Last year Janelle Peister planned a grade 8 unit (The Spanish & the Aztecs) with the PHRD AISI team. This year she teamed up with Charlene Assenhiemer and they decided to take unit and roll it out at the same time but make some adjustments. At the beginning of the school year, they took a half day to plan with the Lead Collaborative Teachers. They decided to connect their classrooms and students that were 30 minutes away from each other in rural Alberta. Charlene is in Fort Assinaboine and Janelle in Swan Hills. A plan was made to adjust their schedules so they would be teaching the unit, at the same time so they could use VC and Google+ to connect their classrooms. One week, Charlene would do some direct teaching to both classes using the Polycom VC unit. The next week, all students worked on centers with their partner from the other school. Students collaborated using Google Hangout, Google chat and Google Drive. The following week, Janelle took over and did some pre-teaching of both classes through the VC followed by another week of centers. This rotation of direct teaching and centers continued for the remainder of the unit. For more information on this unit and resources, click here.
The following is a reflection by Janelle and Charlene after they finished this project the second time:
If someone time-travelled back to your classroom a couple of years ago, and then bounced back to your class today, what would they see, hear or notice that is different about the way your instruction and assessment has changed?
Janelle: At the beginning of my teaching career, I was very much of the mind-set that kids learned best when I showed a PowerPoint, they took notes and completed an assignment. After a review class, they wrote a quiz and that concluded our unit. This worked; kids produced work and they did well on their quizzes and I was able to have them sit and listen to the lesson, but they weren’t excited.
Now, having worked with teams that are trained in getting kids excited about learning, my classroom is chaotic, noisy but full of students who enjoy learning. Often, I give very minimal instruction- just enough to set them running- and they take the projects and create fantastic results. I have become a facilitator rather than a teacher. There are days where more instruction is required, and the students have to sit and listen, but they know that they have the opportunity when the instruction is done to demonstrate their knowledge in a way of their choice. Also, generally, the kids teach themselves or teach each other. Before the students will ask me what they should do, they ask their peers.
Charlene: I always knew that I wanted to be more of a facilitator of a learning than the sage on the stage type teacher. Kids in my class had no skills and no previous knowledge to critically work through the inquiry process. I became the read the text, take the notes, and do the project at the end kind of teacher. I am learning that project based learning can be more than the culminating assignment. I have come to learn that kids still require clear goals and some background knowledge but they become engaged when they can apply what they are learning, as they are learning, all through the unit instead of just showing what they know at the end. I am excited about the day when traditional testing is a thing of the past, for now I see that we teach a variety of ways to show what you know that still includes traditional testing.
What’s most important in your mind now as you plan and deliver instruction and
Janelle: There are two most important things in my mind when I plan: 1. What are the key concepts that I need the students to grasp and 2. How can I let them demonstrate this understanding in a way that is appealing to them? It is important for me to always have a wide range of assessments for the students to pick from; this way, they can always find something to their liking. However, each assessment choice will center on one key concept. This way, every student demonstrates their knowledge of the key concept; they just don’t always do it in the same way.
For example, I need the students to demonstrate that they understand the theme of the novel. As a class, we will discuss what potential themes, might exist, how we can phrase it best, and find specific examples from the novel to support this idea. From there, the students can create a PowerPoint, a poster, a board game, a song, a movie, or write an essay that focuses on the theme of the novel.
Charlene: I agree with Janelle that we must focus on the big rocks, or enduring understanding and skills we want students to learn and how we are going to keep them motivated and engaged in the learning. The outcomes are often abundant and I am getting better at sifting through and picking and choosing those that are most important. I have learned that collaborating with others to plan keeps things new and engaging not only for the kids but for me as well. I think that thinking outside the four walls of my classroom when I plan a lesson and thinking about how I can connect with others is a key part of that engagement. This type of connecting and collaborating is a big part of the global world we are preparing our students for. We have long known that kids learn best from and with their peers so when I plan I remember that I am always thinking of the relationships and connections that can enhance the learning experience for all of us.
What’s your most pressing challenges at this time? Future… (Advice, decisional… based on values…)
Janelle: I find it difficult to assign a grade to a student. I would almost prefer the class to be pass/fail. However, students, parent, administrators, and teachers are very grade oriented and it is a necessity to score each student.
Charlene: You bet Janelle. Grading is tough and again comes to well chosen and clear outcomes. The difficulty comes when kids begin to demonstrate excellence with unexpected outcomes. Because students are individuals, I tend to want to celebrate the individual, incidental learning that occurs in abundance with collaborative, project based learning. When students are engaged they are all learning but this leads to some questions. How do we direct them to the outcomes we’ve chosen when they are self directed and engaged in what they want to know? If they are learning, who are we to decide what is important? Can we assess the learning process instead of the product to get around content based outcomes? I could go on but assessment is definitely a challenging problem that only more frequent professional conversations can help to solve.
I would say another pressing challenge is finding teachers who are willing to collaborate outside of their four walls. I think teachers fail to realize how great they are and think it is a lot of work to change, but in reality all teaching is work. The stress that often accompanies change can be alleviated by thinking positively and being willing to take a risk. I know that some of our ideas succeed and some fail but how we handle our successes and failures is part of the inquiry process that we want to model for our students. I think teachers are becoming naturally risk takers and understand that success and failure is happening in their classrooms every day; however, as a culture we don’t like to share our failures and this is what prevents teachers from leaving the safety of their classrooms. We need to celebrate all the teachers that taking the leap to reduce this stigma by collaborating and sharing their successes and failures outside of their four walled classrooms.
What do you need in order to confront this challenge?
Janelle: Rubrics have been a lifesaver. Attending a PD session on creating really great, but vague rubrics would be incredibly helpful.
Charlene: I think I ranted a solution above.
What do you need to effectively apply differentiation strategies in your environment?
Janelle: You need the training. There are so many facets to teaching a differentiated classroom and it is a challenge to keep up with the different strategies that exist. However, if you have the willingness to try and the enthusiasm to engage the students, that provides a really great start.
Charlene: I think you need to know your students. Relationships are key to differentiation. Everyone must respect and accept individual differences in order to provide a supportive learning environment for everyone. If you don’t have a climate of inclusion than the focus will be on external motivators like fitting in instead of internal motivators like learning in a way that works for each student. This climate needs to be established first in your own classroom and then when students come together time needs to be spent creating a supportive, positive learning environment.
If you sent a time-traveler ahead a couple of years… What do you hope they
would describe about your instruction and assessment then?
Janelle: I hope that a time traveler would see a fun, relaxed and self-motivated classroom. I hope they would describe my instruction as foundational yet, intriguing. I hope they would describe my assessment as diverse.
Charlene: I hope that they could ask any student at any time and get a unique, inspiring and reflective answer that might include; I am learning…...by exploring…….because…… and found…………. I hope kids would be eager to share their learning not only with strangers but with others around them. I hope they see a teacher who is experimenting, learning and sharing alongside students. I hope there is evidence of self and peer assessment as well as teacher assessment using the same tools and outcomes.
What was your experience have the opportunity to roll this unit plan out a second time. What did you do differently this time? What advice would you give to other teachers that are thinking about collaborating on a project like this?
Janelle: I learned the value of instruction! AISI and I, with my class of grade eights in the 2012-2013 school year, tried to implement differentiation in the classroom in its purest form. This became uncontrollable chaos. Without instruction, the students were stressed and scared and became defiant and unwilling to work.
Though differentiation is a great idea, there is still a place for formal instruction. PowerPoint presentations still work; showing film clips on class content still works, having students answer basic comprehension questions still works. Differentiation does not mean letting the students run free, with little to no basic knowledge. Telling a student they can represent their knowledge in any way does not generate an inherent sense of motivation to learn. The students need to be taught the materials in a variety of ways (auditory, visually, and through discovery) and they need to be able to demonstrate their ability in a multiple of ways. However, it is still the teacher's job to ensure the students are properly set up for success, by providing students with a foundation of knowledge.
Charlene: I agree with Janelle, there are times when teachers still need to direct teach. Students do not yet have the skills or confidence to run with pure activity based learning. Self motivated learning is hard work. Being given a context and practicing the skills needed will help to ensure the success of all students. Direct instruction and practice still need to be engaging and multimodal to meet the needs of each student.
This blog and resources website has been developed through the work of various AISI coaches in PHRD. The lead collaborative teachers for the 2015/2016 school year, Cheryl Frose, Christine Quong and Tammy Tkachuk will continue to update this site. If you have resources you would like to share or would like to contribute to the blog, please contact us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.