A Summer of Learning: In-and-Out of the Classroom

After a busy summer and final semester of PDP, September has finally come. The first September that I have not gone back to school for as long as I can remember.  It feels abnormal and although I would love to be teaching at the moment, I have chosen to remain patient and ready for it when the time comes. That being said, I’ve decided to reflect on the months past on a lovely Friday the 13th. Yes, I used the word reflect after PDP.  🙂

I’ve spent the majority of the summer enrolled in four courses that would double as means of professional development and as the final stretch of courses that would provide me with the teacher certification that I have long desired.  These courses included: Numeracy in Society, Law for Teachers, Teaching Social Studies, and Curriculum Theory. Overall, it was a successful semester, some courses were more meaningful than others, and I found myself critically evaluating teaching strategies more so than ever before (especially when it came to assessment). Most courses used fantastic assessment methods such as formative assessment through entry and exit slips, self/peer assessment, feedback and my ultimate favourite, rubrics. I came to appreciate those who made assessment transparent, and lessons as engaging and relevant as possible. I’ve learnt a lot that will help me in my future practice and I am now more confident than ever when I say, timely feedback and transparent success criteria are crucial for learning. But summer coursework didn’t last forever.

Once it was over, I indulged in camping, a trip to Palm Springs and I found myself diving head first into leisure reading. Reading books such as ‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand (which evoked every emotion I had in me) and novels by a new favourite author, Neil Gaiman, such as Stardust and Neverwhere. I found a new love for fantasy, and the reading list keeps getting longer. In addition to reading books, I kept up with the twitter feeds, and recently enrolled in a seven week course on Coursera titled Accountable Talk.  A course through which I hope to continue to professionally develop and learn how to make the most out of discussions, in-and-out of school. So far so good.  As learning happened in a classroom, and continues to happen online, I would not be able to conclude this blog entry without mentioning one of my greatest learning experiences of the summer. I learned how to refurbish a coffee table.

After scrolling through the many (and many) pages of Pinterest and witnessing fabulous do-it-yourself projects, I decided to take up my own and refurbish an old coffee table that had been sitting pretty in the shed.  It took a few days for me to find a colour scheme that I wanted, to research and purchase the exact materials I required and to make a plan of action. I was passionate and didn’t care how long it would take, I wanted everything to be perfect. But as we all know, nothing ever goes as planned.  Sanding took hours, some nicks in the wood could not be repaired, the double coat of paint took four coats, staining took four layers, and the glossy finish bubbled. Requiring more sanding, staining and re-glossing.   The entire project ended up being done through trial and error no matter how much research I did prior.  However, with the help of my father acting as a guide, I kept learning from my mistakes and didn’t give up until I had a completed coffee table.  A week later, I had just that.

This is a before and after photo.

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This process has taught me two things. 1) Hard work pays off. I cannot be more proud of my masterpiece. 2) This project lead to the realization that Genius Hour is truly an amazing concept and that there is so much potential in student passion projects. Talk about taking ownership and pride in learning.  I will definitely try to incorporate this into my future practice. But one thing I don’t think I will ever do, is get rid of my re-born coffee table.  🙂

All in all, this summer has been one of learning in both the conventional and non-conventional settings (so to speak) and one of enjoying the little things that life has to offer.

Embracing lifelong learning, and planning my next passion project. 

A Bittersweet Finale

In January, I was a part of a group of student teachers that nervously wondered what the next four months had in store for us.  Upon entering Johnston Heights Secondary, I planned units intensively and only imagined who my students would be and what they would be like. I stayed in my designated department prep room for two weeks itching to get a taste of real life teaching. I couldn’t wait to get started and to complete my practicum once and for all. Though it felt like the end was still light years away.

Tomorrow, I am back at Simon Fraser University where I will share stories and laughter with my fellow peers and be labeled a teacher.  A teacher. A teacher. I keep repeating it and telling myself that I’ve made it. I have completed my practicum with great success.  Words cannot express how I am feeling; it is simply surreal.  If someone told me that these past four months would pass with a blink of an eye, I would not have believed them. But it’s true.  I have waited all my life to complete my practicum, to be able to apply to districts and start teaching, and now, it is just, here.  However, despite the fact that I feel like jumping from wall to wall, I cannot help but feel like a small part of me is weighed down by a feeling of sadness.

As I was saying goodbye to my students yesterday, it dawned on me: ‘this is the last time I’m going to see these 75 fabulous individuals that I have grown to call my students.’  This past month has been so busy that I barely had a moment to catch a breathe of fresh air and to even think about what goodbye really meant. Although I was not required to go to SFU over Spring Break, I still needed to complete three major assignments: The Special Education assignment, an Aboriginal Education assignment, and my final report. Needless to say, I had my hands full.  Upon returning to school, I continued to teach Socials 8 & 9, wrapped up projects and conducted midterm portfolio interviews with students.  It was during this process that I experienced my final ‘Aha’ moment.

During these 5-minute interviews I felt like I had truly gotten to know all my students on another level.  I knew their strengths, their weaknesses and even shocked myself when I remembered miniscule details about our interactions from the beginning of the semester. They described their own progress this semester through four words, and I was able to comment on each one and even propose a couple others.  For the first time, I realized that I had reached all of my personal goals as outlined in my Credo.  I’ve created a safe community within each classroom, I’ve made learning fun for my students that they showed pride in their work, and most of all, I feel like I’ve truly created meaningful student-teacher relationships.  Everything that I have been doing up to this day, has worked and my students have been successful in learning as well: formative assessment, utilizing rubrics, project-based learning and encouraging the critical thought process, to name a few.   I couldn’t be happier for myself, nor could I be more proud of them. And like all professionals should, I asked my students for feedback in regards to my future practice. I asked questions such as: ‘What were your favourite assignments and why? Which would you likely burn if you could? And more importantly, what do you personally think about Rubrics?’ Almost every student I asked said that he or she liked rubrics.

I received answers such as:

“It is frustrating when teachers ask us to describe something and not know what they really want.  I want teachers to give Rubrics. It is essential. Without a rubric, I would be lost.” – Grade 9 Student

“They’re nice. They help for aim and setting goals.” –Grade 8 Student

 “It’s good because you know your grade before you get it back. I can give my self a mark first.”- Grade 9 Student

 “Motivates me. Clear Expectations.” – Grade 8 student

Needless to say, the majority of students find Rubrics helpful and beneficial towards their learning.  I have taken their words of advice into consideration and will definitely continue creating rubrics and striving towards my personal teaching goals.  This practicum has truly been the most memorable experience of my life.  Though there was some stress at times, it was nothing compared to my short practicum. No tears were shed until yesterday, but those were tears of a different nature.

As aforementioned, yesterday was a day of goodbye hugs and farewell wishes. Despite the fact that I am the worst at goodbyes, I managed to stay strong and get through most of the day fine.  I had my final meeting with three of my greatest supporters, my two SA’s and my FA, during lunch. Emotions were stirring as we shared memories of my journey, but I contained myself.  It wasn’t until the last five minutes of my teaching experience that my barrier was broken. I was prepping to say my thanks and farewells when two brave students came up to the front of the class on behalf of themselves, their peers and their peer tutors, and presented me with a large pink card that had been signed by all of them. From that moment on, my self-control was history. We took a few final group photos together, had a great group hug and parted ways. It was moment that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

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Farewell card from my Socials 8 Students

To my students:
I’d like to thank you all again for making this an experience of a lifetime.      Students like you are why I’ve wanted to become a teacher all my life. It  simply wouldn’t have been the same without you. I’ll miss you all.

 *Remember: Together we are better, never say never (or IDK), and be the best that you can be! I wish you all the best this semester and hope to see you again in the future. In the meantime, who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other at Costco or something. Take care.

-Ms. W-ojnarowicz

In the end, reality has set. It is all so bittersweet. I have reached the end of my practicum experience and could only wish that I be able to stay a little longer. This chapter in my life is complete and it is time to look forward to my future practice. I will strive to remain true to my Credo and continue to professionally develop, enhance and adapt my philosophy with new experiences as they come.

                                                                                    The learning has just begun.

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A Couple Highlights

Hello to all of those who might stumble across my little blog from time to time. Lately I’ve been thinking about the aesthetics of this space and realized that I haven’t posted photos or examples of some of the activities that I do around the school. So addition to writing about the intricacies of learning how to teach and theory, I’d like to share a couple experiences that I’ve had over the past few weeks. I am teaching for Socials 8 and Socials 9 for the first time, and boy does it feel like I’m simultaneously learning all this material for the first time too. As if you didn’t know being a student teacher can be stressful. 😉 But I digress.  In reality, I have been having such an amazing time at school with my students that I’d like to share a few high lights now and then.

 Highlight #1: Turtle Island

One of the lessons that has really stuck in my head was one that had been borrowed and adapted from a grade 9 unit in Faye Brownlie’s book, It’s All About Thinking. In Socials 9 we have been learning about Canada’s First Nations people and the importance of oral history.  As a part of exploring storytelling, we read the Ojibway Creation story: Turtle Island. Students were asked to analyze quotes from the story and choose key words to explain the values being represented in the text. We read the story as a class first, and then students wrote their words of value on post-its and stuck them on the white board.

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Needless to say, the notes took on a familiar shape.

We continued our lesson on Aboriginal Peoples storytelling tradition and values by reading another story, one about the Salmon People in Squamish.  For this activity, students worked in small groups analyzing portions of the story. They read and inspected various sections together, and then wrote their findings on chart paper. These were shared with the class as a whole.  I circulated the room to facilitate learning while students discussed, but as I walked around, I noticed that the majority of students did not need my help. Rather, they were working and learning from one another.  I was so impressed with the various levels of critical thinking going on, and I can already tell they are historians in the making. Perfect. 🙂

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*This is an example of  sharing group chart work. Pardon the photo quality.

Highlight #2: World Religions Tour

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On February 21st 2013, my students, sponsor teacher and I went on a Tour of Worship in Richmond.  It was a field trip that I had arranged to supplement our unit on world religions for Socials 8.  My itinerary included visiting a Synagogue, Mosque, Gurdwara, and a Church in the span of 5 hours.  But just as suspected for my first ever field trip, this one hit a speed bump early in the day. En route to Richmond at 8:10am, we hit an unavoidable traffic jam. This delayed the rest of our day by 30 minutes.  And unfortunately, to ensure that we would be backat school prior to 3 pm, we had to cancel our plans with the church.  Despite the adverse circumstance of traffic, students were still able to experience and learn from the remaining places of worship.  They witnessed the opening of the ark in the synagogue revealing the many hand written scrolls of the Torah; they learned about the 5 pillars of Islam as we all faced in the direction of Mecca; and in addition to learning about the history and origins of Sikhism, students were able to experience something new using their taste buds.  There is no denying the fact that everyone loved the vegetarian lunch at the Gurdwara.  The food was simply amazing; both my students and I went up for seconds and possibly thirds. My mother used to always say that, ‘The way to a man’s heart, is through his stomach.’  Well, I guess that’s true for our students as well because another favourite part of the day for them was receiving candy as a welcoming gift upon entering the sactuary. In the end, everyone had a fabulous time at the field trip despite the morning delay.  I’d be lying if I said that my first ever planned field trip was not a highlight from my practicum.

*Note to self: Leave school earlier next time, just in case!

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Theory Vs. Practice

Another week has flown by, and a mere three to go until spring break.  This past week, I was able to experience going on a field trip that I had planned to the best of my ability, write a mid-term, and also see what it’s like to have a presenter come in and speak to one of my classes.  There were a few speed bumps on the field trip but overall it was another successful week. As for my students, it was filled with group work, photo analysis activities, writing responses and handing in map work, just to name a few.  This is important for this week’s response because I have chosen to focus on assessment for learning. I have been strong in understanding the theory regarding assessment for learning and utilizing rubrics in the past, but have had some difficulty incorporating them into my lessons and assignments in 401/402.   However, this has been an area of change and improvement for me this semester.

Last semester I learned the theories behind ‘assessment for learning vs. assessment as learning.’ I was able to differentiate between formative and summative assessment through module presentations and reading articles such as: The Surrey Schools Discussion Paper on Assessment, Inside the Black Box and Considerations for Program Delivery for Language Arts 8 to 12.  I understood the benefits of Formative assessment, and why it is important to give students a chance to master the topic before being summatively assessed, however, I struggled to put this into practice.  I provided written and verbal success criteria for my grade 11 socials students last semester but did not provide any rubric. To quote my own semester final,  “I think I struggled in this aspect because I was unsure of how to utilize rubrics to retrieve a number grade for summative assessments.“ This was just the case.  I knew what it was all about, but I did not know how to create rubrics, let alone put them into practice within someone else’s classroom. To my advantage and luck, my FA spent some time coaching me through the process in 405 once, and I have since grown in the art of rubric creation.  Although we are only 3 weeks into the semester, I have already begun to put them into practice and see the difference rubrics make.

This week in particular was very eye opening in regard to assessment practice because I was able to see how having a ‘rubric’ accompany assignments effects student work.  Students received a rubric prior to completing their work for both the map and writing responses.  It was their first time using a rubric for mapping skills, but their second for responding to quotes.  The maps were done well, and the writing responses displayed bounds of improvement for all students. Even for those who have demonstrated lower abilities.  My rubrics are labeled in columns of: starting, you’re getting there, good job, and wow! I am proud to say that absolutely no students were in the starting phase, and a large number moved up into the ‘Wow!’ This is just the beginning, unit projects have yet to be assessed via rubric, but I am already witnessing positive change in students work.  The benefits of making evaluation practices visible to students are starting to become evident.  By using a rubric, my students know exactly where they are, and exactly what they need to do to be successful.  They are becoming just that.  Why do there need to be surprises?

From my experience now, I have realized that assessment for learning is possible and very valuable. But it needs to be consistent throughout the semester. If you decide to introduce students to rubrics, do it early, and continue to use them throughout the year to reduce any stress and confusion.  Also, formative assessment is key to success in any classroom. I constantly practice gradual release of responsibility, and there is not a day that goes by where I do not circulate and guide my students through assignments and reading.  It is through this process where I realize who needs extra help and when students are ready to be summatively evaluated on the subject or skill at hand. This is just one of the connections that I have made between theory and practice. 

That being said, as I look at my Credo (one that was purely created from theory) I notice that putting my teaching philosophies into practice isn’t difficult because I truly believe in what I have created.  The main aspects of my Credo are: viewing the teacher as a person, establishing meaningful student-teacher relationships, encouraging the love of learning and creating a safe learning environment together.  My Credo has been influencing my lessons from day one of this learning experience.  You can see this through my previous blog posts in which I write about getting to know each other, creating classroom expectations together, and simply allowing students to learn together through collaboration and joint experiences.  Tests and homework are rare as I believe in the importance of a stress free environment and the value of social interaction with the community outside of school.  I do this in hopes that every student will come to class with their best foot forward, and use the time in class to their maximum learning potential.  So far this has been just the case, and I am interested to see how our first unit projects turn out. 

Getting to Know Students

Who are your students? What are you noticing? What are their learning needs? How are they diverse? 

 

This past week of full immersion has been fantastic.  I have continued to incorporate meaningful discussions and group work into my lesson plans to enhance and develop our classroom communities.  So far, students have been open minded and willing to contribute and collaborate with one another and myself.  Although each class is cooperative, they couldn’t be more different from each other. Students range from extroverts to introverts, high ability to low ability, native English speakers to new English language learners, every student comes to class with their own background stories and a varied insight on life which makes personal writing responses and discussions that much more dynamic. Therefore, I am noticing that each class is unique due to the diverse make up of students, that the same discussion questions can take completely different directions depending on the group of students, and that every student thinks differently.

After meeting each group of students for the first time on January 31st 2013 and getting each student to individually complete a ‘Who Am I?’ questionnaire, I noticed right that their learning needs were just as diverse as their personalities.  The purpose of the questionnaire was to get me to slowly get to know the students and for them to get to know me. They included questions such as what are four words that describe you, what do you like to do with family/friends, what are you favourite books etc.  But more importantly, their were questions such as what are your goals in this course, is there anything I need to know about you, what is the easiest way for you to show what you know, and lastly, I had students write down any concerns or fears on the back of the pack discreetly.   I read over each students profile and took a tally on major concerns, where they’d like to improve and how they prefer to demonstrate their mastered skills and knowledge.  I did this for every class. I noticed that some students took it seriously and were ready to confide in me, whereas others didn’t take the time and effort.  Tallied numbers varied for each area in different classes but there were some patterns arising.  Many students are concerned with getting good grades and not failing the course, some are worried about communicating effectively due to their writing abilities and others are worried about getting along with other students in the class. Again, patterns arose in all classes when it comes to knowledge output preferences; numbers varied but each group was divided into students who preferred writing, speaking and those who preferred to illustrate and visualize key concepts.  I took this information and definite numbers unique to each group and presented it to each class. From that, together we determined that there needs to be opportunities within the classroom for every student to shine in these aspects. In addition to make the best from the questionnaire results, we created classroom expectations together to ensure success all year round.

I obtained these statistics right after the first couple of classes and continued to learn more about my students through group discussions and writing responses.  For example, in both grade 8 socials classes I posed the essential question of: “Are maps necessary?”   One group of students took complete control of the situation and I was able to act more as a moderator. Students came up with ideas like yes for travelling, pilots, ship captains, satellites in space, and that technological maps are still maps.  In the other group of grade 8 students, I took a more active role as a facilitator.  I had to change my approach and guide the students in the right direction a little more by providing small hints.  In the end, both groups came to a consensus that maps are necessary but the way in which they reached their conclusion differed.  This reaffirmed my learner statistics by proving that, even though students are in the same grade level, learning abilities can vary tremendously.  This was a large aha moment for me this week really shows that one universal unit/lesson plan will not meet the needs of all students.  As teachers, we need to continuously keep track of our student demographic and adjust individual lesson plans where necessary. Flexibility is key.

Writing responses in all classes again proved that every individual learner is unique and has their own views on life and school as a whole.  For my grade nine socials class I had students choose between two quotes for a writing prompt. “Education’s purpose is to replace and empty mind with an open one,” and “If you don’t learn from History, you are doomed to repeat it.” This activity forced students to rank and choose the quote that was appropriate to them, and to analyze the quote to determine the meaning behind them.  I collected these responses to get a sample of writing and to be able to move ahead and create success criteria for a good writing response through the use of strong pieces.  It was such a pleasure to read each and every response because every-student addressed their quotes with great depth, insight and creativity.  This was very eye opening for me. This activity showed me that every student thinks differently, but it also proves that there doesn’t need to be a right and wrong answer for everything.  The next step from this activity is to create success criteria on Tuesday, and for students to self assess using their success criteria to write another response. 

All in all, this week has been a great start to my practicum.  I have realized that my practice will continue to change throughout my professional career because I will continue to come in contact with unique individuals and learners.  For me to stay true to my credo and be the best teacher I can be, I need to be aware of their differences and be able to work with them towards success. My techniques and plans need to be flexible and ready to change on a daily basis, because so far, I’m learning something new about my students everyday.