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My grades 9/12 ELA classes have just finished student-led conferences. For the most part, during the conferences, I am a silent note-taker sitting at a different table.
This fall conference marks the beginning of the second year with this group of kids, and the growth that I see in the ability of my kids to conference compared to last year is remarkable.
The biggest change is that all my kids are using their course’s indictors as their jumping off point.
Using the course indicators and the students’ various portfolios (my students use both on-line and paper portfolios as well as stations with items from other subject areas), my kids reflect on how they have met the indictors in a meaningful way(s).
It’s a spectacular process.
Last June as I was chatting about the growth of my SLC philosophy and preparing to write a blog post, I reflected with a retired administrator. Her words of wisdom stuck with me. “I know your kids have achieved the skills necessary to move on to the next grade, but are they able to clearly communicate these skills with their parents. Just because you know they know, does not mean the community knows about their learning.”
That was powerful, and it became one of my professional learning goals for this ELA year.
Transparency. But more than that, I want my kids to understand the language of learning.
I went back to the curriculum, to the Outcomes and to the Indicators and to my students. The kids and I have worked and worked on this process using the practice of student-led conferences we used last year.
From the beginning of the year the kids have a booklet of Indicators and are taught which indicators we are trying to master with each project. Mastery does not look the same for everyone, and here is where the beauty of the conferences comes in.
Each student was encouraged to reflect on 25% percent of the indicators (four conferences means reflecting on only ¼ of the indicators, a manageable goal). Not all the kids choose the same indicators! We like this. Many kids shared different experiences that helped them gain a level of proficiency with their chosen indicator. “You know, with CR9.1a, I was only meeting expectations. Efficacy and identity weren’t linked, well, not until we began looking at the school’s symbol, then things really made sense. Let me show you my journal entry…”
Many kids were clearly able to express their learning in ways such as, “I didn’t get it here, but later, when we were studying, or discussing, I had a deeper connection because…” My kids were able to share their ‘hows’ not only with me, but with each other before their SLC during practice conferences and with their key stakeholders during SLC.
Our SLCs sure feel like capacity building to me.
As well, our on-going reflection on our learning embraces the practice of Assessment for Learning. I want my kids to make meaningful connections with the world around them. Our course is a language learning course, a course that examines the power of language, theirs, others and our collective voice. It’s amazing what happens when kids actively reflect on how their connections move from surface level connections to deeper level meaning-making connections.
During conference I take notes. This is our first year with the students reflecting with their indicators as guide. During post conference, usually, the same length as the conference itself, I check in with my kids. Here, I find out what went well, where they’d like to improve. Here is the SLC stuff that I’m familiar with.
But there’s more.
I’m always learning from my kids and these moments offer the best glimpse for me, as educator, to listen to what I’m not doing well, and how I need to improve. Here is when my kids tell me.
And you bet I listen.
Turns out, I need to do a better job of teaching my current ELA kids the many different ways they can pre-write and the language of pre-writing than I have been doing. Ok. Noted. This week, we’re on it!
Our conferences are not easy. As a class we spend about six hours prior to each SLC in preparation. The time is worth it. For many of my kids, this is one of their only opportunities to shine in front of this specific group of people, and to shine where they feel safe.
So this week, we begin the process of figuring out what more we need. All but two students asked for longer conferences. But I don’t always control the time, and too, we’ll chat about why it’s important to synthesise as well as we do (isn’t there an indicator for that too?). Anyway, all of this will be a whole-class discussion. My grade nines’ fluidity between their language of assessment, process, product and growth was clearer than most of my other students, and this was their first time doing SLCs. They had nothing to (un)learn.
We’ll chat about that too…
We’ll begin to prepare for January, now, as we always have the Big Picture in mind. In both January and June, our conferences act as oral final-term exams. My ELA students find the preparations for their final exams more difficult than any traditional ELA exams, but the SLC ‘exam’ are also more rewarding.
In the moment, what other form of assessment and evaluation offers wonderment of how one’s learning might be different, tears of joy and hugs all around?
What is your take away?
Do you know? I often suggest for my kids that a take away can be the big idea or the big feeling or the big change that stays with us. It is an aha knowing. Look back over the last ten months. Look back and ask what is your take away.
As one of my grade 12s might say, “Maybe it might help if Ms. Saas were sitting across from you during conference, waiting.”
Last fall I moved from one rural school to another. I spent the summer revamping my senior ELA courses. I knew I’d have all the senior ELA 9-12 (10&20) courses and wanted to run more dynamic assessments. I had been taught well in the Atwell style at University, but there had to be something deeper. I was referred to JoAnne, a retired senior English teacher who was described as the best ELA teacher I will ever meet, high praise.
Joanne and I met, instantly becoming kindred spirits. We salivated over kids and books and, most importantly, JoAnne shared how she had designed her ELA courses. I knew I wanted ELA courses that would honour my kids’ needs, value their interests, use literature that was of interest to them and be guided by a big idea. As JoAnne shared, I knew we spoke the same language: allow kids time to reflect, let their stories be the motivation for thematic planning, put critical and reflective thinking at the for-front of daily practice, listen to the kids and allow the kids time to share their successes and learning, allow them time to share with their stakeholders (yes, in lieu of exams), and allow them a space where they are safe, safe to try, safe to fail and safe to succeed.
The preparations began early in July and continued throughout the summer. In the fall, letters outlining the new Language Learning Course went home to parents and guardians. The first day of class, as the kids rejoiced over the idea of no traditional written exams and flexible due-dates, we chatted about the meaning of self-managing our learning. Self-managed learning became a topic we chatted about and took time to reflect upon every day in our language course. How are we doing, what do we need to do to be more successful, and what supports do we need?
At first the kids were both celebrating and leery of the idea that they would be responsible for scoring 50% of their senior ELA course. But as I began to talk them through the process, I encouraged them and I showed them how I scored them. We could co-construct criteria together so nothing would be confusing for them and that yes (in responses to the cheers that they could simply give themselves a 100% on everything) they could score themselves that high, as long as they were able to justify the mark.
We chatted about how the kids would be expected to justify their learning and what that justification would like. I then introduced language learning student- led conferences instead of final exams.
Our school has four reporting periods at the senior level. Throughout the year I gently guided my kids and their families through the before, the during, and the after of the SLC process. When I started at my new school last September, the BDA process, the process of sharing success and reflecting on their learning from a student perspective was new to my kids and to their families.
Perhaps it’s different with your kids, but I have found that sometimes school communication doesn’t always make it home with students. I began the year with the professional goal to communicate better with my kids’ parents. As well, I was entering a community where digital literacy was not a valued literacy. I made the conscious decision to move slowly into the on-line world with my students and with my community as I began to gain trust with my kids’ families through the voice of their kids. I earned this trust through face-to-face conferences four times a year. I do not regret this decision to put first things first.
This July as I plan out our Wiki and revamp our blog, I know my community is behind my kids and me. They value our language courses. They see the changes in their kids. They hear about what we’re doing at school because their kids have been going home and telling them and, too, because I have communicated with them regularly. It’s going to be an easy transition to send a note home and invite my community to follow our class on twitter, to check out our rubrics on our wiki, or simply to check on the ever changing supply lists for one of our camping trips. By the end of the term I had many of my parents calling my cellular phone or texting me. But that transition was easy because they had seen into the classroom and heard their kids share what they had been learning, how the kids felt they could improve and how meaningful the kids’ classroom family had become. That’s powerful, powerful stuff.
At the beginning of last year I had to model for my kids how to conference. By the fourth conference my kids were prepping for conference with each other, some still following the peer conference questions I’d written, others having written their own, some even off on their own capturing every moment of in-class time to prepare for those 40 minutes of SLC.
At the beginning of the year my kids made paper portfolios and at the first conference all my kids shared these at conference. Soon all my kids had blogs and some had begun to create on-line portfolios. By the second conference all my kids shared from both formats. By the third and fourth conferences my kids had found what they felt were their niches. I liked watching this unfold. It was easy for me to help my kids reflect why they had chosen one medium over another. At other times, some students selected performances as sample of student learning – embracing the conference for what it needs to be, a celebration and reflection of their success and learning.
At the beginning of the year my SLC looked very similar to Anne Davies’s work. But as the year unfolded, and as I began to get to know my kids, I did more than scaffold my conferences onto the previous ones. We didn’t just build on prior knowledge, we constructed on student need; we listened to the roots of our behaviours and the stories of our cultures. Conferences began to become stunningly differentiated. I amassed a wealth of notes during these times spent listening to my kids share and asking what they wanted or needed and often were unable to verbalise. From these notes came the source for adaptations to be made to their learning. The kids spoke openly of their needs because they trusted no one would speak to them negatively in our room; I would not allow it.
At the November conference a parent began chatting about the student’s behaviour. The student began to cry. I had read many of the student’s journal entries and had spent many hours after school `editing’ this student’s work to know that what was needed from conference was space for the student to share success. Darn it, if that parent wasn’t going to celebrate success, I sure the heck was. And I did. “I’m going to pause here, if I may. We are here to share Joe’s successes, so let me share with you about his ability to journal. Reflective journaling is a skill that can be taught, but Joe seems to come by it naturally. Let me share some examples that demonstrate his ability to think critically…” And you bet I went on and on. I talked until the tears ran out. I talked until my kid smiled. I talked until I felt it was OK to stop talking. Then I said the conference was over. I felt it was a fabulous conference because my kid left smiling. That’s the first goal of every SLC; never forget this. During Joe’s June conference, I sat at a different table than Joe and his parent, he laughed and laughed with his parent; I said nothing, and Joe did most of the talking.
Only at the November conferences do I sit at the same table with my kids, “I’ll be there to jump in if you need me.” In November, one of my students spent a great deal of time preparing for conference. His portfolio was organized, he would share five pieces. Every time he began to read his parent stopped him. My student was not allowed to finish, was not allowed to share his success. Though I won’t type it here, imagine the message this gave my student!
It’s important, as teacher, to remember that we must not assess our students for the mistakes of their parents. The most important part of the conferences, because students must have this if they are to critically reflect on their learning, is for students to feel safe sharing their successes. If parents want to discuss behaviour they must make an appointment to do so at another time. This is an exam, after all. This is a space where my kids set goals, reflect on the goals they have set, talk about their skills: I’m great at dialogue, I need to work on parallel structure, My transitions need to flow better, In my previous pieces, my word choice and voice didn’t match, now they do. I am vocal about this rule if needed, and believe me, my kids know it. They trust in it. This is why I’m in the room.
My kids may ask staff if they would like to sit in on SLCs. Certainly, this last option has been greatly successful for many of my students – though it keeps my Principal busy during exam week. The student in the previous anecdote reflected on the auto-biographical 80 page book of poems he’d written for his Special Project Credit. He shared with our Principal that it was a piece that’d he feel comfortable revisiting in grade 12, that he’d written it for an audience, the wrong audience, an audience that did not include himself.
Conferences two and four run 40 minutes, 20 minutes with their key adult and 20 minutes with me to share about their sharing. My kids soon find that no finals in Ms. Saas’s class are a great deal more meaningful and more difficult than any final they’d every prepared for. On average, my kids and I spend 1 week of in-class time prepping for our SLC final, longer in the higher grades. My ELA 20 and Creative Writing kids requested 60 minute finals, every one of them. Today, they have that much to share.
Conferences one and three are practice runs. Everyone must attend these practice runs. These conferences are only 10 minutes long with a five minute meeting with me at the end. Conferences two and four are their finals. This past year not one of my kids or their families missed conference. I teach students in grades 9-12. That’s four grades of kids. It’s not easy. A written final and some year-end correcting would be easier. At times, the preparations sometimes feel like I’m facing Mount Everest, all the pre-conference guiding questions and notes to parents. During exam week, with one hour student conferences looming before me and four days to fit it all in, sometimes I feel like I don’t even sleep at home. My point – I am fiercely committed to my language learning courses. I feel the value in these courses, and so do my kids.
Sometimes in the beginning students don’t see SLC the same as final exams. For some of my students, understanding the worth of SLC came slowly. I think it’s a little harder for kids who do well at traditional paper and pen exams, the rote memorisation stuff, to make the shift. However, the shift for these kids is well worth it. My keenest student this last term was a grade twelve student. She did brilliantly well in my first term language learning courage (ELA 20), but in my Creative Writing language learning course with its more philosophical approach, she had to push. This push matched SLC well. She showed up for her first SLC final prepared for a chat, and we decided she bombed. Her June conference, however, she was well prepared. She shared with her mom. She reflected on her goals, on her language learning skills, on her understanding of the Big Idea and how SLC, critical thinking and becoming a reflective learner has prepared her for life. The three of us cried. I’d pushed her and, beautifully, she’d accepted the challenge of the push. My student and her mom stopped in the last day in June and dropped off this note:
Thank you so much for making my senior year one to remember. Although you knew how to push my buttons, I wouldn’t change anything. You taught me so much in one year. I feel ready for university thanks to you.
Ms. Saas. Our sincere thanks for supporting and encouraging [our daughter] this past year. I wish the other three kids had had the same experience! You truly are a one of a kind teacher and it has been a pleasure sharing a few tears with you.
Final SLCs are a tricky event, specific to our classroom family as much as they are to the curriculum we follow. The kids and I sit face to face; going over the questions I’ve jotted down and shared with them during the term and prior to the SLC, the questions the kids have for me, and the ones I’ve written during the 20 minute SLC with their parents. And then we reflect on how well they have critically reflected on their growth as a language learner. Now that’s meta-cognition, I’d say. We ask, and have asked all year long, what does critical reflection mean? What does growth mean? And I do not measure kids versus kids, I measure them versus the outcomes, and versus the ones we’ve constructed together, the criteria that are valuable to us. An example, no matter how much I suggested something different, my 11-12s were insistent that we measure courage, at least in some small, small way. They believed themselves incapable of sharing, let alone sharing publicly. It’s their course. They wanted to aim for courage. They get a say! This year we have Skyped with a class and shared stories, written reflections during Place Based Learning days in places like the emergency waiting room, delivered performance poetry at a public coffee house and led four SLC, “I never believed I could talk to my parents that way!” Courage, if you would believe it!
One of my students has adaptations in place because he is a young man with verbal communication challenges. In September, sharing with his class was a big deal, almost impossible. By the June conference I noted that my student set out his papers all over the table. He touched every piece and went back over pieces written during the past 10 months and in other subjects. Though he often stated to his parents that he didn’t want to share and handed his papers to his parents, he read four pieces aloud and took 34 minutes for the first part of his SLC. When his parents left I sat across from him and asked him how he felt about conferences. My student smiled and responded that he liked them. I took my notes and showed him the word I had written in my notes, savour. His ‘take away’ from this year was presenting. He loves presenting and asked for more next year. I asked him if he would like group or individual projects. He said he really liked going up to the board (interactive white board) and sharing alone. He is excited for History class. We chatted about Google Maps. When he left I spoke to his mom and shared his take away. More tears. Much happiness.
In our classroom we check-in. They tell me how I’m doing, what I can do differently, better or more and I do the same. They offer suggestions for each other’s learning as well. We do this each week, and using their journals, daily. My kids know how to journal. This beautiful process transfers into storytelling and one student, a student who had a year filled with the scariest of ongoing crisis, commented that the journal, the storytelling, the poetry, the performance and, whew, the conference allowed her the space to say what she needed to hear – the power of inner voice.
I think of all my take aways this year and the take away that resonates most comes from one of my grade twelve students, the only student who asked at the end of conferences if I wanted his portfolio. He didn’t want it. It wasn’t the portfolio that had meaning.
When I first met this grade twelve student in September he declared that he had never read a book larger than a comic book. During conference in November, his parents confirmed this. During March conferences my student shared how proud he was of reading, The Hunger Games, liking the action in the novel. He didn’t care for the harsh yet simple way of storytelling in the short story, “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” and his whole life he’d never forget that a dad would actually think it would be a good idea to teach his daughter to swim by tossing her into deep water, The Glass Castle.
When I was young I often felt like all everyone saw were the spelling errors. It was a gift when someone took time to find the meaning inside the mixed up symbols. When I sat with my student at the June conference I told him that the only truth was the one he’d discovered these last ten months – the brilliant one we now know on the outside too.
My student is 18. I asked, “What is your take away?”
“The conference. Having my mom, having my dad here at school. Having this time with them, having them know about all the things I can do.”
What is your take away?