Docking Student Paychecks | Untethering learning in Room 7 | Why Mobile Is a Must | My brain is full | Teacher Assessment Rubrics | Evaluation by Outside Standards | Doing because I like it | iPods are not Handguns: Cyberbullying | On being wrong | A Learning Culture without Grades | Personal Reflections on Powerful Learning Communities | A Quick Reminder | I am Canadian | The Fallacy of Choice as a Public Good | A troubling (and familiar) perspective | Fidget Toys | Curbing my enthusiasm for standardized tests | sometimes you should just hammer away | Foraging for learning resources | What you see is all there is | Re-configuring learning | When do we publish learning? | | Authentic homework | Lost Aspens | Students keep me grounded

Docking Student Paychecks

Posted on January 16, 2011 by Alan Stange

I think completion of necessary learning activities is our objective. There should never be a zero for incomplete work. In my district incomplete assessment of student learning objectives is simply registered as “incomplete” in the elementary grades. I guess our high school classrooms are not following this practice and incompletes are registered as zero in the oh-so-important tally of student grades.

We often discard an incomplete assignment because its moment of importance has passed. The connection to the attainment of the learning outcome has become redundant in some way. There are many indicators for learning and any given assignment is likely simply an alternative. For example, an argument essay assignment can indicate a writing outcome and a content outcome. The content might be attained without attaining the skill of presenting a written argument.. Simply put, the student might pass the content test without completing the writing assignment. There is a failure to meet the indicator for writing. Rather than insist on the student completing the writing assignment, it might be better to analyze the cause of the fail and apply the new understanding to the next writing opportunity. I think the actual writing might be less important than the meta cognitive problem solving. Another excellent example would be the process of helping a student understand how to do a math problem. If he or she does not understand the problem solving steps for today's assignment, we work through the problem with the student. Then we give them a new problem to try. If we are concerned with attaining learning outcomes then compiling marks about completed products is not essential.

There is in fact relatively little significance to learning to complete on time. That is generally an economic indicator I think.

Untethering learning in Room 7

Posted on February 3, 2011 by Alan Stange

I have a grade six student away for three weeks. Before she left we sat down to discuss ways she could keep up with the work we were doing in class. She had a lap top and her family had better hardware at the home she was visiting in rural Saskatchewan for a week before she heads south on a two-week vacation. Together we decided to use a combination of email, Google Docs, and Skype to learn. Once she is on vacation in Mexico she will start a photo journal, write reflections, and then share what she is comfortable sharing with the class when she returns.

Last night she brightened my evening by working through editing and revising her descriptive paragraph on the Google Doc we share. We added notes on the side and exchanged a number of largely redundant emails.

Today she “dropped in” to the classroom for math. She was unsure of long division and repeated subtraction. She and another student worked together for an hour on Skype. They talked it out and occasionally the class mentor used a white board to illustrate steps.

I would like one of my vacationing students to connect while they are in one or another exotic location. So far I have not been successful with that. I suppose the local experience is the main focus.So much of this depends on the student. They need to be confident about technology and motivated to connect with their learning. This sixth grader is not the first student to connect with my class remotely, but she is the most successful attempt so far. As we go on this sort of thing will become unremarkable.

Why Mobile Is a Must

— THE Journal
Posted on February 13, 2011 by Alan Stange

At the moment my classroom of twenty-two grade five and sixth grade students share three desk tops and four laptops (I expropriated a floating laptop from the shared pool, my bad). The teacher’s desktop is so implicated in the process of general learning that it has ceased to be mine. I bring a modest netbook to the classroom every day. Between that and my Blackberry I maintain school and division connections throughout the day. It is not 1-1 computing but learning in my province is not ready to support that yet.

I am an advocate of mobile technologies now. About four of my students regularly bring their iPods to school now. Another four bring them occasionally. None of them have quite developed the habit of using them nor are they integrated into their learning. They are ten and eleven-year-olds. They have not had mobile technology such as this in their pockets for very long. If I told them they could bring their game systems it would be different. I do have a nucleus of change agents in my room now and that is important.

I practice patience as best I can. I am certain that in another three years iPods and other wifi devices will be the norm in my room. I also need to be patient while the parents of my students, who will think nothing of allowing expensive electronics along on trips to the rink, mall or beach, will come to accept and encourage them in the classroom. I need to encourage the early adopters in my room to model practical learning applications. I need to also make the classroom a safe and inviting place for the technology.

Last week one of my early adopters ran low on battery power. He was naturally reluctant to leave his iPod lying around the classroom unattended. He needed a safe charging station in the classroom. We worked something out. I realize it would have been good to have a secure charging station and even supply my students with a power cord. I need to investigate that. Best to consult my resident expert in the basement. My twenty-two-year old son could advise me about this. I’m excited by this.

My brain is full

Posted on February 26, 2011 by Alan Stange
“A Zen master sat before a young man who had come petitioning him to accept him as a student. He had traveled far to meet the master because word of his wisdom had spread to his distant country and the young man yearned for enlightenment. The master listened to the young man describe the path he had been following and the many teachers he had listened to before finding his way to the master. He nodded his approval for the young man’s efforts and gestured to an empty tea cup on the table before reaching for the pot beside the brazier. The student was honored to be served by the master and lifted the cup carefully. The master began pouring the steaming tea into the rough bowl of the delicate cup and the young man flinched and looked up in surprise as the hot tea spilled over the lip and onto his fingers. Hesitantly he cautioned the master to stop pouring. The cup was full he said. The master paused and then placed the tea pot back beside the fire. When he turned back to the young man he replied, you are not yet ready to learn.”

We should credit the best of our curriculum for recognizing that there is no finite body of knowledge, skills or values we can impart to students. We build life-long learners through the ideas we share or lead our students to. Its life long learning and our students need to understand that life has no fixed answers. We always take more in. Some things are retained and others are lost. Everything is mixed together and transformed by the constant freshening. In time, it is not easy to discern what we have discarded, changed, retained or regained. Its marvelous and life long learning means it all stays so fresh in our minds. It’s a fresh running stream, not a stagnant pool.

Teacher Assessment Rubrics

Posted on March 6, 2011 by Alan Stange

My periodic professional assessment stretched into a two year period. It was postponed to this year because I became involved in a professional development opportunity, Powerful Learning Practice. This is a collaborative focus on integrating technology into learning and action research. I recently began revision my self assessment using my school division’s rubric. I’ll proceed now to identifying exemplars of some of my practice. The resulting effort should unfold over the next few months on my anti-resume in this blog.

I have read a good deal of discussion on the subject of rubrics. If you take a critical stance, then you recognize that they have their limitations. When I applied this rubric to my practice I felt a familiar uncertainty and confusion. There have been times over the last four years when I have likely exhibited most of these indicators, inadequate to exemplary. All I can say is that when I don’t meet the standards I drive myself to progress.

The rubric is inadequate for the task. I teach the general subjects of a split grade elementary class. That is approximately eight disciplines with four to six units per discipline: thirty-two to forty-eight units. There are approximately ten unique student learning outcomes per unit: perhaps three hundred and fifty throughout the year. I have twenty-four students in my room. Most of them are near the same level. A number are not. I could not claim with confidence that I am consistent across all disciplines and units. I could not say that I have differentiated indicators adequately. Any assessment of a indicator below is a gross generalization of my practice.

Never-the-less, I think the practice of rubrics is a sound one. It guides practice like a good policy. The rubric provides a focus for meditation. In this case it also the vehicle of summative evaluation.

Evaluation by Outside Standards

Posted on March 18, 2011 by Alan Stange

I take personal reassurance that when my students step through the door I am exclusively focused on the now of their learning. I don’t recall more than a fleeting thought now and then that my students were not “at par” with their peers in other classrooms (let alone countries). We all just seem to be taking it forward from where we are. I think I will do them justice as their teacher if I let others draw the inevitable conclusions.

Saskatchewan and my division set the student learning outcomes for my students. I try to give them ownership for those goals and I think day by day we all try to do our best. I struggle to build rubrics I think should have been provided by the Ministry and agonize over the “borrowed” rubrics I find that don’t quite fit our objectives. We work to the outcomes. I encourage my students to reflect on their own learning through the rubrics and check lists. I think I am making progress.

I have twenty-four children in my room this year. I say frankly that I have not given each (or any) of them what I think they needed. I raised three children for twenty years. I wish I had done better. That is the reality learning. We can try and reduce it to quantifiable simplicity but it defies them. Our problems are extreme: we are never sure what they all are let alone how to solve them. I’m fine with that. That is life. Life might be a journey, but it is certainly not an assembly line.

Doing because I like it

Posted on April 10, 2011 by Alan Stange

The educational context is different; the actual political response is not to offer money. It is to offer grades which are presented to the student as credits toward financial opportunity. Grades shift the focus from learning to economic opportunity. “Good grades open doors,” students are told. Rarely have I heard it said, “Learning open doors.” In either case, these are extrinsic motivators. How much of experience in schools is justified by the intrinsic pleasure of the immediate experience? Can we justify reading for pleasure, art for self expression, experimentation and inquiry for curiosity, and physical education for the animal pleasure of movement? These are never important outcomes. I like the “typical parent’s solution,” but curriculum binds us to the sociologists’s and politician’s solution.

The parent’s solution is also frustrating to us because we see the need to achieve reading results. Reading and reflection are one of our on-task goals. I still impose reading selections on students for guided reading, or literature circle activities. When reading is less structured, I instruct students to read at least one chapter of a book before discarding it. I think that should be three chapters. You can see I have digressed into strategies for achieving learning outcomes. I suppose that is not unreasonable. School does not encompass the entire day. It is reasonable to set aside part of our day for goal-oriented activities. I go in circles sometimes.

The class had an opportunity to watch a hoop dancer perform just before their physical education class. He stayed behind to show my class how to use the hoops. You could justify this with all sorts of references to the Saskatchewan curriculum but wouldn’t it be enough to look at this boy’s face and understand the value of dancing with hoops?

iPods are not Handguns: Cyberbullying

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Alan Stange

It is always difficult to post on line either personally or professionally. I am conscious that I have a responsibility toward my family to moderate (and censer) the flow of personal information and opinions I share publicly. Facebook and Twitter are a challenge to me. Professionally, I am cautious about story-telling.

I have been a strong advocate of open access to social networking in school. My students email using student accounts, they post on a Ning Group, create personal wikispaces, and occasionally gain access to their Facebook accounts at school. Cyber bullying is too specific a term for the more generalized relationship problems that spill over on line. My students do not distinguish between comments on the playground, notes passed in class, phone calls, and digital correspondence. It is all one to them and it remains a goal of mine to make them aware of the varied degrees of publicity involved with each link.

In the last few months I have had incidents of relational problems manifesting themselves through email and YouTube. Sometimes this has been school based, but more often not. We had problems with iPod use in the classroom this week. An early adopter was demonstrating his or her ability to prank phone call using an iPod. The school addressed the problem, not the mode of communication. I recall one colleague’s advice that cell phones and iPods were acceptable in his classroom as long as they were used visibly. Device on the desk, not below the desk. Use technology openly. It is good advice.

Social networking technology is not a weapon like a handgun. Guns have very narrow purpose and I think we can understand why schools ban them. Student communication is often exaggerated as cyber bullying because abuse is involved. In either case, I think it is a misbehavior that needs addressing. The technologies are too critical to contemporary education and culture to ban. Like the pencil and paper, or the chalk and slate, we have to learn how to manage them in school.

On being wrong

Posted on April 25, 2011 by Alan Stange

“What does it feel like when your wrong? It feels like you are right.” (Schultz, TED April 2011) She calls this error blindness. She goes on to say you feel different when you realize you are wrong. She reminds us that avoidance of failure is cultural. People who make mistakes are seen as flawed and we do not value that. “Getting something wrong means there is something wrong with us.” (Schultz, TED April 2011) We are compelled to insist we are right. She asserts that feeling strongly that you are on the right side of anything can be very dangerous. Schultz says when we cannot entertain the idea that we are wrong we make some unfortunate assumptions. We assume people who disagree are ignorant; or that they are idiots; if that is demonstrated as untrue, we assume their opposition is deliberately evil.

I like Schultz’s remark, “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is but that you can see it as it isn’t.” She is right that being wrong is who we are. It is not a flaw in humanity. She points out that we love the narratives of error and confusion because they mirror our lives. Recognizing we are wrong allows us to break free of the narrow world of our rightness. An interesting talk.

I am amazed at educator’s capacity for maintaining a sense of rightness. I humbly confess I have had that battered out of me by decades of classroom experience. I often think I am bewildered. “I have an interest in integrating instructional technologies into the learning environment to support collaborative learning within a flexible studio classroom design.”I assert in my resume. The truth is I have doubts about our use of technology, the importance of collaborative learning, and the success of my current studio classroom design. Technology is fragile and ephemeral, and we need to introduce students to the concept of appropriate, sustainable technology. I passionately believe humans are collaborative, connected beings. Perhaps I should be strengthening self reliance instead. My current classroom design seems constantly chaotic. Perhaps I should not emphasize social learning in a distracting environment. Perhaps students need to practice the discipline of inward-thinking; meditating on learning before collaborating. I could be wrong. I find it extremely puzzling much of the time.

A Learning Culture without Grades

Posted on May 15, 2011 by Alan Stange

I’ve been living this non-graded classroom environment with my fifth and sixth graders for the last two years. How do you quantify the amount of grading that does happen? As I have written before, my school division adopted a reporting (grading) rubric of Exceeds, proficient, adequate, limited, and no evidence. It is grading in the sense of categorizing performance and it is not grading in as much as there is no normative curve applied to differentiate student’s performance. The descriptors reflect benchmarking.

I use the scale sparingly throughout the terms. Telling a student that their latest essay is proficient is as unhelpful as telling them they got a 70% or a “B”. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the essay promote learning. Collaborating with the students on the goal for the essay – humorous voice with energetic words – and reflection on that goal is decidedly better.

The term ends for everyone and something has to be reported to parents and students. In my school division that means the scale up until grade six (at this point) and the comforting familiarity of the mystical percentage grade until graduation. Like medieval doctors we cling to this practice desperately hoping that patients and their families will not question the efficacy of all the messy cutting and bleeding.It is a science after all and we’re well trained in its intricacies. “You got a ‘B’, you’re above average.”

“Oh good!” the student responds and the parents sigh with relief. Learning must have happened if a ‘B’ resulted. The letter (or percentage) correlates with something significant surely. What it really speaks to is our human need for a hasty generalization, an approximation that provides closure and allows us to move on quickly. I do that when I cook much of the time. Who measures the peanut butter spread on the toast? But if I was a pharmacist I’d be more careful.

Shawn confesses that the process has been less than successful, controversial and somewhat messy. That assessment reflects my experience and it does not concern me much. To expect anything else is to buy into the theory that systems can perfectly manage or measure human endeavour. Nothing in my experience leads me to that conclusion. I listen to each new learning or discipline approach in education and remind myself that everything works… until it doesn’t. It all is all contextual, demands reflection and dialogue. Nothing about teaching and learning is ever automatic or controlled. I hope teachers like Shawn don’t give in and return to grading. I remember grading everything and I recall the fights and arguments with students and parents over the validity of those grades. Percentages and letters are wonderful things… until you start questioning them. About that malady you mentioned… let me quickly slash your wrist and we’ll let the ill humours bleed away.

Personal Reflections on Powerful Learning Communities

Posted on June 1, 2011 by Alan Stange

Powerful Learning Communities are about helping you understand how to create a culture of collaboration by becoming a community of learners. You’ll learn how to leverage collegial relationships to produce meaningful innovation in curriculum and other school activities. You’ll become part of a connected family of learners that connect and share, both online and face-to-face. It’s meaningful, global collaboration.

PLCs impact on my professional learning: I think participation in this community has helped establish digital social networking as the primary locus of my professional development. For a novice at professional social networking the experience might be a revelation and catalyst for authentic self-directed professional growth. The PLC introduces web applications to participants but also connects participants to the essential element in social networking: the people you need for an extended community of purpose. It is easy to establish a Twitter account or a Wikispace page. Developing a learning network is more difficult. Participation in this builds community.

Don’t assume that the community is simply focussed on asynchronous digital sharing: NING forums, emails, Twitter, and the like. An important part of my involvement was face to face connections with colleagues within Prairie South School Division. Likely we should have had a few meetings during the year with our sister group within the Division, but never-the-less I had a sense that a core network of teachers exists that I can continue to work with. The PLC brought us together. The two meetings in Alberta seemed brief, but they introduced me to the Western Canadian community too.

My students and their classroom: My PLC involvement helped me to conceptualize the interrelationship between technical knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge (the TPACK chart works for me). Last year I introduced a flurry of web tools into my elementary classroom. Too often the students approached these tools as ends in themselves. It was fun, but it created an inevitable imbalance in learning. This year the pace was somewhat slower but technology served learning content knowledge better. Through rubrics and learning scaffolds, student’s understandings about why they were using technology improved. The products were more learning focussed. I’m still working away at using technology to make learning more networked.

The value of action research in my practice: PLC demanded a greater focus on research and articulating results than ordinary classroom practice. Putting your thoughts, process, plans, and results into words and sharing it all adds incredible value to professional growth and create the vehicle for sharing that growth.

On line learning and growth: I encourage everyone to embrace on line learning now. My son is a new teacher and I feel he is missing something important at the moment because he is not adequately connected. Luckily he is of a generation that will eventually connect. We are increasingly immersed in social networking and it is natural to use these tools to connect learning. I frequently contrast the sense of personal isolation I felt working in rural Saskatchewan through my first twenty years as a teacher. Professional growth through the school and division was fragmented through the year and undifferentiated. My annual subject council conference and convention defined professional development for me. How can you not feel the impact of a continual connection to a dynamic, accessible community of purpose? On line learning offers differentiated professional development. It offers multiple applications for consuming, and multiple ways to share what you have learned or experienced with others. I could conceive of regressing to my former professional development pattern but it strikes me as an arid and frustrating prospect. This is the future of professional development. As I posted this observation on my blog it will strike my readers as a superfluous one. You get it. I’m certain eventually everyone in the teaching profession will. There must be something organic to this. You connect with others, you begin to connect purposefully. They say social networking across the world consumes the equivalent energy of a city. It is offered as some sort of ecological caution I suppose. They need to add that it is resources well spent.

A Quick Reminder

Posted on June 28, 2011 by Alan Stange

“Ed tech echo chamber,” is a familiar phrase from John Spencer but there is an aptness to it. There is a difference between gathering for professional development and professional validation. I think both activities have value. We need to grow and change, we need to believe this growth and change is positive. I need to know others share my beliefs.

This has not been as smooth a year as I hoped. “I have an interest in integrating technology into the learning environment to support collaborative and differentiated learning within a flexible classroom design.” This is my Twitter profile statement. It packs many expectations into twenty-two words. I felt more successful last year. This year I felt aspects of integrating technology worked better but generally I failed to move social networking for learning forward. I Skyped considerably less and none of the on-line collaborative projects I attempted worked. There are other reasons.

My twenty-four students collaborated about as well as the previous year’s group. I focussed on collaborative work flow routines and I think I made progress there. I did not make nearly enough progress differentiating learning. I perceive it this way because I believe differentiation will only be viable if teachers actually shift a share of the responsibility for learning design onto their students. I find I cannot anticipate twenty-four people’s differentiation needs. I need them to problem solve and offer directions for their own learning. Some people will never be able to do that and I will have to micro-manage them. I struggled with that familiar micro-management because it often deafened me to the voices of those young people ready to assume control of their own learning.

Some colleagues praised my efforts to create a flexible studio design in my classroom. I am not sure administration shared their confidence. I’m ending the year without my tables and in the fall I’ll be confronted by rows of desks. That feels like a huge step back simply because it creates the impression that teacher-centred, solitary learning is the default setting in my classroom. The tables proclaimed the reverse.

I had troubles this year and ending it with a conference of like minded educators might have been just what I needed. But I sympathize with John Spencer’s remark because conventions have mostly become redundant to my learning and growth. The discourse should move me out of my comfortable paradigm, not simply reverberate with accepted beliefs. I want my own learning to be transformative.

I am Canadian

Posted on July 2, 2011 by Alan Stange

Michael Ignatieff was unfairly accused of being something less than Canadian because he spent so much time abroad. It was sad. Jeanne Sauvé, Canada’s former Governor General, holds duel citizenship. People questioned her loyalty to Canada, and the appropriateness of her assuming office. I began life as an expatriate, I have been there and the experience can intensify your identity and commitment to a nation. It may also gift you with perspective and enrich your nation.

My parents worked for the International YMCA from 1946 till 1966. Our family grew as they moved from China to Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong. I was born in Indonesia and I was ten when we finally returned “home” to Wisconsin. My fourth grade classmates noticed the slight British accent and the occasional faux pas when our vocabulary failed us. My brother offended a female classmate by asking her for a rubber at one point. The strangeness faded rapidly. Perhaps some of those little boys and girls questioned my nationality. I doubt it. I was not a politician running for office. They would have been surprised at how much I actually clung to my American identity at that time.

I went to a British private school as a child. It was the whole nine yards. Each morning the assembly sang God Save the Queen and each time I silently told myself, “I’m an American.” The U.S. navy visited Hong Kong harbour regularly. I saw those proud ships with their clean lines and reminded myself that they were my country’s ships. I was young, those were the times and I feel less jingoistic (I hope) now. I’m Canadian now. Unlike Jeanne Sauvé, I don’t have duel citizenship. It might be established, but I received little encouragement when I asked about it. I am who I am.

I think Ignatieff is right about the young adults today. They are perhaps more global than previous generations. Certainly they expect to be able to travel anywhere in the world. My experience will be more common. I have three children, young adults in their twenties. Who knows where work will take them. It might be as little as two years experience as expatriates. Working temporarily as I did in Nigeria. It might be longer. It might be twenty years as one of my interns from the 1980s has done. He has made his life in Japan. We can all likely point to friends and relatives living overseas.

Beyond that, I’m an immigrant. Coming from the United States as I did at fifteen, it has never been noticeable (okay, the national obsession with hockey has always alluded me). That has shaped me. Never mind that Michael Ignatieff spent years outside of Canada. We are a nation with many immigrants. Their diversity is Canada too. I taught twenty-five years in small towns in Saskatchewan. I was what passed for an immigrant in those communities. I was a newcomer. Now I work in a very small city and in my current school I generally have four immigrant children. In my previous school in Moose Jaw my class was almost half New Canadians. That is our classrooms, that is Canada.

The Fallacy of Choice as a Public Good

Posted on August 6, 2011 by Alan Stange

I’ve been a passionate advocate of public schools and inclusion in our classrooms. Chrystia Freeland’s remarks on global disenchantment with government introduces me to Hirshman’s exit and voice response to protest. I have struggled with the issue of choice in education for many years. Within Canada and more particularly Saskatchewan that manifests itself in home schooling, our separate school systems, and private or independent schools. The diversity seems like a cultural strength but I fear the “separate but unequal” results described by private providers of state services. Choice is freedom and opportunity to meet personal needs and wants. Educational choice also seems an opportunity to manipulate the available resources to personal advantage.

When the essential infrastructure of our society is subject to choice money talks loudest. We pretend the game Monopoly models our market economies but we know life’s game does not begin on a level playing field where chance is even-handed and merit is rewarded. Clearly, school choice of the sort we are seeing in the United States is choice to exit in an orderly manner into the first class lifeboats as the ship settles deeper into the unforgiving water.

A troubling (and familiar) perspective

Posted on August 23, 2011 by Alan Stange

Like most teachers I have been preparing for opening day here in Moose Jaw. I’m not sure when I began to prepare for the new year. Teachers in Saskatchewan have been bargaining for a new contract over the last year. We negotiate compensation which essentially means salary. Somehow the discourse of this discussion assumes the vocabulary of wages. Student contact days and hours are deemed relevant. Teacher’s time away from school are referred to as holidays. The distinction between being a wage earner and a salaried professional blur in the minds of both teachers and their employers. I get privately and sometimes publically upset. I often have a hard time deciding when I am working and when I am not. Throughout my life I find myself slipping into activities related to planning or professional development. I am sure this is the common experience.

I spent time in July and August outlining grade four curriculum outcomes and exploring the resources available. I would pop in from time to time for material that had not been digitized. These last days I have been at the school dealing with the physical layout and that is largely what prompted me to post, although curriculum planning is implicated in my concerns. I lost my tables over the summer and gained desks. I am worried about what else I have lost over the summer.

In fairness, the desks have some advantages over the six large round tables I worked with last year. I’m committed to differentiation so flexibility is desirable. Desks can be reconfigured wonderfully. My tables could not. Students who need space have a hard time achieving a sense of privacy in a small room with limited choice. Just as I have had young people who need to network constantly to learn, I have also had young people who need their own office. There are advantages to desks.

There is the other side. Just as I knew I would, I lined the desks in cautious rows facing the Promethean Board. The desks are paired to save space and allow collaboration. That is problematic because I might not pair students appropriately. I had four students at each table – easier to reduce social stress I think. Last year we shifted freely from table to table during learning. Groups formed and reformed to learn. Now I am back to students sitting in someone else’s seat; perhaps getting into someone else’s things. The connected learning will be hampered. I will have to work hard against the inertia. I look at the room now and I see I have lost my effectiveness in this environment. I could always find a place at the table. I was a participant in their learning. I could draw other students into problem solving. The tables created teams. With desks, I am back to looming over my students or crouching down beside them. I feel like a visitor, not a partner. All this seems very unsatisfactory to me.

Tables represented my commitment to collaborative, inquiry-based learning within a studio designed classroom. I plan to continue that journey around the new (and oh so familiar) landscape of my classroom.

Fidget Toys

Posted on September 2, 2011 by Alan Stange

I finished up my first week of classes in the fourth grade room. First weeks often feel long and tire me out. This one did not feel long, but it did tire me out. Last night I flaked out on the couch. My priority was establishing a sustainable work flow with the class. It varies from year to year as I try new things and respond to the differentiated character or unique needs of this year’s group. There are echoes, but the groups are never the same. I am stressing whether I am building an effective, inquiry based, differentiated, connected studio classroom design. That sentence is a mouthful but it encompasses my goals.

In the quiet classroom, after my fourth graders bubbled out for the long weekend, my pre-service partner Olivia Holman and I exchanged our assessment of the first five days. We especially focussed on the students needing adaptations in the classroom. I pulled out the binder where I keep records of adaptations from last year. The truth is we missed some needed adaptations, though in fairness we identified some needed adaptations not yet documented.

I have twenty-three students at the moment. One has a personal program plan. There are a further seven students with written records of adaptation. I adapt for students all the time. Everyone deserves adaptations for learning. We are increasingly expected to document them. I guess that is the times. My intern remarked one student probably needed a fidget toy, that in fact she had need one. I realized I did too. In fact I still need them.

In public school the only one I was allowed was my pen. It became many things in my imagination. As I grew older the space ships and secret agent laser pens vanished and the creativity found its way on the page. I doodle. I doodled for decades through conventions, staff meetings, and professional development. When the personal devices came along I traded my pen for a Palm Pilot. Then I went to meetings with a lap top. At this point I have a Smart Phone. People say its always on it. Talking with Olivia it suddenly became obvious to me, its my newest fidget toy.

We spent half an hour yesterday morning running a role play with our students on differentiation and why being fair to people does not mean everyone gets the same thing. We pretended to be doctors then asked each student to pretend they had an illness. For each one we responded with the same prescription, “Take two Tylenol and call me in the morning.” The young people got the point at that moment. Today I distributed two swivel chairs to young people who needed them. Inevitably others asked for their own chair. I wish I could supply a chair to everyone; at least to give them a chance to decide for themselves. Most would like them, but some wouldn’t. We all need our own unique adaptations and the a classroom should accommodate them all.

I was worried that when I lost my tables I would be off track; back to quiet disconnected uniformity in a teacher-centred classroom. I feel a little better tonight.

Curbing my enthusiasm for standardized tests

Posted on September 28, 2011 by Alan Stange
In their book The Myths of Standardized Tests, Phillip Harris, Bruce Smith and Joan Harris tell this story:

“What are you doing?” a helpful passerby asks.
“Looking for my car keys,” answers the drunk.
“Did you drop them somewhere around here?”
“I don’t think so,” replies the drunk.
“Then why look here? the puzzled would-be helper wonders.
“It’s the only place where there’s any light.”

What we find is largely dependent on where we look. The more we tighten our focus on highly prescribed curriculums that are enforced by test and punish standardized exams the more we miss. Ironically, an intense focus requires a kind of tunnel vision that blinds us to the wider consequences of our decisions.

Joe Bower, For the Love of Learning

My students are frolicking in the local aquatic center. At their grade we can offer swimming lessons for about two weeks. It is a wonderful experience for them I think. It is a moment of relaxation for me because I can sit pool-side and catch up on my marking. As it turns out, I’m marking the beginning of the year math assessment. It surveys the learning my students hopefully carried over with them from grade three. Yes, September is over and yes, I feel I should have gotten this done earlier. Insert your own favorite excuse at this point to explain that.

I’ve commented on this moment in earlier posts at edustange. Twice in response to other Joe Bower posts here, and here. Another was on standardized testing. In each case, and once again this week, Joe Bower calls forth a critical stance on my practice. It feels so comfortable shuffling the assessment papers, tallying results by category (numbers, statistics and probability, shape, and patterns), compiling the quantifiable data into an Excel spread sheet. I’ll use the result to group students for math and target outcomes. You really know where you are going with these tests. Unless of course the test is a convenient, but inadequate measure of acquired learning.

Aye, there’s the rub. Part of it is twenty-five multiple choice questions. Three questions to a page, nine pages just for that; administered to nine-year-olds. Two additional pages for multi-step word problems, and a final page of sixteen computations. How does that impact the results I always ask myself.

Some struggled greatly with division and the multi-step word problems. I helped two by supplying them with manipulative. It helped them greatly. I realized others in the room would have benefited from that adaptation but I had not anticipated the possibility. For the other twenty-one the assessment was administered in a uniform fashion. It was administered in a (to my mind) small room where distractions were inevitable. I could continue to follow this train of thought for some time longer. People were not getting what they needed to demonstrate their learning. People were accommodating themselves as best they could to the conditions of the test.

Well, practically speaking, it has to be this way. Perhaps; but its hard to maintain confidence in a measure when you know the principal criteria of the test is practicality. It operates efficiently but does it achieve the intended goal. The more I have to mediate the results of assessment with my month’s contact with the students, the less sense the test makes.

I’ll revisit this tension in November when I prepare to meet with the students and their parents. I seem to need to guard myself against an enthusiasm for the pat results.

sometimes you should just hammer away

Posted on October 2, 2011 by Alan Stange

I noticed that we quickly slipped into the second month of school. Looking back I feel I have made a good start but it was not precisely the start that I wanted to make with my class. Inquiry-based learning is not the center of learning as I had hoped and I don’t think I have made enough effort to differentiate learning. Perhaps other teachers keep on track better. I like to think my frustration is not so unfamiliar.
I suppose my field trips to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History and our Habitat hike along the Trans Canada Trail through Moose Jaw’s Wakamow Valley had elements of inquiry. The students only gathered data and that is not what I want them to be doing. To that extent I did the field trips wrong. The steps of inquiry are selecting an authentic topic, narrowing the topic appropriately after consuming an overview, researching the topic, and publishing the learning (my plan is more detailed than that). After five weeks my students have not published their learning on a an inquiry topic. The initiative during the month of October shifts to my intern as she begins her three week block. I’ll have to see what she is planning.

In my mind, differentiation connects with inquiry in learning. It connects because my students take ownership for the topics, mode of consumption, the learning they create, and the medium they select to publish their learning. It is awesome to see how they all do this. The process of inquiry reminds me of what should ways be obvious: people are autonomous learners. We ignore this when student’s unique learning styles intrude on our carefully constructed lesson plans.

I saw a spark of the learning climate I wanted in the computer lab this last week. The students are all excited about Voki. I demonstrated it to them as part of the introduction to their digital portfolio project. They all want to embed one on their page. Rather than teach it to them step by step I just pointed them in the right direction. Independent learning, problem solving, and mentoring resulted. It comes to me that I did not prepare the environment effectively this last month. The previous two years I began the year building wikispaces pages. It built interest and a collaborative climate. This year I was more cautious about using technology without a curriculum connection and perhaps less confident about how the fourth graders would do with it. They proved me wrong. They were ready for it.

I think sometimes the human response is to create from the available tools. I always remind myself that if your only tool is a hammer, then all your problems will look like nails. For example, when we love our standardized assessments too much then we think them essential for everything. On the other hand, its fun to let the application of a technology be the problem. “Here’s Voki,” I told my class. “What can we do with it? How can it help represent our learning?” I think I forgot how powerful an impact technology can be on our learning environments.

Foraging for learning resources

Posted on October 6, 2011 by Alan Stange

I just read a comment about how unrealistic some of our expectations are for integrating technology into learning in public schools. I have 70 minutes each week in our computer lab and library and classroom computers accessible at other times. There are five computers for students in my room. Its not 1-1 but I imagine other classrooms might envy the situation. Its not enough though and it is always a transient resource.

I took one of the classroom laptops to a meeting this afternoon. Believe me, I almost took my own aging laptop to the meeting. I dislike reducing student access to these resources. The Dell laptop crashed on me twice. I think it is only two and a half years old. If this laptop or its twin die, I suspect we would not get a quick replacement. Schools eat resources quickly. It is all consumable. When something comes my way I try to make use of it.

A Fusion keyboard recently came my way. I assigned it to a bright student with writing difficulties. It was just an experiment to see if this nine-year-old could get his ideas down better if he did not have to struggle with fine motor control and letter reversals. Perhaps it is too soon to draw conclusions but he focused on his writing for twenty-five minutes without getting distracted. Its a first for me. The Fusion keyboard was going begging. People want iPads in their classrooms now. Well so do I, or perhaps some decent netbooks. There are no iPads at the moment so I will run this thing into the ground if it works for this student. I’ve done this sort of thing before. October 19th, 2007 I posted about nursing five Sun Micro-system stations along in my classroom by keeping a cupboard full of spares. When I moved out of that room the next teacher abandoned the project. Perhaps I should not be surprised but I get the impression most of us forage for resources of one sort or another.

Older technologies are still worth the hunt. I wonder how many of my colleagues remember there is a central resource center in our school division. After my Powerful Learning Practice meeting today I visited the resource center with my intern. There is a lot there and I think she went away with some fresh resources. Our computer lab is almost booked solid all week long. The library has plenty of free time. That is probably a very good thing. The librarian in me knows scheduled trips to the library make less sense than accessing the stacks when you need them. Still, it almost seems this learning resource is being overlooked a bit.

We need to forage for resources and we also need to keep foraging for new ideas. Some of them, like merit pay and finding based on school performance, should be passed over as quickly as possible. I’ll never stop listening or thinking about the possibilities though. The Fusion Keyboard may not meet my student’s needs but its worth a try. I introduced myself to the Powerful Learning Practice community with a link to a TimeGlider I built on my career. Someone quipped that they tried to move my retirement date. I hope he wanted to postpone it, not hasten it. I’m not watching the clock. I just added it because for the life of me, I can never remember the date. I’ve reached that stage in my career where people ask me sometimes. I feel foolish not knowing. I’m pretty caught up in all this wonderful learning still.

What you see is all there is

Posted on October 26, 2011 by Alan Stange
Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence

… people who face a difficult question often answer an easier one instead, without realizing it. We were required to predict a soldier’s performance in officer training and in combat, but we did so by evaluating his behavior over one hour in an artificial situation. This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, “What you see is all there is.” We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter. When you know as little as we did, you should not make extreme predictions … The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.We often interact with professionals who exercise their judgment with evident confidence, sometimes priding themselves on the power of their intuition. In a world rife with illusions of validity and skill, can we trust them? How do we distinguish the justified confidence of experts from the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth? We can believe an expert who admits uncertainty but cannot take expressions of high confidence at face value. As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.The New York TimesBy DANIEL KAHNEMAN
Published: October 23, 2011Daniel Kahneman is emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University and a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. This article is adapted from his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” out this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.Editor: Dean Robinson

I read this long article with great interest. It began with a description of officer training in Israel and shifted to Kahneman’s work with the stock market. Given the current state of the North American economy and my own growing concerns about pension income, I found his conclusion that stock market broker’s success or failure on the market was largely the result of luck unsettling.Perhaps I should have anticipated this information. It was easy to apply the theme to education. I’m preparing for report cards at the moment. The immediacy of that and the decade long fixation on improved assessment in teacher professional development makes this easy. “We were required to predict a soldier’s performance in officer training and in combat, but we did so by evaluating his behavior over one hour in an artificial situation.” How often have I read cautions against investing too much in our tests? How often have I suppressed the feeling that the mark I wrote down on a report card was at best an inadequate representation of learning at at worst an elaborate charade – and we use them to predict student’s future just as much as Kahneman and his colleagues used their results to predict leadership.Just as the brokerage firms described in Kahneman’s article rewarded lucky brokers, educators reward students (and governments reward schools) for high achievement on artificial tests. The test results might not be blind luck, but they are the result of complex factors. Just like the brokerage houses, we cannot confidently use the test results of one year to reliably predict how our students will perform in the future. The factors are too complex. Kahneman asserts near the conclusion that, “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.” I think a reliable assessment is made from prolonged experience with the learner and the previous mistakes we have made in our assessments of her. How do we change our direction? Unfortunately, as Kahneman observes, “The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture.”

Re-configuring learning

Posted on November 3, 2011 by Alan Stange

My students have a common math assessment this afternoon. Since it is an individual enterprise I shifted the desks into rows. The resulting configuration consumed all of the floor space. My three standing tables are pushed into corners. About seven of my twenty three students said they preferred it that way. Two girls, independent, well organized learners, were overjoyed to see the arrangement. “I like the personal space,” one explained quietly. I’m sitting here observing as my intern administers the test. Three boys just grabbed a few of the voting booths I keep in the room. They wanted to make study carols. For this sort of intense personal focus that was a good idea. The room is too small to disperse the group. Even in rows, it is hard to be alone one meter away from another person.

It won’t stay this way. After thirty years it cannot stay this way. I want a different work flow for learning. Learning is eclectic and the isolation or grouping is both intentional and more democratically established. There are important times to exert teacher authority and bring everyone together or into groups. Otherwise I believe cooperation on personal learning and collaboration toward a common goal should be left to the discretion of students.

I’m not troubled by the large number of students in my room who prefer the rows. They like the space around them as a default. They will cooperate frequently but only at their comfort level. People enter their space or they knock on some other student’s door. The tape is on the floor. The default in my room is groups of four. I do it that way to remind them and remind myself that learning is connected and we can all be both mentors and learners in the room.

Confronting the grading moment
Posted on November 4, 2011 by Alan Stange

This Friday we all had a common preparation period in the Prairie South School Division. Our students stayed home and we worked quietly away on any number of things. I began the morning helping a colleague puzzle through the settings of her Promethian ActivBoard. after that I turned my attention to my report cards and marshaling my records of assessment.

I opened the school division’s common report card on one desktop and opened Microsoft Outlook on a neighbour. I use tasks to store my summative assessments and anecdotal comments. Throughout the term I take notes on their progress but there is only one final summation I need to draw on. I’ve invested a bit in this work flow but it has not been without a good ambivalence. Much of my morning was consumed by comparing individual rankings on the Personal and Social Growth Skills Rubric with my intern. We collaborated on the report and comments. My systematic work flow works well, but I’m always concerned if my philosophy of numbers and letters has any validity.

It doesn’t take very long to realize that twelve outcomes and multiple indicators attempting to encompass respect, desire to learn, and responsibility fail to adequately characterize nine-year-old boy or girl. Usually the written indicators are only partially descriptive and often they are entirely misleading. Rubrics might provide a smooth path, but they also hold you to it.

All this is in service of a report distributed three times during the year. Each report summarizes about two or more months of activities for each child. It assumes a consistency. “I try to follow the directions but have to be reminded to stay on task.” Or “I respectfully help others and keep their feelings in mind.” Do you base this on a couple of incidents or does the behaviour occur daily? Does it happen in every circumstance? The report card implies the latter I think. There is no placed in a progress report for comments on isolated or sporadic behaviour. Incidents are best reported as they happen. I need to email, text, phone, or write notes as the year progresses. These term reports always seem superficial and inaccurate to me.

If this is true of behaviour reports, then it is equally true of my reports on learning outcomes. Students get a letter. That, and what comments I can squeeze into a 3X6 space on the report card, constitutes a report. I think that is not such a terrible report to give if everyone takes it for what it is worth. Two problems with that; first, nobody takes it for what it is worth (very little), report cards assume far too much significance for all of us. Second, the reliance on these three official reports detracts from capitalizing on opportunities to share and discuss progress when it matters; that is, in a timely manner, as it happens. Deal with behaviour good or bad immediately. Report on progress through many channels, not least of which should be portfolio work. Just a few thoughts as I finish up my Friday.

When do we publish learning?

Posted on November 9, 2011 by Alan Stange

My fourth graders are presenting comparisons and contrasts between each other to there classmates through PowerPoints. Its the usual learning experience: how to be a respectful audience, presenting the main ideas visually, and supporting those ideas with details. It is easy to forget how intimidated a person can feel talking in front of people you work with daily. They are publishing their learning in a now familiar way to the classic audience, their peers.

To a child, peers are a significant audience. Parents would be another. Knowing your audience is important. Deciding how to publish seems to follow. I spend a great deal of time on this with my students but it isn’t always like that, or if it is, then we forget that at the heart of authentic learning, our first audience is ourselves. I’ve often learned something and then cast around for an appropriate audience. Once I have found one, I consider the best way to reach them. Much of personal learning, our authentic learning, is never shared. There is nothing wrong with that.
That is why it is hard to see my student’s learning as particularly authentic. They worked collaboratively on a goal set by the teacher for a required audience and then published in a proscribed form. Perhaps this is a good way to build the skill set for representing learning. Its not the outcome I’m looking for.

This process should bring my students to a more authentic inquiry-based learning. Should I reach that point, audience and form of publication should follow. If we reach this this year, the learning will be personal first. I say this aware that authentic learning is always constrained by curriculum and accountability. Everything seems to be subject to established outcomes and indicators. My students proved how independently they can work as pairs. I’m not sure they imagine there is much room for their own interests. That is something I need to emphasize.

The FedEx-project periods I have introduced are the vehicle for this. Right now it is more of a catch-up period. I want to build authenticity by having them pursue their own goals.

Authentic homework

Posted on November 18, 2011 by Alan Stange

We have been studying the nature and impact of Canada’s Residential School system on First Nations in my fourth grade class. We also had a great session learning about exploding a moment in collage with an artist from Regina. This morning four students showed me what they did overnight. Three made collages and one wrote a seven page story from the perspective of an Anglo boy forcibly sent to a school to learn Cree language and culture. No assigned work here, they were just following their interest and applying what they had learned. This is what homework should be and we need to build student capacity to think this way.

Lost Aspens

Posted on December 7, 2011 by Alan Stange

Everyone has a different vision I guess and at some point you have to make your peace with the probability that things you have worked hard to create will be casually dismantled by your successors. My wife and I worked hard to nurture a garden, a shady green space in an unforgiving alkali soil on the western prairies. The water available in Central Butte was hard and punished everything except grass. I suppose that was why a fresh green lawn was all we found when we moved in. That was not our vision, so we set about planting bushes, digging flower beds, and a succession of trees. There was a high casualty rate, but we were winning the battle by the time we moved to Moose Jaw. My favorites were the aspens planted beside our sun-blasted deck. Almost immediately after we gave the house up this clump of shade and a trio of native sage bushes were hacked out as part of the new occupants vision. Sometimes you have to let it go.

Sometimes it keeps upsetting you. I am always mindful of a favorite Arthur Miller quote, “Life is like trying to write your name in a block of ice on a hot summer day.” But I want to see some things I care about sustain. Some educational practices are not simply a matter of taste or preference. Some things should be done because they are right for learning and the young people we help.

I had an interview after school. At one point the parent observed that their child would have difficulty dealing with strict deadlines in subsequent years. In my room this slow processor with short term memory problems needs extra time to complete tasks. It is written into the personal program plan. I understand deadlines and objectives have value, but too often we structure our student’s learning around our best guess at what a reasonable work flow might be. We are usually arbitrary and wrong. Even if we were not, what works for many won’t work for the rest. This student deserves the time to learn.

It bothered me to hear my sensitivity to this student’s learning need was exceptional and the norm would be arbitrary deadlines that would discourage learning. I forgot myself briefly and offered the parent my opinion of my colleague’s possible actions. This is one clump of aspens that should not be cut down. Its not a matter of style. People learn at different paces. If you have a child who needs more time you give it to him or her without penalty or disapproval. Schedules often have a valid point. Usually they are an expression of our infatuation with “rigor”. We so love pressure don’t we?

Students keep me grounded

Posted on December 17, 2011 by Alan Stange

I have to say it again, daily contact with young people keeps me sane. In the staff room I might hear, or share, the casual remark, “The kids are driving me crazy today.” We mean they are not fitting into our plans. The plans might be very good. It doesn’t matter. The plan at that moment is probably not quite right. The students are not necessarily driving me crazy, the plan is.

I’m all about being a boy scout at the moment. I’m busy getting my Learning (Data) Management Team merit badge. Mathematics Pre (test) Assessments on outcomes and indicators, differentiated groupings based on the charted (collaboratively compiled) data, and Post (test) Assessment with individual interventions to follow. It sounds like a good plan. Maybe it is a plan that allows me to really address my students as individual learners. I was really wrapped up in the plan as I walked around the quiet room helping everyone with the Post (test) Assessment.

Matthew’s answer caught my eye as I slipped past him. My mobile was out and I snapped a shot and sent it to his folks. Matthew was reminding me he isn’t data, he’s a person. He knew I would see it so maybe he was consciously sending me a reminder to do more than place a check mark next to his answer. Maybe he was just being Matthew for a moment. When I go to my next Learning (Data) Management Team meeting in January, I’ll see Matthew’s cartoon superimposed over the numbers. I really have to thank Matthew for that.