Monday, January 28, 2013

Report Card Creation Haze

My eyes are blurry and my wrists need massaging, but the task has been accomplished: I finished writing all my report card comments and inputing all my grades. Some people may consider teacher-librarians to be "classroom refugees" escaping assessment and evaluation, but at my school at least, I have a lot of work to do on report cards. This year, I grade and mark four classes of media, a class of dance, a class of drama, and comment on library, ICT, and media for three kindergarten classes and create ICT comments for every student in the school. As my colleague, David Hann, said to me on Twitter, it's not necessarily the report card writing but the marking that can be the hardest part. He's right - at one point I calculated that I needed to mark 3300 questions before I was able to accuately craft a proper ICT comment for my junior-intermediate students.

Writing report cards is a bit like birthing a baby.
The task looks insurmountable at first. I groan and moan while I'm in the process. At the end, I look back with a sense of pride and surprise - *I* produced that marvellous piece of work?

This term, I felt much more prepared for report card writing. I think this was because my long range plans were thorough and the dates didn't sneak up on me like they might have in the past. I also believe I made a greater effort to mark assignments sooner rather than later and communicate student progress on a more ongoing basis. I hate to admit it, but I suspect that my lack of clubs and teams gave me more time to assess assignments.

I'm still no report card writing expert but I have many great people to turn to for inspiration. I went and read some of my colleagues' past report cards to get an idea about how they phrase comments in a positive way or so that they sound unique instead of "cookie-cutter". I admire one of our school's kindergarten teachers and how she writes a home-school communication journal every week for every single one of her students (in Chinese for some and in English for others) - there will be no mysteries or surprises when her families receive their report cards.

This week, I'll only be in school for three days - it's the upcoming Ontario Library Association Super Conference. Watch my blog for a report on the event next week.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Parent Assistance in Student Projects

This school year, in addition to a library period and collaborative ICT time-slot for every class in the school, I also teach dance-drama to a group of Grade 1-2 students and media literacy to everyone from JK-Grade 4. Inspired by a student who eagerly brought in a bottle of shampoo for me to see, we created a big assignment for the Grade 1-4 students to complete: create a media tie-in product. I created an initial draft description of the task and tried it out on one of the classes; they gave me some good descriptive feedback (essentially stating that I was using too many big words and I was not clear in outlining the steps they had to take to proceed) so I re-wrote the description and shared it (and the rewritten rubric) with the students. I asked them to take the sheet home to show their parents so that their families were aware of the project. To my delight, several parents approached me in the school yard to ask some clarification questions. A parent that I see often in the yard and like a lot asked a great question: is it okay for parents to help their child/children with the project? Let me answer that question with a picture.

Here is a photo of me when I was in elementary school during a science fair. My project was on Fungus. My parents helped me with my science project - they framed my writing with yellow paper to make it stand out, and they let me keep disgusting things that I allowed to grow mold.

I don't remember much about my childhood (I have huge gaps in my memory and I'm not sure why) but I have vague recollections of spreading papers out together in the living room to get it organized and pretending they were the judges so I could describe my experiment to an audience.

I think there is some merit to giving parents a chance to work with their offspring on school assignments. As long as the parents don't totally take over the project and it's a collaborative effort, it's a chance for families to create something as a team and understand what's being taught in school. For me as a teacher who has to mark these projects, the trick is to design the rubric so that students who do not have parents that are able to be as involved are not penalized and that students have a way to demonstrate that they understand the ideas and concepts behind the project and prove that students learned something from the task, not just Mom or Dad or older sibling. As part of this media tie-in, the students have to complete an "explanation sheet" - this sheet will not be sent home and completed individually by each student during class time. (Of course, there will be modifications for our ESL and special education students.) This sheet will be given equal weight to the actual product and package (and in fact, students are not required to create the actual product - the package itself would do). If you'd like to look at the assignment itself, it can be found on my wiki - I'd love to receive some "grown-up" feedback on it. The rubric is still a bit wordy for my liking. Unfortunately, I'm past the age where my parents can help me with my projects - and that's too bad; it'd give us a reason to lengthen our conversations. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Keep Your Comments to Yourself - The Case for Both Sides

What a crazy week! I had a vigorous internal debate about what topic to discuss and what angle to approach my post ... then I wondered if anyone would even care what I had to say on these matters, since they have been written about so frequently and effectively in the Toronto newspapers and in the Twittersphere / blogosphere. (I've listened to enough homilies at church to realize that it's better to make one key point that provides food for thought rather than several long lessons.) That's why I decided that the idea about keeping your comments to yourself was a nice way to discuss both newsworthy events in a way that made sense. I'm going to argue both sides of this philosophy.

Keep Your Comments To Yourself - Yes, Do (Dr. Spence's Resignation)

The news has been covered by The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other newspapers: the director of the Toronto District School Board, Dr. Chris Spence, wrote an op-ed piece for the Toronto Star in early January about extra-curricular activities in schools and readers discovered that several sections were plagiarized. On Wednesday, January 9, the director apologized via email and our TDSB website. More cases of unattributed work began to surface, and the next day, (January 10) Chris Spence resigned.

I read a lot about this story from a variety of sources but one particular article irritated me: this one in which Rob Ford, the beleaguered mayor of Toronto, stated that he [Ford] was never a "big fan" of Chris Spence. I found these comments to be particularly tactless. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. When my husband and I were discussing the revelation, he said that when opponents sense "blood in the water", that's when people will do more digging and make more public comments. I'm also of the opinion that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. I wouldn't wish this public relations disaster on anyone. Am I disappointed in his conduct? Yes, but now is not the time for me to pile on with personal opinions.

Keep Your Comments To Yourself - No, Don't (Bill 115 and ETFO's cancelled protest day)

Friday, January 11 was supposed to be a "day of political protest" for Toronto District School Board elementary teachers (and elementary teachers in other boards) but it was cancelled at the last minute because the Ontario Labor Relations Board deemed it an illegal strike. It was a day of mass confusion, as students were told the day before that there was no school and then schools were opened. Some classes only had a couple of students - no classes at my school had full attendance.

Our union directed us, the members, to "make no statements to media or parents until you have received direction from ETFO / ETT". This is consistent with past messages that recommend that we avoid discussing the unfolding drama with our students. I understand why the union wants us to use extreme caution when communicating - this example of a middle school art teacher using his students to make propaganda is a prime example why the union advocates a "don't say anything" approach. However, I think that making this a completely taboo subject with parents and students will do more harm than good.

Teachers shouldn't be spouting off their opinions completely unfiltered but there must be some limited dialogue. Simply acknowledging that Friday was an awkward day should be permitted, to show that teachers do understand that all this unrest is not easy for anyone, including parents and students. My junior division students are learning about the truth as part of their term-long inquiry. We want students to be critical thinkers, and that includes evaluating what their parents and teachers tell them. You can read about Bill 115 on the union's website or on the government's website - both have their own built-in bias. Newspapers have their own agendas and opinions about this turmoil - can you tell what side this particular article takes? - even when newspapers are supposed to be "just the facts". Attempts to be impartial, such as on the People For Education website or on Twitter, can be overwhelmed by people passionate about their opinion or position on the issue. I can't ignore my students when they say "I wish we had clubs and teams"; I won't be publicly critical but I can commiserate - "I wish we could do clubs and teams right now too but we feel we need to do this because of Bill 115".

So, what are your comments about all this - or will you keep your comments to yourself?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Getting back into the swim of things

Transitions are hard. My son and I particularly have a hard time getting used to the post-holiday school routine. Yes, we'll get used to the ebb and flow of our regular schedule eventually, but it's tough to relinquish the freedom of flexible bedtimes and hours to use as you wish.

Every Monday afternoon, my son has swimming lessons. I'm his designated driver and since the lesson is only 30 minutes, I stick around while he learns the way of the fishes. Usually I read or catch up on my marking, but shortly before the holiday break, I watched him from the pool viewing area. I was delighted by how much progress he's made. He first began taking swim classes a couple of summers ago with Ryan - I wrote about it here - and he's been with Anna Marie since September 2012. Having regular weekly instruction has really paid off for my son. He can swim in the deep zone and can jump off the diving board.

My boy inspired me, so I did something I didn't think I'd do.
I signed up for swimming lessons at the same location, starting in January.

I learned to swim as an adult through a Toronto Parks and Recreation program,but this was a number of years ago. I was never the most confident swimmer to begin with, and for many years, my only interaction with a pool was holding my children in the shallow end to keep them safe, so I didn't get the opportunity to practice my strokes. I'm always lamenting my lack of exercise, despite my efforts with the treadmill, as described here. This is a chance for me to renew my skills, get fit, and do something different.

I'm a little bit nervous about these swim lessons. I signed up for the intermediate class because it corresponded to my son's existing swim time. What if the class is too hard? What if I don't like my swim instructor? What if none of my current swimsuits fit? I'll put my anxiety behind me and dive right in (figuratively speaking). I'll let you know how it goes.