Very recently I led a spectacular hike with a group of teenage boys.  The destination was a beautiful small lake at the top of high cliff in Killarney Provincial Park.  The hike was entirely off trail, bushwacking through forest, boulder field and navigating a secret route up some precarious rock faces, culminating in a climb up a chimney-like crack in quartzite rocks leading to the very top.  There the view over George Lake and Georgian Bay is breathtaking.  If you look carefully you notice the lake just a hundred metres or so from the edge of the cliff, a little paradise in a place that relatively very few people have probably seen.

We sat by the lily pads and ate lunch and some of the boys went swimming under a sunny blue sky.  I thought to myself that I’d managed this hike about a dozen times since I first was shown the route over forty years ago.  It occurred to me that, while I’d likely be able to do the hike next year, realistically I couldn’t see myself doing it in ten years.  It was hard enough this time.  I realized that this could easily be my last visit to this special place.  So I stopped to drink in the memories of the occasion and in the days between then and now I’ve been able to call them up and re-experience their warm glow.  I’m blessed with a very good memory.  I can do the same for most of my visits to this lake.

For most of my life I’ve had a strong feeling that if something were to happen and I were to find out I was going to die tomorrow, it would be with no regrets, knowing that I’ve lived my life to its fullest and used my time wisely.  I’ve spent six months wandering through Europe and Africa.  I’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon about eight times.  I’ve spent over 300 days camping in the wilderness and over 100 days canoeing the wonderful lakes of Ontario.  I’ve passionately pursued my interests and shared them with other people.  I’ve made memories that I can reflect on and smile.

I’m not trying to be morbid here.  My friends out there need to know that there is no imminent demise on the horizon.  I still plan to pursue a pretty full bucket list.  This is more a reflection on quality of life than on any personal issue.

I’ve met many people who primarily go through the motions of life, people who count the days off the calendar rather than counting the days till the next adventure or highlight.  (This is not to say that only big adventures can be highlights.  There are many other ways to make significant memories, such as relationships and family.  However these, like everything, can easily turn into “going through the motions as well.)  Tom Brown Jr. once said in a class I attended that you should keep a journal that you write in every night.  If you find you don’t have something to write about, then get the hell up and go out to do something.

When I think about two summers ago, there was no big trip or adventure that dominates.  There was, however, one great day that I walked from Union Station to the C.N.E. along Harbourfront, exploring new places.  The day culminated in a few hours at the CNE and a Blue Rodeo concert in the evening (allowing me to strike that off the bucket list).  It was a day full of new discoveries and great photography.  It stands out clearly compared to the rest of the summer, which was just kind of going through the motions.  The days that I “got the hell up” and went out to do something are the days that stand out.

Somebody once said, “Don’t live your life like a lazy Sunday afternoon, where once it is over you ask, ‘Where did the time go?’”  In the end will it make a difference?  I think so.  When I think back on fond memories, I feel good.  When I think back on a week and say to myself, “Well, that slipped by too quickly”, then I don’t feel so good about it.  In the end, that’s all we can probably really hope for.

A WORD ABOUT BULLIES

Posted: August 1, 2016 in Personal Whining

One thing that a teacher has to deal with on a regular basis in just about any school community is the problem with bullies.  I’ve dealt with my fair share, and I remembered noticing a pattern in their behaviour which was brought to mind when watching some of the current U.S. election nonsense.

One of the defining characteristics of bullies is a three part pattern that they follow:

  1. They annoy and victimize people around them with their actions or words.
  2. They goad until their victim strikes back in one way or another.
  3. They then proclaim that they themselves are the victim and attack the other person as being the cause of the problem.  It becomes a blame game and gets personal.

It’s pretty well a sure thing.  You see it in abusive relationships.  You see it in schoolyard bullies.  And you definitely see it in the current actions of Donald Trump.

My response in that situation has always been not so much the counseling of the bully (although some action is needed there) but rather to counsel the victims and the other people in the equation.  If the pattern can be neutralized then often so can the bully.  Mutual support amoung kids can lessen the seriousness of goading, and if it escalates to a more serious level it is usually difficult for the bully to transfer responsibility.  A united front against a bull (kind of NATO style) will often make a bully back down, as bullies habitually will target the easiest people.

We ahd a boy once in grade 7 who was ruthlessly teasing and insulting many of the girls.  For a long time we focused on the boy, trying punishment, counseling, suspension … everything.  It didn’t work and it was clear that the boy required more assistance to deal with his problem than we were prepared to give.  Then we shifted the focus and began counseling the girls, allowing them to talk about their frustrations and work them out as a group.  They also talked about what they figured must be the boy’s motivations as well.  Finally they talked about how it was likely that the situation would probably get worse before it gets better.  A bully is very much about power and attention, so when it dries up desperation takes over.  After that, the boy’s insults didn’t have the same effect on them and they often dismissed him.  It didn’t take long for the taunting to stop on its own.

Unfortunately I don’t think that if the American people ignore Trump he’ll go away.  Then again, it is the support and attention that he is getting that is likely the fuel for his actions, so if he was ignored, ya, he’d probably fade away.

If you ask many of my students from the last 30 years what event they remembered the most, very often you would get an answer involving one of the many overnight outdoor education excursions that we took.  There were the standard ones to one of the many local (but diminishing) outdoor ed centres, sponsored by the Board of Education and staffed with teachers running a pre-arranged program.  These were wonderful and memorable, but the most interesting ones were a handful that we organized ourselves.

The first one of these was, remarkably, during one of my practice teaching stints when I was assigned to a class in Newmarket for a period of a month.  I proposed the idea to the classroom teacher, who thought it was great and was on board immediately.  The principal of the school was a neighbour and friend, so that didn’t hurt the chances.  We ended up at Rockwood Conservation area for two nights, a safe location because it had things like picnic shelters and was pretty close to town.  That turns out to have been a good thing as we had torrential rains for our stay.  It could have gone better, but we coped.  I’m sure, though, that the kids involved will still regard it as highly memorable.

It was a while before I tried that again, but eventually I just had to run an outdoor program which was a total camping experience.  The location I chose was Warsaw Caves Conservation Area, near Peterborough, which is a pretty primitive facility.  Water, picnic tables and outhouses were about it.  When I first suggested it, my fellow teachers and my principle thought I was a little crazy.  Three Grade 7 classes out for several nights in tents and cooking their own food?  Nuts.   However the tactic that I chose was to throw the logistical problems at the kids and wait to see what happened.  Students had to put themselves in groups, find tents and other camping equipment and plan their own menus.  In order to maximize safety I had them produce menus which did not require cooking unless it was something that could be done quickly at a central cooking area that was supervised.  (I didn’t do this the first time around and regretted it when a leaky Coleman stove set a picnic table ablaze.  Fortunately with no serious consequence.)

The students performed admirably.  I put a series of checks and balances in place to monitor the planning and make sure that nobody was left high and dry.  Multiple lists were submitted, modified and returned.  Lots of calls were made to parents.  In the end, we were able to arrange parent drivers for the whole group both to deliver and pick up students from Warsaw.

That’s the logistical part, but the whole purpose of the trip was to enact a program which I had planned taking full advantage of the resources and wilderness surroundings of the conservation area.  This included succession studies, tree surveys, pond studies and solo sits among other things.  Science was the headliner, but in my proposal to the Board (-because you know they demanded a detailed proposal for an idea like this-) I was able to tie in almost every single subject.  Poetry was written on solo sits.  The geographic history of Warsaw was discussed in detail.  The average diameter of trees was calculated in various biomes.  A lot of physical activity and details learned about camping were easily connected to Physical Education.

It was a tremendous amount of work, and it was both miraculous and a testament to the devotion of my colleagues that I was able to have all of the teachers and a number of support staff, plus many parents, participate for the three or four days and help deliver the program.

We accomplished this feat four times during my tenure at two different schools.  It was a time when outdoor education was regarded as a higher priority and when the Board of Education was less paranoid.  (The background skills that I possess through having taught wilderness skills to youth groups for decades helped a lot in convincing my superiors.)

I looked at the program for the outing as a three step process.  Using the example of studying succession, here is roughly how it went.  Before the trip, in the classroom, it was important to introduce several concepts such as the nature of lichen and soil production.  They were also introduced to the idea of biomes and a general overview of succession.  They had to draw and understand the components of a chart which they then used in the actual exercise.  Once at the camp, small groups laid out a 10 meter rope on the Limestone Plains location, which is a perfect place to observe succession from bare rock to trees.  At one metre intervals each group had to observe the plant growth by category and record it on the previously made chart, which had headings like lichen, moss, grass, small shrubs, large shrubs, etc.  They also recorded things like depth of soil, which of course was zero at the first interval.  They were then asked to draw a cross section and colour it in using a key of their creation.  After the camp, all of the data collected as rough copy was formalized into good copy assignments with accompanying conclusions and commentary.  This pattern was followed for quite a few of the activities.

Many of the activities and also the general philosophy of the entire endeavour came from a series of books by environmental instructor Steve VanMatre.  His books include Acclimatization, Acclimatizing and Sunship Earth.  Each of these is pack full of program ideas for environmental and outdoor education, although they are often very ambitious and need to be modified in some ways.  These ended up being the best resources I ever found for outdoor and ecological education, being adaptable for anything from classroom to canoe trip.  I highly recommend this resource if you do any work in these area.  (They may be a little hard to find nowadays.)

For the days we were away, immersed in the wilderness, in camping routines and in active learning, not to mention each other, these congregations of classes truly became communities, with people helping each other and learning many new things about each other.  It was something I’d always been more successful at with my youth groups over the years, and I knew that it would be particularly challenging with a large group consisting of multiple classes.  But we ended up doing it, and it these trips will always be some of the brightest and most rewarding moments of my teaching career.

During my years of teaching the Science curriculum has gone through many changes.  Unfortunately, the one that was in place for the years before I retired was not one of the best.  In my opinion the pre-high school science curriculum should be far less content oriented and more process oriented.  Especially in the Intermediate (Middle) grades when students are evolving into more rational thinking, the emphasis should be more on scientific method than on any content.  Not only is it critical to a proper understanding and perspective towards science, but it also reinforces the developmental changes and intellectual curiosity of the student at this age.

There was a time when this was understood and applied, roughly during the mid 1990s.  It was one of the few bright spots in Ontario’s Outcome Based Learning initiative.  When OBL was scrapped for some reason a lot of the process based learning outcomes went out with the bathwater, and a proper introduction to scientific method was one of the casualties.

The best intermediate science curriculum I ever saw came from the Lincoln County B of Ed. in around 1990.  There was a 2” binder for each of grades 7 & 8.  The grade 7 curriculum was themed around physical sciences and grade 8 around biological sciences.  But the thing that made these special was that each started out with a comprehensive unit about scientific method and that process was reflected in all of the units that came afterwards.  It introduced the ideas of what a hypothesis was, or what the difference between correlation and experimental data.  It introduced the idea of different types of variables and why controlling them was important.  It also introduced basic equipment, so that students would know how to use a triple beam balance and understand the difference between force, weight and mass.  None of these skills, or the many others that come under the banner of basic scientific method, were contained in the content based science curriculum that I was forced to deliver in the last years of my teaching.

Additionally the entire program could be conducted without a textbook, as each teacher guide page was accompanied by several student work sheets that were all excellent.  This might be one of the reasons for its demise and one should never underestimate the influence of the textbook publishing industry in educational policy.  Text book publishing is a billion dollar industry and is largely responsible for the standardized testing craze, as they publish those as well.  However, back to the matter at hand...

One of my favorite activities in this program was to have students calculate the unit cost of theatre popcorn.  I would save up a number of popcorn bags from movie theatres and bring them into class.  Then we would make popcorn and figure out its cost per kilogram and per pound.  It was a fun activity, but required the concepts of net, tare and gross weight, how to use a triple beam balance and how to convert measurements.  When I recently visited a grade 8 class and ran this program I found that each one of those skills had to be taught as they’d never been exposed to them in their current curriculum.  The cost, by the way, works out to about $68 per pound, which is interesting to compare to other items.  Students would go on line and discover how much quality steak, lobster and caviar cost, being amazed to find that theatre popcorn is more expensive than all but the most exclusive caviar.

Another of my favorite activities was the basic pendulum experiment, used to teach the manipulation and control of variables, forming a hypothesis and planning a valid experiment.  It starts with the question, “What factors (variables) will influence the frequency of a pendulum?”  A bunch are listed, including amplitude of the swing, mass of the bob and length of the swing.  We did one together as a class in order to model the proper design and write up of an experiment, paying attention to things like replication, observation charts and proper wording for conclusions.  Students then worked in small groups to plan and conduct the other experiments until they can show which factors (length of the string being the only one) did or didn’t result in frequency change.  Once they established length as being the only relevant variable, they were required to investigate further by using many different lengths, recording the data and plotting it on a graph, thus showing that there was a mathematical relationship between length and frequency.

We did many similar experiments, some involving levers and leverage, or calculating the height of a tree using shadows and ratios.  The idea was not to teach a specific content, such as memorizing the Periodic Table, but rather to encourage the proper understanding and application of scientific method and process.  Not only did the students end up doing a lot of experiments, but they also were exposed to a variety of scientific equipment.

I want to briefly mention two other activities used in this approach to science.  The first involved giving pairs of students a small slip of paper on which was written CARBON DIOXIDE and a stoppered test tube full of water.  Students were then told that all of their discoveries had to remain secret, and as they progressed through the activity they could only relate their discoveries to me in a whisper.  They were then told to use the two items and try to discover something that was problematic.  It doesn’t take long before you begin to hear “What the…” as the students look through their test tubes at the slip of paper.  What they are noticing is that, as seen through the water, the word carbon flips upside down while the word dioxide does not.  Each pair comes up to tell the teacher and after a while the teacher announces the problem to the class and tells the students that it is their job to find out why this is happening.  I would tell them that once they understood the reason it would be an “aha” moment and they were still required to keep the secret.  The class would talk briefly about the kinds of experimentation that could be conducted and the kinds of variables that could be changed.  Then students are let loose to experiment.  Eventually you get the “ahas” and students begin to come up with the answer.  (I won’t tell you what it is here.  You can try it yourself if can’t figure it out in a mental experiment.)  That’s all there is to it.  There’s very little written work in this activity, other that a short personal response about what the student learned from the experience.  But the activity is extremely instructive, …again without the need for specific content.

Another activity was about the integrity of research and revolved around a great Internet site which I believe is still active.  I told the students that the lesson was about safety and that they were going to examine a dangerous chemical called dihydrogen oxide.  (Once again they were told that if they had the aha moment to keep it to themselves.) They then had a work sheet with general questions on it and were directed to the web site in order to find the answers.  The web site had many facts on it such as that dihydrogen oxide was responsible for more deaths every year than any other chemical.  Students would dutifully answer the questions on their sheets, but eventually a few would clue in to the fact that dihydrogen oxide is, in fact, water.  Once the class as a whole was enlightened it would lead to a discussion about facts and their interpretation, along with the importance of verifying information from the Internet.  There are many other similar activities in the Internet, but this one is simple and not in any way controversial.

So, these initial units in grade 7 & 8 provided an essential grounding in scientific method and other related concepts.  Later units reinforced and expanded these.  Behavioural concepts were studied using mealworms, and in several years I even had students design and conduct simple, harmless psychological experiment, sometimes using subjects from younger grades.  These were always tremendously fun for all concerned.

One of my favorite applications did not come from the LCBE curriculum, but was an elaboration of an idea from a conference I attended.  This was the idea of a CSI unit, where the students were given a murder mystery to solve.  Clues were provided to them, on which they had to do research and experimentation.  For example a cup of coffee was found at the scene and the police recorded the temperature of the coffee.  Students were given information about the temperature at which it was brewed at the local Tim Horton’s and how far away it was.  They then had to measure the rate of cooling of coffee in a Tim Horton’s cup to see whether it matched the time line given by the suspect.  Other evidence included materials that had to be looked at under a microscope and even tire and shoe tracks that had to be compared to real life data.  (The “guilty” party was a real person in the school.) This CSI unit ended up being combined with all of the other subjects from Math to Language Arts to Geography in a vast integrated unit which consumed a major part of each day for several weeks.  Setting up integrated, multi-subject units like this one is something that I’ll discuss in a future entry as it was definitely the highlight of my teaching career.

I strongly believe that students need an ability to critically evaluate the massive amount of information that they encounter every day through the media in the internet.  I know that half the time I hear a study stated on the radio or on TV, I look at it and shake my head because I can see the flaws in the science. Understanding scientific method, statistics, and logical fallacies are central skills, not peripheral.  In my opinion they need to be stressed at the age that the biggest leap in rational developmental growth takes place, which is early adolescence.

#3 Spelling

Posted: July 23, 2016 in Personal Whining

The final component to all of this was the Spelling part.  Both my personal experience in the classroom and various studies that began to emerge led me to the conclusion that the regular, speller based program was not of much use after grade 5 or 6.  For previous grades one could argue that building a common stock of spelling words and vocabulary held some merit, however I do believe that a variation on the following program probably works better for Junior grades as well.

I had yet another binder for Spelling, with a page devoted to each student.  That binder was always there when I marked anything, not just writing compositions.  I used it when I graded Science experiments or History projects as well.

If I found a spelling error, I would circle it with a highlighter and record the word on the student’s page.  Once a week I looked at the list for each student and wrote between five and ten words on a sticky note, which I then gave to the student.  I drew a line on the page under the last word recorded on the sticky note.  (This is important, I found out, because students are apt to lose the sticky note and then you have to look in the binder in order to create another one.)

In a spelling notebook the student would transcribe their list and then would have to complete at least three exercises with them.  These came from a list of activities that I prepared and which they glued into their notebooks.  There were about twenty activities and they could choose the ones they wanted to use, but had to cover all of them over a defined period.  Activities might include writing the meaning, a synonym or using the word in a sentence.  Creating a word search or crossword with clues were also among the activities.

The research that I had read said that the only way spelling activities helped the student was when the words involved were ones that the student was likely to use in their communication.  By taking the words from compositions and other assignments I was correcting words that were already in the student’s vocabulary and usage.  I found this to be far more productive than arbitrary words from a spelling text.  I also would occasionally take words from content subjects like science and make them words that everyone in the class had to put on their lists.  For example, from Science I might take the word “hypothesis” in order to familiarize them all with the word.

Obviously there were two exceptions to this whole arrangement.  There were some students who never had any spelling mistakes.  Those students were encouraged to find words from their reading or from other subjects that they wanted to add to their own lists.  They had to have between five and ten.  These students usually were engaging in more challenging reading, so they could easily find words in their novels or other reading that could be used.  I also had an old spelling/vocabulary book that I picked up in the book morgue which had really interesting words grouped by theme.  Sometime, when a theme overlapped what we were studying, I would utilize some of these lists, which was great because they often came with relevant exercises that I could suggest.  (I don’t know whether Boards still maintain these book morgues.  They were essentially a warehouse where old books unwanted by schools were sent to die.  Any teacher could go in and literally take whatever they wanted for use in the classroom.  Many were old grammar books or had other activities that I used for the skills folders that I mentioned in the entry on writing.  Sometimes I would rip pages out and use them like that.  Occasionally you would find an old gem like the advanced vocabulary book I mentioned.  If they are still in use, I would recommend visiting one.)

The other exception was the student who had severe problems with spelling.  This student required a more tailored remedial program, going back to the goal of building a central bank of words that they would be able to use.  If you are lucky, you can get the Special Ed teacher or TA to help with that.

Once again, this spelling program ended up being totally individualized, -a goal that teachers talk about but which is always a little elusive.  This worked well on all levels for my Intermediate (Middle School) students.  I think it would work well in the Secondary panel (although I don’t hear much about spelling skills from that corner at all) and I think it could be modified for at least Junior students.

Nancy Atwell had a writing component to her program as well which had the same individualized nature to it.

At the beginning of a week students were expected to fill out a contract outlining the piece of writing they were going to work on.  There was space on the contract for the title of the piece, a short description, the genre or style of writing (narrative, exposition, poem, etc.) and space for between two and four goals that they would try to achieve in this writing.  The goals were based on previous writing, often suggested my me, although students were free to set their own goals based on self evaluation.  The contract had to be submitted with the final draft of the writing, which I would use as the evaluation page, and often I would make goal suggestion on the sheet to be considered for the next composition.  This might include attention to sentence structure, paragraphing or vocabulary.  There might be a suggestion to edit work for spelling errors, or to consider greater depth in character development.  The writing would be evaluated based on the goals.  In addition I would assign the writing an overall grade based on the COSMP grading method.

This COSMP grading method came out of a workshop I attended and I don’t remember the specific source.  I quickly adopted it because it really facilitated the contract aspect of Atwell’s writing workshops.  The letters stand for:
C – Content : This evaluated the substance of the writing, whether it was factual material presented in an exposition, proper reasoning and support in an opinion piece, or plot development in a story.
O – Organization : This was often paragraphing, but went beyond that in to the proper sequencing of ideas or story line.
S – Style : This involved the complexity of sentence structure (encouraging students to use complex/compound sentences) along with level of vocabulary, use of metaphorical language, etc.
M – Mechanics : This is the straight forward mechanical grammar of the piece, such as writing in proper sentences, and also spelling (**to be discussed separately later**).
P – Presentation : Not always included as part of the evaluation.  On occasion, if the writing project was a story or a poem, the nature of the presentation, such as  binding or illustrating, would also be an evaluation component.

Separating the evaluation into these streams had many benefits:

  1. It gave the student greater feedback and could be used to help guide them and me in the creation of contract goals. I don’t mind discussing the work with students, but I found that breaking it down like this allowed less interviewing and writing of comments without sacrificing detail.
    2.  It gave me some leeway in separating marks into reading comprehension, writing composition and media streams when doing final evaluation summaries.
    3.  It allowed me to use this system on all work in other subjects, such as a science experiment, and then migrate those marks into Language evaluation, thereby fulfilling the whole “language across the curriculum” imperative that was popular in some years.  Doing this made the students aware that their language skills were important when they were writing anything, not just in Language Arts.

Students had writing folders that were divided into three pockets.  (When the Board provided these folders it was a great resource, but afterwards students made their own.)  The writing process for the student went something like this.  First the student would decide on a project.  (Sometimes that would be a continuation of a previous project, as students were encouraged to divide their writing into realistic segments that might be ongoing for several weeks.)  Then they would complete the Writing Contract, referencing previous contracts to help them setting their goals.  Then they would do the pre-writing portion, which might involve brainstorming, mind maps, research or any of several other strategies which we covered in mini-lessons.   This would go into the Pre-Writing pocket of their folder.  The next step would be the First Draft, which the student was encouraged to do with the primary focus of Content.  Getting the idea or opinion or story down on paper was the first priority.  One or more drafts might be required, and I often quoted Hemingway (I think) who said, “A good novel is not written.  It’s rewritten.”  These would all go into the Drafts pocket of the folder.

During these steps of Pre-Writing and Draft Writing the student would have the option to conference with a classmate or with the teacher.  To avoid chaos and a really noisy classroom, a system was set up.  On a bulletin board there was posted all the student names on post-it stickies.  If a student wished to conference they and their partner would take their sticky note and put it on a sheet labelled “In Conference”.  Only three pairs were allowed to conference at a time and the conferences were restricted to five minutes.  If you wanted to conference and saw that the “In Conference” board was full, then you had to wait.  As you would expect, there was some issues around this at the beginning, but it quickly turned into a workable routine.  I always had a rather large number of students in my classes, so I had to have conferencing done in the hallway.

Once conferencing was done and a student was reasonably happy with the draft, they could present the draft to the teacher for a final edit.  This was the one stage of the program with which I sometimes got bogged down.  I tried to guarantee that students would get their edited draft back in 24 hours, but sometimes there was a deluge and it was hard.  I never had the chance to experiment with parent volunteers or older students doing the editing, but it would be worthwhile to try.  I kept my editing to two things.  I circled any mechanical errors (without correcting them) and I sometimes made comments related things like Style, Organization or Content.  Over the years I developed a bit of an editing shorthand that students became familiar with.

Then it is up to the student to complete a final draft.  When it is time to hand it in the contract was on top, followed by the Final Draft and then followed by earlier drafts is the student wanted the teacher to witness the progressive improvement that were made.  I often stressed how impressed I would be by seeing that.

Now the Final Draft is in my hands and I have to evaluate it.  Before reading it, I would look at the goals and keep them in mind.  Each goal would be scored out of 10 (although any evaluation system could be used).  I would write comments on the sheet and perhaps add a goal or two on the back to be considered for the next composition.  I would then give it a comprehensive grade using the COSMP system.  All of that would be recorded in my mark book, meaning that I’d have quite a few marks for the same composition.  Sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t as most of it is the simple recording of numbers in an organized way.  Some years I made photocopies of the contracts before giving them back, which was good for accountability.  It depended on the number of students in the classroom and how much time I had to do it.

When the student gets the work back, it’s a pretty comprehensive evaluation package.  They’re encouraged to look at more than the bottom line because they need the feedback to complete the goals on their next contract.

When I was running these programs, although there was extensive use of computer technology in the schools, it was not yet seamless and much of this was still paper and pencil writing and record keeping.  I have no doubt that things may have evolved considerably in the intervening years and that some or all of this process could be easily accomplished on screen.  I still believe that the submitted product should still be a hard copy, but perhaps there are new developments of which I am unaware.  I can easily see, however, that the developmental process could easily be adopted to some kind of technology connection.  And I can only hope that easier methods of tracking and record keeping for the teacher have also evolved.

Two more things come out of the process.  The first is spelling, which I’ll deal with in the next blog entry.

The other is the whole idea of mini lessons and tasks.  Each student had a tracking sheet, again a modified version of something that came up in some workshop.  It tracked several things.  One was the genre of writing that was being attempted by the student.  Over the course of the year the student was required to tick off all of the different genres at least once.  The other thing tracked was a list of common writing problems, including everything from sentence structure to use of homonyms to verb tense agreement.  (I could email someone the MW doc I used, but I’m not sure how to include it here.  These tracking sheets were in a binder that was open in front of me when I was marking writing.  If I noticed that a student had a weakness in a particular area, …say homonyms…, I would check off that box.  Over many years, stealing from the internet, old textbooks and random worksheets, I had put together one file folder for each of these writing problems.  Into these folders I would put copies of worksheets related to the problem which I could take out as needed and give to the student to complete.  When they handed it back to me, I crossed off the check mark.  Usually this translated into a goal for the next contract as well.  If I found that a significant portion of the class was experiencing the same problem, it would become the subject of a mini-lesson and a larger portion of the class might get the work sheet as homework.  If it was a new concept, such as compound sentences, then we might spend a few lessons on it and everyone got the sheet.  But it was always presented hand in hand with practical applications to their writing projects.

That’s it, except for the Spelling.  It looks like a lot of work, but it went surprisingly smoothly once all of the organization and resources were set up.  The biggest hassle was if you wanted to mark and you didn’t have the right binder with you.  Then you were crippled.  Also there were the inevitable bottle-necks.  But in the end it resulted in some amazing work from the students, primarily because they were motivated to complete things that they were interested in and to meet goals that they had a big hand in setting for themselves.  Obviously you get a range of responses, but you get that in anything.  I found that the range for this program shifted distinctly to the positive.

Several recent conversations with teacher colleagues have highlighted to me the fact that there were many successful teaching ideas used in my classroom over my thirty year career that should see a little more sharing and daylight.  As a result, I would like to start a series of blog entries which describe some of these ideas in hopes that others might find them useful in some ways.  I’ll try to make the ideas concise and practical.

Most of my teaching career was spent in Grade 6, 7 & 8 classrooms, so the ideas are often aimed at that age group.  However, I strongly feel  that a little modification would easily expand their application to younger or older students.  Many of the ideas were taken from programs designed for younger or older students and were modified by me to the final result I describe here.  By far, a majority of these ideas originated with or were strongly inspired by someone else.  Where possible, I will try to give credit where it is due, but in some cases I’ve simply forgotten.

In my long teaching career in York Region, Ontario, there were many curriculum initiatives thrown at us.  We would often joke about the pendulum of educational philosophy and in my thirty years I definitely saw it swing back and forth multiple times.  Some initiatives were more along the lines of current fads, given a lot of attention for a short time and then abandon or forgotten.  Some were valuable, but many were not other than for a few significant points that could be salvaged from them.  I’ll try to sidestep the cynicism here and concentrate on the successful ideas that I gleaned and integrated into an overall program.

 

Finding a teaching resource, whether it be a book or a program initiative presented by the Board, which has significant merit and applicability is always a great joy.  I have to say that one of the most valuable resources that I ever came across was a book by Nancy Atwell called In The Middle.  I found it mid career and had ample opportunity to tweak and fine tune it over the years.  One of the initiatives often pushed by the Board was individualized learning, although it was seldom presented with any kind of practical strategies.  Nancy Atwell is one of the few educators who approaches this idea realistically.

In The Middle presents a language arts program tailored to the needs of Intermediate (Middle School) students.  It covers Reading, Composition and Spelling, although I added a lot of my own strategies to it in order to round it out.

The reading component of the program was very simple.  She believed that people learned how to read by reading.  I can sympathise with that as I’m sure that I learned how to read by reading comic books.  Their vocabulary, deep character development and relevant themes did a lot to establish a foundation for all the reading which I’ve done afterwards.  (Comics are often under rated in the complexity of their writing, but I have always found them to be a genre that can contribute a lot to reading development, especially for the adolescent male.)  The core of Atwell’s reading program was uninterrupted reading time every day.  Students got to choose their books based on some simple but firm standards which encouraged variety in both content and reading level.  She recognized that at times students might want to read something below their reading ability and encouraged this as long as it was balanced by more challenging reading.  In fact, reading a book below one’s reading level sometimes yielded insights that were quite surprising.

In order to monitor and encourage balanced development in reading, this program had several other tasks connected to it.

  1. Periodic checks of the group or subgroup (recorded simply on a class list) of what they were reading and the progress they were making. There was also a reading log in the back of the Journal which had to be completed each day.  This log allowed the teacher to keep track of the performance of the student.
  2. Periodic interviews with students or small groups of students where they could discuss what they were reading and have a chance to respond to challenging questions and perhaps discuss more general ideas around their reading progress. This allows the teacher to encourage and suggest more challenging or a different genre of reading.  It also allowed the teacher to help the student make connections between their reading and other resources.  A topic of interest in a fiction book, for example, might lead to reading a non-fiction book on that topic.
  3. Every week a student was required to complete two journal entries about their reading. The entry had to be at least 100 words and was not allowed to be about the plot.  A list of potential topics was distributed and discussed at the beginning of the program, talking about such things as character development and other literary aspects, or about a general review of the book when completed, citing reasons for the rating.  Sometimes particular questions or topics could be featured by the teacher in a given week in order to facilitate a certain direction for conversation or mini-lessons.  The entry could be addressed to any other member of the class or to the teacher (who also had a journal and who would write entries addressed to students at times.)  Students were encouraged to respond in the same journal and often there emerged a dialogue which went back and forth several times.  Every couple of days the teacher collects 5 – 10 journals and writes comments in them after reading all of the entries and responses. Several times a term a “content” grade (**I will describe my evaluation strategy of COSMP in a future blog entry**) which only looked at the quality of what was expressed and understood in the entries.  While students were encouraged to write in good style, it was not evaluated in this setting.
  4. Short mini-lessons were interspersed that provided examples of literary terms and ideas. For example we might do a five minute lesson on plot climax, character development or theme, just to take a few.  We might talk about research skills that could be used to look up a point about the author that might be revealing.  We would talk about different genres.  And often I would arrange book talks on reading suggestions that might be done by myself, the librarian (although you have to be sure that it doesn’t become overkill then) or perhaps even a student who had completed a book they wanted to share.

At the beginning of the year, before launching this program, I would often do a class study of the same novel.  I looked for books that were a reasonably low reading level so that they would be easily accessible to all students in the class, but also rich in content and complexity.  There are a few books like that out there, but the challenge is finding one on the “approved list” for whole class study and which the school has in sufficient quantities.  In my case I was fortunate to have a stack of the novel “Copper Sunrise” by Bryan Buchan,  which has mixed reviews, but always seemed to be enjoyed by the students and contains a rich collection of (sometimes too obvious) literary devices that can be examined.  It’s also short and to the point, so you can complete this preamble to your program fairly quickly.  When studying this novel, I would try to include the kinds of topics, questions and activities that I wanted the students to pursue in their journal entries.

I would try to run this program for at least 50% of each term.  The remainder of the time was taken up with other programs that might play into specific curriculum requirements such as media studies or poetry.  But this was the core of the program and encouraged students to simply read, even when it wasn’t actively running.

That last sentence is important and deserves a little more comment.  Students in middle grades, especially boys, are very reluctant readers.  There are many reasons of this, not the least of which is simply the nature of the beast.  But some of it comes from poor choices in laid on reading material in the classroom.  When I see the selection of books often chosen by schools to inflict on students, I find there to be no mystery in understanding why middle school students are discouraged from reading.  I remember my own experiences of painfully enduring Eagle Of The Ninth and Master Skylark.

I’ve been fairly successful in motivating teenage boys to read, both inside and outside of the classroom.  One thing I’ve found to work is to frame reading as a “subversive activity”.  So I talk about banned books and why they were banned.  What was the great attraction of Harry Potter or Catcher In The Rye, both widely banned?  Reading has to be relevant to what the student thinks is important or exciting in order to be enticing.  Outside of class I’ve seen reluctant readers devour books like Youth In Revolt by  C..D. Payne, Fade by Robert Cormier or Lamb by Christopher Moore, all of which are not likely to appear on any school curriculum list, but also both of which I would approve of as independent reading.

A book I’ll talk about in a later entry is The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.  This was a book that I chose to read aloud to my class, with an entire unit of activities revolving around it.  Students who would otherwise never read would often devour any chapters that they might miss.  Once I purposely stopped short in my reading and provided the end of the chapter in photocopied pages.  It was fascinating to see special education students take the pages as they left for their support class and literally bump into people in the hall because they were reading while walking.  (I know, not entirely kosher, but boy did it work.)

I think that when, left to schools, curriculum “specialists” or even teachers, we choose books for students to read, we do so for the wrong reasons.  We do so based on what we think is best for the student rather than what the student wants or needs.  The result is obvious, with reading becoming a painful endurance for many middle school students.  It is better to let the student choose, and for the teacher to extend a supportive or guiding hand when appropriate.

The program may look like a lot of work for the teacher, but if you are organized it is actually easy, fun, often very interactive, and even gave me some opportunities to read in class along with the students (which is being a good role model).