Sunday, November 11, 2012

Allowing Students to Redo Their Work

There is an old saying, "If first you don't suceed, try, try again."  How often do we translate this saying into practice when assessing student work?  My school has adopted a more progressive assessment policy in hopes that we embrace the premise that students in Middle School should be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

In Ken O'Connor's book, A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, he talks about the importance of giving students the opportunity to redo work.  He challenges traditional assessment practices which are grounded in the notion that "what's done is done".

I have always believed in a more student friendly approach to assessment.  Over the last few years through reading books like Mr. O'Connor's and adopting new technological tools, I have made signficant strides towards allowing students to view many assessments as, "a work in progress."  In my Design Courses, work is mostly project based.  Students plan, create and reflect on their solutions/products using the Design Cycle.  I want them to realize that with this approach, there is aways opportunity to revisit a project and re-tool your work and way of thinking.  No work in Design Class is every really finished.  So students will sometimes go back and re-vist their Design Portfolios and make changes.  Here is a screencast demostrating how I organize and afford these types of opportunities for students.

If you would like to learn more about some of the tools I used in the screencast, here are some resources to consider:

1.  Google Docs-

2.  Google Drive-

3. -

What are you thoughts, practices and processes when it comes to allowing students to redo assessed work? 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Building Stronger Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities have been around for a few years now and when adopted properly, they can create powerful and rich learning for teachers and more importantly help improve student learning.  This video clip from the Liberty Mutual Responsibility Project demonstrates how groups of people working together can have a positive impact on a community.

I spent that last 3 days at my school learning how to become a "Critical Friend" for other colleagues at my school.  Our training was provided by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), The hope is for our school to strengthen our Professional Learning Communities (PLC) by training a group of us  to be Critical Friends that might fascilitate rich conversations with other teachers or groups of teachers in the school as it pertains to improving student work, lesson planing or solving a pedgagical issue. 

What can a Critical Friend do to strengthen a PLC?   There are several stumbling blocks when it comes to whether a school's PLC is meeting it's objectives of improving student learning and building collegial relationships.  Rarely do PLC develop on their own.  Like any relationship, they may require deliberate effort on the part of the participants.  Critical Friends are trained to help intentionally foster openness to improvement, trust and respect, improve foundation in the knowledge and skills of teaching and support leadership.  The focus on making this happen is learning several "Protocols" that would guide a Critical Friend through a structured process.

The Protocol list provided by the NSRF is impressive and comprehensive.  There are activities that build trust and respect like the ZONE OF COMFORT.   There are also many Protocols that provide guidance and structure for Critical Friends as they work with teachers on improving their practice like EXAMINING STUDENT WORK. All the NSRF Protocols are available for Free at this link

The 3 days of training was very valuable for me as I learn more about how I might strengthen my role at my school in fostering a robust Professional Learning Community.   I appreciated the structure that the Protocols provided in ensuring that conversations with other teachers are meaningful and productive.  Yet, I still am left unsure about how to deal with the reluctant teacher.  Would these Protocols be effective when you have a teacher in your PLC that isn't open or willing to grow and learn?  I still have 2 more days of training in February and I am looking forward to our facilitator addressing this very important issue.  

What has been your experience in dealing with teachers in your PLC's that aren't open to growth?  Do you have any ideas of strategies that might help me and others?


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Thoughts on Assessment: "Is this going to count for marks?"

We have all had our undecided moments in the classroom.  Mine have often been around a common student question, "Mr. Frehlich, does this assignment count for marks?"  When I hear this I pause, and reflect.  If I say, "No", will my students put less effort/enthusiasm into the assignment or project?  Why have we conditioned students to ask this question?  Shouldn't learning be lifelong and therefore marks are irrelevant?

The reality of many middle school classrooms is that marks are relevant and they do act as a barometer for students to decide how much care, effort and detail they contribute to a project or assignment.  Yet, the philosophy of many schools is to create "life long learners", which has little to do with marks and other such rewards and incentives.  I recently watched this TED Talk, about a Marshmallow Challenge,which teaches us that incentives don't always translate into higher performance.

As a teacher for 19 years, I have often wished the students I taught were not so motivated by marks.  In many cases, it brings out the worst in their performance, as it creates extra stress.  As a science teacher, I often have design challenges in my own classroom similar to the one highlighted in the TED video.  In the past, each design challenge had a rubric or marking scheme that was discussed before students embarked on the challenge. Here is an example of a rubric we used for a design challenge to build a structure that cushioned the fall of a water balloon.

Evaluation (9 marks)

The balloon breaks each time and the landing pad is unstable
Balloon breaks once and the landing pad is mostly stable
Balloon does not break on both drops and the landing pad remains stable
Following Specifications
The student follows little to no design rules and procedures
The Student follows most design rules and procedures
The student follows all design rules and procedures
Evaluation and reflection
Little thought, care and effort has been put into the write up and more detail is needed
Some thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with some detail
Significant thought, care and effort has been put into the write up with great detail

In most cases I discuss, collaborate and build the rubric with the students so that the marking criterion is a democratic process.  However this year, it was different.  One student asked, "Mr. Frehlich, do we have to make this challenge worth marks?"  My heart skipped a beat, and I asked the student to repeat the question because I was sure I didn't hear her correctly.  She repeated, "Do we have to make it for marks?  I find it stressful when a mark is associated with these building challenges."  I took a deep breath and said, "No, every challenge doesn't always have to be for marks."  I then asked the rest of the class how they felt. Most agreed, marks often make the challenge more stressful.  So, we revamped the rubric above and changed the numbers into qualifiers like, "expert", "intermediate", and "beginner".  As the TED video suggests, when students are learning a new skill it is important to keep the stakes low.  In the end, the quality of the student structures were even better than when I had used a marking scheme.  Here is a sample of one of the finished structures;

It is time for a change.  There may be other reasons why students are asking this question, "Is this for marks?".   I should not always assume it is because they are looking for an opportunity to contribute less effort.

If you are interested in learning more about how some incentives might weaken our performance on certain tasks, please consider reading Daniel Pink's book, Drive

Friday, February 3, 2012

"You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don't Take": Finding Guest Speakers with Twitter

Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."  This holds true for anything you do in life.  If you are not will to try something, then you will never be successful.

Recently, I decided to take this courageous attitude on twitter.  Twitter is a powerful social media tool because you are able to follow and learn from some very famous and influential people.  Currently, my Grade 9 Science Class is studying water quality, and we watched the following episode from the Canadian Television Series, CBC Marketplace.

After watching this investigative report on water filtration systems, my class had many unanswered questions.  So I decided to tweet the host of the episode, Tom Harrington (@cbctom) and invite him to speak to my class about the episode and see if he would field some of our questions via Skype.  And,  much to my surprise, as I know media personal are very busy people, Tom responding to my tweet within minutes.  You can read our dialog below.

The interview with Tom Harrington was very informative. You can view some of the interview hereMr. Harrington spoke about how investigative journalists have the motto, “we afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.”  In other words, he feels he has a responsibility to speak for Canadians who don’t often have a voice in regard to consumer issues.  Some of the student questions he addressed were: “What do you like best about your investigative journalist position with CBC?” and “How has being an investigative journalist changed your view of Canada?”  

Tom Harrington, like Wayne Gretzky and other great Canadian’s, showed us the importance of going beyond our comfort zone.

 Implications for Educators

With a multitude of people now using twitter the possibilities of extending the walls of your classroom are endless.  Most celebrities/famous people have websites that will list their twitter account.  A teacher could tweet;

1.  the author of a book you are reading in class
2.  the singer/songwriter/composer of song you are doing in music
3.  a person that won a Noble Prize in science
4.  the inventor of a device or machine
5.  a famous artist or sculptor for art class
6.  a professor who is doing research on a topic you are studying
7.  an actor or screenwriter for drama class
8.  a famous athlete for PE class

My advice when making contact with these people is to keep it simple.  In truth most celebrities want to help out but they truly are busy.  So, invite them for an informal low-key event.  Once you have made initial contact, try and communicate more complicated details like time of interview, Skype Names, and other logistics by email.  Try not to involve large groups like the entire school, as this will formalize the event and involve more time for both you and the celebrity.  My Skype session with Tom Harrington will only be 30 minutes long in my own classroom with approximately 40 of my Grade 9 Science Students.  I will use my school laptop, projector, Skype and  Skype recording software like MP3 or Pamela.  Be sure to ask the person you are interviewing for permission to record your Skype session. 

So, what are you waiting for, take that shot!  Get out there and start tweeting!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Teacher Engagement and "Withitness" in the 21st Century Classroom

In the late 1990's, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons came up with a selective attention test.  You can view it here;

You can learn more about this test here, .

In the modern day classroom, how often do we notice the gorilla moving around our room?  The term teacher "withitness" refers to a teacher's ability to be aware of everything that is going on in their classroom, both visual and non-visual, verbal and non-verbal.  Jacob Kounin first used the term in reference to his work on teacher group management skills.  Students have coined the saying, "my teacher has eyes in the back of their head" to refer to this often innate teaching ability.  It is believed that the more "withit" we are as a teacher the more effective we are at maintaining a positive classroom climate conducive to learning.

Why is this the case?  It is my belief,  that teachers, who are aware of everything happening around them can keep students on task and involved, are fully engaged in the learning of the children; they rarely take a moment to themselves during a lesson. These committed educators are constantly moving around the room, coaching, facilitating, scanning, probing, counseling and collaborating with students.  Furthermore, when the students see that these teachers are immersed in their learning, they believe these teachers care and thus they care too!

As more and more classrooms move toward 21st century learning and the infusion of technology into the learning process, what impact does this have on teacher "withitness"?  My initial opinion to this question is "nothing".  The "withit" teacher is still going to be fully engaged in the learning process and reflectively aware of everything that is going on in the classroom.   Before one-to-one laptop programs, the"withit" teacher was aware of every note passed under a desk, every student that was starting to doze off asleep and/or every child that was not feeling "quite right" and needed a little extra TLC.  Yet, in the 21st century classroom, I am hearing about and seeing more teachers sit at their desk doing other things, disengaged from the learning of their students.  Or worse yet, some face-to-face schools are purchasing programs like SynchronEyes, to allow teachers to monitor what  is happening on the screens of their students from their desk instead of taking the opportunity to engage in student learning by moving around the room, asking questions, coaching, facilitating and getting to know their learners.

I believe that 21st century learning can give students the opportunity to engage in learning opportunities that were not possible a few years ago, but not at the expense of teacher engagement.  If we start to foster disengaging habits, like sitting at our desk for long periods of time, we are going to miss the gorilla in the room!