“Not easy to stay firm”

I went out yesterday, with hope, and bought a few back-to-school clothes I couldn’t afford. Sadly, it was with the kind of hope that I have when I buy a lottery ticket. It’s fun to think about the things I’d do, and the people in my life I could help, but I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the big one.

Similarly, I have no real expectation of returning to school in my shiny new clothes for at least three weeks.

Recent evidence reconfirms my sense of things. In Michael Smythe’s interview with Minister Fassbender on August 21st, I found some, I don’t know, code, for why I feel so concerned that there has never been a political will on the part of the Government to negotiate a deal. It seems they are holding out for something, have always been holding out for something.

Fassbender says, “We have to change the way we do business. And when you do that, and when you take a leadership on wanting to do that, it is not a comfortable place to be.”

Here’s another quote from the interview from Fassbender; he says, “…my goal is to change the paradigm so we are not back into that cycle, and it is not easy to go there, not easy to stay firm.” 

Of all the topics that came up in the interview, this is the one that snagged my attention. Kept snagging my attention.

What is the paradigm shift? What is Fassbender staying firm on?

Fassbender refused to give the deadline for when he will bring down the (surely already planned, the date already in place,) “solution” to this conflict.

Yes, he’s going there. But where is there? What will this all look like when Fassbender has achieved his agenda?

Could someone in the media please ask him. If he doesn’t answer, ask again. Keep asking.

Maybe I am wrong, maybe there is hope. Maybe I’ll go buy a lottery ticket, too. See how it turns out.

We tell our story, or someone else will

It has been incredible to watch the kind of storytelling that has taken place during this labour dispute in BC. Teacher bloggers and tweeting teachers have given voice to a variety of issues. A critical mass of teachers are obviously taking up the tools of the digital age to enrich their own professional lives, make their classroom work accessible to kids and parents, and to bring the world to their students.  Many teachers also wrote letters to the editor, or posted on Facebook. Images of emptied classrooms, pictures from the picket line, and stories from the classroom have belied the predominant narrative that this is just about a recalcitrant union executive that needs to be brought to heel.

The lockout was particularly inspiring.

This outpouring is a huge difference from the last ‘withdrawal of services’ back in 2012.

Yesterday, we rushed to say good bye, to send out emails to parents, to get work back to students, to send home work for students that didn’t quite get there, to take student work home that didn’t get assessed. (Yes, I know I am on strike. I was also locked out, but I have a job to do, and I have no intention of letting a single student down if I can avoid it.)

Today, it was a pure joy to watch the #thisismystrikepay hashtag dominate my Twitter stream. It was uplifting, and helped me deal with the wide ranging emotions that toppled me yesterday around 4pm.

We tell our stories, or someone else will.

I tried hard not to feed the trolls, or curse the media’s lack of clarity or stale commentary.

This is not about them.

This is about the courage to tell a story. I am so grateful to you all. You helped make a miserable couple of weeks doable.

I am hopeful that  we will get a fair deal and that students will have more supports. I am hopeful Districts will have enough money to provide services, rather than trying to do more and more with less and less, year after demoralizing year.

In the meantime, all of you that posted and tweeted, wrote letters, took pictures, penned signs, and attended rallies you are my  #thisismystrikepay.

Also, these two great kids, who give up loads of time with me so I can go to work, #youaremystrikepay!


Internal and external conflicts with assessment

I am marking English 11 this morning, as I await my 2-6pm shift on the picket line, so internal and external conflicts are on my mind. Hence the title.

Once again, the sticky, pokey, confuzzled, and much hated Marking Beast reared its ugly head. (Not to be confused by the much loved Assessment Hero.) Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I asked students to analyze some short stories via specific questions, using integrated quotes and providing analysis and explanation. Recently, I had started to use short, focused rubrics and and feedback on student work, because I am loathe to assign numbers until report cards force me to.  (And then I am still loathe to do it.) This time, due to some conflicts within myself, with time, with students themselves confused by the lack of numbers on their work, I decided to use my older method of assigning numbers to questions. (When will I learn?)

I am cheerily marking along, providing advice, using my number system, which looks something like this:

  • If they use two specific quotes to prove their point, and integrate them in their answer, and provide explanation and analysis, that would be a 10/10.
  • If they use two specific quotes, including analysis, but do not integrate, that would be a 9/10.
  • If they use limited but clear evidence, and integrate and don’t explain, that would be….

….and so on. Marking English/Humanities is complicated.

It is going well for the first six or so assignments, until I run into a paper produced by a student I have worked with before and who has struggled with writing and analysis. I am thrilled at the work she has done, and drop the paper mid-assessment to text her parent to pass along a congrats and encourage her to stay ‘in the game’ until the end of classes in June. English 12, here she comes!

However, by the time I tally her marks, she has a C. I get up off the couch and walk the dog.

Here’s why her mark was so low.

  • On eight questions, she got an average of 85%.
  • On two, she misunderstood the questions, and while she provided strong and thorough evidence for the idea she thought she was answering, she got zeros.
  • On three, she gave partial answers, clearly losing interest or perhaps again not understanding the questions, but having completed them for homework, did not ask for clarification before putting it in the marking bin.

Okay, so if she got 85/130, that is 65%. Should she have a high B? Should the C stand? How do I hand back a paper with 65% scrawled on it, when she so clearly can do more? Did do more?

My options:

  1. Track her down and get her to re-do the questions she did wrong or did not complete.
  2. Give her a C.
  3. Give her  B, based on the questions she did answer and in which she clearly demonstrates her ability to ‘provide a clear and thorough interpretation of works that feature complex ideas and language’ and her ability to ‘make logical inferences and analyze literary works using textual evidence’, and her capacity to ‘provide thoughtful insight’. This is all language from the rubric.

Given the limited time I currently have to work (voluntarily) with students outside of class, Option 1, while good, may not be realistic.

Option 2: Will. Not. Happen.

So, she gets the B. She earned it. She showed her ability EIGHT times, ten if you count the missteps. If she had done it only 3 times, my choice would be different.

(Bring it, Marking Beast, bring it.)


What about you? What would you have done?



That’s right, I enjoyed marking them

I have been playing around with essential questions in several of my classes for some time. As well, I have been thinking hard and long about assessment and trying out a variety of ways to keep the whole assessment of learning process from being reductionist and a waste of time. How useful is the unit test, ultimately? How boring is it to mark the unit test?

One of my new litmus tests is if I am bored marking it, I probably shouldn’t be marking it. There is also a very good chance that I probably shouldn’t be assigning it either, but I think that’s a gray area and a different blog post.

Here is one of my latest forays into assessment and essential questions.

Last semester, in Psychology 11, I made the following questions central to our Social Psychology unit:

  • What are the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in?
  • Is there a right way to be?

Using essential questions in Psychology 11

These questions were central to all the learning we did, as we moved through the four week unit on attribution theory, social roles and norms, conformity and dissent, and prejudice and discrimination. Students were asked to reflect continuously on these questions.

Students knew at the start that they would have to have a good grasp of both the content of the unit, such as the vocabulary and concepts and the famous psychological studies that inform our understanding of how people behave in groups (Asch’s line study, Robber’s Cave, Milgram and Zimbardo, and others) and the essential questions for the unit exam.

The exam would take place over about four hours of class time and they could access any resource in the room, including me, books, the internet, and each other.

I gave them the list of terms and the studies and a large sheet of paper and said, “Go for it.”


Using post-it notes and bits of paper helped get past the fear of the big blank paper. Students also colour-coded.

It was not a smooth ride. Some students begged for the ‘old exam’ while others likely cursed me silently. I printed it out the version from the previous year and handed it to them, in order to illustrate that the information was not different. I told them that I wanted to mark fifteen different exams, not fifteen exams exactly the same. Of course, the essay at the end would have dealt with that independent thinking, but I really wanted to push them to BE WITH THE CONTENT for an extended period of time in the hopes that the content would really stick. We learn when we write, so this was assessment that IS learning. I wanted them to be able to leverage the content in other courses in the coming years, not forget it once they had matched the definitions, written the short answer questions and banged out an essay. As well, I wanted them to apply the essential questions over and over. I wanted to be able to see THEIR thinking, rather than watch them travel the path of MY thinking.

It was critical to communicate they had to answer the questions in light of the study of psychology, not just give their opinions. This was about application.




The blank page was intimidating. I brought out my basket of paper and post-it notes. I provided a model to show them what some possibilities were. I used a certain colour of paper for essential questions, another for famous studies, and another for terms. The post-it notes and bits of paper really got them moving. I left my sample in the middle of the room for them to refer to. Things started to move more smoothly at that point.

The unit assessment had built in differentiation. Students could reflect their basic understanding of the content and terms. We had summarized the studies in groups as part of our review, and these summaries were available to the students to include. The terms were already on their definitions sheets I had handed out through the unit. They had powerpoint notes and assignments to use. Then, as they started to analyze and integrate, individual student experiences and understandings would allow for a wide range of reflection.


The assessment still managed to stymie a few students. I suspect these same students would have not studied for the test and then come in and guessed a whole lot, and then they would have written a whole lot of nothing on the essay. However, I think I could have had a bit more success with  few of them if I had sat with them longer and pushed harder.

Some really great thinking happened and I was excited by the process. Their individuality really came forward.






They were an utter pleasure to mark. I believe my assessment of their learning was far more accurate than any traditional test could have delivered, and the learning carried on a much deeper fashion.

If only I could hear what they have to say in fifteen years. Usually the statement goes, “I don’t remember a thing from high school!” I hope they will say, “I remember Zimbardo, and Milgram, and I still think about the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in.” I hope it shapes their own behaviour in groups and that they maintain strong control of their ethical compass in high pressure situations. After all, that is ‘the right way to be.’

Jordan Shapiro; Global Education and Skill Forum

I watched an engaging talk by Jordan Shapiro that discusses game-based learning. What he is really talking about is powerful learning. He’s a humanities teacher, and states; “I honestly hope that my students learn nothing….No-thing. No things….Education is about ideas…I don’t teach things.”

It reminds me of something that I always put at the top of my History 12 course outline:

“Nothing capable of being memorized is history” R. G. Collingwood

This often is very confusing for my students, as they have a long career of memorizing things, but my goal is what Jordan Shapiro outlines. What we want in education is for students to engage with new perspectives, to be creative thinkers, to be able to solve complex problems, and engage in metacognition and self-assessment. These are the types of high-leverage skills that will allow them to tackle issues in any discipline and in life itself.

I often hear people say, I remember nothing from high school. I tackle that one head-on in my classes, too. I tell my students that they will likely forget a lot of the discreet facts they do indeed have to know for a time in my class: dates, names, events. What I want them to remember, however, is that they grappled with big ideas that are essential to understanding history, their own lives, and the future.

  • What are the impacts of technology on society?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How does power imbalance lead to the violation of human rights?
  • How does our world view shape our actions? How does my world view shape my actions?

I also want them to remember the broad strokes of history, to build up a time line that they will continue to refine as they engage in a life of learning. We are becoming educated, not filling in pieces of paper.

It is a beautiful talk and even if you don’t watch the entire 30 minutes, you won’t regret the philosophical underpinnings he outlines at the beginning. I especially love the analogy he uses about not being a big pitcher of knowledge giving out small sips of “expert knowledge”.


Follow him on twitter: @jordosh

Also, here is one of the links he discusses right at the end of the talk; Graphite

Kindle and Immersion Reading


Immersion copy

I have been noticing that the audio books I have been purchasing lately from Audible have something called Whispersync  for Voice. The idea is that you can listen to your audio book on a device and then sync it on your Kindle, so you read on from where you left off.

When I looked into it, I found the above description for immersion reading. Not only would it sync across devices, but you could read along with the fabulous narration of the audio version. 

I was pretty excited by this. That’s an understatement; my heart just about burst with excitement. I quickly ordered my first Kindle last week to try it out in my classroom. Was this the technology we have been waiting for? Good books, read well, supported by text, for reluctant readers, learning disabled readers, readers with comprehension issues?

It arrived Friday, and I spent several hours this weekend trying to get a book set up for a student..

When it didn’t work, I called the company to get support. After several transfers back and forth between Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, it turns out we can’t do this in Canada at this point.

The Kindle Fire HD I just bought doesn’t have that feature enabled. Even if I bought a Kindle Fire from the US, which I then tried to do, it still wouldn’t work here.

So, now we wait. I hope it doesn’t take long. I haven’t been this excited about a technology for students for a long time. It seems so easy, so right.

I guess it won’t be a complete waste of time and money. I am going to bring it tomorrow with both the Audio and Kindle book loaded for a student tomorrow.

Doing my homework. Thanks, Glen.

I think.

This is, as Glen called it, a ‘meme thingy’ being circulated around the twitter/blog-verse and it works like this:

  • Post 11 Random facts about yourself
  • Answer 11 questions asked by another
  • Provide 11 questions that you ask to another 11 people in your PLN (professional learning network)

So, 11 random facts about myself.

1. Coming up with 11 random facts about my self is weirdly difficult. I wonder why the number 11.

2. I had a Bronco that did donuts down the logging road that led to my first teaching job. After many, many months, a nice mechanic believed me when I told him it had to be something wrong with the vehicle rather than just that I was a ‘woman driver’. The suspension on the vehicle was shot. That’s random.

3. I have not blogged much this year, and was thinking I would manage over Christmas. (Un)fortunately, we got high speed internet, and Netflix, and I have fallen into it and I can’t get out. Also, I am tired.

4. I was born in the USA, in Salem. A different one.

5. I was born premature, which caused my mother to file bankruptcy. I weighed four pounds. My mom told me that it was because the Kennedy’s premature baby died in 1963 that the technology was pushed forward, and I survived in 1965.

6. I am a Canadian. I am a settler.

7. I am Anxiety Girl – able to leap to the worst possible conclusion in a single bound. It is my greatest superpower and my kryptonite.

8. Wine. Sometimes red, sometimes white. With bread and cheese. I could live off it. Coffee. Coffee snob.

9. I am married to the perfect man for me. Whatever. He would be perfect no matter who he married. We have two kids and when they were born, my heart was permanently removed from my chest and stuck, with no protection, outside my body. Survival is questionable.

10. Sometimes Aragorn. Sometimes Legolas. (That’s for you, @gthielmann.)

11. I believe, as a student of the humanities and a citizen of the world, in the responsibility to witness, to know, to have a voice. I still believe in world peace, and I am 49. I prefer the utopian illusion, because the dystopian reality cannot be allowed. It cannot be allowed.

Glen’s questions for me:

1. If you morphed into an all-round Olympic athlete, what would be your Winter Sport and your Summer Sport?

-country skiing, biking

2. What was the most interesting book or written work you read in 2013 (and was it paper or digital)?

I’ll pick two – Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (paperback), and Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (audiobook). I picked Indian Horse, because I believe it to be the Canadian novel that we all must read. I am stilling hearing the voices of the narrators in Code Name Verity, and I think I will for a long time.

3. What is a major change you would make to the BC Education system?

Assessment – in particular, percentages and letter grades, which I despise. And, more generally, I would change what we ask students to do with the limited time we get to spend with them. Death to worksheets. It is more complicated than that. This is a blog post in waiting.

4. What is a work of art (any genre or form) that inspires or challenges you?

I am trying to write a piece of creative fiction. It is hard because it keeps turning into a memoir. I don’t know what to do. Whatever it is, I don’t have time to do it.

5. Considering the wealth of oil in northern Alberta that we seem anxious to liquidate in a single generation, are you in favour of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline?

No, I am not. I am not in favour of the bitumen going out via pipeline, or tanker, and I am not in favour of literally burning through fossil fuels as fast as we can. We need it. It has some unique properties and we have an ethical obligation to preserve it for as long as possible. Then there is global warming…. In the meantime, though, fracking scares the hell out of me, and I am worried we are not paying adequate attention to that. Our real problems are more system-wide.

6. What is a food experience that you wish on your children (or nieces/nephews)?


7. If your house was burning, but insurance would cover the obvious expensive items and your family & pets were safe, what meaningful artifact would you rescue from your home?

Pictures, on the computer.

8. If you had to pick a different career than the one you’re in, what would it be?

Farming. Some days, I just want the simplicity of growing things. I know that farming is not simple, or easy, or even profitable. I grew up on a farm and suffer no illusions. But sometimes I crave the land, and having no greater responsibility than to make sure my soil is good, the animals fed, and my plants watered. No one else’s skill level, passion, understanding, or life is in my hands. Then again, I have felt guilty about plants I have killed….

9. If you were to ever publish a book, what would you like it to be about?

Assessment, or previously mentioned novel

10. What was a great event or experience in your work life from 2013 (e.g. teacher experience for many of you)?

A particular student wrote a paragraph.

11. What was a great family moment from 2013?

The small ones – a game of Settlers of Catan. Having dinner with the relatives in the Netherlands on Oma’s birthday. Listening to my daughter play ukulele and sing with her friends. Christmas morning. My son and I watching Walking Dead together. My daughter and I watching a romantic comedy. Breakfast in bed with my husband. Skiing out onto the lake where the morning sun is already shining. Sailing with my husband on the off-shore breeze. Our annual autumn beach walks. The small and great moments that make a life.

Questions for my (victims) PLN:
1. How do you balance your work and your personal life in a job that is never done?
2. What was your favourite vacation?
3. How do you make use of story in your life?
4. What is a current event that is gripping your attention at the moment?
5. Which place in the world has made the biggest impression on you?
6. What would you change about the education system?
7. What is something on your bucket list?
8. What was a proud moment for you this year?
9. What course do you/would you like to teach above all others?
10. What book/movie/non-fiction/ text made a big impression on you this year?
11. What is your favourite musical group?
Post in the comments or on your own blogs!

In search of a new assessment

This year I had the privilege of teaching a History 12 class at our school. I get the course about once every three years. Our school is shrinking and this means we often don’t have enough students to run a section of the course every year.

In BC, this course is 20th Century World History. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which brought WWI to a close and arguably launched WWII. The Russian Revolution and communism. The Depression, especially the impact in the US and Roosevelt’s New Deal. The rise of fascism and totalitarian governments. This year we focussed on the Spanish Civil War. WWII and the rise of the Cold War. Korea, Vietnam, Apartheid, India. The Middle East. The Civil Rights Movement in the US. It is great history, with little time to dig deeply into everything, so choices usually need to be made  about where to skim along the surface, and where to dive. I prefer the diving.

During the year, I provided opportunities for students to write and discuss ideas together on our class blog, to research, to do the basic textbook work, take notes, and write essay exams. But I kept thinking and thinking about the final assessment. I wasn’t sure what to do, or how to tie it all together and get a sense of how the students had really integrated the information, ideas, patterns and essential questions. I wanted to step outside the box and see what might happen.

In the end, I decided on a trial run. I couldn’t guarantee that the test would work, and I also didn’t want to throw the group into a tailspin in June of their graduating year. I ran it as a seminar conversation, but didn’t assess the students at all. I just asked them if they would help me see if the test would do what I wanted it to do.

I worried unnecessarily. I think the assessment would work, and better yet, really get at the big picture. Here’s what I did:

The essential question I asked was something along the lines of, “The 20th Century was a clash of social, political and economic ideologies.” I asked them to consider the material we had covered  and examine the Left vs Right political ideology chart from Information is Beautiful.


I centred the image on a piece of flip chart, and we sat around and discussed the image in relation to the topics we had covered. I recorded as much as I could as we chatted, but only in very brief detail as I was also facilitating the conversation.

At first, the students weren’t sure they had anything to say, but as we examined the chart, ideas started to flow. They started to see the logic of the assessment. I got some feed back that they would enjoy the style of test.

They could see both where ideology had played a role in conflicts, but also when the chart fell apart and the motivation of nations and individuals was more about nationalist or autocratic goals rather than ideology.

They were applying the chart to historical events, as well as considering again where their own ideology might best fit. Early on in the semester we had taken a political ideology test, so it tied back into that conversation as well.

I liked it. We had aha moments, and I could tell the students had learned a great deal. What I really love is to watch students see their own brains work, and to be excited by it.

If I get a chance to teach the course again, I’ll do it.

The students would know what the exam is from the beginning of the course. I would give them a two hour assessment slot, and they would be allowed to bring a sheet of notes.

I have some work to do in terms of the actual assessment rubric and the essential question needs work, but I think this would be a great final.

Here’s hoping I get to try out!

Teach less, teach more, do both

As usual, the twitterverse led me to various places of discovery and thought in the field of education this weekend. On the one hand, I was exhorted by Grant Wiggins to back off, to teach less, in order to give students the autonomy they need to apply what we have taught them.


Then again, E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells me that I should not be spending valuable time on how-to-ism. Instead, increasing domain-specific knowledge and vocabulary is the best way to improve learning and increase equality.


Sigh. Both of these articles posit assertions that make complete sense to me, and I am quite certain we need to be doing both, not one or the other. Nor am I suggesting the articles are diametrically opposed.

Essentially, I don’t think that we should allow the pendulum to swing away from intense, domain specific study. In order to think, students must have something to think about. However, they also need time to apply what they have learned, and see how it informs areas of their world that we did not get around to ‘covering’.

Both are right. There is no time to waste at school. What we do matters. Each decision, each lesson, each student, each time.