than the ‘one-shot’ EQAO test. The teacher learns a great deal from classroom assessment that can then become the basis for useful feedback to the parent and of course, the child.

EQAO costs a huge amount each year and this money could be better used if the funds were invested back into the classroom. Maybe we could also look at more sophisticated ways of reporting back to the parent rather than the cumbersome, jargon-filled report card.

EQAO scores are used as ways to rank schools and do little to measure the progress being made by the student. It was brought in at a time where accountability was the main concern of government in Ontario. Surely we have become more sophisticated in our approach to education in Ontario.

What types of EQAO reporting do you consider to be most useful, and why?

The current reporting is not useful. It happens once a year and as a principal, I would put this out to teachers and parents and then get back to the job of learning. The main concern about reporting was the ranking that inevitably happens after the results came out and the associated hand-wringing that would take place when our school didn’t do well in math scores.

I was also very uncomfortable with the crowing that our school board would do every year when our results showed better than the provincial average. We never heard anything about the fact that the majority of students we taught were the middle-class sons and daughters of Ottawa-area professionals. Flag waving in the education world is always a bad thing.

EQAO actually has helped us remain complacent about what we are doing to improve the lives of our students. It also marginalized poor schools who tend to do poorly on EQAO, but leaves the whole question of economic inequality unanswered.

I was surprised by the next series of questions – maybe there is hope! The survey steered off in a new direction by focusing on in-class assessment. To me, this is a very good sign that we are actual beginning to think in Ontario when it comes to EQAO and assessment.

Classroom assessment strategies are developed by teachers to help students move forward in their learning and to determine and inform students and their parents/caregivers on their learning progress. Typical classroom assessment approaches include class work, tests and various other activities and assignments that are assessed based on curriculum expectations. Teachers use a variety of assessment tools, which may include direct observation, portfolios, journals, written assignments, presentations, seminars, group work, tests, projects, and self- and peer assessment.

This section was followed up by a few questions including this one.

What types of reporting of student learning in the classroom do you consider to be most useful, and why?

So I continued to respond:

All these are useful except the Provincial Report Card. This is cumbersome and wastes teachers’ time. Timely reporting is more practical and useful and ways to encourage this should be investigated. Parents need good, practical information. Report cards are not timely but are done because they have to be done. Progress reports are more useful because they are more timely and are quick to assemble. We might do better with more progress reports and fewer report cards. Just in time reporting is more helpful to the student, teacher and parent and this should be encouraged.

My concluding remarks:

Some good questions here -thanks for this opportunity. I think it would be a good idea to go further and look at the current governance model for Ontario that keeps local superintendents in charge of school boards and that continues to support a religion-based education system (Catholic Schools). If we are truly interested in reform, we need to investigate and challenge beyond assessment and reporting.

I would love an opportunity to expand on this section, but this is probably enough for one survey. Maybe we could talk about rotating superintendents back into the classroom – now that would be a sea change! I am happy to see these questions – thanks, Derek and VoicEd Radio!

Making Connections – Edcamp Ottawa, Voiced Radio, MADPD

opening workshop on the gradeless classroom at Edcamp Ottawa

To me these days it is all about making connections. This past week has been particularly rich. Starting last Saturday, we took in the latest Ottawa Edcamp where we were able to put together four interviews for our show First Hand Stories.

All four of these are now up on Voiced Radio thanks to Stephen Hurley.

The turnout was great for the Edcamp. There were at least 75 participants and a wonderful collection of workshops scattered over three sessions throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Lots of great sessions at Saturday’s Edcamp Ottawa

All four First Hand Stories conversations were really fun to take part in. One included Derek Rhodenizer who blew in for a few minutes after his kids’ karate lesson. He was there long enough to take part in an on-going discussion about setting up podcasts for students and teachers. He later sent me a Youtube video that he had made on the topic.

The conversations also led to this tweet

This brought Chris Cluff and Stephen Hurley into a great hour-long conversation on Sunday night on Chris’ show Chasing Squirrels. Here we talked about silo busting, something that came up in response to Derek’s tweet on Saturday.

We had a bunch of good conversations at the Edcamp with teachers who had never been on Voiced Radio before. We also covered mental health in schools, the gradeless classroom, creativity in schools and blended classrooms. We also had the chance to interview Laura Wheeler, one of the original organizers of EdCamp Ottawa.

All to say it was a great 48 hours of connecting and meeting new people. All possible because of alternative ways of learning – Twitter, web-based radio and edcamps.

The connecting continues this week as Stephen Hurley and Doug Peterson will be going live at the BIT 2017 Conference in Niagara Falls and the next MADPD begins to take shape including some form of a virtual town hall including a whole host of educators.

This to me is the new learning. It is happening every day and in new and very innovative ways. I think traditional education institutions really need to pick up on this and get more involved. Although we are connecting more and more the circles are still pretty small.

I would love to see some of the big school boards promote MADPD or Voiced Radio on their Twitter feed or take a leading role by encouraging their educators to take part in these new approaches.

This is where the new learning is happening, they should not be left behind.

Taking First Hand Stories to Edcamp Ottawa

So this Saturday we are going to try something a little different. Inspired by Stephen Hurley, the creative force behind Voiced Radio and Doug Peterson of This Week in Ontario Edubloggers fame, we are going to take our Voiced Radio show First Hand Stories to the Ottawa Edcamp.

My partner and the creative soul of our show Heather Swail came up with this idea and fortunately, the organizers of this year’s Edcamp, Amy Bowker and Laura Wheeler liked the idea and are allowing us space to try this out.

Quick aside – it looks a little like I am doing a bit of name dropping here and I guess I am, but these are all great people and I am linking you to their Twitter feeds – if you are not following these folks you really should be!

So, how will this work? We are not sure. But it is a really good idea to give this a try. Radio broadcasting and podcasting are so easy to do now. We are totally caught up with the potential this medium is creating to build community and share ideas.

What I am finding now is that many of my conversations on Twitter involve members of the Voiced Radio community. Now I have talked to many of these educators or we have listened to their broadcasts. We have a closer connection through Stephen Hurley’s great education radio experiment.

One of the great things about this upcoming Edcamp is that many of the participants are ‘new campers’ or teacher candidates at the University of Ottawa.

Hopefully, we will get a chance to interview a few of these TCs. What a great way for us to get a sense of what teacher candidates are thinking this time of year.

Do we have a topic. Do we have questions? Not really. This being an Edcamp we think it is probably best just to let things evolve, unscripted and unstaged. We do really hope that this little experiment will work. It would be great in the future to do some live remotes for Voiced. This one will not be live – still working on the technology.

So, let’s see what happens. Let’s get more interviews done and more listeners for a great radio project.

See you this Saturday!!

To see the full schedule for Edcamp Ottawa please see this link.