Hi! I’m Stephen Wilson. I’ve been teaching at Geraldton Composite High School in Geraldton, Ontario for the past ten years. In that time, I’ve worked hard to improve my practice through engaging with other educators, learning from my colleagues, and trial and error. This year, I’m part of a Collaborative Teacher Inquiry Project focused on literacy at GCHS.
On this blog, you will find my reflections as I work with colleagues to improve literacy at our school, helping to develop consistent practices, a clear understanding of expectations, and a sharing of minds. In between will be reflections on my practice, which at times may be garbled, (so I apologize in advance).
Thanks for visiting!
Time flies. It’s 2015. Semester One ends in three weeks. Seriously, where does the time go?
It’s the tail end of the Christmas Break and I am transitioning back into teaching mode, reflecting on what worked/didn’t work so far this semester. It’s been a semester of much reflection, as I mentioned in previous posts. My biggest focus is on how I’ve approached fostering critical thinking. I have reworked how I have students dissect literature on their own and in small groups by creating focus questions and conducting seminars. Students are developing skills to figure things out on their own, (as my ENG3U students demonstrated in our “Macbeth” unit). I have used Learning Skills and Success Criteria and have been able to remind students to use these resources, and co-created anchor charts, to guide their work. I continue to look for ways to allow my students to achieve awesomeness with me as a facilitator – and in concert with my GCHS Language Department colleagues.
I’d like to say that all of this has resulted in tremendous improvements in grades, student attitudes, and credit accumulation. While there have been successes, there are still many, many challenges. Our smaller school enrollment numbers means single sections of compulsory courses, which is not always conducive to success for students. My ENG2P class started with 31 students and while that number has dropped to 25, it’s still a big group with many challenging personalities. Single sections and a limited timetable also mean that students who may benefit from being at an entirely different level, (e.g. Locally Developed versus Applied) are misplaced. There’s no one to blame for these challenges; they are a fact of life in small schools, but nonetheless, they are constant issues that make seeing improvements more difficult. While I may be able to reinvigorate how I approach reading and writing, I can only do so much as I run from student-to-student in a large class. Sometimes it can be pretty crazy! This last semester has been frustrating at times, as I dealt with classroom management issues I haven’t had to deal with in ten years, unmotivated students who, regardless of tactic, kept their head down on their desk, (if they came to class at all), and learning disabilities that meant reteaching concepts over and over. By December 19, (the last day of class before break) I was almost ready to throw in the towel.
As a new year begins, and resolutions are made, I think about what I can continue to do to make my classroom progressive despite the aforementioned challenges. I’m refreshed from a holiday break and ready to tackle the remaining weeks of the semester. I’m ready to provide a push to students who need pushing, and I’m enthusiastic about planning for Semester Two courses. I know that educators have occasional tough assignments and in the long run, we become stronger because of them.
2015 will be a good year.
Today I introduced Socratic Seminars with my ENG3U class. Socratic Seminars are great ways to have students immerse themselves in a topic and then demonstrate their ability to understand the topic, make connections, and interact with their peers through moderated discussion.
Another valuable reflection I’ve made in the last few years is the time I spend in front of (or walking around) the room doing the talking. Lecturing is important for some topics – and explicitly teaching concepts certainly has its merits – but it limits student engagement, does not compel students to develop higher-level thinking skills, and does little to encourage a critical analysis of a text.
Over the last month, I’ve been speaking frequently with my colleagues about their approaches to letting students talk, and what strategies work best. Out of these conversations I have started doing the following with my senior students:
- Having students read a text and create annotated notes focusing on plot/conflict/theme/character/interesting points.
- Some students have made the connection that this might involve reading the text twice: Once for comprehension and a second time for analysis
- Having students meet in small groups or pairs to discuss their annotated notes, to build a greater understanding of the text
- “I was surprised how much I actually knew about the text” was a comment made by a student today. Awesome.
- Creating focus questions, both from me as the teacher, and from the students as learners. These questions are then moderated through a discussion, such as a Socratic Seminar.
- Students do the talking. I sit and watch, I moderate, I keep things moving – but I try to say as little as possible. This exercise is all about the students showing what they know.
- Providing clear expectations/success criteria for seminars
I like that these strategies not only build reading comprehension, but they also develop learning skills as students collaborate, organize, work independently, and show initiative. As students work, I take copious notes so I can provide feedback on any number of these things with students to help them improve next time.
The other reality, as I explained to my Grade 11s, is that many post-secondary classes use seminars for the same reasons. Therefore, learning the skills now will definitely help them later.
For some teachers, it might be a bit of a change to hand the keys to the kingdom over to students, but it pays off! Now to try it with my Grade 10s….
In Ontario high schools, core English classes are divided into three curricular levels: Academic/University, Applied/College, and Locally-Developed/Workplace Preparation. Each level includes consistent strands: Reading, Writing, Media Studies, and Oral Communication. These are outlined in the Ministry of Education’s English curriculum. What isn’t outlined, but what becomes implicitly clear to teachers is the difference in work habits of students between these levels. In some cases, these work habits become an unwritten rule or expectation for both students and teachers, based on assumptions and past experience. Academic students will make better use of class time, maintain high expectations, be self-guided learners and will complete homework. Locally-developed students will forever be behind the eight ball, will make poor use of class time and never complete homework. Sound familiar?
The Ontario English Curriculum
There are a couple of questions that arise with these different levels:
- How do we challenge students and keep the bar high, regardless of level?
- How do we determine if a student is in the right level?
In terms of the first question, how can we make sure students are always being pushed – and pushing themselves, no matter their level? How can we influence their learning habits and improve their work habits? After all, the expectation is that we are preparing them for “the real world”, and life after high school, where there will most certainly be expectations imposed on them – and consequences for not meeting expectations.
The second question is trickier. As teachers, we encounter students who we deem to be in the wrong level all the time. How do we positively influence the decision-making process to ensure these students are properly placed? How do we convince the student, their parents/guardians, and school administration to make changes? The move is certainly not always to a lower level; in many cases very capable students are, for a variety of reasons, content to stay at a lower level, (perhaps because those implicit expectations are lower and the student thinks they can work less).
What tools should we be using to ensure students are at the level best suited for them?
One of the focal points of our GCHS Inquiry discussions has been on the need to develop clear consequences for student actions related to late assignments. We have a mish-mash of policies and rules that guide us: late assignments, extenuating circumstances, Growing Success, and Superior-Greenstone DSB guidelines. The problem is that all of these rules are interpreted and implemented in as many different ways as there are teachers. In some cases, students don’t see a connection between their actions and consequences. In other cases, students become confused because there may be consequences in one classroom but little to none in another classroom.
Our group saw potential to remedy this situation by coming up with a fair policy for the Language Department. We began talking about expectations, the need to prepare students for post-secondary and the world of work, taking responsibility, and building positive Conditions for Learning. (Incidentally, this ties into our School Learning Plan, where we are focusing on Conditions for Learning to Build Student Success.) We also spent time reviewing late assignment policies from other schools and boards from across the province. We made an agreement: the consequences are important, but consistency is even more important.
We turned to Growing Success for guidance in developing our plan. This list clarifies strategies and (possible) consequences:
Where in the teacher’s professional judgement it is appropriate to do so, a number of strategies
may be used to help prevent and/or address late and missed assignments. They include:
• asking the student to clarify the reason for not completing the assignment;
• helping students develop better time-management skills;
• collaborating with other staff to prepare a part- or full-year calendar of major assignment dates
for every class;
• planning for major assignments to be completed in stages, so that students are less likely to be
faced with an all-or-nothing situation at the last minute;
• maintaining ongoing communication with students and/or parents about due dates and late
assignments, and scheduling conferences with parents if the problem persists;
• in secondary schools, referring the student to the Student Success team or teacher;
• taking into consideration legitimate reasons for missed deadlines;
• setting up a student contract;
• using counselling or peer tutoring to try to deal positively with problems;
• holding teacher-student conferences;
• reviewing the need for extra support for English language learners;
• reviewing whether students require special education services;
• requiring the student to work with a school team to complete the assignment;
• for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students, involving Aboriginal counsellors and members
of the extended family;
• understanding and taking into account the cultures, histories, and contexts of First Nation,
Métis, and Inuit students and parents and their previous experiences with the school system;
• providing alternative assignments or tests/exams where, in the teacher’s professional judgement,
it is reasonable and appropriate to do so;
• deducting marks for late assignments, up to and including the full value of the assignment
It became interesting to see how different people within our board began interpreting the list: it’s not numbered, so is it written as a process? Since mark deductions are listed last, does that mean it’s a last resort?
(Growing Success, 43)
We are still finalizing our late assignment policy but we have agreed on the following:
- The policy will be clearly communicated to all students
- Extenuating circumstances will be taken into consideration
- Mark deductions of 10% per day (including weekends) up to the full value of the assignment will be made
Our theory: If we establish clear and consistent late assignment consequences within all English classes, students will develop responsibility, which will translate to higher rates of student success.
I’ve always felt that as an educator, we exist in a little bubble. We are given keys to our classroom and we do our thing, Monday to Friday, with minimal professional interaction from our colleagues. We could be going about things in entirely the wrong way for years and nobody would know. It’s easy to find yourself caught in such a bubble, but it’s just as easy to escape it – by speaking up with other teachers. That’s the essence of the GCHS Inquiry Project – A move to build consistency within the Language Department in terms of lesson delivery, content, and assessment practices. I’m pretty pumped about it because it will only mean improved teaching practice, team-building, and success for students.
To make this inquiry work, self-reflection is absolutely necessary. I’m going to have to admit (and I’m comfortable admitting) that there are curricular areas where I know I have room for improvement. I need to think about how I’ve been delivering my material, where I’ve become complacent, and whether changes need to be made.
M.C. Escher’s ‘Hand with Reflecting Sphere’
I’m subjected to ministry-speak, professional development, a plethora of resources, and school meetings. I’m expected to use professional judgement, the curriculum, my student’s needs, and differentiated instruction to teach my classes. In short, it’s a potential for information overload and an effort in constant motion – the move to find the best way to reach my students – but the way I do things might be entirely different than the person next door, (and, as my colleagues and I have discussed, this is exactly the case). As a high school student, this might be awfully confusing! Therefore, consistency is key!
As we move through the project, we are going to focus on a few goals:
- Identifying Areas Where Consistency Is Needed
- Developing Consistent Practices and/or Expectations
- Sharing Our Practices
By the end of this project our hope is that students at GCHS will be able to move through English courses from Grades 9-12 knowing exactly what to expect – and the consequences for not meeting expectations – which will lead to an improvement in success.
Wish us luck!