Friday, 21 April 2017

Road Trips - Rethinking Furniture, Going Gradeless, & Community

A requirement about being part of The Shift  is that we travel to other schools around the board.  We do this so that we can get perspectives on the innovative things that are happening in all schools.  We also want to help people share their thinking.  The profession of teaching can’t grow if everyone always works in a bubble.  A few weeks ago we had a flurry of travel and unfortunately haven’t been able to write about our experiences until now.  So...where did we go and what did we see?


Rethinking Furniture
We had the opportunity to visit Lester B Pearson High School to get a first hand viewing of some classroom furniture that rethinks the instructional flow of a classroom.  We tried rocking chairs and stools (Matt always calls dibs on the rocker) that encourage movement as a tool to help keep students focused. We saw a variety of smart, well thought out tables as well,
The discussion with classroom teachers was honest, exploratory and excited.  The talk centred around the most important point: does the furniture work to better support teaching and learning of students?  There was talk of layout, and how it can be moved around the room in different configurations to work in different learning situations.  The tables had two wheels that enabled easy moving around the room by lifting one end of the table and pushing it like a rolling suitcase, which was neat.  Other tables were height adjustable, which would allow teachers to set bar height seating if desired.  One aspect that would have been really cool to see in that scenario would have been hydraulic height adjustment (like an office chair), so that the height could be easily adjusted in the moment.  Hey we can dream, can’t we?  In a couple of weeks, we look forward to visiting Milton District H.S., which is a pilot location for a full classroom of this new furniture.  We will be sharing our further impressions on how that  pilot is going.  Dibs on the rocker!




Going Gradeless
One fascinating trip we recently went on was up to McKenzie-Smith Bennett Public School in Acton, upon the invitation of Kim Phillips, Principal of the school.  She wanted us to meet Michael Primerano, an intermediate teacher who is doing some truly innovative work around going gradeless in his class.  We are very conscious of not overusing the word “innovative” in this role, but in this case, it is truly merited.

The new “thing” is seeking a way to better motivate and engage students in the classroom by eliminating grades from the learning experience.   Michael was in tune to the fact that students in his ACCESS class were not motivated by grades and noticed that grades were more often  a deterrent to learning because they were a source of stress and heartache.  As such, he chose to eliminate quantitative means of assessment  altogether, favouring qualitative observations as evidence for learning and to  use while determining grades for his students’ report cards.  
Yes, as teachers in the province, we are required to put a grade on the report card, though the tools used by the teacher to inform that decision are left to the professional discretion of the teacher.  Michael has been using a triangulated method of assessment that combines observations, student conferences, and co-constructed success criteria, with a focus on using descriptive feedback to help students benchmark their progress rather than grades. Thus far this year it has been working rather well.

The student and parent feedback to this shift has been encouraging, too! S

Students are saying:
“I don’t miss getting Cs.” -BM
“It’s more work in the end, but the product is always better.” - GD
“I know that you want to help me because you never judge me.” - WT


And parents are saying:
“My son doesn’t hate going to school now - he gets up and goes in the morning without me having to bug him.” - CL
“I don’t ask my daughter how she’s doing in school anymore, I ask her what she’s doing instead.” - JB


That feedback is a clear indication that Michael is truly onto something. As teachers, Jamie and I have had frequent chats about how going gradeless would benefit our students.  This topic is top of mind and this won’t be the last you hear from us on this subject!"

If you want a deeper dive into Michael's thinking, you can check out his presentation here.


Engaged Community
Finally, we took a trip to Craig Kielburger Secondary School to gather some footage for the next video in our Case For series.  Suzy Koh was nice enough to welcome us into her classroom, which was a Grade 9 Applied Math class.  This class was a continuation of the Unlimited Potential program from Semester 1.  We were lucky enough to witness a classroom where all students were engaged, willing to talk to each other, work with each other and most importantly not rely on their teacher for too much guidance.  Students were working on problem sets with each other, asking their peers for feedback and help BEFORE switching gears and looking to the teacher for solutions.  Everyone was smiling.  The classroom was comfortable and it was obvious Suzy had done work establishing a positive classroom environment first, before diving into curriculum.


Jamie was able to sneak away for a bit to reconnect with an old friend who also works at Craig Kielburger and is working with a team that delivers a combined Drama and Comm Tech course.  The purpose of the course is to have students gain a better understanding of the entire production process, from both the technical and artistic sides. They're currently working on their biggest project to date, creating, acting in, filming and then finally producing a sitcom.  Kyle Hume and his colleague Anna Burnett are the teachers working on this project, but really he and his colleagues have found a great way to involve all players in the creation process.  When I arrived to class another teacher was at the front of the room, organizing her students, handing out roles and jobs.  It was only when I sat down with Kyle to talk about this Sitcom package that I found out the teacher leading the  students was actually a student in the course.  The feeling of empowerment among his students was palpable and I left Kielburger feeling inspired by the possibilities of different ways to engage students.

What do you think?  How important is the community you build in the classroom?  Have you experimented with going gradeless? Or thought about doing so? Have you been experimenting with alternatives to the typical class furniture layout and structure?  What about alternative ways to deliver curriculum while engaging students? How has it shifted what you do?

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