Sunday, September 24, 2017

Knowing my students and focusing on feedback

Getting to know my students

Three weeks in and I am feeling at home in my classroom. I have had one-on-one conversations with most of my students to find out about their expectations and concerns related to Science class. I asked students to provide me with a range of numeric report card grades that would make them feel successful at the end of the semester. I plan to use these ranges as a reference for me throughout the semester so that I can let students know if they are on track since they will not be getting grades on their assignments. 

I had a few difficult moments during these discussions. A handful of students (in grade 9 and 12) expressed concerns about being in the 'right place,' in some cases questioning whether they were 'smart enough' to be there. I asked questions to find out the reasons for their concerns, and tried to push back as much as possible without discounting their concerns completely. I always struggle a bit with this early in the semester, when we have yet to develop the kind of trusting relationship that is necessary to effectively tackle important issues. The best I could do was to assure them that they were in the right place.

There were some lovely highlights in these conversations, too; one of my grade 9 students, when asked what their goals were for their final mark, told me that they thought marks were pretty meaningless and that they would feel successful if they had learned new ideas and skills. Imagine the grin on my face. :) 

Finishing up our first 'no grades' unit in 12U Chemistry

Considering the fact that the students' grades are extremely important this year for admission to post-secondary, there have not been any issues related to the fact that I haven't yet given them any numeric feedback. The two remaining pieces of evidence of their achievement in this unit will be the unit test (fairly traditional!) and their lab notebooks. The lab notebooks are a record of their process during our electroplating lab last week. (Students had three class periods to research, plan, and perform an experiment and used the notebooks to record their thinking, observations, and results.) Evidence from observations and conversations (Wed-Fri last week) will be used along with the lab notebook to assess their ability to apply their electrochemistry understanding in this new context. 
On test day, I plan to give students a template they can use to self-assess their progress in electrochemistry. We will use this in conjunction with my notes to come up with a numeric grade for this unit of study. Students will also be made aware that they have a chance to improve this electrochemistry 'grade' between now and the end of the semester. I'll share examples of the templates next week. On a personal note, I need to figure out a better way of tracking assessment during observation/conversation. I'll share something in a blog when I find what works for me.

Here are some of my tweets from this week...

The daily grind

Although my return to the classroom has been pretty smooth in most respects, I have been struggling with the number of interruptions to my classes these first three weeks. In the first 14 days of class with my homeroom grade 9s, I lost 4 full periods to assemblies, evacuation drills, guidance appointments, and picture day. Losing 4 out of 14 classes has been difficult for me as we try to develop classroom routines and find some 'academic momentum.' I don't intend this to be a complaint, but rather an acknowledgement of a common barrier teachers face in their classrooms. Each individual interruption is important, but having so many in quick succession is something I think schools should do their best to avoid. I'm looking forward to a much quieter week this week!

Monday, September 11, 2017

First Week Back

So, I've been back in the classroom for a full week after 3 years away from the classroom. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections in no particular order...

Who are all these people?
I am teaching at the same school that I had previously taught at for about 10 years. It is wonderful to have the comforts of 'home' (I can find things I need, lots of familiar teacher faces, routines are similar) but it is disorienting that I don't know any students. At all. With my grade 9's this doesn't make a difference, but my grade 12's have their 'stranger danger' radar on, wondering who I am and whether they can trust me. This means more work for me when it comes to building relationships. The silver lining is that my students and I are all starting out with a clean slate. A fresh start like this is worth the skeptical glances and skill-testing questions being thrown my way.

Changing how I do business
"Less me, more them" is one of the general themes I am trying to carry with me throughout each day. Every teacher loves a captive audience, and our voices have a time and place, but my students' voices need to be more important. Last week when we had a minor tech failure (first week back...maybe a little too ambitious!?!) it was easy to switch plans on the fly, but the default fallback plan involves more 'me' than I would like. I look forward to finding a new teaching rhythm where the 'default' lesson is more student-centred.

Started the 'gradeless' conversation
On the first day of classes, I told my grade 12 students my thoughts about numeric grades. I acknowledged the importance of grades this year as they apply to post-secondary programs, but made it clear that I would not be focusing on marks with them. I asked for their trust, but I know that trust takes time. I plan to conference with my students in the next week or so to learn about their goals for the course and address their questions. This year might not be completely gradeless, but it will be feedback focused as much as possible. Saying the words out loud to my students will help me stay accountable to myself.

Students know more than we think
For anyone who has ever doubted students' ability to generate quality success criteria entirely on their own, please give it a try! In my prior teaching life I had never had students generate criteria for anything critical. This year, on the first day of school, my Chemistry students generated success criteria for writing scientific explanations that were more specific and thorough than anything I would have come up with on my own. My students have high standards and have already shown me that they can identify quality work and give effective feedback to one another. We spoke about the power of a team, and about how all of us can push one another to improve.

Fresh air
I spent time outside with all of my classes last week. We didn't spend a whole period outside (yet!) but took advantage of the sunshine and had a little bit of fun getting to know one another. While outside, one of my classes blew me away when they found a solution to an icebraker activity that I never anticipated. A challenge that had always taken a minute or two with other groups (adults!) was over in the blink of an eye, with only me left asking 'how did you...?' I love surprises. :)

I hope to blog more often this year. See you soon. :)

Monday, September 04, 2017

Braiding Sweetgrass and Bridging Cultures

This summer, as is usually the case, the list of books I had planned to read was too long to be practical. Two education-related books took priority for me this year, both recommended to me by Science educators I have had the privilege to work with these last three years. Both books examine the relationship between Science (the Science I learned and have taught in school) and Indigenous knowledge about nature. The books complimented one another really well, and I wanted to share my reflections.

First, I would like to acknowledge that I am at the start of a quest to better understand my role in the reconciliation process between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. I have to thank the authors of these books for the role they played in helping me better understand who I am. Understanding the Eurocentric nature of 'my' Science and Science education is, for me, an important first step in knowing where I fit in the reconciliation story. I find myself wondering if there are others in the same position I am, struggling to find out where they fit in this complex process.

The first book I read this summer was Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdon, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist by training. Her book, carefully-selected stories from her life and from Indigenous oral tradition, is full of hope and wonder. She writes about the importance of creating positive experiences with nature for students of all ages, emphasizing that a strong relationship with nature promotes respectful practices such as the 'Honourable Harvest,' which she summarizes with these words:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you (plants), so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have take.
Give thanks for what you have been give.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

Dr. Kimmerer distinguishes between Eurocentric Science ('What is it? How does it work?') and Indigenous ways of knowing nature ('Who are you? What can you tell us?'). I was particularly intrigued by the inherent differences in western and Indigenous language; I grew up with (and teach) a Science that is full of impersonal nouns. The author recounts her journey in learning to speak her ancestral tongue, and her initial frustration upon realizing that there were far fewer nouns and far more verbs. She uses the example 'wiikwegamaa,' which translates as 'to be a bay.' Rather than relegate a bay to being a noun, the Ojibwe language imbues a bay with life:

" ...the verb wiikwegamaa - to be a bay - releases the water from bondage 
and lets it live. 'To be a bay' holds the wonder that, for this moment, the 
living water was decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing 
with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers."

As I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I yearned to be among Dr. Kimmerer's students, covered in soil, carefully harvesting watap (roots of white spruce) to help them build a shelter in the forest. I found myself recalling professors of mine who made biology come alive for me, using imagery, humour, and storytelling to capture our intellectual and emotional interest. The picture Kimmerer paints of Nanabozho and Linnaeus going for a walk in the woods and discussing the names and relationships of plants and animals will stay with me always. The book ends with a message of hope that our earthly relationships (human-human, human-nature) can be restored to a healthier state with thoughtful, intentional action and cooperation.

A great interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, 'Two Ways of Knowing,' can be read here. She also has several lectures available to view online, including 'Reclaiming the Honourable Harvest' and 'The Teachings of Grass.' 

The second book I read this summer was Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature by Glen Aikenhead and Herman Michell. It was the perfect contrast to Braiding Sweetgrass. Much more technical than poetic, this book provided a detailed analysis of Eurocentric Sciences and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature, taking great care to define the origins and qualities of each. The authors resist setting up a dichotomy, insisting that these two world views are complimentary to one another and share many fundamental qualities.

Bridging Cultures laid out explicitly what Braiding Sweetgrass taught me through stories and analogies. Eurocentric Science and Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature are both rational, logical, systematic, communal, and dynamic. The differences between these two ways of knowing are relevant to how we interact with Indigenous and Neo-Indigenous students in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to understand that some aspects of Science may be difficult for these students because of some inherent differences in world view, which may include the following:
  • nature has an inherent spirituality
  • humans are not superior to other living things
  • learning about nature involves thinking, but also reflecting, living and being
  • relationships among living things create mutual responsibility
  • knowing nature cannot be separated from sustainability, generosity, wisdom, and collaboration
Aikenhead and Michell provide something that teachers are often looking for: advice on how to bring Indigenous Ways of Living in Nature into our classrooms to better support our Indigenous students. They recommend that teachers learn about the local community and, when possible, involve local elders in a respectful way when looking for ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in their teaching. General recommendations for supporting Indigenous students include many things that teachers recognize as good practice, including: a holistic approach, visual aides, oral communication, practical experience, time for reflection, and rich storytelling. 

To read more about learning models for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, you can look at the 'Holistic Lifelong Learning Models' created by the Canadian Council on Learning.

The things I learned while reading these two books stayed with me all summer as I spent time in nature alone and with my family. I noticed more sounds, smells, and plants when hiking in the woods. I considered the effects of a gravel road on an ecosystem during long runs on that road. I appreciated how much my senses and my understanding of angles helped me interpret the wind as I learned to sail. I listened for the differences in the sounds of the wind and rain interacting with different species of trees. I thanked - really thanked - trees for oxygen, plants and animals for food, trees for shade, and the sun for warmth. I shared every possible delight with my kids: the discovery of a luna moth caterpillar, the magical movements of a hummingbird, the glory of a starry night sky, the reflection of sunlight shimmering on the trees, the tiny perfection of an orange mushroom on a trail. 

These books changed the way I think about myself as a Science teacher, and has helped me start a journey towards a wider world view. Many thanks to the authors, and to the teachers who recommended these books to me. 


I can't believe it has been over a year since I blogged. I didn't know it had been that long - it's funny how time flies. I'm hoping to visit this space more often as a place to share my journey and reflect on my teaching practice as I return to the classroom tomorrow. Tomorrow! Wow.

Best wishes to everyone starting school tomorrow!