Faye Brownlie and Collaboration: The Key to Unlocking Students’ Learning Styles

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Examining Formative Assessment in the Explorations Classes

In the formative assessment learning team journey, our day visiting Charles Best was one that both opened my eyes and reinforced what I have been thinking about in regards to teacher collaboration. One of the teachers who worked at Centennial moved to Charles Best in the second semester.  In continuing her journey on our learning team, she asked that we bring Faye to the realm of the elective world so she could work with her on a foods course.  She and another foods teacher were asking the question: How can we be less ‘boring’ when covering less ‘fun’ content?  Students enjoy the cooking part of the course; however, the knowledge/info gathering is not as engaging for students.  As educators, what we know about brain research is that learning in different ways helps us learn faster; therefore, expanding on our repertoire of tried and true tricks could prove to boost engagement, acquisition and retention.

It was determined that the lesson would be split into three parts. Our learning team teacher took the class through a “whip around” that allowed each student to contribute a fact (no repeats) about the previous day’s lecture on rice.  Groups helped one another to share new facts and reinforced the notion of “content and community” we had been discussing in the pre-lesson dialogue.  Courses are often content driven, but a sense of community can drive how students access and navigate the content.

The other teacher (who shared the class) took the students through a short exercise to add to/expand on their rice fact base. The information collection was guided and teacher driven (not always a bad thing) but it made me think, are there ways to change it up so the information could be learned in a different way that would allow for engagement, acquisition and retention (and provide the teachers with more of the “fun factor” they were looking to explore)?

The third section of the lesson involved Faye demonstrating various strategies aimed at a student centered approach to information gathering. I observed Faye engage with students and ask them to think of two things about rice they didn’t know and make eye contact when they had thought of them.  She had students get up and move around the room engaging with one another about the questions they had (sharing what they were curious about).  In addition, she peppered her dialogue with facts about rice that would be helpful on their next task.  Faye distributed a hand written sheet of vocabulary to each group with instructions that they would work to use the words to fill in blanks on a cloze fact sheet about the various different types of rice.  She suggested, “If I were doing this, I’d pick the easiest and cross it off.”  She let students know they would have twelve minutes to complete the task.

The Unintended Insight

I have observed Faye doing some amazing teaching and modelling in a wide range of classrooms, but it was in that foods classroom that I observed something I had not seen before. I’ve spoken in my blog about the importance of collaboration with an admission that it’s sometimes a little scary letting someone into your classroom; you never know when things may go sideways and it can be embarrassing to do that in front of others.  Certainly, this was not a lesson that went sideways, but it was the first time I observed a lesson that was not flawless, and it made for some great conversations amongst the group of teachers observing the lesson.

Faye provided students with a handwritten list of words, and what we discovered was that a selection of students had difficulty reading handwriting. In addition, Faye had provided twelve minutes for the activity; however, it became evident that, despite being on task, students were going to require a lot more time.  I began to ponder the activity and found myself engaging in conversations with teachers about how to navigate the minor roadblocks that were arising.  Those conversations became the focus of our post conference.

Having dialogue about the strategies we observe when Faye steps into a classroom and takes the reins for a period has had such benefit to understanding how we engage students, develop student ownership, make lessons student focused, provide practice and support diverse learners. What we had the opportunity to observe today was the process of reflection and refinement by someone who is always willing to take risks, simply by teaching/facilitating in a classroom where she has not had an opportunity to build a connect.  Faye shared in the post conference that when students are behaving, it can sometimes be easy to miss whether they are actually comprehending the information.  It’s the reason we need our practice to be immersed in formative assessment: to inform our teaching and lesson planning.

As a team, we discussed different strategies we might have used to help students collect and retain the information contained in the cloze activity. I had thought that grouping the words by section might have assisted students in better navigating the task, but the home ec teacher from our learning team thought it might be beneficial for students to actually cook the different types of rice for “live” examples of their various textures and uses.  I could imagine students presenting to the other groups and incorporating their own interesting facts by doing smart phone searches; thereby, harnessing a degree of student based ownership over their learning and enhancing their retention.  Once again, I marveled at the great ideas our learning team was able to share and I saw the power of teacher collaboration in action.

Connecting Theory and Practice

It was apropos several weeks later when I attended the Faye Brownlie professional development series and found myself struck by the words, “we know enough collectively to teach ALL kids.” It reinforced the power in teacher collaboration and forced me to think of how our instructional choices significantly impact student learning.  As educators, we seek to reach all learners, but our natural learning biases can impact how successful we might be.  However, by employing the collective knowledge of colleagues and mentors, we can better engage all of the learning styles with which we work.

The other great “take away” from the session was the assertion that we seek to have students access info from the get go, not accommodate or adapt after we get started. At first I thought, come on, how can we know from the get go?  But as I contemplated, I realised that my most powerful adaptations and modifications came from reflecting prior to the lesson rather than the “quick fix” adaptations I developed on the fly.  I thought back to our home ec lesson and the power we might have had, were we to have possessed the post conference collaborative ideas prior to the start of the lesson.

I remember many years ago, travelling around Europe for several months with a good friend. I learned many things about myself on that trip, but one memory stands out and helps to illustrate my point about accessing info from the start.  My friend and I were staying in Nice, France.  One night we met some travelers in the park who were playing Frisbee.  Having been travelling for quite some time, I felt comfortable when my friend decided to return to the hostel at which we were staying, while I continued to hang out with our new found friends.  About an hour later, I returned to our hostel only to discover that the door had been locked.  I had no key.  I tried knocking and finally resorted to hissing up to our window in hopes that my friend would hear me.  When she appeared, I thought my problems were solved; however, when she went down to the door, she could not open it from the inside either.  Imagine if I were a learner and this was a classroom.  While many students might navigate their learning through opening an unlocked door, there are learners who find themselves confronting what feels like a locked door.  As teachers, we sometimes find ourselves on the other side of that door unable to unlock our students’ learning style.

I’m happy to report that I did not have to find a park bench on which to sleep. I began to look to my surroundings and, low and behold, there was scaffolding against the building.  I used the scaffolding to climb up to my window and, from there, my friend helped me gain entry.  I’ve talked about the teacher’s role in providing students with the scaffolding necessary to access knowledge and learning.  It makes me smile to reflect on a time when I literally navigated the scaffolding on a building to better meet my needs.

So what does my memory have to do with the concept of seeking to have students access the info from the get go, rather than adapting after we get started? How much easier would it have been to have known in advance when the door would be locked?  How much quicker would I have been had I noted the scaffolding prior to the door being locked?  Where would I have slept had I not been resourceful enough to navigate my own “adaptations” (how many of our learners engage in independently creating their own scaffolding and how many simply “find a park bench”?)?

Our learning team journey over the past two years has been about seeking to employ and better understand the power of formative assessment, and yet, the very nature of working on a team has had the added benefit of showing us the power in professional collaboration. Faye reinforced its power both in a home ec lesson that proved to have more take away moments in its post conference, as well as through her presentation where we learned that we (educators) know enough, collectively, to teach all kids. And when we put our keys together, we can unlock far more doors.

Collaborating through Professional Conversations

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Over the past two weeks I have been meeting with department heads (the ones with whom I liaise) to talk about how things have been going in departments: curricular goals, successes, their leadership, my leadership and, in many conversations, we’ve come up with new ideas for the department through the simple act of professional dialogue.

In looking at collaboration in its many forms (many of them being the team teaching model) we sometimes forget about how important the face to face conversation can be to moving forward.  There’s something organic lost in the email conversation, but email is often our primary mode of communication: it’s handy, quick and excellent for disseminating information.  However, when it comes to reflection, growth and the wherewithal to try a new concept/direction/strategy, there’s something to be said for where we get to in organic dialogue and a “we’re in it together” collaborative mentality.  First hand, I see how well this works in learning team meetings, and – I guess that’s just it – we need to be intentional about scheduling these face to face conversations.

The Intricacy of Being a Teacher

The art of teaching is incredibly complex.  Teaching isn’t just about content knowledge; that’s the tip of the iceberg.  Good teachers (among a myriad of other things) cover the curriculum, connect with kids, build relationships and they provide scaffolding.  The education outsider might wonder what this means, and it’s an eye opener to come to the understanding that every learner within the classroom is not at the same level; not even close.  In order to pass a course, students need to demonstrate a minimally acceptable level of curricular understanding, which leaves a wide range to be considered successful: 50 to 100%.  However, teachers don’t enter the profession to help students maintain their own status quo.  They work to take a student earning 88% to the 93% competency range; they take a student in the 20% range and strive for 50%…but if the student earns 40%, this is a success as well and perhaps the student’s next attempt will move their competency to a passing level.  The teacher is working with this range of learners in a class of often thirty students.  So how does this one teacher provide the support and personalization for thirty students?  How do they come to understand the complex needs of all of these different learners, some of whom have learning disabilities?  How do they do it and not burn out?  This is where I believe professional collaboration is integral.

Initially when we think about collaboration, we envision a teacher in the classroom working jointly with another educator, and for many this concept feels uncomfortable (I would have felt this way as well).  It’s more comfortable to try something new, or have a lesson go sideways when there isn’t a colleague there to see you stumble. A good starting point around the collaboration, however, is to work with the subject’s department members or with the student services department to build your repertoire of resources, particularly for students with learning challenges, as well as students who excel in the subject area.  As I began to really come into my own in the classroom and strive to provide more refined scaffolding, I also noted the extra work involved.  Sure, the payoff was big: classroom management issues were reduced and students were making bigger gains, more readily owning their learning and becoming more successful in my subject area; however, I was providing, not one, but three essay topics to capture a range of learners, I was creating graphic organizers for students to use in breaking down assignments or gathering information and I was hand creating extensive rubrics to provide enhanced feedback on assignments.  It wasn’t until I needed to modify an English course for a student that I reached out for help and, ultimately, began to collaborate with one of my colleagues. 

Professionals Working in Tandem

My student services department head helped me understand that my student’s IQ was at a level where she was not capable of completing the learning outcomes of my English 10 course.  This student was on a track to receive a school leaving certificate and not a Dogwood certificate.  Her behaviour was not an issue and she did not work with an education assistant (EA); in fact, she was sweet, quiet and complied with anything I asked her to do.  I could have handed her a colouring book and instructed her to colour for the duration of the semester and I bet she would have done it; however, that wasn’t modifying my curriculum, it was some form of babysitting and an insult to her time in striving for an education, regardless of it being modified.  The student services teacher helped me create simple goals that fell in line with the goals of the rest of the class.  She gave me a novel at my student’s reading level with questions and supplementary material.  I could use some of it right away, and when I thought we could apply the novel’s content to a version of an assignment the rest of the class worked on, we would do that.  When we studied Shakespeare, I asked the student services department for a simplified version of “Romeo and Juliet” and they provided it.  This was an awesome experience for me, both in making my course relevant and manageable for a student who was modified, but also in how it supported me and opened me to “out of the class” collaboration.

I found myself becoming more willing to work with colleagues to create the resources we needed in order to enhance, adapt and modify the curriculum, and it became more manageable to do.  It was an excellent starting point for which to become more comfortable with in class collaboration and it started with a willingness to set some time aside to talk, face to face, with a colleague who could support me with her specialized knowledge and resource base.

Models of Support: The Possibilities

One of the recent changes to education has involved the introduction of LIF funding.  It’s money provided to each school district and that schools apply for to better integrate and improve the learning of students who might be at risk and/or have learning challenges.  In our school we have teachers freed up during certain blocks to provide support to teachers to meet the needs of all their learners: those requiring adaptations, those requiring a modified curriculum and those who are gifted.  In pockets we see teachers co-teaching and really powerful learning happening for all students within the classroom, but this kind of structure takes time to achieve and requires planning and collegiality in its collaboration model.  Educators are trying new ideas with an eye on managing both the workload of teaching and the complexities of the classroom, but it requires effort and a degree of bravery to step away from what is familiar, take a risk and demonstrate a degree of vulnerability.  So how do we get started?  I think the first step is by sitting down and both reflecting and talking professionally with one another about teaching and learning because the possibilities and rewards are limitless.

Reflection and Professional Resolutions

This past winter holiday saw yet another New Year’s Eve pass me by.  Each year I try to think of some kind of resolution to set for myself in the upcoming year.  It’s usually frivolous (last year I vowed to try every food item on the menu of my local watering hole…fail) and/or pertaining to fitness (stronger arms this year :)), but what’s interesting is that as an educator in the semestered system, we have a second chance at new resolutions just four weeks later. 

As a teacher I both loved and loathed the end of January.  I was trying to finish up my courses, stay on top of my marking, and manage the stragglers who arrived sheepishly to finish up or improve upon their standing by completing or upgrading their assignments.  It took me several years to hone my system so that I didn’t feel as stressed.  I began using January as the time I completed my group based Shakespeare unit; the heavy part of the marking was executed in class, evaluating thought provoking oral presentations and combining the group marks with self and peer evaluations for an individual assessment.  In addition, I had students complete a Shakespeare exam.  These were positive alternatives and it was helpful to figure out that having all of my English classes turn in end of term essays resulted in a stress based time management nightmare for me.  The group presentations and test resulted in a huge improvement to how I felt at the end of the semester.  Every year I would reflect on what I could do differently so that my life had some degree of semester end balance, and students would feel prepared and supported as they completed courses with me.

In addition to refining my end of term practices, I took the opportunity to have my students complete teacher evaluations on me.  It was a nice complement to the goals based response I had them complete at the start of the semester, which was comprised of the following:

  • One of my goals in English this year is…
  • Some of the ways I will work to increase my proficiency in how I communicate are…
  • One career option I may be interested in pursuing is…
  • English/Communication skills I will need to successfully pursue and acquire a position in this career are (describe)…

I wanted to know if the manner in which I had taught them related back to what students wanted to achieve.  I asked them to respond to the following prompts:

  • Do you have a better understanding of the writing process and communication, as a result of what you learned in this course?  Explain.
  • Share a lesson/unit that you found particularly enjoyable.  What did you enjoy about it?  How did it relate to the art of communication and/or your personal goals in the course?
  • Share a lesson/unit that was your least enjoyable.  What was it that you disliked/found challenging about the unit?  What would you suggest to improve the experience?
  • Final Thoughts?  Suggestions?

I set students up to provide constructive feedback by asking them to give me feedback the same way I had given it to them (I have never written, “You suck and so does your writing” on any assignment; I expect that you will be respectful in any critical feedback you provide :)).  I gave them the option of being anonymous; however, most students both identified themselves and took the time to answer each question thoroughly.  This in and of itself was positive, as my mantra in any English class was for students to always support their contentions with evidence.  I found these feedback forms to be invaluable, both for the suggestions offered, as well as the commendations of what I was doing well.  It informed my practice and helped me set goals for the following semester.

It’s funny, I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the power of collaborative teaching and the positive impact the evaluation process can have on teacher performance (those first year evaluations every teacher receives).  But a great starting point in getting comfortable with feedback, both positive and critical, is to turn the spotlight on ourselves and use the audience that has taken in all of our strategies and assessments and made meaning (or not) from them.  Our students are our primary consumer, and while education might be considered essential, there are many ways to deliver it.  Collecting students’ opinions was both rewarding and sometimes humbling for me, but it certainly helped to inform my practice and set goals (or end of January professional resolutions) for the second semester.

As a teacher some of the “resolutions” I created for myself included the understanding that I always be able to respond to the question “Why are we doing this?” with an answer that emphasized relevancy and pertained to students’ lives.  I also resolved that no more than 24 hours would ever pass before the class got back a test (this was a popular one with my students).   

In reflecting back on how I once managed the craziness of January, I have set a goal for myself around communicating with and getting feedback from the departments with which I liaise.  As we ask teachers to consider working together, collaborating and informing their teaching, so should we model transparency and reflection in our leadership. 

Building Connections: Limitless Possibilities

My job as an administrator involves a plethora of roles, responsibilities and activities, but one of my favourite activities is when I get to be involved in stimulating education focused conversations with other educators.  Why?  Because teachers get to float ideas, acquire concepts, talk about what’s working and hone their craft of teaching (I can’t say enough about the incredible skills a master teacher possesses; the most important being their acknowledgment of the need to be a lifelong learner themselves).  And so I began the day in a room with Faye Brownlie and a group of new and seasoned teachers thirsty for professional dialogue and a desire to learn.

The Pre-Discussion

Before the conversation moved into the day’s activities, educators discussed their learning intentions: both on what they had been working and how that had shaped where they wanted to go.  I heard the excitement in one educator’s voice as he shared his success with a formative assessment comic strip he had tried, I heard another sharing the understanding she had developed in using a mind map concept with students so they could demonstrate their understanding of the connections they identified in the math units they had covered; she discovered student misconceptions and worked with them to make corrections and develop a deeper math foundation on which to build.  Another teacher reflected on the learning she had been doing and how she was able to provide mentorship to her student teacher and help her to develop her teacher toolkit.  Where one teacher shared that she was team teaching with a district staff development teacher in the near future, another reflected on her resource role and how the connections she was making would be leading to some school based team teaching (could today lead to more of that?).  Finally, I observed a “talk the talk, walk the walk” moment when a teacher who has been exploring inquiry based models shared how she was implementing the concept in one of her classes and how students were exploring ideas she would never have thought to investigate.

Today’s focus would involve Faye teaching a grade 10 social studies class.  As we debriefed the “shape of the day/period” Faye reinforced the concept that it should always come back to what you want students to know.  The goal of the day was to help students engage with and learn about Canadian history and, specifically, the impact of Louis Riel.  Remember what I said earlier about honing the craft of teaching?  Faye was able to engage with the class and make them buy in, support EAL learners and struggling learners, challenge students adept at higher level thinking, and provide the scaffolding necessary for students to demonstrate their thinking and writing capabilities: the master teacher is a finely tuned profession indeed.

Engaging the Learner

I have recently attended several workshops on social emotional learning.  One aspect that gets highlighted is the role relationships play in students’ learning.  Faye went into the classroom cold and possessing no relationship with the students.  Yet despite a full agenda of activities planned for the period, Faye got the class started by connecting with them about what their weekend plans might be and what activities they enjoyed.  This took a few moments of time before she segued into enquiring what they have been working on for the past week; where they were at using a show of hands, thumbs up etc.; and what opinions their families might have about Louis Riel.  When no one raised their hands about their family having an opinion one way or another, Faye shared how different that would be, even today, in Winnipeg where the “to have a statue, or not have a statue” debate went on for years.  This “modern day” fact provoked several questions from students and primed them for the next activity.

Faye noted that she had heard the students were good participators and explained that they would do a “whip around” where everyone would contribute a different fact about Louis Riel.  She gave them thirty seconds (literally) to discuss in their groups, so they could come up with “back up” facts should theirs be used.

As I watched her facilitate, I realised the activity with which she started the block served two purposes.  She was connecting with students, but she was also figuring out where the student strengths were versus where students requiring more support might be.  She started with a less vocal group and emphasized that they had the easy task of coming up with the first facts.  She ended on a group that was vocal and clearly enjoyed the challenge of coming up with the final facts.  By happenstance, the last contributor brought it back to her introduction by stating, “There was a statue built of Louis Riel in Winnipeg.”

The whip around allowed students to connect with new information they had been examining in preparation for an upcoming trial activity.  Part of the trial involved students researching a variety of people who would appear as witnesses.  Faye explained that they would take five volunteers to represent people they had researched the day before, including Louis Riel.  These volunteers would embody the person they were representing and be in the hot seat; the rest of the class would need to think of good questions that would allow them to add to their research.  The student representing Louis Riel had the audience chuckling and engaged both with his French Canadian accent and his responses; he understood and depicted a leader with ties to his people and strong ideals.  Faye both guided the activity so everyone answered a question, and prompted students to expand on their responses.  The follow up to the hot seat activity had Faye asking students to take out a piece of paper and for two minutes write anything that was an add on to their Louis Riel and/or rebellion knowledge.  I walked around to see students who knew a lot already writing a couple of things down, and other students recording quite a few facts.  In one case, group members were helping one another, but in all cases, students were on task and engaged.

The first part of the period was spent engaging the class in student centered activities that had them acquiring and expanding on their knowledge base, but without something relevant on which to apply these facts, how do students retain their newly acquired knowledge, personalize it, and make meaning from it?

Providing the Tools and Delving Deeper

Faye wrote a statement on the board: Louis Riel is a hero.  She wrote “yes” and “no” underneath it and explained that students would be required to build a Socratic dialogue: they needed to argue both sides.  Whenever they added a piece of evidence to support “yes”, they needed to add a piece of evidence to support “no”.  Students had five minutes to work independently before discussing with a partner to “beg, borrow and steal” more evidence.  As table groups, students had to figure out if they agreed or disagreed with the hero statement and establish their top three reasons for why.  By the time Faye asked students to individually flip their papers and write why Louis Riel is/is not a hero because…and state three reasons to support their argument, the pump had been so well primed that every student was on task, had something to say and did so with authority.  I saw EAL students, gifted students, and behaviour students writing with intention.  Their final task was to hand in their short paragraphs as a ticket out the door.

The End as the Starting Point

If we return to the goal of the lesson – to help students engage with and learn about Canadian history and, specifically, the impact of Louis Riel – did the lesson accomplish what we expected it to?  Yes, absolutely, but moreover

  • students were actively engaged
  • activities gave diverse learners access to information
  • multiple discussions were sparked
  • students connected what they already knew to a new activity/concept
  • students made personal connections to Canadian history
  • students built ownership over their information
  • activities gave students a reason to move from acquiring surface knowledge to building and supporting their opinions

Finally, when we are planning with the end in mind, we can always answer the question, “Why are we doing this?”  In fact, if we can’t, we need to figure out why.  Our staff has been exploring the possibilities project based learning might offer.  I think the concept is one that pushes teachers to step outside of their comfort zone (as a control person, I can empathize) and some see it as being “loose”; however, when we are able to see how powerful the teaching role can be in facilitating learning and engagement, and when we have an eye on what we ultimately want to accomplish, the possibilities for such a concept have the ability to personalize learning for students and be truly rewarding for both teachers and students.

Resiliency (Part II): Fostering Relationships

In August I attended a two day conference entitled “Mental Health in BC Schools” where I listened to Gordon Neufeld speak about resilience (something I have been thinking about a lot when it comes to our students).  I feel like I’ve seen a sharp increase in students who may be struggling with anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and/or lacking the tenacity to be able to see something through when it becomes difficult.    The last group concerns me quite a bit because it’s often made up of high achievers who want to drop courses because they aren’t earning an “A”, or they’re struggling to understand the challenging concepts of an academic course.  I worry that they are going to go on to University and either crash and burn, or develop issues with anxiety when they are managing a demanding semester where they are much smaller fish in a much bigger pond.

Neufeld spoke about resilience as being the ability to return to normal/optimal functioning and to be able to perform/survive in stressful environments.  But he also talked about what optimal functioning looks like: full of play, able to find rest and full of feeling (I alluded to this in more detail in Part I).  He suggested that true play is becoming endangered.  When we reflect on our students – young and old – and their ability to play, we have seen change in recent years.  The Internet has exploded, and where children have more ways of connecting, the connections they create can be empty.  This is not to suggest that technology/the Internet is “bad”, but if play builds our brains, perhaps we, as educators and parents, need to be intentional about the opportunities we provide for true play (which is not work, nor for outcome; it is expressive and exploratory).  But in addition to play, humans are looking for love and affection, belonging and togetherness.

What can stress humans is facing a separation that is too much to bear; one that evokes pursuit, alarm and frustration.  What can happen to students facing this kind of stress is that they will seek to filter out their vulnerable feelings and reattach to their peers (filtering can also mean turning to drugs, bullying, boredom, “stuckness” and aggression).  This is easy to do in a digital playground where the connect has a level of emptiness.  What results are students who, in shielding their vulnerability, experience a loss of empathy.  When Neufeld spoke of these students orbiting around their peers, avoiding vulnerability and the lack of empathy they exhibit, several assortments of students came to mind.  In our school we have students who almost operate as a group.  We worry about these students because they guide one another without the benefit of experience and often lead one another astray.  Where I see us make headway with these students (often young men) is when we work with them one on one and build relationships with them.  What Neufeld expressed was the need to build these strong relationships; what was helpful was how he defined the relationship as it pertains to resiliency.

What renders children resilient is their ability to encounter futility, experience the emotion around it and learn to accept that they cannot change the outcome.  This was an “aha” moment for me (and one every parent should have).  I have a nephew whom I adore; this means he can get away with murder when I’m around.  I hate seeing him upset and my inclination is to try to “fix” whatever issue he might be having, whether it’s getting another treat, playing with a coveted toy or simply getting his own way.  For me, I want to see his tears dry up, the twinkle return to his eye and hear joy conveyed in his giggles.  However, even in those simple situations, I am denying my nephew the ability to encounter futility, experience the emotion and learn to accept the outcome.  This doesn’t mean I can’t support him through the turmoil of what he’s upset about; in fact, a strong emotional connection with a caring adult where he feels safe is how to effectively shield children’s hearts.  It means they can feel the sadness in that moment of futility and adversity without learning to shut down their ability to feel vulnerable, to feel emotion.  Kids – our students – need to have those attachments to adults where they feel safe because the adversity they face becomes much more complex than not getting to play with a certain toy; resiliency is developmental.

It is well documented that students who have a positive connect with one or more adults in the building experience more success.  As educators (and as parents) we need to strive to build a culture of attachment; we need to seek to build students’ trust.  So how do we do this?  Students seek to belong, to be like those with whom they seek to attach.  I see this in my nephew (who’s two and a half).  He loves to act like those to whom he looks up (yup, among other adults, that’s me).  He copies what I say, my mannerisms and he tries to do the actions I do.  As his family members, we have been engaging and cultivating his attachment instincts (it starts with the senses, then it’s about sameness, then belonging and loyalty, next the person becomes significant and then it’s about expressing love).  With my nephew it feels easy to cultivate this kind of attachment, not only because he’s my flesh and blood, but because he’s in the developmental stages of building his attachments.  The bigger question is how we can seek to cultivate trusting relationships with our students.

We need to start by engaging the attachment instincts; this can simply be through way of a greeting (eye contact, a smile, a nod).  I work with a group of care and concern students.  Part of what I seek to do by meeting with them regularly is to allow a relationship to start.  I can celebrate their successes and help them to reflect on what may not be going well.  But I can also have conversations about their hobbies and interests, their weekends, the things we might have in common.  What I have observed is how these relationships positively impact our ability to get through challenging circumstances.  I can discipline a student and because of the relationship, I can support them through the process.  Neufeld shared that if you have a few students who are attached to you in your class, that’s all the help you’ll need.  I don’t have a classroom, but I’ve seen how students who are attached to me will put peer pressure on their group of friends if their friends are being non-compliant or rude.  They work with me in the face of adversity and will seek me out when attempting to solve challenges they may be facing.  But I also know my limitations; not every “care and concern” student attaches to me.  However, if we can seek to create a culture of connectedness (or a village of attachment) we increase the likelihood that students make the attachment to someone.

So what does all this mean in the quest to build resiliency in our students?  Well, we know what kinds of pressures kids are facing.  We know that encountering challenges and overcoming them builds character and resilience.  We know that facing failure/adversity/discomfort is better managed when students have positive outlets/connections/relationships.  I think it means we need to be intentional about building relationships and cultivating a culture of attachment, and we need to protect and preserve those relationships.  It’s a tough thing to resist the urge to “make it all better” for my nephew and for my students; I don’t want to see either of them in pain.  However, the ability to release their grief/loss/feeling of futility also leads to rest, relief and recalibration.  Instead of feeling powerless and drawn to ways of avoiding vulnerability, we can foster the ability to help them get through it and manage it by providing a sense of safety.

 I remember a few years ago finding indisputable evidence that one of my students had desecrated a washroom with flagrant graffiti.  We had been working together for two years and had built up a positive relationship.  I couldn’t tell him that everything was going to be okay, but I did tell him (and I do this regularly) that he and I were still on good terms.  It was his actions I didn’t like, but it had not changed how I felt about him.  At first he was in denial, but eventually he got to the place of futility and tears slid down his face.  He was embarrassed by what he had done and wanted to fix it – Please, Ms. Close, please, let me go and paint it!   But I couldn’t let him paint it for a variety of reasons.  What I did do was let his parents know in a way where he could still feel supported.  I suspended him for two days, but more importantly, I worked with the theatre department to facilitate several jobs he did for them to make restitution.  In providing him with an opportunity to do something positive, it helped him to restore his character both in his own eyes and in the eyes of those whom he had hurt.  I felt like I had metaphorically put my arms around him in support so that he could live in that tough moment and be both restored and return to optimal functioning.  When I spoke with him a few weeks later and gave him positive feedback from the theatre about the help he had provided, he looked gratified.

As a vice principal I get those opportunities to work with some of our more vulnerable youth, but where I see the challenge is for those students who never get “sent” to my office, who don’t get into trouble, who do well in school.  When they first encounter a challenge that feels insurmountable (a difficult math class, a challenging semester, a high stakes test etc.) who are they turning to for the support they will require to live in that uncomfortable moment and build their capacity for resiliency?  I have been fortunate to have witnessed strong pockets of support and relationship building through cohort based courses and programs; perhaps these might be the villages on which we, as educators, build.  But if nothing else, we can start with a smile, a nod, an acknowledgement and see what it fosters.   

 

Resiliency (Part I): The Personal Journey

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The last three months of the 2012/2013 school year were especially trying ones for me.  The challenges they presented by way of student based mental health issues had me questioning my capabilities, but, more importantly, they had me metaphorically turtling in an effort to protect what the challenges were doing to the very core of my being.  I began to refer to the rational and irrational angel and devil sitting on my two shoulders.  The rational me knew that I was following protocols, caring for my students and enlisting the aid of support services that were equipped to handle the challenges we were attempting to manage.  The irrational me questioned my capabilities as a leader and educator; it was disconcerting because a lot of my identity is immersed in who I am as a professional.  I was carrying an emotional burden and simultaneously questioning my entire identity.  June allowed me to crawl across the finish line and take the time to look inward.  I booked a flight to Bali – no, not to “eat, pray, love” – but to get a part of myself back that I felt I had lost.

For three weeks I got to be Janine the traveler.  Sure, I told people what I did professionally when asked, but I got up each day and explored museums and galleries, shopped little crafts based stores, snorkeled, surfed, swam, lay on the beach, met new people from around the world and indulged in the culture.  I said, to hell with my low carb way of life and ate plates of Mei Goreng and sipped frosty Bintang lagers.  I walked, indulged in massages, and observed a culture of people that consistently greeted me with a welcoming smile.

I didn’t know quite what changed for me during that trip.  I knew I felt more relaxed and rejuvenated; in fact, I felt whole again.  But I couldn’t explain exactly how it had happened until I attended the “Promoting Mental Health in BC Schools” two day workshop at the end of August.  More specifically, Gordon Neufeld’s Resilience and Relationship spoke to me both personally and professionally.

When Neufeld spoke about connectedness and relationship, I identified knowing it’s been an important way I work with kids, both as a teacher and as an administrator.  But I was curious about the resiliency piece.  It seems we are working with more and more students who struggle with the ability to manage a tough situation or challenge (friendship breakdowns, a demanding course, not making a team etc.).  He spoke about resilience as the ability to perform/survive in stressful environments and return to normal/optimal functioning.  But what struck me was when he delved into what optional functioning looks like: it’s to be full of play AND able to find rest AND full of feeling (feeling one’s tender and most vulnerable emotions).  Neufeld dissected the term “play” and referred to true play as both spontaneous activity and the act of moving or operating freely in a bounded space.  It’s neither work nor is it for outcome; it is simply expressive and exploratory.

As Neufeld delved deeper into the importance of relationships and explored resiliency as it pertains to our students, I was struck by what had happened to me this past summer.  I played.  I rested.  I felt (but in a more manageable way).  I guess what struck me is how important it is to either separate ourselves from what we do, or manage our capabilities for play, rest and feelings in moments when what we do gets really difficult.  At the end of the day, during a crisis of confidence in an emotionally trying time, honouring the act of play, rest and feeling was what restored me and readied me for all that will come my way in the upcoming school year.  My capacity for resiliency has been restored.  And, in speaking frankly, I think I want to work at further developing, honouring and separating “Janine the person” from “Janine the professional” (even though my career is still so much a part of who I am).  So, I’m planning my next trip and looking forward to seeking opportunities in day to day life to “play”.

Finding Finesse with Faye: Honing the Craft of Teaching through Observation

Last month Centennial teachers had the unique pleasure of working with Faye Brownlie in Centennial classrooms.  What was so fantastic was the fact that Faye wasn’t simply sharing her expertise in a workshop, she was demonstrating her expertise in various different subject areas and at various different grade levels in our school.

We used our tutorial time to meet with Faye and discuss what teachers wanted to see in the demo classrooms and what teachers who were observing wanted to get out of the day.  “How do we teach more effectively in light of all the ‘stuff’?” was one question that was asked.  Faye articulated the question of how we teach to different readers in different content areas.  She informed us that while few kids by grade six were not readers, there were kids who were not understanding.  They could decode, but not comprehend.  In light of the fact that two of the day’s demo lessons were in science classrooms, it became abundantly clear that the act of reading AND understanding was important regardless of the subject area.

A Morning in the Sciences

The first classroom the eleven teachers and I were going to observe was a Science 9 classroom.  Students would be introduced to the topic of mitosis.  Faye had spoken earlier about using a few key purposeful strategies, not a whole bunch.  She brought students together and asked them first, how many felt they were a five out of five on understanding the previous unit (DNA).  A few students raised their hands; more committed to being threes and fours.  She then asked them to do a 90 second write to summarize their understanding of DNA.  I was in and out at the start of the lesson, but I observed how Faye used images to get feedback on what the new topic, mitosis, might be about.  She had all students participating in asking questions about the images, turning to partners and asking questions, speaking to one another about how four images might connect and then she asked them “agree/disagree” statements, including one stating, “60% of dust is skin cells”.  The correct statement was actually 70% and she went on to titillate students with the implications of the statement when they were cleaning up dust balls…yuck.  As Faye was regrouping the students into groups of four and handing out new vocabulary to put into possible categories to essentially start “playing” with, the teacher whose class she was “borrowing” leaned over to me and said, “This is good stuff and I can see doing some of it – the transitions are great – but I can’t do ALL of this!”

I took him back to Faye’s words earlier: use a few key purposeful strategies, not a whole bunch.  Faye was seamlessly taking us through a range of strategies to use in the introduction of a new unit, and taking one or two ideas to own in our classrooms was what it was about.  Ask yourself, is this better than something else?  If it’s not (Faye explained in our conference), I’m too busy.  If it is, then it’s valuable.  It’s about making learning more effective.  In leaving that grade nine science class and heading to a grade twelve chemistry class down the hallway, I had much on which to reflect.  I looked forward to watching how Faye would essentially be team teaching with one of Centennial’s own talents.

I must admit the information on buffers was pretty advanced (a little beyond my understanding of chemistry :)).  What was intriguing was the way the teacher would take students through chunks of information and Faye would take students through processing the chunks.  She asked pairs of students to look at the text; one would be the coach and one would explain the information.  In other words, one would read half of the info and explain it (without simply reading it) to their partner, pushing the comprehension instead of the decoding.  The coach would seek to understand and ask clarifying questions.  It forced students to seek purpose, define the meaning and it gave students more time to ask clarifying questions and talk about the curriculum.  When debriefing, Faye mentioned the three students who asked questions throughout the lesson.  It’s not about them being a class of three, so by forcing the students to dialogue in partners, the ownership shifts so that the class owns the content and asks their own questions, rather than allowing three students to shape the direction of a lesson.  Faye observed a student who was explaining the concept to another student.  Do you understand it? one student asked another.  I don’t think so, was the reply, so the student said, “I’ll tell you again.”  With understanding, the student replied, “Do you mean…”  This student might have passively allowed a concept to remain outside of her grasp, but the ownership in the partner talk forced her to get there and make meaning of the content.

The First Debrief

When debriefing the lesson, the question arose that many teachers ask:  How do we balance dense curriculum with the addition of student interaction and still get through the entire course?  One suggestion Faye offered was to be more interactive during important elements of the curriculum (building blocks) and be more teacher directed for the less important pieces (or parts that can be figured out by understanding the building blocks).

We debriefed the first two lessons with great nuggets of information coming from the discussion.

  • Tell me what you know about ____.  Listen to see if there is misinformation/accurate info to guide where you go.
  • Make overt ties to where students want to go.  If university, then explain the benefit to using a strategy: How will this help me do better?
  • The social responsibility piece (jot down questions, stay engaged).
  • Ask the question:  What do you know about yourself as a learner?

An Afternoon of History

The afternoon session took place in a History 12 classroom.  Faye explained to students how, statistically, they may be good at writing, but they are lacking in their ability to write persuasively.  She explained how students need to be better at justifying themselves; a real life skill that serves them well in many capacities.  To further enhance the “real life” connection, students were introduced to various primary documents after first discussing the definition of “primary document”.  Students were given several tasks to accomplish in conjunction with a collection of twelve primary documents.  They needed to determine the point of view from which the document was written, and if there was bias.  In other words, was each document trustworthy/reliable?

With a time limit, students were told to go through all twelve documents and determine who was speaking, whether each document was pro/con for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, and to choose a summary statement/big idea and write it in the margin.  While the class quieted down with students getting their work underway, Faye did not sit down, but moved around quietly speaking to students, asking questions and observing.  When students had completed the task, Faye asked that they compile a list of BOTH the pros and the cons for dropping the bomb; they had one minute to compile equal lists (six pros and six cons).  She explained that equal lists meant thinking about the points for an argument as well as the counterpoints that might be made.

Students then began working in small groups where one person would present a point and the others would argue the point.  The primary person would then have an opportunity to argue back.  What students needed to decide were justified reasons versus non-justified reasons.  Faye pulled the class back together to provide examples of justified and non-justified reasons: ie. If the country has no resources, it’s not justified, but if that country is stealing other countries’ resources, this provides justification.  Students provided the Truman statement that women and children would not be harmed (justified) but the bomb’s effects spread miles (the “not justified” part of the argument).

The group of four had to decide whether they wanted to take the pro bomb or con bomb argument and think about the counter argument in preparing for their writing.  Faye suggested that they argue from a different perspective to stretch their thinking (better for the brain) and avoid simply agreeing.  It was so fun to wander the class and listen to students vehemently arguing for or against the position.  Interestingly, there was a student who, earlier in the lesson, made a sarcastic remark (oh, joy) when he discovered they were expected to read all twelve documents, yet he was one of the most engaged and passionate debaters.  In speaking with the group, I discovered that while he was arguing in favour of dropping the bomb, he was going to write from the “anti-bomb” perspective.  He was simply engaged in the process of building the counter argument and pushing his own thinking…wow, powerful learning!

Faye went on to have the class share reasons and begin compiling the references for the evidence.  Students underlined the evidence/reference and it was clear that the prep work would result in elevated writing that would contain support data on a well thought through position.

The Second Debrief

The first question that arose in the teacher-based second debrief was how Faye would assess the History 12 lesson.  Faye explained that if the teacher required three or four points and evidence to support each point, she would ask that students number their points and underline the evidence.  That way, it would stand out when evaluating.  She also spoke about the importance of arguing both sides of an argument and then taking a stand; otherwise, students would be inclined to form opinions too quickly and we want the “brain stretch”.  She also spoke of doing this kind of activity three times and allowing students to choose which one she would evaluate.

I felt like after we debriefed the lesson we moved on to “picking” Faye’s brain for different ways of pushing students’ thinking.  Brief ideas that were mined:

  • Put up a statement.  Ask, is this legit?  If the answer is yes, why?  If the answer is no, how do we make it better?
  • The “hot seat” idea.  Have twelve students represent one article each of the twelve.  Have them speak to the class in their role to convince the audience.  The rest of the class/audience is interviewing.  The twelve must mine the article to answer, what am I going to say?  What is my perspective?  What might the class ask?
  • When creating any lesson, ask yourself, is this changing what students know?  Is it deepening their understanding?  If it’s not, why do it?
  • Use strategies that will get kids purposefully talking.
  • Learning happens when you’re building understanding/interacting/working with material
  • Do quick things and move around.  Ask, how do I use my time effectively?  Share the accountability with students.
  • Regarding a flipped classroom, learning comes from the interaction, not from the videos.  Videos are 10 – 15 minutes.
  • Have check points with larger assignments.  Don’t wait until it’s all done to have one deadline.  It’s about all the learning along the way and checkpoints allow the teacher to “check” for learning.
  • Alternate assignments are about meeting the same outcomes, but in a different way.

The Understanding I Took Away from the Day

The opportunity to observe Faye demonstrating strategies in various classrooms was an incredibly valuable experience.  Not only could teachers take new ideas and strategies they could see firsthand and apply them, but there was the opportunity for rich discussion and the ability to seek clarity and build from what was observed.

There was something else that jumped out at me and took me back to when I was teaching in the classroom.  There are many brilliant people in the world who – truly – have incredible, subject specific knowledge bases.  The pools of knowledge are deep and full of richness, but having deep knowledge is less than half of what teaching is all about.  Teaching is the manner in which the knowledge is conveyed to students, and the ability to maintain engagement is one of the biggest keys.

Even the best teacher has had one of those days where they walk into the classroom knowing they have a couple of emails to send out, an assignment to tweak and endless marking.  Sometimes it’s tempting to explain to students that they will be working on an assignment for the next thirty minutes and, instead of circulating and working with students, trying to complete those emails and tasks.  I well remember how different those days were from the days when I was fully engaged with my students for the duration of the class.  When I watched Faye providing tightly timed segments of group activity intermixed with whole class discussion and small assignments, I was seeing a class of students that was engaged, on task and learning.  In addition, I was seeing learning facilitated by a teacher, and students motivated, engaged and closer to owning their learning.

It is this kind of teaching that is intentional, strategy based and has an end in mind that is the demonstration of why the art of teaching truly is a gift, and the profession of teachers one to be revered.  What a blessing it is that good teachers have the ability to collaborate, observe, reflect and hone the craft that is their profession.

Teachers Mentoring Teachers: Powerful Professional Development

Today I had the opportunity to observe a teacher using formative assessment in the classroom.  You’re probably thinking that’s something fairly ordinary to see; however, today I was seeing teacher directed professional development at its finest.  Why?  Well, the teacher I was observing was also being observed by a new teacher.  Michelle Ciolfitto works as a district learning support teacher who will come into different schools and work with teachers who may be new or wanting to try something new.  She worked to create a lesson focussing on a learning outcome that built on what students had previously been learning.  I wanted to share what I observed today.

Michelle addressed the “why are we learning this?” question right at the start of the lesson and wrote the day’s goal (or learning intention) on the board: You should be able to write simple ionic compounds at the end of this lesson.  To clarify, she had students define ionic (charge) and compound (two or more) which was great for me because I haven’t taken a science course since high school.  She then handed out manipulatives that would allow students to take an abstract concept and make more meaning from it.  Michelle provided students with a simple concept to complete using the manipulatives and began circulating the room and giving feedback when they completed the question.  I looked around the classroom and it seemed that each pair was actively engaged in the activity.  When Michelle randomly asked a pair to share their answer, they were a little bit unsure, and they had been a little less engaged.  When the pair realised they might be asked to contribute randomly, they were fully engaged during the next example, raising their hands to contribute.

Students seemed excited by what they were doing and eager to contribute when they felt they had the correct answer.  At one point, as the compound questions became more difficult, Michelle had groups who really understood explain to students who “sort of” understood.  She went on to teach a new component to the lesson: the name change.  She built the connection by explaining that the metals (like “m” men) were married to the non-metals.  In keeping with a traditional union, the non-metal, like a woman, would experience a name change with an ending of “ide”.  The example took something with which they were familiar to help explain a new concept (aluminum oxygen, when united became aluminum oxide).  In addition, Michelle referred to the number placement at the bottom of each element.  She repeated this component very intentionally (let me say this a fourth time) so that they were aware of the new info and heard it being stated several different ways.

Finally, she took the concept with which they were working and provided a “super challenge”.  They needed to take what they knew and apply it to a question that forced them to take a small leap with the concept.  One group eventually figured it out, and what I enjoyed watching was how engaged and eager students were to “discover” the solution to the conundrum.  In fact, I went over to one of the pairs finding it to be a challenge.  As the non-science teacher, I thought I might know what to do so the ions matched up evenly.  I asked whether there could be two aluminums (with three ions) and three oxygens (with two ions) which would allow all the ions to match up (three times two aluminums and two times three oxygens or six ions each).  The boys’ eyes lit up as they realised this might work.  In fact, I was excited that I had made the leap as well🙂.  I was disappointed to have to leave before the very end of the lesson, as I felt I was finally starting to understand some science, but I had another appointment to attend.

What I had the opportunity to do was watch an experienced teacher use formative assessment in a real situation (and so did the new teacher, who can take from the lesson new concepts and skills to use in teaching).  Not only that, but the two teachers will continue to work together, with the new teacher perhaps using some of what she saw while being observed or while team teaching.  I guess what I enjoyed was seeing teachers working together on “real situation” professional development.  We attend workshops and keynotes that often inspire us and allow us to think about the possibilities, but we don’t always get to put those possibilities into practice before some of what was learned gets lost.  It’s truly rich to see what can be accomplished through working together (seasoned and newbie teachers alike).

Strategies/Concepts I Observed:

  • The clarity students have when the learning intention/class goal is clearly articulated.  Today we are learning about ______.  I will know that I learned _________ if I can do __________.
  • The power of manipulatives to explain an abstract concept to learners (and engage the tactile learner).
  • Creating student ownership by making it clear that they will need to be able to answer questions posed by the teacher (the teacher won’t be asking only those with their hands up).
  • Peer to peer instruction: another way to assess, another way to get feedback.
  • Relating new information to a concept students readily understand: building connections.
  • Using intentional repetition to highlight important information to build understanding.
  • Pushing students’ thinking by applying what they know to new situations.  Resist giving them the answer; let them get there independently (even though I inadvertently gave a pair the answer in trying to stretch my own understanding :)).

I’m hopeful that in reading this article teachers either think, “Hey, I kind of liked a couple of those strategies; I might try that some time”, or they think, “I never thought of using a district resource teacher in that way.  I’d like to connect with someone like Michelle and try something like that”, or they might even think, “That’s something I’d like to try with another colleague in the building.”

We have Faye Brownlie coming to our building to be in classrooms and provide that “real situation” professional development.  It seems that, in teaching, there is never a non-busy time, but I encourage teachers to jump at chances for those “in the classroom” pro-d experiences; it will enhance your ability to be intentional as a teacher.

Technology Fear Mongering: Educational Leadership?

I opened up my Fall 2012 CAP Journal to see if there were any articles of interest.  I came across an article titled, “Secondary School Students and Social Media Sites: Red Flags”.  The words “Red Flags” were bold typed and much larger than the rest of the title.  As we have been exploring the positive uses of social media as a learning tool and for personal reflection, I was interested in the advice the article might provide; however, I was disappointed to find that the article seemed to be more about fear mongering than it was about “harnessing” student interest.

It reminded me a little bit of the “PE teacher talks about sex” parodies depicted in movies such as “Mean Girls”: If you do it, you’ll get chlamydia and die…here are some condoms.  The message is meant to “scare” kids away from engaging in sexual situations, and the ineffective bandaid is to randomly hand out some condoms.  The article in question contended that “social and academic performance is impacted by cyber-bullying, with the attending behaviours of truancy, cheating at school, substance abuse, assaulting others, damaging property and carrying a weapon” (Zenisek, 26).  Umm, really?  So we’re blaming all bad teen behaviours on the evils of social media and texting?

I think what bothered me the most was that I continued to read the article in hopes that there would be helpful strategies for engaging in conversations, and lessons for using social media more effectively and for educational purposes; however, it wasn’t until the last paragraph that the article alluded broadly to “educating the students, parents, and education professionals on how to use the internet safely” because “the potential benefits of interactive technology outweigh the risks” (Zenisek, 27).  I felt as though I had caught a random condom in mid-flight.

As an educational leader who is working to take some risks and engage in better understanding the positive ways technology can be used to enhance teaching, learning and reflecting, I read that kind of article and it heightens my fears around how to support students navigating the technological “brave, new world”.  I can’t help but wonder what this type of article does for the educational leaders who feel less supported in navigating technology.  There are some trains of thought that we need to make certain sites less available to students when they are at school, which seems like the type of reaction an article like this one might illicit.

Like with topics such as sexual health, I think we, as educational leaders, need to look at ways to educate students so that they have good information to make well informed decisions about what they are doing, for example, online.  Articles that teach me about how to include parents in discussing technology education and the internet footprints students are leaving, interest me far more than fear mongering.

Finally, the reality about an article that focuses almost exclusively on the negatives of students engaging with technology, fuels the arguments of teachers who are resistant to providing opportunities for students to interact with technology in the classroom.  At the end of the day, technology is very much a part of the world students are entering.  If we want them to find relevancy in what they learn we need to teach them how it applies to their world.  Fortunately, I am reading the tweets and blog entries of leaders and educators sharing their ideas and leading the way; hopefully CAP Journal begins showcasing such articles in their pages, too.

Communicating with Parents: The Parent Teacher Interview

I remember the first time I was getting ready for parent teacher interviews and how nervous I was…and rightfully so.  The teacher I was replacing had tragically died from complications due to pneumonia and the administrator had already delayed the reports going out while he had been sick.  I had literally been the students’ teacher for three weeks and I had to write report cards using mostly someone else’s data.  My big question was, “How do I defend the data if a parent challenges me?”  In looking back, I wish I had a little more support in creating those reports and preparing for interviews.  However, I was lucky; the parents treated me kindly and there were no real challenges.  But the question remains, how do educators prepare to have meaningful, constructive parent/teacher interactions?

First, there is the report card.  Many teachers use this as a first opportunity to make contact.  With students who are strong and handling the material well, this is very appropriate; however, if students are struggling or “in progress”, a more personal contact may be appreciated.  I have always been a believer that making a call or having a meeting is the more appropriate way to communicate bad news.  Remember, the student is their child and your news may affect them in a personal way.  Having received a disappointing email recently, I know that I, too, would have appreciated a more personal delivery.

The “bad news” call is a difficult one to make because, unlike email, you are thinking and communicating “in the moment”.  For some, this can be nerve wracking, but there truly are benefits.  Have a plan of what you need to communicate before making the call and focus on a couple of really important points that may serve to get the student back on track.  Focus on the learning outcomes not being met, or the behaviours that might be preventing the student from being as successful as they could be.  I make A LOT of calls to parents because of the nature of my job as an administrator.  I often start by saying, “I wanted you to be in the loop about what is happening with blank right now and I’m hoping we can work together to support blank.”  I find that if parents feel like they are working with you, they are less likely to get to a defensive place.  In addition, I make known what my intentions are in helping their child.  This might be working with the child after school or during tutorial, but I ask the parent to help me by reinforcing the message.  The positive part about making these calls, is that it takes the sting out of the report card, provides the parent with the information in a way that allows them to work to be part of the solution earlier in the semester, and it may allow for more succinct and focussed interviews.

In high school, the report card provides information about the student’s current academic standing (letter grade), a couple of comments, their attendance/lates and SOMETIMES a work habit mark (G, S, N).  I say “sometimes” because, while I know many high schools use them, all three of the high schools I have worked at do not.  It means that the comments section becomes important in conveying both a comment on students’ work habits (often more informative than the G, S or N, which can be interpreted in many different ways) and a comment on student performance.  One additional comment might be to emphasize what the student can do to improve and/or grow.

Imagine, now you are having parent/teacher interviews and the parents of students you probably most want to see have received personal contact from you and a formal report card.  The conversations will be far different than if the only communication MAY have been a report card (if their child brought it home).

The “Parent/Teacher Interview Evening” arrives, so how do you prepare for it?  First, have an up-to-date printout of students’ marks.  You may already know which parents are showing up, but, inevitably, someone will pop by your table and it’s helpful to have the information at your fingertips.  You will, presumably, have a list of the students whose parents will be attending.  To prepare, have personal printouts of their progress and a breakdown of the summative assessments.  Samples of the student’s work can be helpful in looking at what’s going well and where improvements could be made.  Having your course outline can also be helpful in discussing which learning outcome(s) are covered by each assignment.  If students are not yet meeting expectations, this is an excellent opportunity to take them through the “I” plan to discuss what their child will need to do to meet the learning outcomes they have not yet demonstrated.  This is also an excellent opportunity to develop a plan for the semester.  Will you correspond via email?  Telephone?  Will you update parents weekly?  Before or after a major assignment/test?  When you develop a plan, you might also suggest that, if there continues to be challenges, the counselor and/or vice principal could be involved to provide additional support.

Now you have the information and organisation to have a productive interview, and for 99% of your conferences this will result in positive interactions, a sense of working together and the possibility of students improving in your classroom.  There are a few occasions, however, that can be a challenge.  First, there is the parent who wants to talk far longer than the ten minutes they have (I must admit, I was not the greatest at cutting meetings short).  Have a plan, take their info and suggest a follow up call or email correspondence.  One teacher suggested that I needed to look for an opportunity to stand and shake their hand (in turn, they would stand as well…it sounds like it would work well :)).  The thing I needed to get my head around was the fact that I needed to respect both the parent sitting in front of me, as well as the parents in the line-up growing behind them.

Second, there is the parent who wants to talk about why you are doing a certain activity, strategy etc. in the classroom.  It is easy to get defensive if you feel that what you are doing is being questioned; however, this is an opportunity to talk about what you are doing and why.  Remember when I wrote about the “relevancy” part of teaching?  You should always be able to answer the question, “Why are we doing this?”  If a parent asks, it may be so that they better understand your program and how they can help.  If you feel that the parent is looking for something different than clarity, it may be helpful to suggest that you meet with them at a later date when the department head can attend (or an administrator, if you think this would help).  Your DH and administration are there to support you and can help if/when a meeting is challenging.

Parent/teacher interviews can be a fabulous opportunity to connect with parents, share triumphs and work together on student performance.  You will find, once again, that you’ll meet with numerous parents whose kids are doing great in your class.  These can be really fun meetings as they are celebratory in nature, so here’s the challenge: suggest ways that parents can help/inspire students to take their learning to the next level.  After all, no matter who we are, we can always do better.

Finally, remember how much fun it is to celebrate with the students, and parents of students, who are doing well.  Keep it in mind when there are small celebrations with your students who are struggling.  I work with a group of “care and concern” students.  These are students who could be more successful for whatever reason.  Last week I had the privilege of calling five of their parents to say either that their attendance had radically improved, they were no longer arriving late, and/or their marks had significantly improved.  It was so much fun to hear the “oh great, I know it’s the school because of call display; what is it now” tone disappear and be replaced by a relaxed, sometimes joyful tone.  Sharing successes with the parent helps me to further foster our relationship, which allows for better conversations when challenges do arise.

My challenge to you?  Always make your first “bad news” contact via the telephone or face to face.  But my other challenge?  Try to make a few of those positive calls over the semester, if for no other reason than to put a smile on your own face (I know that making those five calls made my week and warmed my heart :)).

I’m happy to hear from those of you who might have their own formulas for success in parent/teacher interviews; feel free to contribute.

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