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.