Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Parent Teacher Conferences-Reflection

As previously posted, I changed the way I did conferences this semester. Instead of concentrating on my students' progress via their grades in class, I conducted conferences with their learning as the focus. I asked my students to reflect on their learning based on the following questions:
  • Assess your learning in class so far this semester. Look at your participation, growth in writing, comprehension, etc..
  • Where, in terms of your learning, do you want to be at the end of the semester?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • What can I do to help?
  • Write a message to your parents.
The students then were asked to bring home a copy of their learning assessment for their parents to read before conferences as well as place a copy in my class drop box for me to access at conferences. Most of my students did give a copy of their assessment to their parents. Some parents hadn't read it but had been told by their kids they had a letter for them about school and so they read it off my laptop as part of our conference time. Only a few parents had no idea their child had written a learning assessment. Overall, the reaction I received from a number of parents was positive to what they read regardless of how their child grade-wise was doing in my class (we post grades online so almost all of our parents know their child's grade). In fact, I recall only once throughout two nights of conferences actually talking about grades- the student is failing.

What was difficult about this whole process was that 5 minutes for conferences was definitely not long enough. I had actual conversations with parents about their child and feel like I took away more from them about how their child is growing as a learner, or how their child needs to grow as a learner. I felt like I listened as much as I talked which is a huge change from the way I participated in conferences before. I was the one relaying all my information to the parent rather than allowing them to give me insight into their child and react to what their child had written.

Here are a few samples of things students said in their assessments:

Student 1: I have grown a lot so far during this year in terms of my reading comprehension and the understanding of different texts. Being in this class has definitely improved these things. I love coming to this class every day because it is very enjoyable and it is a great learning environment. The way that our class learns is so different that it is almost motivational for me to learn in it because it is so much fun. We have already read Macbeth and Lord of the Flies so far this year. Every day we would have discussions in class about the story, which not only allowed me to share my ideas and interact, but it allowed me to gain more understanding of what was going on in the story. When our class was required to read and annotate Lord of the Flies it helped me learn about the book by myself. My reading understanding has definitely improved. I also love participating and speaking up in this class because everyone will listen and then be able to give you feed back about your thoughts.

At the end of this semester I want to be able to read a book without any annotations or discussions but still be able to fully understand it. I want my mind processing to become much better, and for me to have deeper thoughts even when reading a book that was not assigned in class. I love reading and it would be great if I were able to understand something without having to research or ask questions about it on paper. I want my head to do all of the work in my head and be able to understand a book that I might read in my free time.

I am going to achieve this goal by doing all of my work for reading books. I will annotate and ask questions which will then teach me to do thinking for myself in my head. It is something that I will have to work for, and it will also come as I get older and grow in my thoughts and ways.

Mrs. Smith, you can help me achieve this goal by having more class discussions and helping me ask good questions. It might sound like a funny goal, but it would be amazing if I could understand everything that I read. Even if it was some book that had nothing to do with our class. I don’t know if there is much else you can do to help me achieve this goal. It is mostly something that I have to work for.

Student 2: Mrs. Smith’s class really is my favorite class. I actually understand what is going on. She always has interesting and different projects for us to do so that we don’t lose interest and work hard. Even though I like the work in her class I think that she kind of gives us a lot of it. Even though her class is my favorite, it is also the class that I have the most homework in. But the reason why I don’t mind doing it so much is because a lot of it is done on the computer and I like working on the computer. But I always do the work that we are given. But now that cross country is over I will have a lot more time to work on my homework and assignments. I know you think that I am a horrible student that doesn’t work hard and only cares about her social life, but I’m really not like that. I promise that my grades will go up and I am striving for an A in this class, Soccer/ Rec, and US History and a B in Science and Math. I really want those grades by the end of the semester. I am going to start going into my teachers when I need help after school and during my off hours, I’m going to spend less time on the phone willingly instead of being grounded from it, and I’m going to start studying really really hard on all my tests. I don’t like studying for tests very much but I will start doing it more often. Mrs. Smith doesn’t have to do anything to help me other than when I go in for help because she is already doing a good job teaching me in class. But the only thing I would like for you to help me with is to not put me down so much. I know I have bad grades, but I’m working on it really hard and when you take my phone away and tell me I can’t go trick or treating with my best friend. High school is already stressful enough and it doesn’t help very much when things like that happen.

Student 3:

1. Assessing my learning: I feel like I have learned a lot this semester, but not just learned. I feel like I have actually connected things we learned to life. Macbeth and LOF, for instance, were very relevant to human nature. It was so interesting to read these and talk about humans and society and the attrition thereof. The discussions we have are awesome and I always want to keep going. I think the main thing I need to work on is responding to others more on blogger. I need to learn how to have actual conversations on blogger (since it is hard for me to do this when there is no actual verbal dialogue going on). Other than that though, I feel pretty confident with what I have learned.

2. At the end of the semester I really want to take the idea of “learning outside of the school walls” to a whole new level. I definitely incorporate what I learn with how I live, but I feel like I could do more. Overall, there is no specific goal I want to achieve, like better grades or anything, just continuing to add my learning to my way of living. After all, that is the true reason for education.

3.I just want to continue conferencing with you about papers. This really helps me to understand what I need to fix in my writing, and it is just so cool that a teacher actually wants to spend time talking about learning instead of just being a teacher when in the classroom.

Student 4:
I have grown in class in a few different ways. First off, I am able to make connections to different things better. For example, I was able to make a lot of connections to Lord of the Files and Macbeth. I have also been able to manage my time better. I feel that I have participated in class quite a bit. I not only raise my name in class, but I also participate in all of the class blog discussions. I feel that my writing has always been pretty good, but I feel that I have gotten a little bit better at extending my word choice. For example, I think that I used good vocabulary words in my Macbeth essay. I think that I do have a good foundation for my comprehension. I feel that I really benefit when we discuss the book in class, though.

At the end of the semester, I would like to be in the position where I feel less stressed. At times, we have a lot of homework, and on other nights we don’t have hardly any at all. I would like to have a more constant amount so that we can plan out nightly homework a little bit more. I would also like to write more essays, rather than do so many projects.

I will reach that goal by trying to plan ahead more. I will try to use all of my time wisely. I will continue doing what I have been doing all semester. I think that I have been doing a pretty good job this semester.

You can help my by giving us more warning for all of our projects, and assignments. I think that you could maybe print us out a sheet that has due dates and our schedule for about a month. There would be no surprises this way, and we might be able to all have things done on time.

Would I do it again? Most definitely, but I would do a couple of things differently. One I would make sure all the parents had received the letter early enough to read it and be able to react to it. Also, I would have sent a letter with their child's learning assessment indicating my purpose behind doing conferences differently.

I am going to ask my students and hopefully their parents to comment on this process as well. Yep, that's right I want the parents to create blogger accounts as well so they can participate in the conversation. After all, that was my goal all around to create a conversation about learning.

Releasing My Seniors from Grades

My seniors created their own semester long project constructing their own definition of a hero through studying the works of Oedipus Rex (tragic hero-Greek), Beowulf (epic hero), Canterbury Tales, and Hamlet (Shakespearean tragic hero) as well as connecting to our in class discussions of modern day heroes. These are group projects which will be presented as their class final.

We discussed some ideas together one day in class about different ways they could demonstrate their understandings of heroes. I shared with them some projects I had come across regarding creative ways to construct a definition. One was as sample Oxford English Dictionary Definition my friend and colleague Lauren Gaffney created. Another was a Time Magazine article of the future looking at heroes (Gaffney created this as well- what can I say, she has great creative assessments so I keep stealing them from her). I showed my classes these two assignments but clarified for themas well that I wanted this to be their project. After taking the better part of two classes (different weeks) we came to the following criteria:

Final Project: What is a hero?

  • Multi-media
  • -- Photo story, movie maker…
  • Group project
    -- 4-5 maximum
    -- Everyone participates significantly-veto power
  • Individual reflection of contributions
    -- Self reflection
    -- Peer evaluation
  • Modern examples
  • OED Definition as a part
    -- Portfolio
    -- Document comprising all work
    -- Include OED written definition
    -- Overview summing up all ideas into one
    -- Organized
    -- Creative
  • 10 minute presentation
    -- Clear and smooth transitions
    -- Organized
    -- Answers essential question
    -- Goes beyond the expectations
  • Synthesize all text covered in semester
  • Personal commentary
    -- React to what you have learned about a hero
    -- Give feedback through modern day heroes
    -- React to the evolution of the hero

    Point Value:
    No grade-intrinsic motivation
Hopefully, after looking over the criteria you noticed this final point (no pun intended):
Point Value:
No grade-intrinsic motivation
This was the decision the class agreed upon after much deliberation. We talked about the seriousness of an agreement like this and the trust that takes place between the teacher and student as well as the students working together. What would happen if members of your group weren't taking the assignment seriously? What would happen if members of your group weren't completing the project? What would happen if group's fall short of the expectations of the assignment? If groups don't show any work at all? I really felt like we talked through a lot of the pitfalls that could come from releasing the control of this project by getting a grade to completing this project to demonstrate learning. This is a project they created so if research is correct, they shouldn't need to receive a grade on it because they will be intrinsically motivated to succeed. Right?

My reaction to all of this is two-fold. On one side, I am excited of the possibility. How could I not be? Here are students taking their learning in their own hands. YES! They are using real world skills of collaboration, critical thinking, synthesis of information, to demonstrate their own understanding of information as well as relating it to the real world. On the other side,I am scared. How could I let them not be graded especially on something as important as a semester final. What are my colleagues going to say? What is my principal going to say? I feel like instead of letting them down I am raising the bar, but will they see that?

But I have hope. I believe in them. Why? Read their comments after we created the project. Here are a couple:

Brooks K...
Guys, it is our duty as responsible students to take a leading initiative and care enough about our scholastic achievement that we excel beyond standards despite receiving a grade or not. I have found that when grades are less applied to study habits and to my work ethic, I succeed. When I go into class not for a grade but to actually learn and take away something valuable, my mentality is always in the right place and I know I have structured myself with full potential to learn.

Kyle B...
I think that all the fuss that this style of evaluation has created is based upon the fact that, ever since middle school, we have strived for personal gratification through good grades. This is all we have known and, by not receiving a grade on an assignment that would normally comprise a sizable portion of our grades has upset the pattern that we have known and accepted for the past 7 years of our education. We are all members of an exceptional class and none of us would wish to abuse this opportunity that Mrs. Smith has given us, an opportunity to succeed and exceed expectations solely for the knowledge of success.

I will keep you posted on the progress of the project. I am planning on giving them some tools like Google Docs to organize their projects as well as some in class time to meet and discuss with the group where they are going.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome to Conferences

I am one of those teachers that usually walks towards conferences dreading the conversation with parents because of the fear that one of them will go off on me about some aspect of my classroom, teaching, something random I said (I say a lot of random things not realizing what I say until I see it on a scribe post- i.e. I would kick kids in their shins if they didn't complete an assignment). However, usually, I walk away from conferences feeling appreciated by the parents as well as having learned more about my students. One aspect of conferences that we have been trying to change here at AHS is to steer the focus away from grades per say and focus more on the student specifically. In fact I recall a teacher who will go nameless saying he wished to put up a sign at conferences that would say, "If you want to talk to me about your child's grade, check Infinite Campus; if you want to talk about your child, see me." This is the direction I am hoping to go with conferences this year. I asked my students today (I wish I would have done this on Monday) to reflect on the following questions in a typed paper:

Assess your learning in class so far this semester. Look at participation, growth in writing, comprehension, etc…

Where do you want to be at the end of the semester?

How are you going to get there?

What help can I provide to achieve your goal?

Write a message to your parents.

I let them know before I gave them these questions my purpose behind doing conferences differently was that I know grades are important to them and to their parents, but what my greater concern is about is their learning. That is what I wanted to focus on with their parents at conferences rather than just talking about their grade. Now I know some of you are thinking that their grade should be a true reflection of their learning, and I agree that it is in part, but I an still one of those teachers who holds my students accountable for turning in work on time. Because of this, I think their grade measures part of their learning but not all of their learning. I actually think that grades can't fully capture a student's understanding because there are too many other factors to consider, but that is another conversation entirely.

After my students responded to the questions, they were asked to print out a copy to take home to their parents. The had a couple of options with what to do once they gave the note to their parents. One option is to let their parents know that we will be talking about this at conferences and not to talk about it till then or option two is to talk right then and there discussing their learning with their parents. Either way their parents are to bring the copy to conferences. Also, my students were to put a copy in our class drop box for me to access at conference to discuss.

I am anxious to see how this all turns out.

Cross Curricular Happenings

I have always been fascinated with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. I know it sounds dorky but here is a teacher, John Scopes, who chose with the help a few close friends (I don't know if I want these kind of friends) to challenge a law he felt was unjust. I find the history behind the whole trial as well as the outcome fascinating. I think I bring a lot of this enthusiasm into our discussions when we start reading Inherit the Wind. However, one area I feel like I have never done a great job of is making the trial relevant to my students- that is until yesterday.
Ideally, I wanted two Biology teachers to come and speak with my ninth graders about what it is like to be a biology teacher in the 21st century. I asked Adam Wallace, a passionate evolutionist, as well as Cara Syers, a devoted Creationist, to come and speak to my students. Cara wasn't able to find a sub for her class but we were quite fortunate to have Adam come and speak. The kids didn't say much to Adam after his presentation, but they left some interesting comments on our class blog in reaction to his presentation.
I do have to confess I was nervous exploring the issue of religion/ faith/ creation of the earth with ninth graders but I am very pleased with how this turned out. I hope it made to more personal and relevant to them. I know I learned many new things from Adam that I hadn't thought of before regarding his role as Biology teacher and all the various beliefs versus hypothesis about the creation of the world (notice Adam I used the word hypothesis). I am looking forward to next year hoping that I can have Cara and Adam both present to facilitate this important conversation with our students.
Adam- I would love for you to comment about the presentation and experience as well.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Macbeth Fishbowl Discussion Test...A Student's Perspective

Being an honors student all my life, I have gotten used to discussing, and I have loved it since my very first guided discussion in fourth grade. Personally, the best way for me to process my thoughts, and for them to be fully formed, is for me to talk them through with other people. I grow so much from hearing others ideas and from having to support my own. It helps me to become a better communicator and a better thinker. This past Tuesday, we had our final test on Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth. Generally, a test is a series of questions on a piece of plane white paper. However, Macbeth is not black and white, so that type of test just wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, we tried out our very first world famous Anne Smith Fishbowl discussion. This is not your usual discussion (Surprise, surprise! Like Ms. Smith would do something out of the box, please!). In this discussion, we mixed verbal discussion with blogger.

When I first heard about this double discussion idea, I was not too jazzed. I am not a lover of technology, so it seemed very impersonal to me for there to be a chance for teenagers to not talk in class. I mean, what sane teenager wouldn’t rather blog than discuss Macbeth? Let me just say, I was very pleasantly surprised! I couldn’t get a word in edgewise! Me, of all people, the one girl who usually dominates discussions and prays for others to speak up, did not get more than three chances to talk! It was astounding how much thinking was going on during those forty minutes of class. I felt like we could have spent many more hours discussing and growing as learners. There were 175 comments on our blog when we were finished, and there are only about 30 of us in the class! Wow!

Even though I didn’t blog too much, it was such a relief to type my thoughts when I couldn’t speak up because of all my fervently discussing peers. In that way, I could still have a discussion and finish thoughts that had been passed over in the verbal discussion. I could also remember what I was going to say during those long periods when others were conversing.

People whom I had never heard speak before let go of all their reservations on the blog. They spoke freely about their opinions and gave new insights to portions of the text. I was truly enlightened by the findings of my peers, and apprehended the material much more completely. Also, it was fun to have little disagreements that had to be worked through, and to be in complete agreement at times as well.

For any teachers who may be reading this post, I would seriously recommend trying this type of discussion out with your students, especially if you are reading literature that has important implications but that may be hard to understand. It was very beneficial to my understanding of Macbeth and I look forward to many more rewarding discussions like this in the days to come! - Hannah L.