Just Say No To Final Exams

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I have a number of people in my PLN that have helped open my eyes and change my way of thinking on many topics. When it comes to the topic of assessment and testing, Joe Bower has had a big impact on me. Joe’s posts like this, this and this have helped me see the error of our traditional ways. I am not suggesting I have revamped everything in my classroom or my school, but I am convinced, and will look for ways to improve my assessment practices.

Looking back, I always thought that changing my assessment practices would be very difficult. I attended conferences and heard about different ways of assessing student understanding and development, but I also thought a lot of it was idealistic. The concept of project based learning, portfolio presentations or journaling in place of multiple choice testing is of course very exciting, but would students accept these forms of assessment? How hard would it be to set up? How would the parents react? I really felt like this would be something I might try down the road but maybe not soon.

Well today one of the teachers in my building showed me just how wrong I was. Landon is a bright, motivated and enthusiastic 2nd year teacher in our building. Last week as we were planning for our final weeks of school he mentioned that he wasn’t actually having a final exam, but rather a final project. Pretty ambitious I thought, but I was also very interested to see how it went. Well today was the day and about an hour into our morning I received an email from Landon telling me to pop down to his class in about an hour to see the students’ completed work. After an hour I walked down to his classroom and when I walked in I saw his kids all buzzing around and working diligently at their stations. They had produced prezi’s to show the plot line of their novel study. The information in their prezis was organized to mirror the rising action and climax of the plot, so when you looked at the whole thing, it looked exactly like a plot diagram. It was great! I was then called over to see one particular student’s work. She is a great kid and has a lot going for her, but she has had some difficulties over the course of the year and I have had the chance to talk with her on a few occasions in settings not nearly as pleasant as this one. As she showed me her prezi, she was beaming, and it was very clear she was proud of the work she had done. It was a sentiment shared by many in the room. I can’t imagine the same feelings would have existed had Landon simply used a multiple choice final exam.

In that 15 minutes I spent in his classroom, I quickly saw that all my concerns and apprehensions about changing my assessment practices were silly. This clearly had taken no longer to set up than writing a 100 question multiple choice test would. His students were excited and engaged, and they created great work that showed their understanding and all that they have learned in his class. I can’t imagine any parent, teacher, or administrator would have argued that this assessment wasn’t effective.

To be honest, I was motivated to write this post partly out of the insight it provided me and partly because of how proud I am of Landon and the work he is doing in our building. Regardless, Landon’s final project for his class should be an example to all of us that change doesn’t always have to be difficult, time consuming or slow. If you can do what’s right for kids, and can make it work for you in your classroom, then what is to stop you? We can all bounce around great articles on the problems with standardized tests, but its going to take people standing up and making change happen. If you want to get rid of these less effective ways of assessment, then just say no, and do something about it. Landon has motivated me to try and make change in my practice when I return to the classroom this fall, I hope he pushes you to do the same.

Self Directed Learning

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Ok, most of the time I write a post, I feel like I know something about the topic and can talk confidently about it. For this post, I am entering an area I don’t have a great deal of knowledge of or experience in. When it comes to self directed learning, I have discussed it with colleagues and I have read blog posts and articles about it, but I really am just starting to become familiar with the concept in the contemporary sense. I am intrigued by it, and excited about incorporating it more and more in my classroom, but I have a lot of questions.

It seems like this concept is always tied to posts and articles about technology, but I don’t think self directed learning NEEDS technology to happen. Self directed learning by definition:

“In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (M. Knowles, Principles of Androgogy, 1972)

Obviously when this definition was crafted, no one was talking about how Google, Wikipedia, Twitter or Khan Academy could help us towards a more self directed program for our students.

So as I sat in our technology meeting today, I thought about how I would break down the goals of self directed learning as a developing process in my classroom. I thought about how the goals should not mention technology, but can definitely utilize technology as a tool to make a shift occur. So if I take technology out of the equation, I came up with the three goals I would have for my students, as I push them towards self directed learning.

1. Choice – I am going to have to start with providing them more opportunity for choice. By providing them with choices, I will help them realize that they can play a role in shaping their education. The inherent sense of control that comes with choice should show them the role they can play. The hope would be that with choice comes buy-in, and a more dedicated effort towards learning.

2. Motivation – The more control I start to pass on to my students, the more likely they will be motivated to participate in the learning process. By handing over control to the students more and more often, I would pursue a transformation in the way they viewed the way they learn. This will definitely be a difficult process, as I will need to provide opportunities for this to occur. My lessons will need to provoke thought, create curiosity and inspire inquiry.

3. Ownership – In the end, I would want the learning process to be entirely in the hands of each student. 12 months a year, all waking hours of the day, anywhere in the world, I want my students to own their learning and not have to wait for a school, a teacher or a parent to provide that opportunity. We all want our students to be able to learn without us involved.

So as I thought up these three goals for my own planning, our presenter put up a slide in her presentation that listed three goals for technology planning in our school division. They were…

Enable – Engage – Empower

I immediately went back to my list and thought about how my three goals compare to these three goals.

Enable/Choice – Engage/Motivate – Empower/Ownership

I was pleased to see that there was some similarity between them, I am hoping it means I am on the right track.

When it comes to making a significant change in education, I think it is easy to get excited and rush into it, especially if it involves technology. I know I am guilty of seeing the iPad and just assuming it would be the greatest educational tool imaginable. I believe it is important to plan for the “Why” before you start to think about the “How”. I have no doubt that technology will help make self directed learning achievable, but technology isn’t the reason self directed learning is a good idea. I want to work towards self directed learning with my students to achieve the goals I talked about.

As I said, this is not an area I am overly confident in, but it is an area I am very interested in. What are your thoughts on empowering our students to be more self directed in their learning? Are these goals on the right track? Is technology necessary for this to occur? Let me know what you think.

A Need To Be Inspired

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I am not having a very good day. In fact, I am having a very bad day. I am worn down, I have no energy, I am frustrated, anxious and a little down. Its one of those days where I wonder what I am doing? I start to think my time would be better spent working in another area, in another capacity. Its a massive pity party of one, I am no fun to be around and I feel for my students and staff today.

Why am I like this? Its been a long week. Both personally and professionally, and I am ashamed to say the pain caused by a silly hockey game cut very deep. On top of the many responsibilities that come with the end of the year for an assistant principal, I have a number of issues going on with my new coaching job, my wife and I are trying to find and purchase our first house and I am having trouble dealing with it all. I am trying very hard not to let it affect my work. My students and colleagues don’t deserve anything less than the best I can offer. At this time I am lacking energy and positivity, and I need to be motivated, I need to be inspired.

This is a helpless and difficult feeling to deal with, but I have 34 years of life experience, a partner who I know would do anything to help me, I work with an amazing staff of people who are supportive and who will listen, and I have the perspective to know this will pass.
When our students come to our class, they too might be going through a great deal. Either perceived or actual, various stimuli will cause them to come with a lack of energy and focus, and will be without a feeling of purpose and motivation. They will feel the same way I do right now, but they aren’t going to have the same tools and maybe not the same strong people to lean on.

I think the key to remember is that we will need to be the inspiration they are missing and we will need to help them create that motivation required to be productive. When we have days like this, try to keep them in mind, and when we see an apathetic young man or woman come into our classrooms, draw on your feelings and what you need to get through the day. Provide that inspiration with energy, enthusiasm, compassion, humour, support, understanding or forgiveness.

I also think it is important to share these feelings with your students as well as how you deal with them. We model for our students at all times, and how we act when we are feeling down, how we cope with frustration or how we communicate with our students when we are not at our best will show them how to deal with these feelings as well.

At the beginning of every year I tell my students that when I am having a bad day, I will let them know, and I will ask them for their support. I also tell them that if they are having a bad day, to let me know, and if they aren’t comfortable they don’t have to let me know why. I tell them that if I know they are having a rough go, I will be able to give them a little more leeway on how they are acting and their productivity and also how I interact with them. What it also does for me is identify which students I may need to inspire towards action, or energize through my enthusiasm.

I have a need to be inspired today, and I hope by writing about it, I will remember it more clearly when I have a student who needs to be inspired by me.

Figure It Out

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As a couple of my last posts have shown, I am spending a great deal of my time thinking about growth. How to plan for it, how to make it happen, how to best use my time and get the most out of what I put into it. I have identified a specific area of weakness in my practice that I want to improve: parent communication & involvement. I think that it is natural to pick out an area of growth and then start to plan how you would like to improve in that area. I wonder if a question we need to ask BEFORE we start to plan for that improvement is WHY? Why is this an area of growth for me? Why is this particular component of my practice not as strong? Why does this piece cause me grief?

For me, I think this is crucial to do before I start to plan on my improvement. If all I did was look for great articles on parent involvement and parent communication because this was my target area for improvement, I might be missing the real information I need to gain understanding and create the change I am looking for. By sitting and reflecting on the why rather than jumping into fixing the issue, I realized that my biggest problem with parent communication and parent involvement is my lack of confidence when it comes to one very key issue: Parenting.

I am not a parent, and while I hope that will change in the near future, I always feel uncomfortable when the conversations with parents venture into the raising and parenting of their children. I feel like the parents don’t take me seriously because I don’t have children, and that I couldn’t possibly understand where they are coming from. The truth is, they could very well feel this way, and I would understand why they would. Its tough to talk to people about walking the path when you haven’t even taken the first step yourself.

It was very important that I realized the root of my discomfort in this area, because a great deal of what I need to work on isn’t about parent involvement and communication but rather my confidence in knowing that I do understand my students. I have worked with so many young people, from all different backgrounds, with different family lives and different upbringings. I have assisted young people in crisis and shared in the joy of my students’ successes. When it comes to young people in school, I know them very well. I need to remember that, and focus on that experience in my conversations with parents. I can definitely improve the communication and the work to involve parents in my students’ educations, but the entire process will be a lot easier to work through now that I have worked through what it is that seems to be my biggest hurdle.

What ever it is you want to improve in your teaching practice, be it classroom management, assessment, or lesson planning, I think it is important to reflect on why this is an area of weakness before you start planning on how to fix it. Is your lesson planning a difficulty because you have issues with time management? Is your management an area of growth because you are too reactive? Before you can work on improving you need to know what you have to overcome.

Reflection will always be key to your improvement, but maybe reflection as part of the planning process needs to be the first step to figuring it out.

Plan For Growth

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Ok to be completely honest, this picture doesn’t go perfectly with my post, but once I saw it I had to include it.

I have been thinking about Professional Growth Plans (henceforth PGPs… because I am lazy). I read a post from the principal of the school I am going to be working at next year and I got to see the type of reflective practices that go on within the walls of the school. Amazing stuff, and I am pretty excited to have the chance to work with all of these amazing educators next year.

Reading their year-end reflections and then reading a number of posts about ways to learn this summer made me think about the timing of our PGP’s. We enter our schools in late August, prepare for our year, set up our classrooms and in the first few weeks, meet with our administration to go over our PGP’s for the year. The end of June, we sit down again with our administration, review and reflect on our PGP’s and then move forward. Something about that doesn’t seem right to me. What about that 7 week period in the summer? Where is that in the plan. We have the largest single period of time where we are free to pursue any growth avenue we may desire, but it rarely enters into our PGP. Of course, many, if not most, teachers are doing some professional learning over the course of this time, and many have made ambitious plans for the improvement they want to create during this time. That being said, shouldn’t the PGP process include this great opportunity within it?

If we as educators are to model the lifelong learning ideal, we need to walk the walk as well, at EVERY opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t for one minute think we should make this an expectation, or dictate to teachers that they must learn, but I do believe it should be something we address in our PGP. Maybe with a question of “Do you have any plans to work on professional learning throughout your summer?”

For me, the learning I did in the summer was often sporadic, random and reactive to whatever book I saw or interview I heard. I have never PLANNED for my learning in the summer. Until now. I have a fairly ambitious plan to learn a great deal about Inquiry (a focus in my next school), parental involvement (an area I need to improve in) and many technology related topics. I am planning to read a number of books, to sit down and work with some of the technology I want to use with my students and parents, and of course, some time to relax, recharge and enjoy the time I have. I feel I have to make this plan because I have a desire to make use of the time, because for once I am not working through the summer, and because I am excited about the coming year and need to focus my energy.

Whether it is something we look to include in our PGP process, or if we as professionals choose to make a plan on our own, I think this can be a valuable way to maximize our time. Lifelong learning means year-round learning to me, so for this summer I plan on filling my July and August calendars with some scheduled professional learning. After that, I’ll probably finish my day by “Being happy and going home” (see picture above if that makes no sense!).

The “Cool” Jacket

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A few years ago, I got to spend a weekend at a coaching clinic with an assistant coach of the UCLA Bruins Mens’ Basketball Team. For me this was a big treat, as I am a big fan of their team and the head coach, Ben Howland. I learned so much during that weekend, but one of his stories really stuck with me.

When talking about getting their players to “buy in” to the program and to not be afraid to make mistakes and work together in practice, they had to get them to take off their “Cool” jackets. He explained that the “Cool” jacket was how they described that tough-guy or aloof attitude many players entered their program with. He talked about how the players were afraid to show weakness or make mistakes and that they were above committing to working on the fundamentals in practice. He was adamant that you can’t get your players to really work hard, to sacrifice and to become a team until they take off their “Cool” jackets and be themselves.

I had the opportunity this year, in my role as Assistant Principal, to have many one on one conversations with students. Most of the time, given the fact it was only the two of us, kids would be honest and real with me in my office and I would get a great deal of information out of them about what was going on with them. Without an audience of peers, without the pressure of saving face, students will often show you their true colors and let you in.

I know going back into the classroom, I won’t be afforded the luxury of a private space to talk to students, and the time necessary to have the conversations with them immediately. I remember, as it was only a year ago I was in the classroom, I tried to find the time and the arena for those conversations to take place in the right way, to allow the student the best opportunity to not feel judged by peers or embarrassed by the moment.

In many of our schools, we still have the cycle of discipline that includes teachers sending their students to the office, removing the problem from the classroom, but also passing the problem off to somebody else. As I said in my post “What My Job Isn’t”, I don’t believe it is a good idea for the administrator to get the chance to “Save the day” while the teacher is left with a broken relationship with the student. Why don’t we try and flip this more often, and have the teacher get the one on one time with the student, while the administrator comes in and covers the class. It is after all, the relationship between teacher and student that is the most crucial to the learning, not the relationship with the administration.

Whether it is switching out with the administration to allow for one on one conversations, following up with a student after school or the next day, or taking a student out in the hall to discuss an issue, are we doing enough to make sure we can get our students to take off their “Cool” jackets and really communicate with us? Next year, this will again be my challenge too, and it will not be any easy one to solve all the time.  As teachers we need to treat our students with the respect they deserve, give them the space they need to feel safe and provide them the compassionate ear to allow them to be heard. Before we will ever see the real person inside our students we need to first help them take that “Cool” jacket off. Only then will we have the chance to connect with them the way we want and the way they often need us to.


The Most Important Lesson

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I have a question – What was the most important lesson you learned as a kid? How and where did it happen?

I thought about this for quite a while and realized for me, it happened on the golf course.

The most important lesson I learned was the concept of mentor ship, and my affinity for working with young people. I was 17 years old, and our local golf course no longer had a Junior golf coordinator. To make sure we still had a golf program, I took the job on and with some help from one of our Senior golfers, we did the best we could to keep the program going. With no club pro, I often ended up on the driving range working with some of our younger players trying my best to coach them about the game and teach them the proper way to swing the club.I wasn’t a qualified golf pro, but I was there and willing to help.

I remember one day specifically I was working on the driving range with a young guy who was having trouble getting the ball off the ground. We worked on his stance, adjusted his grip a little and made sure he was keeping his head down. All of a sudden, he caught one perfectly and the ball went soaring into the air a good 100 yards down the driving range. He swung around quickly, with his jaw dropped open and yelled “Did you see that!?” I remember right at that moment, I was hooked. I had known for some time I wanted to go into education, but right then and there I knew I was making the right decision.

When I think of a few of the other big lessons I learned as a kid: Leadership, Teamwork, Responsibility, Honesty, most of them did not occur in a Math or English class, they happened outside of the classroom. I wonder how many people really made the decision about their future career while sitting in a classroom? When it came to leadership and teamwork, I learned about that on the basketball court. Its often my argument when I defend the importance of school sports, that I learned a great deal because of my time on a school sports team. When it came to responsibility, I learned it working at my family’s restaurant, especially during those times when I got to help my Grandmother out.

So what am I saying? Well first of all, this is proof that learning occurs all the time and everywhere. That is a good thing, and something we as educators should embrace and show our students that learning isn’t just something that happens at school. The other thing it shows, in my opinion, is that we are spending too much time on concepts and skills that maybe don’t apply to our students future as much as other lessons would. I know this is when someone then says “How can we prepare our students for a future we can’t predict?”. I don’t care what the future holds, I can’t for one second believe that lessons like leadership, responsibility, teamwork and honesty will ever become obsolete. If we start looking to incorporate this kind of thinking into our teaching we will start to see more of a connection between what we teach and what our students need in their futures.

In David Wees‘ blog post from yesterday he referenced a line from a book by Paul Lockhart entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament”.

‘I don’t see how it’s doing society any good to have its members walking around with vague memories of algebraic formulas and geometric diagrams, and clear memories of hating them.’ (emphasis mine) ~ Paul Lockhart

I believe the same could be said for memories of grammar and punctuation, memorizing historical dates, or writing chemical formulas. When our lessons speak to character, they last a lifetime, and not because our students will look back with disdain but rather because they may have learned their most important lesson from us.