Archive for Learning Through Inquiry Projects

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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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.

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!

Looping, Team Teaching and Inquiry

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Jenna Wilkins is finishing the second year of her teaching career. She has been working with our Learning Community 8 students this year after teaching the same group of students last year in grade 7. Jenna’s non-stop energy and enthusiasm for learning with students and colleagues along with her commitment to “unlearning” traditional practices in order to engage her learners is inspiring!

Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-14 ~ Jenna Wilkins

I know this feeling probably only intensifies as you continue on in your teaching career, but, wow, I honestly CANNOT believe this year is over already! Sometimes you hear people talking about “time flying,” but this year I truly began to understand the feeling firsthand. As I sit and reflect about this year of learning, I cannot help but have a bit of nostalgia. Although I am still very early in my teaching career, I can definitely see how “time flies!” I am finding myself being able to look back on the amazing memories our Learning Community has created together that sometimes, in the business of daily life, you often forget to cherish. That is not to say this year has gone without its challenges, but as always, those challenges were learning opportunities and I have used these challenges to grow as both a teacher and a learner.

 

As I sit and reflect about my learning this year, one of the prominent and recurring themes that continues to shine through is my first experience of looping with students and the incredible relationships you form. Spending two years with students truly allows relationships to flourish and as our learning community comes to the end of our loop I can reflect firsthand on the benefits I have experienced. Beginning the year already knowing our students and having our students familiar with our teaching styles and expectations was something so positive. Our students came back to school with a peace of mind and readiness to learn because there was a comfortability and sense of community already established. I know looping is not a new concept at Greystone, but I am guessing my fellow teacher nerds who have experienced looping with students understand what a positive effect its has on student learning. Further, I have been able to grow with my students and see their progress as learners and as they develop into young adults, which has been by far one of the most positive experiences in the past two years.

 

Consequently, we had our students complete a Citizenship and Social Responsibility reflection and self assessment, since we are fast approaching that wonderful report card deadline, which we have had our students do faithfully since Report 1 of Grade 7; but this one was different. We had a meaningful discussion with our homerooms about the importance of reflecting on how each of them has changed, grown and developed into the young adults they are today and let me tell you, some of their responses had me grabbing for the tissues! I always knew relationships with students were important, but when you get that rare glimpse into a teenager’s life and truly see the connection you have established, it reminds you why you come to work everyday! A few glimpses into the mystical teenage brain:

 

“I think over the last two years I have tried harder on my academic work and started to care more about school and how it affects my future career. I have learned to care more about friends, family and teachers and to respect people and help them with their problems. I have become more independent and do more what I think is right than what others think is right.”

“I have improved a lot/drastically since Grade 7 and I am very proud of that because it is always better to improve than to get worse! I have made a couple of bad choices but I have learned from them. I feel like I have to be very responsible because we have to be good role models for the younger grades and encourage them to make good choices.”

 

“My best memory would probably be the first day of Grade 8 when we all just came back and had so many stories to share and hear about. It was amazing just coming back to the same people who you haven’t seen in so long.”

 

“The last two years of school been the best years of my life. I’ve had some teachers that are fun, but serious. The teachers have been caring and I feel like I have learned a lot and not just school subject, like math, but on how to be a better person even when having fun.”

 

“I have realized how much I have grown as a person and how compassionate, kind and helpful my teachers and peers have been. I have also noticed that I have been asking for help a lot more now, which will help me down the road.”

 

“This is by far my favorite and best class I have been in! I love this class, whenever I am in a bad mood they can change it. They are like my second family.”

 

“I value teamwork and I have learned that in group projects you can’t just have one person do all the work and everyone take credit. Before, I liked to take control of the group and do everything but now I’ve realized that everyone needs to contribute.”

 

“When I have gotten into trouble I have learned to be honest and tell the truth and I usually take responsibility for my actions when I have done something wrong.”

 

“I’m not really sure how to start, it’s been an amazing 2 years. I’ve noticed growth as a person and as a citizen, I’ve had 2 teachers who genuinely care about what’s best for me. I haven’t always been the easiest to work with because of my ego, I guess you could say, but I’m working on it.”

 

Next, as I reflect on our teaching assignment and new space as the year began, I am only beginning to realize how much team teaching has benefited my practice and the learning of my students. First and foremost a major shout out to my “work husband” Brad Arndt…a.k.a. B.A., Bradley, Shelly Cooper, Arndties or any of the wonderful nicknames we have accumulated throughout the year! All jokes aside, Brad has taught me so much this year and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work so closely with him over the past two years. I knew this year was going to be different, challenging and very exciting as we took a risk neither of us had embarked on before, but I am so happy we gave it a try! Team teaching with Brad really forced us to be transparent as educators but in turn allowed us to give and receive some of the most beneficial, yet informal, feedback to each other. Being open and flexible pushed us to be better teachers and learners. Watching Brad throughout the year reminded me to always stay present with your students, as it is always easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of “school.” Brad always found time to just be with our kids and I found myself observing such positive interactions in our classroom community. Although it took some figuring out, Brad and I found a good balance of collaboration in our new space, drawing on each other’s strengths and expertise and always allowing the other to roll with an idea when necessary. Our collaboration was constant, consistent and always striving to do what is best for our learners. We were able to support each other to take risks and most importantly, value and celebrate each other for who we are as teachers, not being afraid to be ourselves. Pushing ourselves to be better teachers only benefits our students because we need to the best for them and we do that by continuing to learn in the presence of others. Obviously when it comes to change, I think it is only human to have some mixed feelings about our “work divorce” for next year, but I know I will always take with me the lessons I have learned from B.A.!

 

As I reflect on our journey of inquiry this year I cannot help but be drawn to two very different projects that somehow managed to achieve some very similar things. Both our Horrible Histories (Humanities) and Rube-Goldberg (Science) inquiries challenged our students to develop skills and push their learning above and beyond. We witnessed students deeply engaged in the process of inquiry; asking critical questions, providing feedback, using evidence to support their claims, showing determination and perseverance, infusing technology into the process and so much more. Although we had some success in inquiry this year I am looking forward to continue to build my knowledge of what effective inquiry-based learning looks like in the middle school classroom. In addition to several PD opportunities, I did some nerding out and read a couple of books about student engagement, critical questioning and inquiry-based learning. Next year I am hoping to continue to work with my team to always be thinking about how to intertwine inquiry-based techniques with what we already do at Greystone.

As always, I thank my lucky stars that I landed on this amazing little island we call Greystone. Each and every day I learn from my team and my students and I couldn’t begin to think of a more supportive and rewarding place to share my passion of teaching. Wilkins OUT! (That one is for you McLean!!!)

Letting Students Lead the Way

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April Zakresky joined our Greystone School Community this year after moving to Spruce Grove from Grande Prairie where she had been teaching for several years. April has been an amazing addition to Learning Community 5 AND to our entire School Team. April demonstrates a keen interest in continuous learning and is dedicated to sharing her experience and expertise, especially in the area of Assessment for Learning, with colleagues.

Teacher Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-2014

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As I reflect upon the past year, I have realized my passion for teaching and for learning.  I have had the opportunity to work with an amazing team, staff and administration that encouraged me to grow professionally and personally.

The team goal in our professional growth plan was to maintain continuous and effective communication amongst all members of our team.  I believe this goal was met because of the personal relationships that were developed inside and outside of school. Everyone on the team recognized that we all have our strengths and that we access these strengths in order to support one another to do our very best teaching and collaboration.  Even in instances when communication seemed to have fallen apart, there was always someone to reflect and realize that refocus was needed among the group.  This consistent level of communication made collaboration times meaningful and useful.  Collaboration time was something I truly valued.  I am truly blessed to be working with and learning from such an amazing group of teachers.

My professional goal this year was to improve my knowledge and use of technology in the classroom to benefit my students, their families, and myself.  Until this year, I had made little strides in expanding my knowledge in technology, by using smart boards and designing basic websites.  This year, I was able to further my knowledge and abilities with technology to improve communication with parents and community members, and to use as a tool to demonstrate evidence of student learning.  My biggest accomplishment in this area was starting a blog for myself and my students that will be able to follow them through their educational career.

Exploration, knowledge, and implementation of inquiry based learning have brought me to a new understanding of the capabilities and skills that my students are able to demonstrate.  I truly see the meaning behind deep questioning and how this can guide student learning.  I read a professional resource this year (Make Just One Change) that helped me to use a particular questioning format to develop open and closed thinking questions that helped to guide the inquiry of my students.  This was an area of Assessment for Learning that I had worked to improve upon for the last few years. Additionally, to support this process, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop based on design learning.  It was very meaningful for me that we included the whole staff on this knowledge base. It affirmed that this process will be successful if I release the conventional need to guide all questioning and allow my students to lead the way.  I feel I have made positive strides this year at improving this skill for myself and for my students.

It was such a pleasure this year to share my knowledge of Assessment for Learning with the staff.  I was  pleased to see that teachers on my team and the staff were excited to work with learning intentions, criteria, and feedback in their classrooms. Being a part of Design Team this year, has motivated me to want to continue to be actively involved in school progression and in the promotion of being a continuous learner through professional development.  I am thrilled to see the focus of feedback being made a top priority in student learning and I am eager to further enhance my skills in this component of Assessment for Learning.

In my seventh year of being a teacher, I can finally say that I felt fully confident in my abilities as a teacher. The evaluations I received this year allowed me to reflect and become more aware of my capabilities. I felt purposeful in my planning and thought about the skills that I wanted my students to learn.  I felt that my management skills were positive and effective for getting my students on task and for transitions between subjects.  I felt that I helped to foster an environment for my students and myself in which, the students were willing to take risks, support each other, and take ownership for their learning.

The 2013-2014 school year was a year full of learning, teamwork, friendships, and success.  I am so proud to be a part of Greystone and can’t wait to see what our future has in store.

Why Not?

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This past month at Greystone was spent adjusting to a pretty significant change we made to our program delivery model. After many conversations with individual teachers, grade level teaching teams and our entire staff during Professional Growth Plan Meetings, after school Faculty Meetings and Professional Development Day conversations, we decided to “blow up” the time table and organizational structure for our Learning Communities in grades 7, 8 and 9. This change was to answer our question:

Why are we doing things that don’t feel right for our kids?

Due to our increased enrolment at the beginning of this school year, we added additional home room classrooms at each grade level in 7 through 9. Doing this caused our teachers to become subject discipline specialists and instead of having larger blocks of time to focus on deeper learning, ensuring success for ALL learners and providing meaningful integrated inquiry projects, teachers were moving kids through their classes, on the traditional “conveyor belt” with a focus on content delivery as opposed to student understanding and success.

We needed to figure out a better way forward. The questions then became:

Why not?  Why not change this so that we can put students first? Why not figure out a way to meet the individual learning needs of our diverse learners? Why not take as much time as we need to help students who are struggling to learn concepts and skills? Why not give those students who need more of a challenge to extend their learning the opportunity to do this? Why not try something that we haven’t done before and see if our students are more successful?

Teachers, who are already extremely collaborative, worked together to re-organize students into flexible groupings designed to target instruction in the areas of Literacy and Numeracy. We switched the schedule up and provided additional collaborative planning time. So far, although it is very early on, we are noticing some positive results. We are seeing students feeling more supported, successful and for those learners who need the extra push, they are feeling more challenged.

This change has not been easy for our teachers. They are expected to teach new skills that they are not familiar with; however, they are a driven and dedicated group who, with the support of each other, our Learning Coach, our Inclusive Education Lead and our Administration Team, are working together to get it right for our kids.

Early feedback from students, teachers and parents has been positive. A recent survey of our parents provided us with comments like these:

I think that separating into specialized groups for instruction for math and reading is a great idea. It will provide more one on one help for those kids who struggle and provide more challenge for those kids who need to be challenged.

The concept of having classes to teach at a student’s pace of learning, instead of just going through the curriculum based on the calendar is something I feel very supportive and pleased about. I feel that this will be a great system to ensure children receive the curriculum in a way they can understand and flourish.

I feel that Greystone strives to ensure my child is successful individually. The staff has worked as a team to ensure we are aware of any challenges and listen to our views as well.

I really like the new way they have made the classes since January. The teachers are all great and easy to talk to. The staff at Greystone is very dedicated and we really appreciate all the extra work they put in.

We haven’t got all of this figured out just yet but we will keep asking the right questions. Should we make changes to what we are doing if it is in the best interest of our learners…why not?

What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education?

 

 

 

I love this question! I love it when a great question like this gets me thinking. I am assuming that many other educators from around the country likely feel the same way and perhaps, that’s what drew so many of us to the Canadian Education Association’s “What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education?” Conference in Calgary last week.

What inspired me from the day and a half that I spent with a number of stakeholders from the Education community (educational researchers, professors, superintendents, school board trustees, administrators, teachers and most importantly – students) was the opportunity that the teachers from Greystone had to share practical examples of what change in Education looks like based on their experiences in our school. These teachers were empowered to share their stories of looping, team teaching, collaborative inquiry, assessment as learning and innovation. Their stories are a reminder of what’s possible in Education when we remove barriers and have the courage to “do school” differently in order to get it right for today’s learners.

Another highlight from this conference, for me, was hearing a teacher from the Calgary Science School, Deidre Bailey, share her story of change with all of us. Recognizing that it is the teacher, in the classroom, who has the power to make a difference in student learning, was a message I shared with my entire staff during our Professional Development Day – which took place a few days after our Greystone team of nine returned from the conference in Calgary. I read Deidre’s story to the Greystone staff – here is part of her message:

 

This change in our classroom environment was a product of co-designing learning tasks in which student voice had space and validity. Kids are so innately curious and creative. All that is left to us, is to foster an awareness of the possibilities that surround them, to let them ask questions, make decisions and make things different.

Following up from Deidre’s story, I asked staff to reflect privately on their own practice and in particular, what was the evidence they had that they were getting it right for our learners and what could they do to grow? I encouraged staff to share their reflections with each other. They blew me away with their willingness to engage in thoughtful, honest conversation. The staff did not want to stop talking! Several teachers openly admitted to taking a step backward this year in their instructional practice due to some challenges they are experiencing (including a “boxed up” schedule that was implemented to deal with additional homeroom classrooms that were added at each grade level).

So, I asked them this great question from the CEA Conference: “What’s standing in the way of changing this?” They were fired up! The dialogue and debate created more questions, more ideas and a commitment to find a better way to provide our students with more time for deeper learning through cross-curricular inquiry.

We haven’t got this all figured out yet, but I know one thing for sure…our Greystone teachers feel empowered, supported and capable of removing anything that’s standing in the way of doing what’s best for our students. I am looking forward to seeing where this takes us. In the meantime, thank you Canadian Education Association, for the great question which is going to continue to keep our school moving forward in the way we “do school”.

 

Challenges Create Opportunities

September has come and gone in a bit of a blur as we had a lot to figure out when we began this new school year. Making the transition from summer mode to a more demanding school routine is always a little difficult; however, this year, our school start-up was made even more challenging by adding an extra 100 students to our Greystone school community. To meet the challenge, we hired additional staff, re-organized teaching spaces, built a new timetable, ordered additional resources and furniture – and trusted in our incredible staff to make it all work out…and they did!

The challenge of finding places for our additional students enabled us to create some excellent opportunities for collaboration and teamwork. Teachers who were already finding the value in team teaching were able to explore this practice more deeply by bringing their students together into a shared learning environment. Our school was designed to embrace this teaching practice with several areas featuring removable walls and sliding “barn doors”; however, we pushed this even further by making over a couple of large spaces that were originally created for different purposes:

 

1. Media Centre

Our Media Centre (aka Library/Learning Commons) is one of the largest spaces at Greystone – second only to the gym. This huge area has high ceilings, large windows, comfortable furniture and is definitely one of the most inviting learning spaces in the entire school. While it was used regularly as a space for reading, book exchanges and quiet group work, it was highly under-utilized, often sitting partially full or even empty at times. Last year, we needed an area for our drama program so it became a shared space, at times, for book exchanges AND a drama class. The space is huge and because it is carpeted, many students can be in there at once and it doesn’t become too noisy. When we needed additional space for classrooms this school year, we knew that this was one area we could re-organize to accommodate our growing student population.

Two teachers, Trish Spink and Raeann Richardson, were becoming very comfortable working together last year and joined their classrooms often for learning opportunities so when I approached them to see if they were interested in sharing the Media Centre this year as they looped up to grade 6 with their students – they agreed. Not only did they agree, they brought the idea to their students and their families last year, highlighting the positive aspects of team teaching as a way to provide flexible groupings among their students allowing two teachers the opportunity to meet the diverse needs of their group. Everyone has responded extremely well to the new learning environment. We even added an additional half time teacher to the mix, Marge Rodgers, who taught drama in this space last year. Including the additional teacher on this team is allowing one of the teachers to be freed up for some time from her schedule to support inclusive education throughout our school. The result is three teachers, about 45 students, three classroom pets (a turtle, a gecko and a bearded dragon) and a dynamic community of engaged learners. This learning community keeps parents informed, regularly, of the learning that takes place via their classroom blog. The flow of routines, high expectations for learning and team teaching “synergy” that has already been established after only one month of school is inspiring.

 

 

2. Flex Lab

This large space within our school was originally designed to be an area where our older students would have the opportunity to explore construction technologies. It was actually never used for that purpose as it was always needed as a homeroom classroom space. It was used for art options but always with the understanding that flexibility was the most important feature and the space would be adapted for whatever the school needed in any given year. This year, the space was needed for not only one but two homeroom classrooms. Once again, two teachers who had become used to working very collaboratively last year with their two homeroom classes of grade 7 students looped with the students to grade 8 and moved into this large space in order to team teach and flexibly group their students to meet the individual learning styles and needs of their 50 students.

Brad Arndt and Jenna Wilkins spent a large chunk of time over the summer brainstorming possibilities for not only the redesign of the space but for ways they would work together with their students to provide inquiry learning opportunities that tapped into student interests while building their critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving and collaboration skills. This, combined with figuring out how to create mini-spaces for direct instruction and group work, was definitely a challenge. Then we added an additional homeroom class to the grade eight configuration and asked teachers to figure out how to meet the needs of ALL of the five classrooms (not just their own homeroom groups). We wanted to ensure that we were not “boxing up the learning” into short, disconnected blocks of time with kids moving from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, but were instead, having opportunities for deeper exploration into key concepts and ideas from the curriculum that had overlap between subject areas. This was an incredibly challenging month for all of our teachers as they worked together to get this figured out. Although we are only at the beginning stages of the journey for this learning community, in reading the  184 Days of Learning Blog post from this group, it looks like they are already seeing early success in their Flex Lab make-over.

 

3. Music Room

This classroom make-over was suggested by two of our Learning Community 9 Teachers, Peggy Bly and Christy Haggarty. We added an additional homeroom grade 9 class in July and these two teachers, who have a history of team teaching together, offered to share the classroom space in our Music Room to provide collaborative learning opportunities for our grade 9 students. The space they are sharing is the smallest of the three team teaching spaces we created this year so we added some furniture to the pod area that is right outside the doorway to their classroom. The teachers have access to the pod area all the time, allowing them to break out into smaller groups in order to meet the diverse needs of their learners. The pod space also has a sink which will allow for clean up from hands on science demos to be conducted in the pod area.

While these two teachers have had lots of experience team teaching with each other in the past, they have the added challenge, this year, of using an additional teaching area that is outside the walls of their shared classroom to allow for enough time and space to be devoted to collaborative work and direct instruction of small groups. This requires extensive communication between the teachers so that they both can support student learning not just in their area of expertise but in all core subjects.

We are excited about the opportunities that have been created for our students as a result of needing to be more intentional about teaming our teachers up. Working collaboratively with other teachers requires a lot of flexibility, patience, communication and openness. When the team gets past the initial growing pains and can move to a place where they start to gel, the energy that is created leads to increased engagement in learning – for both the students AND the adults.

I am looking forward to seeing how these three learning communities continue to explore the use of space, resources, flexible groupings and the powerful learning that comes from collaboration as the school year unfolds.

When You Know Better You Do Better

 

 

I am fired up this month as I am hard at work on something I have been dreaming of, hoping for and believing in for more than FIFTEEN years. I have been collaborating with some talented Parkland School Division educators, including Diane Lander, Leah Andrews and Scott Johnston, on a project that will cause us to see some BIG changes in the way we “do school” in the province of Alberta. I am so excited about the possibilities that lie ahead – I can barely find a way to explain all of this – other than to say:

When you know better you do better.

~Maya Angelou

We have known, for a long time, that we cannot get it right for our students when we try to personalize learning using a standardized curriculum that focuses on a one size fits all program of studies and when student success is narrowly defined, and more narrowly measured, by a one size fits all standardized test. We have always known that the curriculum included important skills that need to be taught to our students; however, focusing on developing these skills was difficult, if not impossible, due to an overpacked curriculum that included so much disconnected, subject specific content. It has always been far too time consuming and challenging to develop, assess and report on the important process skills contained in the curriculum. Instead, teachers have raced through the curriculum “covering” content instead of “uncovering” understanding, connections and deeper meaning.

We know better now. We know that we will never get to the important “forever skills” that will see our students find success now and in a rapidly changing world if we continue to emphasize content consumption with our students instead of content creation through the development of skills in critical thinking, inquiry, reflection and collaboration.

Alberta Education is giving us hope in the future of student learning in our province by doing something completely “out of the box”. They are looking to  amazing educators who are “in the trenches” doing amazing things with students to set the direction for the redesign of curriculum in Alberta. Alberta Education is going to learn from the excellent work that is already going on in schools around the province in order to create a model for transforming education. School Divisions have been invited to apply to be part of the prototyping for what teaching and learning will look like when we are getting it right for today’s learners. This is an incredibly exciting time to be an educator in our province as the pockets of innovation in education that exist in schools throughout Alberta will have the opportunity to set the direction for how we “do school”.

I am so proud of Parkland School Division for taking the initiative to submit a prototype school proposal. I am ECSTATIC that Greystone Centennial Middle School will be named as the site for this important work if our School Division is successful in the application process.

For many of us in the world of education, we have been hopeful, for so long, that the kind of teaching and learning we know our kids need would become a reality in more of our classrooms and schools. This latest initiative from Alberta Education is a reminder to Never. Lose. Hope.

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