Monday, June 2, 2014

Organize Your Units

One of the speakers at the Advancing Adolescent Reading Initiative passed along this little gem of an idea which has really served to anchor ideas for my students: the Unit Organizer. I've used the concept extensively on my course website. It marked a shift in my unit planning. Where previously I might spend a few days planning a unit and then never really look at my plan, now I refer back to my plan daily because the plan was created for the right audience - my students!

The concept of a unit organizer originates from the USA. The goal is to organize your unit so that a student can make sense of it. My organizers have five sections. Section A serves to explain the scope of the unit within my year plan. Which unit came before? Which unit comes after? What big question guides the entire course?

Section B provides a general schedule for the unit. I have found this to be most effective for providing students with advance warning of tests and quizzes as well as the duration of class time available for projects. (ie: the Position Paper in this unit will comprise 4 class periods).

Section C lists the unit questions outlined in the curriculum. I adjust these questions somewhat to make them student-friendly. I also add questions which I feel are critical cognitive steps to learning the skills or knowledge of the unit. 

Section D provides hyperlinks to the major assignments for the unit. I include both formative and summative assessments in this location. Students can preview future assignments or even get started early if they want. We write a position paper at the end of each unit, so many students check out the topic and then begin collecting research over the course of the unit. 

Section E is where the magic happens. When the unit begins, this section is blank (except for the grey bubble in the centre). We spend 5-10 minutes recording our prior knowledge in the space provided. Typically, this involves attempting to answer each one of the unit questions but sometimes I might poll the students for specific information. (In this unit, I asked the students to write down the names of all Canadian political parties). When we review for tests, we create a concept map with all of the critical information we need to know. At the beginning of the year, I lead the class and they copy my template into their own organizers. Midway through the year, I provide them with boxes and stems which they fill out on their own or in pods. The goal is that by May/June the students will be crafting their own organizers and using them as a studying tool. It's always interesting when the students look back at their prior knowledge and contemplate just how much they have learned...

The digital document is a Google Drawing, which allows students to easily move the pieces of the organizer around. I have also printed the pages out and had the students write with pencil - but the final product suffers and is less portable (many students read the organizer on their phones when they study). I have created a companion page for myself called a Unit Planner which lists the information that is really valuable for me - differentiation strategies, lesson breakdowns, etc. Like my unit plans of old, I seldom refer back to it until next year.

The unit organizer is a great tool. It is a piece of planning which you can refer to regularly, and which really helps students organize the important concepts in their heads. Want to try it out? Make a copy of my blank Unit Organizer and try it with your own class.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ready. Fire. Aim.

My school is embarking on a transformation as we attempt to introduce "Response to Intervention" strategies at out school. This means that we will be implementing a system of interventions based on formative assessment in our classrooms. Every week, teachers will run tutorials to re-teach or enrich the student learning experience. Any student in the correct grade can attend a tutorial. Some students will be placed in specific tutorials based on their individual needs. For language arts, these tutorials might mean a reading skill lesson or writing effective literary paragraphs. In math, this could involve practice of a basic skill or advanced problem solving. A science tutorial might work on concept vocabulary or even redo a failed lab experiment. 

The problem that we are having as a staff is that few of us feel like we are ready. It seems like there's so much more work to do before students could begin our interventions. We have been meeting early in the morning before school in order to identify essential outcomes. Next we finalized the scope and sequence of each of our courses. We still need to develop formative assessments and interventions for all of those essential outcomes. In addition, we also need to decide which tutorials we want to run, and when. We will start our first tutorials in September-October 2014. 

I had a recent PD session where Kurtis Hewson provided the phrase: Ready Fire Aim. He told us that this phrase meant that we should begin running our interventions before we necessarily have them perfected. The advantage of this is that students will gain some additional skills and knowledge - rather than none - and we can modify as we go. The disadvantage is that our tutorials will not be as polished as our regular classroom lessons. We have a very high-caliber staff, so the idea of hastily assembled tutorials makes us apprehensive. Despite this, I agree with Kurtis. I really believe in the "Collaborative Response" model. Working with my colleagues to develop materials which supplement my classroom lessons seems like a PD home run. We need to set a firm date and Fire.  At this point, we aren't exactly sure what tutorials will look like, so careful "aiming" probably won't make them any more effective. If we wait until we are 100% prepared, we run the risk of planning tutorials which don't end up meeting the needs of our students. We won't know exactly what we need until we get started. Hence, Ready Fire Aim

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Importance of Knowing

Over the past few years, I have heard this argument in various places: "Our modern world does not require the learning of content, because students can just look it up".

This is akin to a 19th century teacher deciding that they no longer need to focus on teaching knowledge in schools because students can just look up everything they need in the school library. It is perhaps the silliest thing I have ever heard. We live in a world that is rich with information. In order to sift through this information, our minds require a better understanding of content than ever before. Yes, we must develop different skills in our students, but failing to teach students knowledge will mean that they fail to draw connections as they navigate the internet. Knowledge is more important than it has ever been before.

All learning is metaphorical. We compare new ideas to previous ideas, and this comparison forms the basis of our understanding. For example, the first person most of us meet is our mother. We identify that she is "other". Next, most of us meet our father. We understand that he is also "other" but is somehow different from our mother. Perhaps it is his beard. Maybe it is his voice. Regardless, our concept of father will be understood based upon a comparison with our mother.

This ability to compare is the basis of all judgement. We judge the value of a product based on previous products. We compare a new friend to an old friend. We compare ideas we learn in science class to previous ideas we learned in science class. When we read a story in Language Arts class, it provides us with the context to understand real-world situations when they happen to us.

If we do not provide our students with a solid foundation of knowledge (in their heads - not on the internet) then they have no basis for comparison. New ideas will float in a mind devoid of context. In the information age, knowledge is more important than it has ever been before.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Learning is a Fire

The Alberta government is currently proposing a massive overhaul of K-12 education curriculum called Inspiring Education. The focus of this change is - quite obviously - increasing student engagement and inspiration. Meanwhile, a coalition of parents led by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is proposing a back-to-basics approach to math. Which of these two philosophies is right?


Early in my career I stumbled upon a Latin quotation from Plutarch: Non enim ut vas, ita mens quoque impleri opus habet: fed fomitem tum et alimentum (ficut materia incendia). "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." I have found this to be wholly correct. Learning is much like a fire. Sometimes it rages like an all-consuming inferno; at other times it quietly is snuffed out. During my first teaching job in Northern Alberta I taught young Air Cadets survival skills. We learned that every fire requires three elements: Fuel, Air, and Spark. You cannot start a fire without all three. Likewise, learning requires three elements: Knowledge, Skills, and Motivation. You cannot learn without all three.

Alberta Ed is emphasizing the importance of the spark (fun and inspiration), while the back-to-basics cadre is emphasizing the importance of the fuel (core knowledge). There should be a place for both philosophies in every classroom. Over the past year I have heard more and more educators argue that they know the "right" approach and I'm forced to wonder how that approach can work for all of their students. A quick trip down memory lane serves to provide me with two examples from my own life where I learned best under different circumstances. In grade 9, I was a math superstar. I learned math quickly and easily, and couldn't wait to apply abstract concepts to real-world problems. My teacher provided me with inquiry-based problems to work with as enrichment while my peers focused on the basics of polynomials and geometry. In contrast, I struggled as a writer. I was a voracious reader, but despite the fact that I had written several essays that year, I needed a teacher to explicitly tell me how to improve my writing.

As my school's Inclusion Coach, my role involves helping teachers differentiate for their students. The most difficult students to teach often have ADHD, a learning disability, or some variety of behavioural disorder. In most of these cases, students require their classroom to be logical, orderly, and sequential. The key strategy for their long-term learning is practice or time-on-task. The learning environment that I am describing is not one typified by Alberta Ed's Inspiring Education ideology. It is a teacher-centred construct in which the teacher carefully filters the information for students so that it can be learned in the simplest manner possible. Many students require this type of teaching to be successful. If they are dropped into a Discovery Learning classroom they will sink to the bottom.

Gifted students are different. They quickly master the required knowledge and develop the needed skills with ease. In a teacher-centred classroom these students will be bored, as they wait for their peers to struggle with a concept they found easy. Student-centred learning is a sound teaching strategy for these students. In addition, it is a sound strategy for any student who has mastered the essential concepts and is ready to apply their knowledge. Many progressive teachers are jumping into student-centred learning because they were the students who would have benefited from this style of teaching. Some parents and students support it because they hope to alleviate classroom boredom. In contrast, struggling students (and their parents) often hate inquiry based learning. The teacher facilitates rather than filters, and this makes the world of learning much more complex.

As a teacher, I have tried to reach a balance. We begin most units learning the key knowledge and practicing the needed skills. As students master a concept they begin one of several projects which will force them to expand on the basic ideas we have learned. (Some students do not delve deeply into the project stage). At the end of each unit I have a traditional test which I compare to student projects. I am not an educational trailblazer. Many teachers (including my own) have taught this way for years. It is not a fad. It is a balanced approach to education.

I appreciate Alberta Ed's attempt to pare down curriculum to a manageable level. I just hope that they look out of the ivory windows and remember that many students struggle to learn, and that prescriptively making learning more rich and complex will serve to demotivate these students. We all don't learn the same way. We all shouldn't teach the same way. The mind is not a vessel to be filled, nor will it spontaneously ignite. It is a fire which needs a thoughtful teacher to carefully apply the right amount of fuel and air, at the right time, to nourish the spark of learning.