Wednesday, May 13, 2015

3 Reasons why Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests are inappropriate

Today I have to administer a standardized test for the Alberta government. (Here's how I live with myself)

In Alberta, we have Provincial Achievement Tests and I have to administer Part A for Language Arts. My students are required to write a news article and a story in 2 hours.

Here are 3 reasons why this test is not an appropriate use of our limited time, effort and resources.

1. Collaboration should not be Cheating. My students read and write almost every single class. My students sit at tables with their laptops, devices and peers so that they can accelerate and enrich their learning by collaborating. While students are encouraged to work together during our 50 minute classes, we routinely have 15 minutes of silent reading and writing; however, I would never ask students to complete anything that is worth doing in complete isolation from their peers, parents, books or the Internet. I've worked hard to encourage my students to see collaboration as a critical characteristic of learning.

Alfie Kohn reminds us that, "I want to see what you can do not what your neighbour can do" is really just code for "I want to see what you can do artificially deprived of the skills and help of the people around you. Rather than seeing how much more you can accomplish in a well functioning team that's more authentic like real life."

In the real world, there simply aren't that many times you are expected to solve a problem or perform a task in complete isolation - and even if you were, it would be awfully archaic to refuse you the opportunity to reach out for the help you needed to get the task done.

2. Writing should not be canned or rushed. It's true that a written response standardized test is better than multiple choice but that isn't saying much. In my class, we read and write every single class -- we blog a lot. The few blog posts that we actually start and finish on the same day are some of the most shallow and superficial writing my students produce. My students' best writing involves a process that takes days and sometimes weeks. This year, we have written many current event blog posts and news articles where the students play an active role in researching primary and secondary sources to discover the who, what, where, when, why and how for real events.

In sharp contrast, this test shutters up the real world and reduces authentic student research to reading a pre-packaged point-form list of fiction-filled "facts" that merely demands students regurgitate point-form into sentences. This is writing's equivalent to paint-by-numbers.

3. There is no substitute for what teachers and parents observe while children are learning. Through out the year, I tell parents not to bother wasting their time looking at their child's marks on Pearson's PowerSchool. If anyone wants to know the extent to which my students are learning, you can look at their blog which features a wide-range of writing assignments that occur over a 10 month period.

In my classroom, testsandgrades are replaced with projects and performances collected in portfolios.

I routinely remind myself of a powerful classroom teacher's testimony:
In the real world of learning, tests, and reports and worksheets aren't the most meaningful way to understand a person's growth, they're just convenient ways in a system of schooling that's based on mass production... I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations along the way. I don't need any means of appraisal outside my own observations and the student's work, which is demonstration enough of thinking, their growth, their knowledge, and their attitudes over time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

10 ideas about NDP victory in Alberta

I'm a 36 year old Albertan and I've never experienced a change in provincial government... until last night.

The NDP led by Rachel Notley displaced a tired and corrupt 44 year old Progressive Conservative government.

Here are 10 ideas about the NDP victory in Alberta:

1. Change is healthy
44 years under the same government is a long time. Many of the newly elected NDP MLAs are inexperienced and that's ok. For too long MLAs have been doing things right without doing the right things.
2. Income Inequality Matters
We know that income inequality in Alberta is widening and the middle class is shrinking. When wealth is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, politics becomes more and more polarized. Some equality is important because if inequality grows too wide, the poor come after the wealthy with pitchforks. 
3.  Everything is impossible until it happens
Nothing good comes from fatalism. Democracy is built on dissent and honest dialogue. Alberta does not belong to any single political party or ideology -- Alberta belongs to Albertans.
4.  Jim Prentice's true intentions revealed
Many said that Prentice only returned to use Alberta as a political stepping stone and his resignation as leader and MLA before the ballots were all counted proves them right. Now Albertans are stuck with the bill for another by-election.
5.  Hope-mongering > Fear-mongering
We are all better off voting for something we believe in rather than strategically voting in a way that blocks something we don't like. We are all better off when campaigns are run on hope rather than fear.
6. Elitism leads to disconnection
Entitlements and elitism blinded the PCs as they slowly became more and more disconnected and irrelevant to Albertans. After Prentice was serenaded and sold as the savour of the PC party, he hand-picked and anointed cabinet ministers and meddled in candidate nominations. It all looked good on paper but failed miserably where it mattered most.
7. Alberta isn't a business -- we are a democracy
The economy is important, no doubt about it. However, Alberta doesn't hire a CEO, we elect MLAs to represent us in the Legislature. Government needs to be for Main Street not Wall Street.
8. Politics done differently?
What if David Swann and Greg Clark were offered cabinet positions?
9. An education minister and health minister who knows something about education and health?
Albertans have had a revolving door for education minister for too long. It would be refreshing to see someone like Deron Bilous or Sarah Hoffman as education minister. What if the Alberta government stopped ignoring professional organizations like the Alberta Teachers' Association and Alberta Medical Association and collaborated with them?
10. Wildrose on the right, NDP on the left, Alberta Party in the middle?
Some Albertans may not feel comfortable with the Wildrose or the NDP. With the Liberals in steady decline and the PCs in purgatory, Greg Clark and the Alberta Party's momentum may pick up as more and more Albertans seek out a moderate alternative.
I am not fearful of all this change -- I find myself hopeful and optimistic.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alberta's Education Minister skips education forum in his own riding

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark attended Calgary
Elbow's education Forum. Gordon Dirks
was a #PCnoShow. (Jeremy Nolais/Metro)
Albertans are used to Progressive Conservative candidates being no-shows at public events, debates and forums.

During last year's by-election, Jim Prentice was a no-show for an all-candidates forum.

In March, Gordon Dirks was a no-show for an Alberta Teachers' Association all-party forum on education.

Ten days ago, not one PC candidate from Red Deer North, Red Deer South or Innisfail-Sylvan Lake could be bothered to show up for an all-candidates education forum in Red Deer.

On Tuesday, April 28, PC candidate Gordon Dirks was another PC no-show for an all-party public education forum in Calgary. 

That's right, Alberta's Education Minister skipped an education forum in his own riding.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, who is leading Dirks in Calgary-Elbow, said, "The basic expectation for anyone who seeks elected office should be public accountability -- you should attend debates. The PCs had 71 other MLAs and they didn't send a representative. They're not interested in talking with teachers, they're not interested in engaging with parents. They're hiding."

For more details on the public events that PC candidates decline to attend, follow the Twitter hashtag #PCnoShow.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I'm in Sir Ken Robinson's book Creative Schools!

For the last 10 years, I have worked hard to make my classroom a better place for students to learn. My transformation required that I re-think many features of my teaching such as discipline, homework, lesson planning, accountability, standardization and assessment.

Changing school is no easy task. The last 10 years have been rigorous and vigorous, filled with set-backs and progress. 

My students' success has offered the most powerful proof that I am on to something. I have found validation and support by sharing my work through my blog, twitter and other publications.

In 2011, Alfie Kohn cited my work with rethinking assessment in his article The Case Against Grades.

Most recently, I am excited to see my work cited in Sir Ken Robinson's most recent book Creative School: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education

In chapter seven titled Testing, Testing, Sir Ken Robinson writes:
Some teachers have always used a range of assessment methods in class. The rise of testing has made that more difficult, but some teachers are pushing back in their own classrooms. There are challenges, but there can be enormous benefits too. For example, Joe Bower is a science and language arts teacher in Alberta, Canada, who, six years into his teaching career, decided that he could no longer abide by using grades as his primary form of assessment. 
"I have come to see grades as schools' drug of choice, and we are all addicted... Grades were originally tools used by teachers, but today teachers are tools used by grades." 
What Bower discovered was that the reliance on grading made him less effective as a teacher and had a negative effect on students. He points out that when many students are asked what they got out of a class, they'll respond with something like, "I got an A." While his school insisted that he give grades on report cards, he abolished all other grades in his classroom and delivered the report card grade only after asking his students to assess their own work and recommend the grade they should receive. The students' suggestions usually aligned with his, and there were far more cases where students would have recommended a lower grade than a higher one. The result of doing away with grading was that he eased the pressure on his students and allowed them to focus on the content of their assignments and their classwork rather than on the rubric to score them. 
"When we try to reduce something that is as magnificently messy as real learning, we always conceal far more than we ever reveal. Ultimately, grading gets assessment wrong because assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it is a conversation. I am a very active teacher who assesses students every day, but I threw out my grade book years ago. If we are to find our way and make learning, not grading, the primary focus of school, then we need to abandon our mania for reducing learning and people to numbers."
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