Archive for Collaboration

It Takes a Village … to Build a Playground!

As anyone who has ever been involved in imagining a new playground at a school can attest to it is a marathon, not a sprint!

Several years ago the parent fundraising society – F.O.G.S. (Friends of Greystone Society) began the journey to build some new playground structures at Greystone. They envisioned a place that students in middle years would want to play on, be active, visit and enjoy for years to come.

Then came the planning, the budgeting, and the fundraising, oh the fundraising. Casinos, bake sales and everything else you can imagine went on in order to make the vision a reality. Many families contributed to these fundraising opportunities, and without the support of fundraisers and the community, this playground would never have become a reality.

Now we’re on the homestretch — the building phase. We have had some incredibly dedicated organizers and volunteers who have come out and put in hours of organizing and back-breaking labour in order to create a new play structure for GCMS. We have also had the support of numerous local businesses through donations and discounts that have made this project possible.

The build dates have been postponed from time to time, the weather has been chilly, the ground has been muddy — but the playground is coming together with the help from so many members of the GCMS village. It is going to be so wonderful to see our students being active and playing on the new equipment, that wouldn’t be there if not for the committment and hard work of the community.

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Feedback Promotes Growth for Both Students & Our First Year Teacher – Courtney Albrecht, LC5 Teacher

Thank you for sharing your learning from the year, Courtney!

Professional Growth Plan – Year End Reflection
Posted on May 27, 2015
As the end of the year draws near, it is time for me to reflect upon my personal Professional Growth Plan goal.

My admin has asked for me to please comment on the following:

How did you do with the goals you set for yourself at the start of this year and/or what unexpected learning happened for you?
What questions do you still have about this?
In thinking ahead to next year – what might you do to continue to push your learning in this area?
Personal Goal
Goal: To become a reflective practitioner in order to demonstrate personal and promote student growth.
TQS Reference: Teacher’s ongoing analysis of the context, and the teacher’s decisions about which pedagogical knowledge and abilities to apply result in optimum learning by students.

1. At the beginning of this year, it was an overwhelming experience to meet a new team who was getting to know each other and for half of us getting to know the school at the same time. As a teacher new to the profession, this was a moment for me to really stop and think about what I needed for success this year. In setting the goal for myself to become a more reflective practitioner, I did not realize how important things like blogging would become for me. Weekly class blog posts and personal blog posts became a way for me to look back and plan for my class and professionally. I started participating in weekly Twitter chats and a book club via Voxer and Twitter. It was an amazing way for me to receive immediate feedback from peers across the globe. I started to connect with more people and built my self-confidence to take the risks my students needed me to take for our classroom and their learning. I started to reach out to my grade level team and share my ideas. I also started to seek feedback from my teaching teams – LC 5 and French. I became confident and aware of myself as a teacher and as I pushed myself, I also pushed my students to grow as learners. I see such a difference in their ability to reflect and self-assess.

As I became more comfortable with my team and my teaching, the students started to show their own confidence in their learning by pushing themselves to deeper levels in their thinking and appreciating the opportunity to collaborate. Most importantly for me as an educator, I now have my own reflections to look back upon and share and I have shown my students the importance on reflecting as well. Together we tried new things and when they didn’t work, we stopped and looked back at how we could fix them or how we could move forward from them. As one of my students said recently during a project “just because it didn’t work out the way we planned, we still learned from it and if we were to redo it, we could fix it or we can remember what we learned for the next project”.

2. My biggest question is how can I take the culture of feedback and collaboration I have built-in my class and bring it with me into my teaching and working with my colleagues? I would like to find a way to build in opportunities for professional feedback from other teachers on different grade level teams. Feedback is such an important part of who I am as a professional. While I appreciate the feedback I receive from my PLN outside of the school/district, the value of receiving feedback from someone who understands the school context is priceless to me.

3. I’d like to find ways to collaborate more with different grades and different schools, which is something I have started to look into lately. I’d also like to strive to share best practices with more people by finding times to connect with other teachers from different grades or schools.

Greystone Hosts Our First Learning Day

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We stepped outside of our comfort zone at Greystone as we opened the doors to our school and our classrooms for a day of learning together last Friday. Our students and staff “walked the talk” of making our learning public, transparent and meaningful as we invited educators from our School Division and beyond to co-create a day of shared learning. Fifty teachers, administrators, district superintendents moved in and out of our classrooms talking to our students and staff about how learning is being made purposeful, deep and intellectually engaging at Greystone. We shared our practices and asked for feedback around the following topics:

– Formative Assessment through feedback loops, co-creating criteria, sharing learning intentions
– Thinking Strategies including Questioning, Socratic Circles, See-Think-Wonder, Chalk Talk and Debate
– Inquiry Projects that embed the Alberta Education Competencies
– Team Teaching
– Innovation Week
– Teacher Collaboration and Planning Time
– Flexible Block Scheduling
– Looping
– Alternative Classroom Design & Flexible Groupings of Students
– Mindfulness
– Bring Your Own Device Initiative

The day included sharing and conversation from our guests, too, as they joined and/or facilitated informal “EdCamp Style” discussions in the afternoon.

The highlight of the day was definitely our students! Our guests shared feedback with us about how well our students were able to speak the language of their learning as they described the work they are doing and the purpose behind it.

Congratulations to our Greystone Family for creating a day of memorable learning for each other and our guests. Thanks to all of our guests for joining us. Here are a few tweets from the day:

Bridge Building – An Inquiry into Structural Engineering and Design

“If I didn’t have to go back to my work at the University, I would be working here in this school…it is amazing!”

This message was shared with me by a guest to Greystone, the Communications Director from the University of Alberta Engineering Department, who was writing a story about the partnership between University Students and Greystone Students for the University’s newsletter/website.

Sometimes I forget how amazing it is to work in a school where the energy is contagious, the commitment to student engagement and deep, meaningful learning is pervasive and the network of support and collaboration among colleagues is a priority. This was evident throughout a recent project undertaken by our Learning Community 7 team of teachers and students who came to the end of their Bridge Building Inquiry today. The work culminated with a final visit from University of Alberta Engineering Students, who served as experts to our students by providing them with ongoing feedback on the bridge structures they were designing as their “companies” developed proposals for the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton.

This inquiry process highlighted the critical components of a successful, student driven, inquiry based learning experience as it included the following:

-guiding question to create student engagement in the learning
-immersion in the topic through exposure to a real world context for the learning –>the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton
-opportunity to connect with experts in the field–>architect from the Walterdale Bridge Project met with our students and students asked powerful questions designed to deepen their understanding of the bridge being built in Edmonton; Structural Engineer came to speak with students about bridge construction and his company offered cash prizes to student “companies” that could meet the criteria for bridge design; University of Alberta Engineering Students who mentored our students through the project
-ongoing feedback loops embedded into the design of this project to ensure students were meeting the criteria for the various components of the project (blueprint design, budget, invoice, process reflections, planning and delivery of presentation, proposal, bridge construction)
-multiple check ins with students to ensure each member of the Bridge Project Team was fulfilling his/her responsibilities
-field trip to the site of the new Walterdale Bridge to gather more information using direct observations

The 125 students and 5 teachers celebrated the end of a challenging, collaborative effort to go deeper into their understanding of structures and bridge design that proved to be about much more than “covering” Science outcomes. Through this project, students developed skills in goal setting, organization and planning, budgeting, collaboration and teamwork, persuasive proposal writing, presentation development and public speaking, gathering research, reflection, time management and perseverance.The culminating activity was a final visit from the Engineering Student Mentors who assessed the top Bridge “companies” on their ability to deliver a bridge design that had excellent aesthetics, demonstrated strength and was cost efficient. Seeing the enthusiasm as students came to the end of a successful process AND final product was inspiring – congratulations to Learning Community 7 for raising the bar on the work we do to provide deep learning at Greystone.

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Making our Learning Public

We have had an incredible start to this school year. A big focus has been to get our learning out there to the world beyond the walls of Greystone – and this is really taking off right now with most classes blogging and/or sharing their learning on Twitter. Here are a few highlights from the past week.

Our Retiring Teacher ~ A Lifelong Learner

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I have had the privilege of working with Dale Johnston for the past nine years at Greystone Centennial Middle School. Dale has set the bar high for what it means to be a collaborative, team player and lifelong learner. During the time I have known Dale, he has demonstrated enthusiasm for learning from his colleagues and has been highly reflective in his practice, continuing to grow and become stronger each year as he pursues powerful learning for his students. Dale has also contributed to the learning of his colleagues. He is someone who staff regularly seek out for advice. Students love Dale as he is always ready to coach a team or provide an opportunity for them to get together in his room and just hang out. We will miss Dale at Greystone but I am sure that no matter where he goes or what interests he pursues next, he will continue to be a keen learner along the way.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection

For Dale Johnston

June 2014

This year I had the benefit of working with the same team and students which limited the transition at the beginning of the year, and allowed me to quickly draw on the strengths of my team members. Our team time focus this year was more on collaborative planning on larger projects.  We tried to spend less time on discussing daily lessons which had its trade-offs. Due to the increased distance between learning spaces we did not congregate for short informal chats after school like we did in the first year of our loop. Those chats allowed us to share daily successes and challenges and clarify the various shared lessons we were using. Although we knew each other better due to our looping practices, I think we missed out on the intimate communication that should be done face to face to allow for clarification and confirmation of next steps. It was one of those informal practices that only gets noticed when the opportunity disappears.

My primary focus for growth this year was to continue in the use of inquiry and establish practices that would make student understanding more visible. My hope was to gain a better understanding of what student strengths were, demonstrated through daily shared learning in class and confirmed on assessments.  I could then revise my own teaching strategies, to support the areas that students demonstrated were in need of growth, in a timely manner.

During my previous PGP meeting I shared my concerns about multiple choice assessment questions that did not encourage my students to show their thought process. During the discussion that followed, it was emphasized how I needed to instil the motivation required, to encourage students to show their thought process.  I was provided with advice on how to ensure that students would make their thought process clear for these types of assessment tools. Since assessment drives instruction and learning, it was necessary for me to adjust the scoring of questions so that the answer was only one of many possible marks for each question. The result was students responded to the changes by drawing tables and charts or images to demonstrate their thought process. They also displayed equations that were used at various stages in the solution process. Since marks were available for demonstrating the problem solving strategies used from start to finish, students also got into the habit of highlighting or underlining the important information in the problem. So what was the result of all of this?

  • Students were given credit for understanding various decisions that went into the problem solving process. This motivated them to demonstrate even a partial process (rather than simply estimate an answer without any evidence). Overall scores improved and students engaged in conversations about how their results improved.
  • The demonstration of process allowed me to recognize where instruction had been successfully grasped and provided me clues on where my instruction needed improvement.
  • Follow-up after the initial assessment allowed students to respond to alternate strategies and methods, prior to writing a similar assessment.
  • Re-evaluating their ability to solve multi-step problems provided in a multiple choice format on re-writes afforded me the chance to compare instructional strategies to utilize in upcoming lessons.
  • Students were encouraged to show their own unique strategies derived from connections they had made with previous learning.  Sometimes these strategies were embraced by the class since they had all been exposed to the previous learning.
  • This example of interdependent learning was encouraged but credit must be given to the students who took the risk to expose their unique problem solving process.

Showing process was not a goal limited to Math only. During our Evidence and Investigation unit in Science, students were provided opportunities to carry out finger printing, hand writing analysis and chromatography experiments. Throughout the experiments it was reinforced that the process of testing each criteria was the critical piece and that the final answer was simply the conclusion of the process.  Students who demonstrated these steps, were reward on their performance based assessment. The performance based assessment that had been created earlier by our team and revised from previous use to focus on process and inference was carried out in a collaborative setting.  This allowed students to ask new questions based on their initial results (an important aspect of Science we refer to as focus). Students who bought into the process and demonstrated their step by step analysis were rewarded with exceptional marks. This effective assessment tool still needs more revisions though since some students did not recognize the need to show the necessary analysis of all measurable evidence to come up with their conclusions (and it showed in their marks). Prior exposure to the detailed score sheet I utilized would have encouraged more students to show their process (but unfortunately it was not ready to share until after the assessment was completed). This was an opportunity lost and is a tool available if others choose to use this effective assessment.

In addition to the focus on demonstrating process, our team continued the school-wide focus on Inquiry. Inquiry was evident in three of the core subjects as projects in Humanities and Science provided students the opportunity to create their own guiding questions and then create meaning from the resulting research. Current Events and Greek Week were used to promote inquiry in Humanities. Sky Science afforded two opportunities for our students to present research on constellations and a planet of their choosing. My use of additional structure in these projects this year (regular feedback, rubrics and exemplars) was evident, since most students responded to the concepts we were measuring. The Sky Science projects had been used in the past with success and were ideal platforms to utilize inquiry. Unfortunately I was absent for the final days of Greek Week and missed the showcase and the stories students shared about their projects. Earlier projects in Science (Forest Management Project, Planet 11 Project) utilized inquiry and were excellent opportunities to engage in inference.  The Forest Management Project offered us the opportunity to engage in collaborative assessment since students were shifted to various classrooms to interact with other student groups. Collaborating during evaluation on LC wide common assessments is a topic I would like to reflect on next.

I feel we missed out on some valuable opportunities including ongoing collaborative evaluation by our team. This would include follow-up revisions to assessment practices based on patterns demonstrated in student results. The rare times that we did collaborate for evaluation purposes (team time used to evaluate the Language Arts Part A test) the team was afforded the opportunities to reflect on common assessment standards and what constituted proficient verses approaching proficient. Even with the use of exemplars and rubrics, there was plenty of dialogue requesting second opinions to verify our decisions. This is a time consuming process but one I felt was valuable for my own assessment practices. I believe it is essential for us to use assessment and results to drive our instruction and any meaningful dialogue we can have on common assessments is time well spent.

Although our team had many successes, I think that many new challenges came to our attention and will be addressed in the near future. What I have really appreciated over the past few years is the mindset in our building that seeking help with teaching practices is an opportunity for shared growth. Our teaching staff has consistently demonstrated enthusiasm when we come to them for guidance or simply a second opinion on learning strategies. It helps me reflect on my own practices when people consult me and I continually find better ways to improve the learning environment in my classroom. It makes a difference since we are constantly challenged to guide our students through more meaningful learning experiences.

Seems like a strange time to retire with so many opportunities to grow as an educator, with the necessary support network in place to ensure success.

New Role ~ New Teams ~ New Learning

 

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Trish Spink joined our school Leadership Team this year as she took on the role of our Inclusive Education Lead Teacher. In addition, Trish demonstrated her incredible flexibility and collaborative spirit by team teaching in Learning Community 6. Trish and her teaching team re-designed our Media Centre to accommodate two classes of students. Working more closely with Trish this year and seeing her non-stop enthusiasm, proactive and supportive approach with students, families and colleagues has been a real highlight of my year!

Reflection – Trish Spink 2013/2014

 The Risks I Took:

Taking the Inclusive Education position was a risk for me.  I remember when I was approached with this opportunity my initial thought was that I could never do this alone and I now know that I was right. What I learned this year is that I didn’t have to do it alone, and with the support of an amazing team I loved this position.  The constant communication and collaboration made it so I always knew the direction to take and had confidence in my ability to do what was best.  I also appreciated and grew from the encouragement for ongoing professional development and learning.   A highlight has been working closely with Administration, our Learning Coach and outside services to provide students and families extra support.  I have seen the benefits of how wrap around services can improve learning and promote health and wellness.  By taking this risk and with the amazing support, I realize that I am thrilled to continue this career path.

What I Loved:

This year I had the chance to work with and on many different teams.  A highlight has been team teaching.  Not only did I share a classroom space but I also shared my students.  In the beginning I struggled a bit with giving up control but I soon saw the benefits and realized that we were a natural fit.  I believe that being able to utilize flexible groupings allowed us to better meet the needs of our students and support all types of learners.  We were able to build upon each other’s strengths and this was evident in our student’s growth and in the supportive learning environment within our classroom community.  My students have become more independent and their thinking skills have matured as a result of this environment.

What I am Proud of:

The past two years part of my professional growth has been having my students develop good questioning skills. This year my students continued to develop this skill and I am proud of the quality of their learning.  We have been very conscientious to start each learning task with questioning and there has been a natural progression to where our students are now more capable of coming up with good questions.  Collectively our team has created dynamic learning tasks where the students have interacted with various skills in order to reach their end learning product. I am also very proud of our progression with technology because we have made it meaningful for the students and it has enhanced their learning.

What I Learned Along the Way:

I have learned many important things and have once again been reminded not to take anything for granted and that my life and my work is a gift. I love to work hard, play hard and “not sweat the small stuff.”

The Power of Professional Learning and Communication

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Laura Robert has just finished her third year with us at Greystone Centennial Middle School. This year, Laura worked with our youngest students at Greystone in Learning Community 5. Laura brought so much to her students and her team this year – her caring, thoughtful nature, her desire to continuously learn and her commitment to collaboration with her colleagues. Laura also spear headed our school’s “We Care Team” sharing her desire to help our students make a difference in the lives of others outside of our school community.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-14 ~ Laura Robert

Communication Goal

At the start of the year I made a goal to develop effective communication with my students and their parents in order to ensure the establishment of positive relationships that would lay a foundation for their learning at Greystone. I wanted to especially focus on the aspects of collaboration and evidence. With so many avenues for communication available I found that I had to adjust my approach depending on the needs of the student or parent.

 

Many families responded that they appreciated the Remind 101 texting system, notes, letters, agendas, and emails that provided them with general updates throughout the year. Families actively utilized the availability of email to stay in touch, address concerns, or let me know about things my students were dealing with at home. I feel they appreciated how quickly I tried to respond, making myself available if they had a question or concern.

 

I was able to create a classroom blog that provided families with day to day activities, upcoming curriculum, concepts, or studies, and evidence of the students’ opportunities to learn in class. All of us in LC5 even started to push the envelope further and assist our students in creating their own school blogs where they could journal and reflect on their personal learning. Although I feel this form of communication has some of the greatest potential I do not feel it was as successful as I had originally hoped. After putting a lot of thought and effort into making this an informative tool very few families would make a point of visiting my blog, or their child’s blog on a regular basis. Without an invested audience my response was to spend more time on other ways  of communicating with students and parents. I have been planning strategies for improving my own consistency with the blog posting and develop ways to give families more incentive to connect through blogs (focusing on the evidence of learning-shown through their child’s blog posts) and by sending regular links and questions out through our blog for families to go over at home.

 

The comment based report cards given each term provides students and families with far more than just a vague generalization of their marks. Instead the report cards that we produce pinpoint specific skills within each discipline, and evaluate a student’s level of independent competency in each individual area. I tell my students and their families that the most valuable part of these report cards are the detailed comments. I felt confident that the comments I made for each of my students clearly identified their individual learning.  I connected the key words discussed within class (based on our poster “What are we learning today?”) to guide these observations and recommendations. Although these comments are simply a snapshot of the students’ learning, it was an opportunity to communicate with, initiate important conversations, and gain support from many parents who strived to work with me to assist their child in meeting these goals!

 

Effective communication was especially vital when working with my grade 5 teaching team. Although the idea of working with 6 other very independent and unique individuals (most of whom I had never met before this year) seemed quite daunting, it turned out to be a winning combination! Each day everyone brought everything they had to the table, and invested all of themselves into each other and “our kids.” The excitement of working in tangent with these accomplished teachers who were willing to put themselves on the line, learn something new, or take a risk help me grow as a teacher. We developed solutions for accomplishing tasks more efficiently, and utilizing the team time in our time table by dividing our group into two parts. Communication was especially important between these groups to ensure that consistency was not lost in this gap. Although it was a challenge we established multiple routes of connecting with each other including joint google docs., consistent emails, sharing of resources, and of course the very best…spending quality time face to face with each other. We all seemed to enjoy moments to connect, and would seek out opportunities to get to know each other on a professional and personal level. We appreciated each others differences, and encouraged each other when things were difficult. I believe this positive and trusting relationship among the teachers was often reflected in the culture developed within our pod. The consistency and support for each other provided our students with an understanding of expectations and clear boundaries. Joan, Ashley, Derek, April, Jessica, Luke, and I  went through a lot together this year, and working with them (along with others in the school) has made this year one of the best in my teaching career!

 

I believe that our students are set up for optimum success when there is close communication between families, teachers, educational assistants, administration, and others. In this way there is a community established that works with the student to foster a secure learning environment with plenty of opportunities the student can choose to embrace. I have learned a lot this year about developing individualized routes of communication and support that has established a strong foundation of trust in our school. I plan to continue to strengthen the relationships I have built with my teaching colleagues, my students and their families into the coming year!

Personal Professional Development Opportunity Highlights

This spring I was given the opportunity to attend the Innovate West conference in Calgary at the Connect Charter School. The most beneficial part of this conference was getting to interact with students from the Connect Charter school within their classrooms, and listening to them describe their learning process. It was very exciting to see how eloquently they spoke about their learning, and how they had developed critical thinking strategies. One of our sessions Jeff Couillard led a discussion about how to transform our ideas to opportunities within the classroom. Instead of just generating broad dreams for the future, he gave us planners that could organize our thoughts into tangible plans for implementation. Some of us who attended this session from Greystone have already started to use this guide to structure a program to promote cyber citizenship next year, which could be joined with our health curriculum. Another session I attended was called Pinning down the “unpindownable”: Assessing Creativity. Erin Quinn and Stephanie Bartlett led this collaborative demonstration of how to foster creative ideas, while still coming alongside students and facilitating an open discussion with them to help develop goals for improving their skills. Another notable session I attended was one led by Ryan Siemens and Jen Friske. They described their experience facilitating concept driven (rather than topic focused) curriculum in order to develop more internationally minded students. I felt challenged and inspired by the keynote speakers like Michelle Baldwin, Josh Hill, and Brad Ovenell-Carter…but even more so through conversations with other educators and my co-workers, whose drive to guide innovation and learning was electrifying!

 

Through our annual teachers convention I learned from a variety of well-versed speakers. One of these amazing speakers was Erin Gruwell (Achieving the Impossible: Become a Catalyst for Change), who teaches groups of students who have been pigeon-holed as “unteachable.” Even as a young teacher she was able to break through the tough exteriors of these inner city kids to help redirect their lives. The avenue they chose for escaping was “The Freedom Writers Diary.” This speaker brought me back to my first teaching job at Bosco Homes Academy working with high school students “at the end of the road.” I remembered the faces of my students who had been hurt by the world, and needed a way out. For a couple of these students writing and art had been their release. I also attended sessions like Shelagh Rogers’ who spoke on mental illness and creating healthier work spaces and Oliver Samonte who provided tools to teach students who spoke English as their second language. I attended the session led by Jesse McLean where he described the alternative classroom designs our school has been exploring, and even though I had seen many of our “softer” classrooms in action, it was very interesting to hear the responses from other interested teachers. One of the most amazing opportunities was listening to Eva Olsson describe her life as a Holocaust survivor in WWII. She spoke on how we each have the responsibility to pass on a legacy of caring, compassion and character to those we teach. She spoke on needing courage and determination to overcome prejudice attitudes. Through her whole talk the audience was enraptured, awestruck, by this tiny woman who had decided that she could no longer be silent about the pain she had suffered, and the message of resilience she was compelled to share. I felt overwhelmed and empowered at the same time, knowing I was truly blessed to learn from these amazing teachers!

 

I really appreciated the thought and purpose behind our Greystone Professional Development days this year as well! I felt that from the very first retreat kick off, there was a clear goal to develop and foster collaboration and camaraderie between teachers, teams, and administration at Greystone. The planning time we were given was extremely effective in establishing trust, and initiating some incredible ideas we could put to work in our classrooms. One of my favorite PD days at Greystone was when Rapid Fire Theatre group was brought in to work with the staff. This provided us with an opportunity to step out of our comfort zone, and recognize how this often feels to our students. I brought away from this experience a realization that a simple look, word, or even closed body language could put barriers up and discourage a student…or how the opposite could encourage them to take risks! This was the best year for PD because of the fitness and interaction nature of the lunches! The majority of our staff members participated in various unique activities from yoga, Tai Chi, Basketball, to even an enormous omnikin ball game. These are not just “fun” and “games,” but it is time for our staff to connect on a personal level, and develop a community of trust. Although all of us have different experiences and often different opinions, I believe that there is loyalty and respect among our staff that guides the dedicated work ethic within and sense of family within our school.

Putting Passion into the Learning

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Kathy Kennedy has been teaching at Greystone for the past nine years (minus a couple of maternity leaves along the way). I have had the privilege of working with Kathy even before we both came to Greystone. Over all of these years spent working together, I have watched her become an exceptional learner, leader and teacher. As a mom, she shares an important perspective that contributes to her deeper understanding of each learner in her classroom. She is a dynamic, thoughtful, FUNNY teacher and her students love her!

2013 – 2014 School Year Reflection

Wow!  What an incredible and challenging year it has been for me professionally and personally.  As the summer of 2013 ended, I came into this school year excited to get back and continue my learning and strengthen my teaching from the previous year.  I had learned so much about teaching and learning, from my oldest son and my students.  I couldn’t wait to continue to strive for putting passion into the learning (like we successfully did last year with our 9/11 Inquiry project).  Why?  My biggest fear is that one day my son will come home from school and tell me he hates it!  It is with this fear, I continue to challenge the “old school” methods of teaching/learning and consistently reflect on what I want to see for both of my sons in the future.  I want them to learn because they want too, not because they have too.

I started off the school year with the focus on building relationships with my students and their respective families; to create a classroom environment where every student was comfortable to make mistakes and learn from them, and to find something this year that would emotionally invest my students in their own learning.

After building the foundational routines and expectations needed and getting to know my students and their academic and social/emotional needs I became very frustrated.  Unfortunately, with the system we had in place, I knew I wasn’t meeting the needs or even building the relationships with the grade 7’s like I wish I could.  We had 5 grade seven classes, and it felt like we were herding them from class to class like cattle.  I was teaching two grade seven classes Language Arts and three grade seven classes Social Studies – there was no room / time for curriculum integration, team-teaching, deeper learning inquiry projects, etc… because of our schedule. The focus of our teaching became content vs. skills because the variety of learners I had in one room was so difficult to plan and prepare for.  For example, I had reading levels in one room that began at a grade two reading level all the way up to a grade nine reading level.  Choosing literature to study in my class became very challenging, as I knew for some it would be way above their level and for others not academically challenging enough. 

After much discussion with our staff (as I wasn’t the only one frustrated), we decided to make a very bold change – to group our students based on their learning styles and skills they need to develop in the areas of literacy and numeracy.  This would allow us to be more flexible and target the learning to the specific skills students needed to work on / develop.  We changed our schedule, and every teacher in grades 7,8, and 9 became a numeracy and literacy teacher.  It was from these changes that I have learned the following:

1)     How to collaborate!  Up until the changes, I really only had to collaborate with my teaching partner, Lynn.  We both are Humanities and very similar in our teaching practices… naturally it was easy!  As soon as the changes happened, I quickly learned that collaborating with 5 other teachers for our Numeracy, Literacy, and Social/Science inquiry was extremely difficult.  There just was never enough time, and we found our meetings full of conflict and frustration.  After Spring Break, things changed, and we started to learn to pull out and rely on each other’s strengths and use them to be productive within the time limits we had.

 

2)     Emotional investment from a student does not have to exclusively involve exciting content to learn.  Last year, I left the year thinking it did (due to our 9/11 project), but I have learned this year that most students will also become emotionally involved if they are feeling success!  An example of this is with my Math class.  Before the changes, there was a student in my homeroom who hated math.  Now, with going at a pace she needs, breaking it down for her understanding, etc… she comes each day to class and is emotionally involved in her learning.  How do I know this?  She comes to class with her homework consistently complete, puts up her hand to give an answer (something she never did before), and has also told me that she likes Math class now.   Her “buy in” is not because she loves fractions, including adding or subtracting them, it is because she is feeling success! (By the way, this is only one example of the many in my room).

 

3)     Feedback, Feedback, Feedback!  For a student to also become emotionally involved in their learning, they need the chance / time to fail and also take risks; they need to know clearly what the expectations are for any given task, and they also need to understand what the purpose is.  Through modelling, practicing and getting formative feedback quickly, I have learned that students’ quality of work increases dramatically.  For example, Lynn and I have spent, literally, 6 months working with our students to make strong connections to something they have read to a personal experience, another text, or the world.  We began by modelling it with our class (we did it with 3 different short stories), then we allowed them to practice it with a read aloud (which we provided teacher and peer feedback), and finally we have now had them practice on their own through two different novel studies.  Through both of these novel studies, we have also continued to give feedback, and have had many discussions within our classroom about how we can make them even better.  I am astounded by the quality of work and level of thinking our students are demonstrating… it is way higher than I ever imagined!  In previous years, I would never have spent so much time on one significant reading skill, but today I feel every moment was worth it for my students.  Feedback and the time to learn / build upon mistakes allowed our students to feel successful; therefore, they also become more emotionally involved in their learning.

 

4)     I love looping!  For a teacher who knows they are going to teach the same group for two years, the investment and time building relationships and expectations with students and families becomes much more worthwhile.  Not only that, but we also have the time to really focus on the skills our students need to be successful (vs. content), and be able to take the time (not rush) to build these skills so our students are better prepared for their academic futures.  I loved that as an LC 7 team, we have really spent the time “training our troops,” as it is going to make the beginning of next year flow more smoothly!

Although it has been a very challenging year (with all the changes, teaching multiple subjects not necessarily in my comfort zone, etc…) I have enjoyed looking back and reflecting on the positive learnings that have happened for me as a teacher versus the negative struggles we have gone through!  I am looking forward to continue learning next year, and hopefully continue to help with the push to change our approach to student learning and curriculum re-design!

Lessons Learned from the Year

photo 2-11

Brad Arndt looped up with his students from grade 7 to teach them in grade 8 this year. Brad also decided to enter into a team teaching situation this year with a colleague. Together, these two teachers created a highly engaging, responsive and flexible Learning Community for our students. It is awesome to see Brad embracing different opportunities in his own practice in order to provide students with the best possible learning environment.

PGP Year End Reflections from 2013/14 ~ Brad Arndt

My professional growth is something I take very seriously. I feel professional growth is an important area of focus for a few reasons. One, I think being a great teacher means building strong, important relationships. Two, I understand that effective teachers engage students in deep meaningful learning and; three, I believe, most of all, that the best teachers turn students into engaged, ethical, empathic citizens. Indeed, these are no small feats! Therefore, reflecting on my professional growth is never an easy task for me.  I have a perfectionist streak and tend to be fairly critical of myself when I look back over the year.  However, for this reflection, I want to keep the ideas positive. I want to focus on the accomplishments of the year and what those accomplishments have taught me. I want to reflect on how my successes may have brought me just a little bit closer to being one of those teachers who has significant impacts on students long after they leave the walls of our building.   In order to do this effectively I have separated this reflection into three areas. First, I will discuss the things I felt went well for me this year.  Secondly, I want to focus on a few of the lessons I learned from those successes this year.  Finally, I want to touch on the things that helped me learn all of those valuable lessons.  In the end, I want to be able to make the learning experiences of the past year more engrained and concrete for myself.  

A Few of the Things That Went Well This Year

 

After thinking about the individual successes over the past ten months, I quickly realized that they fit into three categories.  The first success I want to touch on was the success I had with team teaching and collaboration.  Team teaching and collaboration with good teachers might be one of the best and most effective learning tools I have come across in my professional development; however,  it can also be a risky form of learning. When the idea of working in a team teaching environment was presented to me, I had a number of fears. You have to be comfortable with the idea of being exposed as a teacher. You have to know how to handle feedback (yes, both the good and the bad) and you certainly have to be compatible in teaching styles or you might be in for a very long year.  However, if you can get around those challenges, you will be in for a exceptionally rewarding year as a teacher.  The discussions I have had this year regarding best practices in teaching were not always easy, but they were always informative.  At times opinions can vary drastically, but we always managed to keep the personal and emotional feelings out of the conversations. We managed to keep the discussion and debates focused around ideas.  I can’t even count how many times the discussion ended without a clear understanding or resolution of conflicting ideas, only to go home, reflect and come back the next day with a clearer picture and understanding of each other’s point of view.  This debating, discussing and reflecting process is exceptionally informative and I really enjoy the challenging and stimulating team environment it creates.  Overall, I feel this is such a great learning experience that I would recommend that all teachers work in team teaching classrooms at some point in their careers.  There are also a number of other benefits to team teaching that add to the success of this experience.  The students really benefit because they have two adults providing perspectives, feedback, and differing teaching styles.  This maximizes the learning the students can achieve.  It also means the number and frequency of check-ins are significantly increased.  The workload is shared for so many of the day to day management and organizational tasks teachers face. Finally, there are the sanity breaks of getting to touch base with another adult throughout the day.  It’s refreshing after talking to thirteen year olds for the majority of the day to have another adult to talk to in your classroom most of the time.  Ultimately, team teaching is both highly efficient and an exceptionally powerful learning tool.

 

The second success I want to reflect on and share is the success I feel that I am having in my math classes.  Mathematics has been a significant part of my teaching assignments every year that I have taught. While my education background is primarily in the sciences, I am finding some really great and exciting growth in my numeracy classes.  This year I have tried various groupings in math classes, both early in the year and then again with our levelled numeracy groups for the second half of the year. During each of these different situations, I have noticed an increase in the level of student engagement and student growth in mathematics.  These benefits have come from a wide variety of students.  I have a group of eighth grade students who have a history of struggling in mathematics. They have started to have some success and a change in attitude towards learning math concepts.  I have a group of high achieving eighth grade math students who have responded to more challenging material with engaging and passionate discussions about how and why specific math ideas work or don’t work.  Many of these discussions allow for the students to see that there are often multiple ways to work through a math problem and therefore, they are developing a deeper understanding of the topics being covered. After seeing some of these successes, I have, of course, reflected on why I have been seeing these changes in the students’ attitudes towards mathematics.  After considerable reflection and discussions with other amazing math teachers I am starting to think that there are three reasons I am seeing this success in my math classes.  The first is something I have being working on from my very first year of teaching.  I have been trying to focus on delivering math ideas from multiple perspectives.  I have been focusing on the why and how the steps in a math process work, along with a heavy investment in modelling math concepts with visual and tactile representations of the step by step processes.  I really feel that this is giving the students multiple ways to access the concepts and to take their understanding of mathematics deeper.  Secondly, I have made a very conscious effort to provide helpful feedback and check-ins very regularly in math classes.  I am almost never at my desk during class these days. I am floating around the room having meaningful discussions with students.  Students are seeking these discussions not only with myself but are starting to turn to their peers to get help.  After teaching math for four years I am finding I have a strong grasp as to where students are likely to make errors when learning new concepts, and I am able to catch these mistakes early on or, in some cases, avoid them altogether by using well timed feedback and discussions. The third thing I have found that has been helping me find success in mathematics teaching is the attempt to make more of my lessons have a practical application, or be more authentic or real life.  This allows the students to become more engaged in the concepts.  These types of lessons take a fair bit of work but even just a few of these lessons make a difference to the students in my class.  I feel like, while I haven’t done as many of these types of lessons as I would like, I have been attempting to have at least one or two per topic studied.  Connecting the learning to something practical helps give the concept meaning for the students.  Even a small amount of this type of application makes a difference to students’ interest and engagement.  

 

The third success I want to highlight is the extra curricular and special events that I took part in with the students this year.  Some of my favourites include: Sun Run, Rabbit Hill Ski and Snowboard Club, Marmot Basin, Challenge Day, TWOS (Body Worlds exhibit), Skills Canada, Track and Field, and our LC 8 fundraisers for our year end Jasper trip.  All of these events are critical to building meaningful relationships with the students I teach.  These relationships transfer into the classroom and help the students develop Citizenship and Social Responsibility.  Furthermore, these events help students find a little more enjoyment in coming to school.  It is in these moments that I see the biggest smiles, the best attitudes, engaged excitement and even some really great learning.  These are the memories the students will think of when they remember the middle school years later in life and I am proud to be a part of so many of them.  I also love these experiences because it allows me to share my passions, and curiosities with the students. They see me getting “nerdy” about something and hopefully they see that it’s good to be yourself and it’s okay to be curious and interested in many different aspects of life. I like to think it is these types of activities that build the engaged, ethical, empathic citizens I talked about at the beginning of this reflection.  

A Brief Summary of the Lessons I Learned This Year

 

  1. The importance of relationships and collaboration for growth

  2. The importance of feedback for growth

  3. The importance of reflection for growth

If you take a quick look back at these three lessons that I have learned this year you  will quickly realize that all three apply to both professional growth and to student growth.  I have learned these things from the positive experiences I have had over the course of the year.  In the past, I may have focused on my shortcomings and what those have taught me. However, I really enjoyed the process of focusing on the positive a little more this time around. I feel like the lessons are as important to my growth, maybe even a little more important than the lessons I learned from focusing on the negatives.  

    4. The importance of focusing on the positive!

A Brief List of the Tools That Helped Me Learn These Lessons This Year

  • Team Collaborators  (LC 8 Team, GCMS Team, Design Team, and PSD70 Team).  

  • Really Great PD Opportunities (Google Summit, Convention, IDEAS Conference – especially the Ewan McIntosh workshop, wow)

Online PLC’s (Twitter, TED, Zite, Edutopia and Te@chthought)

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