When I was taking my Master’s classes, there was a lot of research about, well, research. Quantitative. Qualitative. Triangulation Mixed Method Design. Action Research. And although I’d sometimes get lost in the statistical and mathematical aspects of it, not all research is just about numbers, as we also learned about the importance of story in indigenous methodologies.
This past week, after reading a tweet thread by one of my favorite authors, I was thinking about how we often try to quantify other aspects of our life. Here is it below:
“There are whole industries dependent on our anxieties – over ageing, over weight, over our lack of status, over money, over relationships. Every year there are new things to worry about. Should I eat more protein? Have I done enough steps on my app? It’s relentless.
“From school we are placed in a data machine. A grade machine. And then our life becomes numerate. How much money we earn. How many followers we have. How old we are. How many steps we’ve done. How many calories we’ve consumed. A sad mathematical life.
“By constantly being encouraged to quantify our worth, we devalue it. We are infinite. Life is infinite. The miracle of witnessing it is immeasurable. We are all enough.” @matthaig1
There are so many immeasurables this past holiday week when we traveled to Calgary to visit our daughter. Things we could count: How many kilometers it was. How many hours it took to drive. How many days we spent. And I’ll definitely have a quantifiable amount on my credit card next month!
But, just like the Mastercard commercial says, some things are priceless. I can’t put a number on how many laughs we had, or the ridiculous silly banter between siblings. There’s no measurement scale to tell when the older sister has had enough of her brother bumping into her on purpose while shopping. (But it’s a higher amount than I would have had patience for!)
When we went skiing in Banff for a day, the temperature was measurable, and the windchill too! But how can you calculate the absolute stunning beauty of a sunny day in the mountains, the luminous blue of the sky, and the adrenaline rush of finishing a run that was probably a bit outside of your skill (and comfort) level?
We also took in two Calgary Flames games. There’s a lot to be measured there! Seat and row numbers, goals and penalty minutes, and the number of really annoying people who talk very loudly like they were in their living room watching the game on tv. (Two. In both games!) Not quantifiable? The collective gasps and cheers from the crowd, the home team coming away with two wins, and the cool ‘just being there in person’ feeling.
Annnnnd then there’s leaving. Inevitably, tears. The pep-talk that it’s not that long until Easter break. Mom being strong on the outside for everyone else, but my heart breaking on the inside. And the sudden realization that the next time I’m driving away from Calgary, in late August, I’ll be leaving both my kids behind there.
You can’t measure that.
When I did ELA interviews with my grade 7s in January, they brought a portfolio of evidence for different learning objectives. When I’d ask them how they felt about each piece, a common (and unexpected) response was, “Well, I worked really hard on it.” Hmmm. Okay. What specifically do you like most about it? “I put lots of effort into it. It took me a long time.” Alright. I need to ask better questions! And we did get there, talking about the complexity of their piece, or the word choice or main idea. But it did strike me at the time how it’s really hard for kids to separate quantifiable aspects from other non-measurable ones like time, effort, and emotion. And I do mean non-measurable…it’s really irrelevant to the final piece how long you’ve worked on it. Does it sometimes correlate? Sure. But there have been blog posts I whipped off in no time and others that I’ve agonized for hours writing, and I doubt that the reader could sort which was which. Same goes for effort. And I would never EVER give a mark on the heart and soul that a student poured into their piece. Not unless I wanted them to never write from their heart again.
Positive comments for growth. No exceptions.
I stumbled across some feedback that I had gotten at the end of Grade 10 ELA. I really wish my old teacher was on Twitter to give him a shoutout. (He isn’t. I’ve checked!) But here’s what he wrote as a final comment for my journal collection of 20 writing pieces.
Edla: Never, well almost, would I have believed in awarding a perfect score for journals – even if there was paraphernalia included. But, here it is – never! Lots of possibilities, here, if you want to risk, share, take abuse, and maybe glow! Enjoy your summer holidays! 12:15am. E.C.
So there’s a couple of things that make me laugh. I love that he used the word paraphernalia and I have ABSOLUTELY no idea what that was about! I wonder what the heck I attached to my journals, although I can assure you that it’s not the paraphernalia that the word itself conjures up. I also love that he made a point of telling me what time he finished marking. Lol. Some things just don’t change over time for teachers! Yah, it focused on what mark I got and in those days I was OBSESSED with getting good marks.
But mostly, I love the confidence he gave me as a writer, and how he was honest about what happens when you share your writing…and these were pre-internet and pre-Twitter days. He would have had no idea what kind of risk that is and how much abuse is out there now. He also wouldn’t have had any idea how much his feedback always meant to me, and how influential my memories of him as a teacher continue to be.
As we head into another week of freezing weather, let’s try not to live a ‘sad mathematical life’ focusing on the ridiculous windchill numbers, but remember that, “We are infinite. Life is infinite. The miracle of witnessing it is immeasurable. We are all enough.”
P.S. If anyone knows Mr. Ed Chow who is now a Vice-Principal at LA Matheson School in Surrey, British Columbia, wish him a (belated) Happy Teacher Appreciation Week from an old (very old) student!
Tawâw. Tervetuloa. Everyone is welcome.
World Read Aloud day was on February 2, a day to celebrate and recognize the many benefits of reading out loud to children. My 7 and 7/8 ELA classes had chosen some picture books, and we walked next door to read to the Kindergarten, Grade 1s and 1/2s. In the first class we paired up, it didn’t divide up evenly, so I grabbed a book and sat down on the floor with my little partner. She instantly crawled into my lap like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Which, of course, it is.
It’s been a while. To be honest, my own kids aren’t really kids anymore, and I’d forgotten what that was like. I read out loud a lot in class, to model all the important things like asking questions, making inferences, using expression. But the proximity of someone sitting there, pointing, giggling, helping to turn pages, making the animal sound effects (and there were lots of them!)…well…there’s nothing that really can describe that.
Happiness doesn’t even quite encapsulate it.
Joy is closer.
And that feeling was there for both of us, which is kind of the point of the day. As the Kids and Family Reading Report says, “research reveals (reading aloud) is a highly interactive experience—it’s a partnership…This interactivity fuels the child-parent bond that children express when asked to describe why they love read-aloud time.”
I remember mom reading with us every night, often from the “Story a day” book. Three little girls likely all clamoring for space to see the pictures, and to be closest to mom. For my own kids, I remember the cuddles at bedtime and taking turns for whose bed we were reading on that night.
My daughter recently had a university nursing class that was discussing the idea of narratives and analyzing what impact stories have on us…for example, how caring is a concept, not a concrete thing, and how everyone interprets that differently. They were supposed to think about a children’s book from their childhood and the professor picked a few students to share.
To be honest, she has had a crazy three weeks of quizzes, midterms and finals, a research essay, preparing care plans for the two clinical days in the hospital each week, and more. She is tired! And so, lucky her, she was one of the people called on in class. She said she barely got out the title of the book before she was overwhelmed by emotion…thinking about the book made her think about home and missing us. Between teary sobs, she managed to squeak out an apology, trying to insist she wasn’t normally so sensitive.
But therein lies the power of books. The moments we share aren’t just about words on a page. They are so much more.
It probably didn’t help that the book she thought of was Robert Munsch’s “I’ll Love You Forever.” That story is a blow to the heart, no matter what age you are.
But when I think about the time we spent reading together as a family, I carry a lot of guilt too. There were nights that it became a chore, especially when they hit school-age and the nightly readers came home. There was pressure to get through the required number of pages, and to have them do the reading. Which is fine, except that my son really struggled with reading, and by the time that whole frustrating exercise was over, he was often mad and his interest in sitting and listening was done. And if we reversed the order, he knew that his turn to read was coming, and it clouded the whole experience. Add in the weekly spelling lists, where he would get half wrong on Monday, then we practice them all week only for him to get those words right, and the ones he originally had correct, all wrong on Friday. It’s no wonder that we sucked the love of reading and books and words right out of him.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of grade 4 that a specialized eye exam revealed he had an accommodation issue with his eyes, which meant they weren’t working in tandem and things like letters and numbers were jumbled. Soooo much lost time.
Like I said, a lot of guilt.
That joy of reading is a hard thing to find when it’s lost. Research shows a huge drop off in reading aloud to our kids once they are reading on their own, but it also says not to stop! When I think of all the benefits for students - the word exposure, the listening and comprehension skills, the empathetic response, the beauty of being sucked into an enthralling read-aloud - it’s something that I will continue to do as a teacher, no matter what age of students. There’s nothing like coming to a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, and the collective “NO! Don’t stop!” from the kids to fully appreciate the author’s power to make us feel.
And all is not lost. Reading truly is a lifelong journey. In the past two years in ELA, my son has been encouraged and helped in finding books that fit his interests. He has been given dedicated time every single day at school to read. He has talked about books. He has bought his own books. And he has had strong reading role models that show it’s not only okay to read, but to be a reader.
Since it’s Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s a perfect time to say thank you for giving him the gift of reading again. And thanks to all the teachers who bring joy to students in so many ways, each and every day.
Tawâw. Tervetuloa. Everyone is welcome.
“It’s undeniable that it is hard to fit everything needed to raise a child into a single day, or even week. But I urge you, parents, grandparents, caregivers and educators, to look closely at this powerful data and to see the opportunities that will open up for the child in your life. Parents tell us they are incorporating read-aloud moments into routines, using them at impromptu times throughout the day, reading aloud to foster quiet time or as a part of an already boisterous playtime. And while the study shows that it is still the mother who reads aloud most often to her children, let’s make a new commitment—as dads, as men, as grandfathers, as siblings— to read more often to the children in our homes and in our care.” Pam Allyn, Senior Vice President, Scholastic Education Innovation and Development
This past week we made some changes. And in case anyone was under any delusions, change is hard. It pushes people outside of their comfort zone, takes away their status quo, and generally makes us “un”…uncooperative, uncertain, unconvinced, and a whole bunch of uncomfortable. But the message I kept repeating (to myself too!) is that there is no growth without change.
Try to imagine a situation where there is growth but everything is stays precisely the same…I googled it…it’s not possible lol. Growing always means changing. It’s whether you choose to look at that change with a growth mindset or not: is this an opportunity to set new goals? Have higher hopes? Just reset and start again?
I made a big change in terms of assessment in ELA for progress reports this year. It was not without a lot of “un” words too! I had aspirations, then doubts, then regained confidence in the process. More than anything, I know it allowed for growth. Here’s what we did:
Essentially, my students prepared a portfolio of evidence around five main ELA goals to determine their January progress report mark. Everything else in my gradebook was set to ‘feedback, not for marks’ and then we sat down for a one-on-one interview. In it, we went through each goal and discussed strengths, things to work on, and agreed on a 1-4 assessment level.
I can’t even begin to put words to how powerful those conversations were.
I’m pretty confident that I generally give fair assessments…lots of opportunities for student choice and voice in their writing, but I also encourage videos, presentations, sketchnotes, PowToons, and other ways to show their learning. We do a standardized reading assessment that breaks down areas of main idea, recalling facts, vocabulary, inferences, and author’s approach. We explicitly show how we use reading strategies by annotating text. And more.
But the difference here? It’s not just me marking their work. It’s not just me looking at their evidence.
It’s them explaining their thinking. Detailing what they liked about their writing. Describing their process as they look at a brand new piece of text. Going through their reading test and seeing if it was a variety of small errors or a big area to focus on.
Not me. Us.
Hearing them describe their work in their own words was something else, and it made them think deeply too. We moved away from the ‘I put a lot of effort into this so it’s my best’ into more specific and detailed answers with a few ‘how does effort show in this piece then?’ and ‘why is this stronger than something you’ve written earlier?’ questions.
Suddenly, we are analyzing descriptive language and dialogue. We are discussing the use of transitions in between video clips and photos, and what they would have done differently so their sketchnote would make more sense to someone else. We are talking.
When I think about triangulation of data, having the formal interview with students and bringing in their strongest recent work, I am only missing documenting my observations of students throughout the term. You’re probably wondering, ‘Don’t you already do that while students are creating those pieces?’ Absolutely. There’s a ton of side-by-side work and formative assessment happening in the moment. But I plan to set up a notebook with our five big goals in it, and have a quick record of what I am seeing occasionally as well.
We also did interviews in Social 8 and it was even more striking to me how effective this format is. For the main areas around culture and identity, I used the curriculum outcomes and Concentus.ca to compile a list of 16 questions for students to consider. They weren’t simple. They were complex questions that required detailed answers. Some students required a bit of ‘tell me more’ prompting, but most of them blew me out of the water with thoughtful responses that I would never have gotten from them in any sort of written format. I gave them the option to bring in a cheat sheet if they wanted. Some did and some didn’t. Only one student even looked at theirs, and really just for confidence. They didn’t have to answer all 16 either as I was hoping for quality of understanding over quantity. When they came in, they drew out five numbers, corresponding to the numbers on the questions, and when given an opportunity at the end to answer a question that they didn’t pick, no one hesitated.
None of this was my own. I totally took Erin Hill and Brett Kirk’s ideas of final interviews and projects. They have been doing amazing work in this area for a while. I even literally used their rubrics and format, and adapted them to work for me and my students. And as we prepared for our interviews in the week before, the questions that students had for me were already helping me re-shape what these will look like when we do this again at the end of June.
Here’s where it really hit home.
I only did this for certain classes and subjects. Not across the board. Many of the subjects, like Social 7 and Arts Ed were still an average of their assignments and tests across the two terms. So the student who didn’t complete those first two assignments in September, or did poorly on them, asks the question all students ask when they see their mark: why did I get a…? even though his most recent work is stronger, more detailed, and completed. I know that some educators solve this problem by weighting assignments or terms, but to me that just muddies the assessment waters even more. And even when I keep my PowerSchool as simple and straightforward as possible, it’s software, and sometimes I’m even baffled by what their algorithms do to generate a mark. How much clearer it was for students to be a partner in their assessment – no surprises, just honest collaborative conversations.
So what were the challenges? Yah. There were a few! First, it’s hard to do this quickly and meaningfully. I set a timer on my phone to keep (myself and) the interview on track, but every single one went longer. Which was okay. I used up every period of the day whether it was ELA or not, plus the whole noon hour, and yanked kids out of another class during my prep period too. I was lucky to have the support of a substitute teacher that was available to help supervise students after his exam was done. Of course, Murphy’s Law had it that several buses didn’t run due to weather and so I spent the next day(s) trying to finish up.
I teach a split class with the Social 8, so I have fewer students and was able to have longer conversations with them. I really tried not to do a disservice to the process, but it was definitely starting to feel rushed towards the end. I also know through our talks that we will be doing a lot more around the area of self-assessment and goal setting, which means I’ve got some reading to do myself lol.
This was top on my sheet to students: Why assessment conferences and reflection? Because you are more than just a number…because not one piece of writing can show everything…because your ELA abilities are defined by improvements and needs, not averages…because reading and writing skills are lifetime of work, and much more than a checklist.
In June, I’m adding …because there is no growth without change, and you have both grown and changed this year…this is where we show it.
Tervetuloa. Everyone is welcome. Tawâw.
Stay warm this week!
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