nature observation: the spring visit

With my grade 7 (MYP 2) class, I have been doing a nature writing unit throughout the year. In each season we have taken a bus to a stretch of forest on the shoreline of a nearby island and spent some time doing observations. Then they use those observations to do a writing piece describing what it looked like and felt like in the forest. I posted some background on the unit when we did our winter visit in January.

This time was a little different. I've been trying to get us there since April, when I came off my paternity leave, but with my illness, sports trips, visiting astronauts and some terrible weather, we could not get out. Today was our last class meeting of the year, our very last chance to go and get closure on our nature experience even if there was no time to actually write the assignment. And of course, half an hour before we left, it started raining.

But we went anyway. We got a little wet on the way, but the rain dried up although it was still cold and overcast. When we arrived at the south coast, the wind whipped the sea around creating whitecaps and whistled through the forest. Right away they commented on the contrast with the silence of the winter visit and the solemnity of the autumn visit. They took ten minutes of alone time, and they were instructed to collect words to describe their impressions. 

Rather than have them do a written assignment, on the beach I put them in three groups of 5-6 students and told them to use the words they had written to construct a performance. They were fantastic. Two of the groups did something similar: acted out different elements of nature, calling out to each other in turn. They focused on the range of words and ideas they had developed, and they were great. 

The third group had a chant: it started with, 'There is wildness in the sea,' and after a few rounds of that, they added, 'There is wildness in the trees.' After a few more rounds, they added the final line, so that all of them started moving rhythmically in a circle chanting,
There is wildness in the sea,
There is wildness in the trees,
There is wildness in ME.
The students in the other groups loved it, and joined the circle, and indeed so did I, so by the end, we were all dancing around in a circle, singing this chant, getting louder and faster and, well, wilder. One of the major themes of the nature writing is using nature as a reflection of ourselves and using it to understand our own natures, and this piece captured that perfectly. It was the best end of the school year I've ever had with a class.

I was tempted to debrief that experience as we waited for the bus on the trip back, but in the end, some experiences are better left raw and organic.


My annual self-evaluation

from Center for Development and Learning.
I do this every year, but I thought I'd do it publicly this year since I expect my students to make their self-evaluations public. So here we go:

what went well:
  • Integrated media literacy skills into classes, integrated them into Approaches to Learning, did presentation for staff members.
  • Grade 7 Nature Writing unit was great. I'll do that again, and expand it.
  • Grade 10 Language units (History of English & Advertising) went very well. 
  • More focus on formal self-assessment & peer assessment was effective and helpful.
  • Letting go of reading quizzes and doing more practical assignments to check reading was great: nothing lost, a huge amount gained.
  • Generally having formative assessments more closely related to the process and skills of the summative assessment. 
  • Using Moodle more effectively.
  • Use of Google docs for collective note taking.
  • In Diploma classes, continuing to 'loosen up' and encourage students to develop own styles and readings.
  • Evaluating peer feedback on oral commentary practices better than evaluating the practices themselves.
  • Designing learning experiences which emphasize & require collaborative learning (study groups, etc.)
  • Mentored grade 4 writer.
  • Started process of communicating with Lower School LA teachers, especially grades 4-5.
  • Good communication with other Mother Tongue teachers, Language B department.
  • The London trip.
what could have been better
  • Trimester 3.
  • Consistent use of the Smartboard to record & share info.
  • Grade 7: we lingered too long on stuff. I should have pushed them a little more, curtailed some of our discussions a little better. 
  • Giving feedback on assessments faster.
  • Many students in grade 10 lacked skills I expect grade 10s to have. It took me too long to see that and respond to it.
  • Need to give 2XEAL students more attention.
  • Multi-disciplinary units dried up this year.
  • Parent contact was not effective. Conferences are silly.
  • I had no outside speakers. Inter-school collaboration went badly early in the year & I gave up on it.
what I plan to do next year
  • New courses. 
    • I'm teaching IB Diploma Language and Literature, and I need to be ready to move through the language texts in a meaningful way; likewise, the literature units focus much more on contextual readings, including critical theory and especially reader-response. I need to work out how to teach these to high schools in a more systematic way that gives them the freedom to develop different readings of a text.
    • I'm taking over the IB Diploma ITGS (Information Technology in a Global Society) class, so I need to review a lot of the technical aspects related to the course and be ready to connect them to the kinds of assessments the students do on their exams.
  •  Technology.
    • I need to work out a system by which I keep a list of what needs to be uploaded and where it needs to go at the end of every school day, especially images from the Smartboard and the modeling we do in class.
    • Move class website on my own server to Google sites.
    • Expand use of Google docs, especially for collaboration, including inter-school collaboration.
    • Develop a plan for student blogs, diigo use and the interaction with Moodle.
    • Develop a plan for audio responses to written work.
  • Curriculum development
    • We need to do some training as a department about how to deal with the language units.
    • We need to identify a scope and sequence for Approaches to Learning (learning skills) specific to our subject area.
    • I need to develop one meaningful interdisciplinary unit per MYP class and develop more meaningful TOK links for diploma classes.
  • Develop a better mechanism for parent conferences. Students record video self-assessments? Require students to come and walk through their Moodle portfolio?
  • Have formative assessment early in the year that checks specific essential skills.
  • Use homeroom assignment, 1-on-1 conferences & extra-curricular activities to build more meaningful relations with students.


Recommending books

Every year, I have some students and lots of parents ask me to recommend some books for students to read. I am uncomfortable with this.

First, I don't have any expertise in young adult fiction. I didn't read any when I was young myself, and I've read very little since. I am not a teacher who reads for school on my own time. I admire those who know this topic, but I don't know much about it myself, nor am I inclined to learn about it.

Second, I find it difficult to suss out the purpose of these requests. Do the kids want the recommendations or do the parents? Are they looking for reading that will interest the students or that will be 'good for' the students? Is reading level significant, or is content appropriateness more significant? Any list I would develop would need to reflect a range of needs and desires, and I have neither the skills nor the interest in managing those issues.

So here's what I've done:


The idea is that students and/or parents can shop around these sites, looking at which fits their needs the best. You might notice that I've ranged them from social networking like Goodreads to the very straightforward, somewhat plonky lists. My hope is that at least one of these will meet most needs; I plan to spend more time on some of these, especially Booktrust.

My main hope is that parents and students will have a sense that online resources shifts the responsibility of finding reading material from me to the students themselves.


Dispatches from Finland: Episode 1

I teach in Finland, but in an international school, not in the Finnish system. As a long-time resident and frequent visitor to Finnish schools, I have a few insights into the Finnish education, um phenomenon? miracle? Whatever.

Here's today's installment:

I went downtown today in the middle of the day on school business. On the bus ride back to the school's neighborhood, I rode with the daughter of a former neighbor. She surprised me by speaking English, and I could see she had started studying English in school. We had a ten minute conversation in her limited English and my limited Finnish. She asked about the family -- she loves our boys -- and I asked her about her brother and school.

I asked her what she was doing out in the middle of the school day. She said that she had had a dentist appointment. I asked a little about this, and here's how it went: her mother called the school and told them about the appointment. She left school by herself, took a bus to the dentist, saw the dentist, and was returning to school. All on her own. She had texted her mother to tell that she had no cavities, and she had stopped for an ice cream before getting back on the bus.

She is nine years old.

When I told my Finnish wife about this, she was not surprised at all that a nine year old child would go to the dentist (or doctor) alone. Indeed, it is not unusual to see pre-teens on the bus by themselves on the way to school or going to music lessons and sports practices after school.

Finnish educational success is not just about the school system: it's about the culture. If you want young people to take control of their learning, you have to let them take control of lots of other things, and you have to make the society reliable and safe enough for them to function independently. And yes, some of them will make stupid mistakes -- teenage binge drinking in Helsinki is tough to miss -- but freedom and ownership cannot be limited to learning.


The absent teacher

source: http://nycrubberroomreporter.blogspot.com/2008/12/reserves.html
Over the last nine weeks, I've been off for five (more or less) and distracted even when there.

My trimester started with the birth of my son. My wife's labor started just as parent conferences for the second trimester were beginning, and then I was out for three weeks of government-provided paternity leave. (I scheduled things so I could come in on Fridays of those weeks, keeping tabs on some of my classes, especially the IB Diploma students.)

When I returned, I faced a staffing crisis in our department which resulted in me spending loads of time managing other teachers' classes, helping substitutes with lesson planning and transitions. Essentially, I was planning for and/or teaching an extra 15 hours a week of lessons, and the attention to my own classes suffered.

Just as that was getting sorted out, I got sick. It's a virus known as nephropathia epidemica, or translated from the Finnish, mole fever. I was feverish and sore for one week and too tired to do very much for a second week. Even now reading for long periods is challenging and climbing the stairs requires a rest. And now we have three weeks left, just enough time to wrap up and ship out.

My students managed. We did units that I've done many times before, and I was able to set them work that would help them complete the summative assessment at the end of the unit. They have had an opportunity learn and show their learning, and the results are what you'd expect: those who were motivated to work through it did well, and those who weren't didn't.

Take, for instance, my grade 10 class. They read Much Ado About Nothing. For each act, they watched the film (Branagh, 1993) and did a series of activities that required them to look carefully at the text of certain scenes and speeches. These activities varied from straight discussion questions to graphic organizers to performance activities with reflection. I used a Google doc to answer questions from home when I was able. At the end, they did an in-class writing activity requiring them to do a close reading of passages and an oral activity (which I was there for) doing some character analysis. The work varied widely, from excellent to barely mediocre. The gap between those who used the in-class activities to hone their skills and knowledge and those who did not was startling.

So what did my students miss out on by not having me there? First, there was no flexibility or improvisation of lessons based on formative assessment. I designed a process for them to go through, and while it was designed to get them to the objectives, it could not meet individual or even the collective needs of this particular class; basically, I was 'teaching' a generic composite of past classes.

Second, there was nobody 'pushing' the students. I was not there to look over their shoulders and ask provocative questions about their work, or scaffold the process for those who needed it, or help with the transition between process steps or ideas for those who needed it. That personalized, differentiated interaction would have reduced the achievement gap on assessments.

I am sadly aware that too few teachers offer these things in their classes, and I will admit to offering neither as clearly or comprehensively as I ought to. For my students, it was an adequate trimester; for me, it has provided a moment of clarity about my role in the classroom.