Monday, 30 November 2015

Taking an Inquiry Stance

As educators, we know that asking questions - taking an inquiry stance as professionals - can lead us to deeper understanding about the craft of teaching. Sometimes the understanding comes from answers, or at least responses, that move us closer to an answer. Sometimes the greater understanding comes from questions - questions that make you realize what you are really asking.

In late October, I was working with a group from Ontario that included a superintendent, curriculum consultants, a principal, teachers, and an educational assistant. The original plan was that I help them explore ways to introduce and use their newly constructed writing continuum. On Day One, we explored that through several demonstration lessons across grade levels with time after to debrief, share observations, and ask questions. There were many questions about how this might look using an inquiry approach, and even more specifically, how it could look in full-day kindergarten with a play-based inquiry approach and Reggio Emilia influences.

What does "writing" mean? Does it mean to communicate with written language only or does it mean to be a storyteller?

What does writing in Kindergarten look like in a play-based inquiry approach?

In what ways might telling your story with materials connect to and support telling your story with words?

We decided on a plan for Day Two that we hoped would inform our thinking on these questions. We would work together in Kindergarten to co-construct criteria based on a sample of quality. 

After much conversation, we decided that our inquiry question in Kindergarten would be:

What counts in sharing your message with materials?

In the Kindergarten Classroom
Two of the teachers modelled what it could look like to share your thinking (your message) with materials. They began with a story they wanted to tell - a highly entertaining account of a time when they worked at a golf course and were given the task of painting a shed blue on a very windy day. Just as I had done the day before with writing, they modelled their process and shared their thinking with the students. They began by telling their story and searching for materials to represent it - thinking aloud for the students to describe their process. After five minutes I asked the students what they had noticed and then recorded their ideas on sentence strips. The teachers continued modelling for two more five-minute segments and I asked the students what they saw and heard the teachers do after each segment. In this way we collected the brainstorm list that is the first step in co-constructing criteria.

Because we were excited by what had occurred in the Kindergarten class and wanted to analyze it together, we borrowed the sentence strips filled with what the students had noticed, and sorted them into categories. We knew that the teacher and the students would, in the fullness of time, sort it themselves and maybe not in the way we did. We needed to speed the process up to see where the sorting would take us. Day Three of our work together was not for some months and we couldn't wait. It felt like something important had happened in that classroom and we needed to look at the evidence - the recorded strips, our observations, and the conversations we had heard between students and teachers, and students and students.

We sorted the sixteen strips into three categories. After a long and incredibly thoughtful professional conversation, these were the category names the group decided upon:
  • We carefully choose materials to represent our message.
  • We make our message interesting.
  • We think before, during, and after we create our message.

In the photos below you will see the category names (now the criteria) in green, purple, and orange and the details (from our original brainstorm list) in blue.


We could see the connections to writing so clearly. We could see the parallels between writing (one form of symbolic representation, one of the hundred languages) and using materials to represent our thinking (another form of symbolic representation, more of the one hundred languages of children).

Beginning with questions about using a writing continuum - a collection of samples - a series of descriptions of quality - and demonstration lessons on how to use it with learners led us to:

What does taking an inquiry approach really mean?
What could it look like in my classroom?
What is the role of the teacher?
Where is the curriculum in all of this?
How does assessment for learning fit in an inquiry-based instructional model?

These are questions many of us are grappling with and need to find answers to. However, the question that we found at the heart of our learning was:

Is there a role for explicit teaching in an inquiry-based approach? 

The conclusions I draw from this example lead to a resounding YES. Many of the actions of assessment are either present or easy to see in this example:
  • Using samples to understand quality and development,
  • Participating in the co-construction of criteria,
  • Being involved in self- and peer assessment,
  • Collecting, selecting, reflecting, and projecting (setting goals) based on evidence of learning,
  • Communicating their learning to others, both formally and informally, and
  • Giving and receiving feedback.
Explicit teaching in the form of co-constructing criteria doesn't shut inquiry down or take control of the learning. Just the opposite. It puts the learners in the driver's seat.

Thank you to the Kenora Catholic District School Board and St. Louis School for the conversations, observations, and products that led to this thinking.

Friday, 16 October 2015

6 Things I’m Thinking About The Teaching Of Writing As I Reflect On My Own Writing Process

I have spent the last year writing a book. And the two years prior to that thinking about what I would say. Now that it has actually gone to the printer I find myself thinking about what in my own writing process could inform my teaching of writing. I don’t mean to imply that a sample of one is enough to generalize to all writers, but rather that reflecting on my own experience could reveal some truths that I want to pay attention to when students are writing.

1. Talking is Not Just a Pre-Writing Activity
My first book was co-written with Ruth Gauvreau and Gerry Hector, respectively a teacher-leader and a principal in an urban elementary school. In that writing process more words were spoken than were ever written down. We talked before we wrote, planning a structure that we hoped would allow us to tell our story in a way that made sense to our readers. We left our first meeting with a month to write a chapter each. When we got together again we each read aloud what we had written and then talked about it. We then took that conversation away and revised our writing for the next month. This process continued month by month until the first draft was done. And each time the conversation made the writing stronger.

I wrote the new book, Making Writing Instruction Work, on my own. And I missed the regular opportunities for talking about the writing. I worked in isolation for too long – not seeking out colleagues to talk with or to show chapters to early in the process or frequently enough. For some reason I thought I had to wait until I had most of the first draft done before I could share. I have learned that, for me, talking with others about the topic and sharing parts of the writing can’t happen just at the outset or after my ideas are down. I wonder if this is true for any of the students I write with.

2. Writing, like reading, is a social activity for at least some of us and maybe many of us.
My son belongs to a playwriting group. They get together and share parts of the plays they are working on – while they are in process. I want a group like that for myself! I also want to explore it with student writers in a more deliberate way.  I am thinking about how the idea of a “writing group” could be replicated in a classroom.  In my practice currently, we have public conferences where a writer and I read a piece out loud to the class and I give oral feedback describing the ways in which the writer has met our criteria for what good writers do. The other students participate in the process after I model the language and intent of assessment, sharing what they notice the writer doing.

I am now thinking that after considerable modelling I could release this further to small writing groups of four students so that writers would receive more feedback more often. I’d love to hear from teachers who are already doing this.

3. Positive descriptive feedback gives you the motivation and strength to keep writing.
Writing is hard work. Positive feedback fuels the journey and keeps you going in the parts that are difficult for you. It also helps you be able to hear the feedback that describes next steps or changes that might make your writing more effective or powerful. In my own writing, drafting and revising are deeply intriguing to me. I love the challenge of playing with the ideas and the language until they feel right. It is the feedback I receive from readers and from myself at this stage in the process that gives me the courage and the drive to do the parts that are less interesting to me but still very important – the editing, the layout, more editing, the cover, more editing, the author biography, and one final edit.

With students I want to be more observant and intentional about where each writer might really need an infusion of feedback.

4. Writing can be a wild ride.
I experience a roller coaster of emotions in the writing process, from euphoria when I get something really right to despair when I question if I have anything worthwhile to say. As an adult, I know how to manage this range of emotions. I have many questions about how I might talk with young writers about this, how I might prepare them for dealing with their own emotions as a writer, how I might recognize when this is happening for a student, and how I might support them when emotions overtake them. I think my first step is going to be looking for opportunities to model how I manage my feelings as I write in front of students.

5. Knowing your audience gives you focus.
This one may seem obvious to you. I thought it did to me too. In hindsight, I may have underestimated just how much knowing specifically whom I am writing for helps me. Once I knew that I was writing directly to teachers of Kindergarten to Grade 8 students I could make all kinds of decisions as a writer. I knew how my voice needed to sound. I knew what needed to be included and what did not.  I knew the kinds of stories and examples to include in my writing.

I am going to use this particular reflection in letter writing with students because the audience is really clear and specific. I plan to model the kinds of questions I can ask myself about the person I am writing to:

How do I want my voice to sound in this letter to Mom?
How do I want Mom to feel as she reads this letter?
What salutation and closing are best suited to my letter for Mom?

I also plan to show samples of letters written to two different people and ask students what they notice about the two letters.  I think this might really show students
the importance of knowing our audience and what that looks like in a real letter.

6. It takes a village to publish.
Writing is not a solitary activity from start to finish. In the real world there are many people to help and support you. In my world there are colleagues who read and give feedback on content – Sandra Herbst, Anne Davies, Kathy Collins, and Krista Reynolds. There are people who work on the editing and the design of the book – Sheree North, Cori Jones, Kelly Giordano, and Kevin Augusta.  And there is one special person who oversees the entire project – Judith Hall-Patch. I am grateful for their gifts and contributions and know that the book would not be the same without them.

I want my writing workshop to replicate the real world as much as possible. My students need more support than I alone can give. I need to explore ways to empower students to help each other as they move through the writing process.  I know where to start. The key to peer and self-assessment is modelling.

Friday, 11 September 2015

What I Learned about being a Teacher…This Summer

Back to School - the time when students and teachers reunite with friends and colleagues and often begin the conversation with the question, “What did you do this summer?” The time when students write to various prompts that could be summarized as “How I spent my summer vacation.”

For me, “back to school” began mid-August in Ontario as Anne, Sandra, and I met for our Summer Institutes in Mississauga and Sudbury. One of the luxuries that co-presenting allows is time to record some of the language used by my colleagues, Anne and Sandra, as well as the educators who attend the sessions and share their thinking and expertise. I keep a pen in my hand and my learning journal open so that I can capture the words exactly as said and reflect upon them in the moment and into the future. Sometimes I adopt the language, making it part of my way of teaching. Other times, borrowing a phrase I heard Anne say many times when I was a classroom teacher trying to figure out what really worked for me, I adapt it to fit my own teaching style.

The phrase that I have been thinking about for three weeks now came at the end of an account Sandra shared about her classroom-based work. As she concludes a demonstration lesson with a group of students and twenty or so teacher-observers, Sandra says to the students:

“This is what I learned from you today about being a teacher …”

Such a simple, authentic, and oh-so-elegant way to model and to be in alignment with our learners.  To show students what lifelong learning looks like rather than just talk about it.

And so, with this language in my head and in my heart, I met and worked with teachers and leaders in the Prairie South School Division in Saskatchewan where I learned what it really looks like to have all teachers – JK to 12 – using the gradual release of responsibility model to teach and assess reading comprehension.

I added to my understanding of what it means to be a teacher in Hay River, NWT, working with the South Slave Divisional Education Council. I now understand more about authentic learning in the North and teaching and assessing while taking an inquiry stance.

Here in Winnipeg, with a team from the Louis Riel School Division, I am learning what connects us as early years teachers of reading and writing… both in English and in French.

These examples are my first foray into trying out the phrase “this is what I learned from you about being a teacher.” It is language I need in my career-long inquiry into what it truly means to be a teacher.