Pearls of Grade 3 Wisdom

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I teach a group of Grade 3 French Immersion students English for 40 minutes a week. They are mostly a very sweet and funny group. We’ve been working on poetry, including a poem with a template called “I Am.” The first two words of each line are given, and then they fill in the rest. The results are sometimes predictable, sometimes decidedly un-poetic, sometimes surprisingly insightful.

Here’s an example of one whole “I Am” poem, written by a (very bright) Grade 3 student:

I am brave and curious.

I wonder if I will ever change the world.

I hear babies crying.

I see my friends walking by.

I want to live and hope.

I am brave and curious.

***

I pretend I am my sister.

I feel sad sometimes.

I touch the air that we breathe.

I worry about my family.

I cry because of war.

I am brave and curious.

***

I understand the world we live in.

I say do not change.

I dream about life.

I try to change the world.

I hope for world peace.

I am brave and curious.

Pretty straightforward, but interesting and optimistic, no? I liked it. And here are some other lines that cropped up in various other kids’ poems:

I wonder if Santa is real.

I wonder if I will ever be an artist.

I wonder if I will ever be a mom.

I wonder if the pandas will be OK in China.

I wonder how wonderful my dog drawings are.

I wonder if I am as cute as a baby.

I wonder why Donald Trump won the election.

I hear the phoenix song.

I hear Santa breaking my house and sitting on my house.

I hear Hogwarts.

I hear a tiger roaring in the desert.

I see a leopard catching its prey in the tundra.

I see a kitten fly on my shoulder.

I want people to stop buying palm oil.

I want a credit card.

I pretend to have the cheese touch.

I pretend to ride on a black bear.

I feel proud to be Canadian.

I touch every cat that I have had in my life.

I touch the world flooding.

I touch a glass sphere with memories in it.

I worry that my stuffies will go away.

I worry about Donald Trump.

I worry that Donald Trump will kill me.

I worry about my parents being taken.

I worry I will touch a spider.

I worry about the sun exploding.

I worry that in a few years there will be no orangutans.

I cry because Santa didn’t bring me a present.

I cry about every cat that has passed away.

I understand how to make paper.

I understand bravery and love.

I understand that my iPad makes myself mad.

I understand that paper is made of trees.

I say I believe in Santa.

I say that Santa is real.

I say I believe in God.

I say I can do the armpit fart.

I dream I would meet God.

I dream that my cats will wear little elf costumes on Christmas.

I try to be the best that I can be.

I try not to eat tomatoes.

I hope for hot chocolate at Christmas.

I hope that I will stay young forever.

I hope I will meet Prince William.

I hope I get a red hockey puck.

I am… generous, brave, a youtuber, a lover of soccer-baseball, humorous, lovable, curious, funny, smart, creative, intelligent, part Dutch, super, cool, awesome, helpful, respectful, a cat lover, a small kitten and I can fly, active, nice, happy, and I like bubbles.

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I felt privileged to read these. They are so honest, and so much more interesting than their “About Me” paragraphs in September. And there’s imagery there that amazes me. Some of their worries seem really deep and scary for Grade 3 – but I remember having similar grand worries at that age. (Some of them still apply.)

And it made me happy that the characteristics they named about themselves in the first and last line were, without exception, full of self-confidence.

Teaching in English is fun.

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A Little Faith in Humanity from Remembrance Day

Hi, lovely di-hards.

It’s been an emotional week, n’est-ce pas? Right around this time last Tuesday, there was a disbelieving dread building on my Facebook news feed. I could hardly bear to look at the actual stats. My daughter had strep throat; we all slept badly, and felt ill the next day – on so many levels. It was an Armageddon-y gloom.

And though that has not really gone away, there have been things to remind me that humanity is still kinda cool.

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I ran the Remembrance Day assembly last Friday, and as such spent several hours of the preceding Thursday creating an iMovie of my Grade 4 FI class’s collaboratively-written peace poem. Listening to their little-kid voices reading, line by line, words like “It’s friends and family and coming together for love/By calm, planting, and happiness” and “Humans are meant to be free and to walk… give love, help others,” and then all their voices together saying, “And stop war.”… It helped. It was comforting in a deep way.

I think we teachers are in the privileged position of seeing the best and the worst that kids have to offer. We are both jaded and optimistic – sometimes both these things, several times a day.

There had been some worry about behaviour during this assembly, since there were issues with noise level during the last assembly; the kids who were presenting had their feelings hurt by the not-so-focus of their schoolmates. And I have to say, it’s a thing. Many of us teachers are frustrated, constantly having to remind students that you don’t just yap all the time when it’s not your turn.

So for Remembrance Day, when there are usually quite a few community members present, there had been a lot of preparatory discussion in classrooms. The principal issued a reminder before classes came to the gym.

And then the kids blew our minds. They. Were. So. Quiet. Coming in, listening to each presentation, waiting in between… Even the wee kindergarteners. The minute of silence after the Last Post was incredible. A whole sea of kids making almost no sound. (I saw one child trying to distract his classmates with silent silliness, and they just ignored him. I was amazed.)

The last part of the assembly was the playing of “One Day” by Matisyahu. It’s a sad-but-happy song, and most of the kids know and love it, having learned it in Music class last year. When the song began, they were still incredibly quiet, unsure if they should sing, but gradually we could hear their voices joining in and getting stronger – and only with respect. It was this perfect rising tide of youthful hope. I know most of us adults got tears in our eyes at the sound. I couldn’t even look out at the kids, they were so beautiful at that moment.

If you want, try listening yourself, and imagine hundreds of sweet childish voices singing “When negativity surrounds, I know someday it’ll all turn around.”

Makes you think it really will.

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P.S. I’ve decided I’m going to try NaBloPoMo again, but changing the dates. There was no way the first two weeks of November were going to work, so I’m starting today and will be attempting to post every day through December 15th. See you tomorrow!

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 19: Questions excellentes

Today at school, we talked a little bit about Paris. I showed my Grade 4s and 5s that little boy and his dad – not just because the vocabulary (très, méchant, gentil, fleurs, maison, etc.) is right on point, but because when they see a child, they instinctively relate.

Two days a week, I have a group of only nine Grade 4s for the last period of the day. Often, it’s my favourite group. Grade 4s in Core French class are well-known to be the most excited about it (the novelty is alive), and although this group has a couple of very busy boys, they are also usually sweet and enthusiastic.

When I occasionally put aside the speaking of French in class, it’s usually in order to hear what they have to say about the social issue at hand; usually these moments arise from the French songs we listen to, but today it was the news. Frankly, I was very impressed by their questions and insights, and how most of them really listened and responded to each other. For a lot of it, I was simply listening.

Where did the terrorists come from? What made them so angry? If the parents teach their kids to be angry and to want to kill people, where did they get it? What is the violence for? Is it for fun? Or does someone make them do it?

We talked about racism and prejudices and wrongdoing on different sides, and the cyclical nature of violence. It may sound heavy for Grade 4, but they knew all the worst parts already, and obviously wanted to talk about it.

One of my favourite parts was one little guy, the most overt keener in the group, not quite nine years old yet, who is never afraid to call the other kids on it when they’re being immature. When a couple of kids began to get silly, he said to them, “You’re making a joke out of something that’s really serious. How would you like it if a terrorist came to your home and killed you? That’s what happens to people.” He is such a sharp little guy, with astonishing perspective on things. Makes me wish I could know and teach him when he’s seventeen or twenty-one and really taking on the world.

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 12: Teachers

I am what they call a “planning teacher,” which means I am always teaching the students from other people’s homerooms, when their regular classroom teacher is doing his or her planning. At the moment, I work with four different groups of students in Grades 4 to 6.

This job means that I get a unique perspective, and work closely with several different teachers at a time, who inevitably have different styles. I’ve learned a lot from my co-teachers over the years.

Today I’m feeling grateful for them. For all the teachers I’ve worked with who are hardworking, innovative, caring, and constantly learning – and believe me, that is the vast majority of them in my experience (no matter what the fabrications written by “journalists” at the National Post might say).

It is a privilege to be able to work with people who inspire me every day. I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, because that is what the professionals around me are doing, and they are doing it no matter how tough things get.

And they do get tough. This is for a whole other blog post, but suffice it to say that, even in just the decade I’ve been a teacher, I’ve noticed a difference in the level of difficulty – not so much in the curriculum (although that is a factor), but in the needs of the kids. On the whole, at least at our school, we are teaching kids who have shorter attention spans, higher levels of anxiety, weaker coping skills, more learning disabilities, and lower capacities for self-regulation. Managing behaviour has become a primary focus of teachers across the board, and Educational Assistants are widely overworked.

It does bother us to see this, and to have so much of our time and stamina used for the explicit teaching of appropriate behaviour when we’d so much rather be teaching our subject matter. Sometimes it drives us bananas. Sometimes I resent spending so much emotional energy and patience on other people’s children, leaving me less for my own children. Sometimes I am discouraged because, no matter now good I am at my subject or the act of teaching, the disciplinarian role does not come naturally to me and requires inordinate effort – and what’s the point in that?

But then I look around, I see the strength and talent of my colleagues, and it makes me want to try harder. I see their classrooms, full of neat ideas. I hear their stories of how they’ve dealt with the hard situations and kept at it. When things aren’t going well, I see them create new strategies, overhaul lessons and units, research best practices, pick each other’s brains, brainstorm new angles, and muster their determination to get results.

I also see them constantly doing things to improve school life for the kids. Assemblies (like yesterday’s), clubs, teams, field trips, special projects, enrichment activities, and on and on.

Yes, they also vent their frustrations, behind closed doors. (If we didn’t do this, we’d all implode.) But even in the midst of conversations about the most difficult students to teach, there is caring and compassion and actual love. That’s what drives the practice. We are all very aware that the more a child drives you crazy, the more likely it is that s/he’s got a story that would break your heart.

I’m grateful every day, but especially on the really hard days, for the many teachers who have motivated and uplifted me with their amazing work since I came into this profession. Makes me wish I could go back in time and be a student in their classes.

And since we’re on the subject, please take a look at this article about one of my extraordinary colleagues, who is being awarded for her teaching – and I can say in all honesty, nobody deserves it more. She simply rocks the classroom.

And while we’re at it, here is one more article about another wonderful teacher I’ve had the privilege to work with. Again, honour thoroughly deserved.

Teachers: love you.

Teachers_Make_Education_work2

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 2: Perfect Storm

 

sky-space-moon-outdoors
The Full Moon: TEACHERS KNOW.

It’s not just Monday. It’s the Monday after Halloween, a few days off the full moon. The kids had a three-day weekend (Friday PA day). And we just changed the clocks. School was a bit wacko today.

It would figure that – less than 24 hours after I’d mentioned how well the kids were sleeping lately, HA – my daughter woke up at 1:40 needing cuddles and tried to infiltrate our bed, and it took almost an hour to get her back where she should be. And I’d already had trouble getting to sleep (the clock change messes with me too).

I’m grateful for that sleepy 6-week-old golden lab puppy I got to pet, right when I arrived at school. That’ll make your day.

I’m grateful for absolutely beautiful fall weather that didn’t look or feel like November.

I’m grateful for a completely unexpected cooperation and problem-solving between two difficult students, on today of all days, that meant I didn’t have to mediate at all. Amazing.

I’m grateful for my colleagues who understand everything we all go through, who work so hard and really want the best for – and out of – those kids.

And I’m really grateful that our Federation and the provincial government have finally, finally reached a tentative agreement, so we can hope that school life will go back to normal soon.

Oh – and boy, was I grateful for coffee today.

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Be The Calm

It was a busy summer.

Just so you know, that’s the usage of the word busy where it actually means overwhelming-and-sometimes-stressful-enough-to-make-me-think-I-might-lose-my-marbles. And that’s despite summer vacation, and my school being closed for renovations.

We bought a house in June, right before end-of-school craziness; we beautified and sold our house in July; we packed in August, and moved on the last Saturday of the month. It was hard to tell how much the kids felt the upheaval – they had plenty of emotional outbursts, but that’s nothing new.

In truth, it was a pretty nice low-pressure timeline – we even had five days of overlap with both houses, so that we could properly clean out the old house. I said goodbye to it by scrubbing out its fridge and vacuuming its bare carpets with a thoroughness it hasn’t seen since we became parents. (Interestingly, vacuuming an empty house is a good way to find all those above-mentioned marbles one has lost.)

Five days later, in our new house, I suddenly got weepy for no reason I could pinpoint… other than, I suppose, a whole summer of emotional and physical craziness.

Now we are settled in. Ish. That is to say, we have unpacked enough to function quite well, but there are lots of boxes still to unpack, and certain things we haven’t yet located. (Like E’s raincoat. Mom Fail.)

The kids like it at the new house, but E especially still likes to mention, in tragic tones, that he wishes we could go back and live at the old house.

E has started in Grade 1 at his new school, with a much smaller class than in JK or SK, and seems to have had good days (overall) every day… but he still doesn’t really want to go each morning. He still looks sadly at me each day before he goes into the school.

AB is going to same day care provider as always, and we are now within walking distance of her house! But since the summer, AB has decided she doesn’t like going there. This morning she was sobbing and holding my hand as hard as she could when I left.

In an alternate reality, today would have been Sebastian’s first full day of Junior Kindergarten. We got a notice last winter, on lavender paper, inviting all parents of “children born in 2011” to register their kids for kindergarten. Yep, we’re those parents… but not.

That was the first time I realized that starting kindergarten is the first concrete missed milestone for Sebastian, and for us as his parents. We know he would have gotten teeth and crawled and said words and walked and all sorts of cool things by now, but we have only a vague idea of when. The event of starting school has an exact date. I know many beautiful JK munchkins, Sebastian’s would-be peers, who have visited their classrooms and begun big-kid school over the past week. I’m excited and proud for them and their parents, and I’m sending them extra-special vibes as they settle into this new phase. With a little lump in my throat.

Before school started, I was feeling so-so about going back to work. My emotions were all over the map; the house wasn’t all ready; I didn’t feel organized; and I was still dealing with the bitter taste left after last year, when I contended with difficult behaviour from my students with a frequency that exhausted me. Last year, I was not happy with the level of patience I was able to muster, with either my students or my own children. I was not really proud of the job I did.

But, ready or not, a new house is a fresh start, and a new school year is a fresh start. And many things have happened this summer, both locally and globally, that give me perspective on the things I struggle with.

So, regardless of how many boxes remain to be unpacked, I am starting over. I have given myself a new mantra, in which I misquote Gandhi (but in a way I think he’d endorse):

Be the calm you wish to see in the world.

My life will be disorganized for a bit longer, but the calmer I can be, the sooner things will fall into place.

My children will certainly have emotional outbursts, but the more I can model calm, the more likely they are to absorb it.

Certain of my students will forget the expectations, say rude things, fall off their chairs, interrupt, be mean to their peers, and/or goof off when they should be working, but the more I remind myself to maintain calm, the easier it is to remember that it’s not personal – those kids are simply displaying their needs – and that my reaction, the part I control, sets the tone more than anything.

I aim to Be the Calm, and at the end of this school year, to be proud of myself for it. I can feel already that my classroom atmosphere has more humour in it, and less stress.

Today, one of my new Grade 4 students blurted, after five French classes with me, “You’re my favourite teacher!” I know it’s only week two, and opinions change mercurially, but that has to mean something, right?

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100 Happy Days – Day 4: Silence

There are two kinds of silence that made me happy on Day 4.

One was in my 5/6 Core French class. They are a class that is, as a group, not great at self-regulation. Many of them have great difficulty stopping themselves from saying whatever they feel like saying, whenever they feel like saying it, in whatever language (i.e. English, not French). And some, it seems, just… never learned basic courtesy. Makes for a sub-optimal classroom environment.

I’ve had a whole system in place designed to curb this kind of noise and distraction, but in spite of having spent a lot of lunch breaks in discussion with certain students, overall behaviour hasn’t improved the way it needs to. It occurred to me that by telling them I will warn them (by name) when I see the kind of behaviour that will get them in trouble, I’m allowing them to relinquish ownership of their conduct.

So I gave them a frank lecture. Since these are 10-and-11-year-olds who do know what’s expected, I said I would take notes on the behaviour I was seeing, without wasting class time to talk about it. At the end of 50 minutes (which is actually ALWAYS less, by the time the kids get to me), if a student has a list of actions that need further discussion, we can take recess time to write out a “good copy” of what happened, for their parents. (Honestly, some kids’ lists would look like this on a bad day, if they were permitted to follow their instincts: “Today I forgot to take my hat off at the beginning of class, talked out when it wasn’t my turn twelve times, tried to argue with classmates/teacher three times, fell out of my chair once, insulted my classmate three times, sprawled on learning carpet as if it were my couch twice, stole my neighbour’s {whatever} twice, and left the classroom before I was dismissed.”)

Anyway. Point is, as I told them my new strategy, you could have heard a pin drop. TOTAL QUIET. Ahh, it was so lovely. Like watching a rare orchid bloom. Balm for my ears.

And THEN. One of my students raised his hand, while his classmate was writing the date on the board, and asked a legitimate question about the word “novembre” (we talk a lot about loanwords and root words in our class) and I answered it, which included me writing the numbers from 1 to 10 in Latin on the board. In case you don’t know, the word for six in Latin is “sex.”

I actually wrote “sex” on the board in front of 29 pre-teens – and they stayed quietThat’s how well my li’l talk worked. It was AMAZING, y’all. (Even if it only lasted for 1.5 periods.)

The other kind of silence is one that makes me happy almost every evening. We are a family with a birthright Quaker (me) as a mama, and although we attend Quaker meeting only sporadically, we do keep the tradition of silent grace before family meals. We hold hands in a circle, and sometimes we close our eyes, and think about the good fortune we have to be together for a good meal… and then we squeeze hands and it’s done.

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This is a dramatization. E is not usually smiling beneficently during silence. AB does do squeeze-shut-eyes like this, though.

AB has enjoyed the hand-holding ever since she was a baby. When she got old enough to say words, she used to order us: “Close de eyes.” And I don’t remember who started the tradition of saying, “I love you, family,” at the end of silence, but now we all say it every time – and my kids are usually the first to pipe up. I know this ritual means a lot to both of them. If they miss it for some reason, they want us to do it again.

It’s pretty much the most cheesily, heartwarmingly wonderful thing ever.

Oh, and speaking of silence… I may put this whole thing on hiatus until my blog is back to being healthy. My IT peeps and I are still working through issues that make blogging extremely annoying and slow, and although I am definitely noticing and enjoying happy things every day, trying to post about them under the circumstances saps that positivity with alarming speed. So… there may be a form of blog silence happening for a while. I hope not, but we’ll see.

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Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids

 

Climb-that-TreeThe Fraser Institute, a Canadian public-policy think tank, has just released a study recommending something called “teacher incentive pay”, based on student achievement. The idea is, teachers would be paid bonuses based on high scores in their students’ standardized test results. This, they say, is key to Canada staying competitive on the world stage.

I always have to laugh – without humour – when the Fraser Institute comes up with something to say about public education. I’m sure they work very hard and do lots of thinking and research to come up with their Studies and Findings and Recommendations; what they lack is a real grasp on the reality of the public school world – dynamics between students, parents, educators, and knowledge.

Here’s what I agree with from the study:

  • We teachers need to help students excel.
  • We need especially to help students with difficulties do the best learning they can.
  • Raising children with solid knowledge and skills is good for Canadian society.
  • Literacy and numeracy are vital skills for all children.
  • It is not ideal that mediocre or bad teachers are paid on the same scale as good or fantastic teachers.

Here’s what I don’t agree with:

  • That standardized test results are an accurate reflection of student abilities and learning, and
  • That standardized test results have anything to do with teacher excellence.

Let’s first look at what’s wrong with standardized tests.

In Ontario, standardized tests were introduced by the Harris government in 1996. Since then, students are tested in math and literacy in Grade 3 and Grade 6, in math only in Grade 9, and in literacy only in Grade 10. Students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test to graduate from high school.

I get why EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) testing seems desirable. The school system is publicly funded; naturally, parents and other taxpayers want to know that their dollars are going to the best use possible.

It also looks good for the government to be able to point to rising test scores and say “Look! We are doing things right! WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

It’s a nice thought, that student abilities and learning could be monitored in such a neat, encapsulated way.

The issue here, as with all standardized tests, is that they are purported to measure “student achievement” – and they don’t. They measure only how those students performed on that particular test on those particular days.

Standardized tests do not reflect what students really know or can really do.

This is partly because, when you administer a standardized test, the setting is unnatural. The first time I scribed part of an EQAO literacy test for a Grade 3 student with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and was taken aback to read the rules. I was to write down what the student said, including whatever punctuation he remembered to ask me to put in. For the writing section, I was allowed to read him the questions, but I was not allowed to say anything else. Not even small talk to help him feel at ease. If he forgot something, I couldn’t remind him by re-reading. I could not answer any questions he asked me for clarification. I could not even silently turn a page for him if he was looking at the wrong question.

Sure, for students who do well on EQAO, it demonstrates that they can answer those questions. That’s great for them.

But for students who are naturally nervous about being tested, it’s the perfect situation to send their anxiety skyrocketing – whatever their skill level. For students whose minds go blank when the pressure is highest, it’s a nightmare. The fight-or-flight response kicks in so they literally can’t think.

And for those students who struggle with math, reading, and writing, it’s a good way to invalidate the gifts they DO have.

It doesn’t feel anything like the kind of learning we work hard to foster in classrooms every day.

That’s the weirdest part about EQAO. It comes from the provincial government, the same body that provides teachers with the regulation curriculum documents spelling out the knowledge and skills at the provincial standard for each grade level. But the two enterprises – curriculum and EQAO testing – reflect completely different philosophies about education.

The curriculum documents are regularly reviewed and revised, by educators in the system, based on new knowledge about the ways kids learn best, and new perspectives on evolving subject matter. They have changed hugely over the decades, and classrooms have changed with them. The expectation for learning today is much more inclusive, hands-on, exploratory, and real-life-based than it once was.

Most teachers are happy to use and endorse the curriculum documents. The approaches that are set out – and expected, by the government, to be used – are all about finding the different teaching and learning techniques that will eventually engage every child. And helping students remember what their strengths are.

It’s called differentiated instruction: knowing your students, knowing their learning styles, and getting them the tools they need to show you the best work they’re capable of. It’s recognizing that if little Liam has some extra time and less pressure, he’ll produce much better work. It’s noticing that when Sophie has her math manipulatives in front of her, she can do fractions with no problem.

Standardized testing is the antithesis of differentiated instruction.

It’s like saying to teachers, “Take all that work you did to personalize your approaches to different kids – and chuck it in the toilet.”

It’s like saying to kids, “What you’re actually capable of doesn’t matter. What matters is being good at tests.”

Yes, the stuff being tested is important. That’s why we’re already teaching it every day.

Let’s remind ourselves: tests are artificial situations. In life, testing itself is basically the only time you’re expected to produce large amounts of information or solve problems alone, with no chance to ask questions, check facts, collaborate, or research.

As standardized testing becomes more prevalent in Canada, it’s skewing things. Parents are starting to use EQAO scores to decide where to buy a house. Even better, the aforementioned Fraser Institute, in all its self-important wisdom, issues “report cards” ranking different schools, so parents can handily refer to those. The Institute is cagey about what the rankings are based on, but admits it relies heavily on test scores.

By the Institute’s own admission, rankings cannot include data on things like fine arts, trades training, and citizenship – because there is no data on those.

Because most of the things that make up the vitality of a school are not measurable.

Back to teacher incentive pay. Doesn’t it make sense to use financial rewards to motivate teachers to do their very best teaching? If kids do well on the tests, doesn’t that show that the teacher taught them well?

Yes – maybe. There’s a decent chance that children who get high test scores had a good teacher. But there’s just as high a chance that a low-scoring class had a good teacher. Perhaps even higher.

When you place so much value on an isolated piece of high-pressure output by students, you are failing to take into account the broader learning and teaching arcs of students and teachers. Teachers know well that student performance varies widely depending on the year, the month, even the day. And though the Fraser Institute would like to gloss over this, things like parental education levels, household income, and family work schedules do factor into test scores.

Let me put it this way: would you want your yearly bonus to be affected by whether someone else’s children had eaten well/slept enough/taken their meds? Should you forfeit pay because you teach kids who have a cold/whose parents were fighting that morning/who experience test anxiety/who are learning disabled/whose attention span is desperately short?

Actually, I’d say it’s the opposite. Ask any teacher: the years they work hardest, the years that most deeply plumb their reserves of creativity and patience, are the ones where they teach the most children with those high needs. It’s exhausting, overwhelming work. Especially in classes of thirty kids.

When you really think about it, in a society that supposedly values innovation, it’s bizarre that we put so much stock in standardized tests. As we know, the U.S. is obsessed with high-stakes testing, and many districts use teacher incentive pay. This has, indeed, raised test scores in certain areas. It has also encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” – i.e. gear classroom instruction to revolve around what they know of previous tests – which you’re not supposed to do. But if your job is to improve test scores, then… teaching to the test IS doing your job, isn’t it?

It’s no wonder that, as the authors of Freakonomics point out, teacher incentive pay has also resulted in many instances of teachers cheating, in many different ways. Obviously, this does NOT improve student learning – but it does improve test scores.

Here in Ontario, the bigger a deal people make about a school’s high ranking or test scores, the more those teachers feel obliged to make sure their test scores stay high. If they want to please the crowds, they naturally feel compelled to teach to the test.

So. Are we teaching according to the students we have, or the test we have to give them? Because they are not the same thing at all.

Time to recap. What’s the really big issue here? What are standardized tests and teacher incentive pay trying to accomplish?

Improved student achievement. (Reminder: test scores and actual student achievement are two completely different things.)

What changes could help us attain real improvement in student achievement?

If you were to ask the teachers who spend each day with the students, we would have no trouble telling you – because improving student achievement is our daily goal. You would hear: smaller class sizes and more professionals on the ground.

If you’re looking to use money to help kids learn, change the ratios of teachers to students. The bigger the group, the less likely it is that one teacher can give every child the help he or she needs.

If you especially want to help the students with the most difficulties, hire more EAs (Educational Assistants), CYCs (Child Youth Counselors), OTs (Occupational Therapists), Special Ed teachers, and ESL teachers, so that those professionals aren’t spread so thinly that they barely see each child they are supposed to help.

I’m absolutely confident that if I could poll teachers in Ontario, they’d say they would much rather have those changes than incentive pay.

And if your goal is to help every child learn… then standardized tests are a big old waste of money.

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Let’s put some deeper education into Earth Day

Happy Litter-Picking Day!

I say this with one part sincerity and one part facetiousness.

Litter is the thing we all – especially those of us who work with kids – can easily dive into on Earth Day. It’s a nice, manageable, do-something-able topic. And don’t get me wrong, litter is a super-stupid phenomenon that drives me bonkers, so it makes me happy to see kids becoming invested in clean public spaces. I was a pretty avid litter-picker myself, as a kid.

The only trouble I have with litter-picking is when it becomes the token gesture we make on Earth Day.

My personal tradition is to talk genuinely with my students about the environment on Earth Day. (As a French teacher, I don’t get lots of chances to discuss sustainability with my kids.) I usually find that, as a group, many of them know quite a bit about the environmental challenges facing us today: over-use of electricity and gasoline, deforestation, climate change, endangered species, etc.

And yet, so often when we have a presentation or a project or a skit about the HELPING THE EARTH, it’s “Hey everyone! Don’t litter! Let’s pick up trash!”

Frankly, picking up trash is not going to save our butts if we poison our air and water.

I know we want to present something kid-friendly, uplifting, something that will make us feel motivated to act, instead of depressing us into defeat. The sad thing is, environmental problems are not really kid-friendly. Taken in large doses, they can be dispiriting – or downright dire.

Still, there are many manageable conversations we can have with kids about living more sustainably. My almost-five-year-old understands that bananas come from very far away to reach us (and that therefore we need to calm down about the occasional brown spot – no wasting!). He knows about sorting garbage, using the recycling bin and the compost bin. Kids can get the fact that cars pollute and walking doesn’t. They can relate to turning off the water while brushing teeth, and turning off the lights we’re not using. They can see how much trash is created when you buy overpackaged goods.

Opportunities to talk about environmental responsibility are everywhere, if you’re watching out for them.

Earth Day is important to me, as a reminder that I can always do better. It’s like New Year’s for my daily environmental habits: a new start.

Now that the weather is finally improving, I’m going to get my bike tuned up (for the first time since having kids – yikes) and start using it. I resolve to get to the Farmer’s Market for local food more often, and use my clothesline whenever the weather permits. And my kids will be involved in all those things, so we can learn better habits together.

And hey, I’m sure we’ll go litter-picking too, once in a while.

Happy Earth Day! What are your resolutions?

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6 Headlines You Won’t See at the Supermarket Checkout

In case you’re wondering, the title of this post is a bit ironic. If you hang around the Interwebs, you may have noticed that it’s real trendy or whatever to write articles and posts that start with a number. Somehow it makes the content more attractive and edible if you enumerate stuff.

Far be it from me to deprive you guys of those delicious, crunchy numbers. I want to honour your readership. So… Bon appétit!

TEACHER PREPARES FOR TRANSFORMATIVE EVENT

A week ago Thursday, I found out that I get to be staff at a week-long camp program in June that blends Leadership and Arts for Grade 7 and 8 students… and I get to be a teacher facilitator for Dance. 🙂 🙂 🙂 All descriptions of the program indicate that it’s the most profound, life-changing teaching/learning experience possible. I cannot describe how STOKED I am. (Merci beaucoup to Mr. A, who is responsible for me getting the position at all.)

On the same topic, I need to get on with whipping my own buns into shape. I still dance on a regular basis, but my fitness and flexibility levels are not where I’d like them to be for sharing dance space with 13- and 14-year-olds. Young teenage dancers tend to be seriously strong and bendy. (I was one, once upon a time, so I know.) Excellent motivation.

Mentally, I will also be whipping myself (into shape, or perhaps into a mess), by attempting to finish report cards and yearbook production before I go. I shall become the Duchess of Organization. It’s gonna happen. Grrr.

And lastly on this topic, I am girding myself psychologically to be away from my own munchkins for a whole week. One night + two days is still the longest I’ve been apart from E, and one day is the longest since AB was born. (Sean is gracious about this opportunity for me, which will also be a considerable challenge for him, parenting-wise; we are already arranging help for while I’m gone.) Luckily, there will be exciting things distracting me from the lack of baby kisses and endearing quotables… but still. There will be some withdrawal.

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WOMAN OVERDOSES ON CONTEMPORARY DANCE, SUFFERS NO ILL EFFECTS

Last weekend, I went to TWO dance shows in as many days. (Which is totally crazy, considering my normal rate of spectacles per decade, if you don’t count the ones I’m in.) On Friday night, Sean took me to see RUBBERBANDance Group as an early birthday present. It wowed us such that, over dessert after the show, the two of us had a real conversation about dance … which has never happened. Despite me being a dance performer, I honestly don’t think we’ve ever discussed the art form at any length before.

So yeah, minds were blown. Talk about strong and bendy. And seamlessly interactive in a way that looks effortless but has to be incredibly hard. Watch the promo, you’ll see what I mean.

Then, on Saturday evening, I was lucky enough to go with a group of dancer friends to see a live music/dance presentation called “Dichterliebe: The Poet’s Love,” by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Again, it was fascinating and beautiful, though totally different from the other show. You can actually watch the whole thing in this video – except that in the show we saw, this same baritone – Alexander Dobson – had full facial hair and luscious shoulder-length locks. (The dancing starts about halfway through.) If you like poetry, it is worth checking out the words – they are rather extraordinary.

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TODDLER TURNS 18 MONTHS AND ENTERS ADOLESCENCE

On Sunday, Baby AB was officially 18 months old. She’s still very short, with diapers and a round baby-belly, but in many ways we feel like we have a teenage cliché in the house. (Two, actually, but that’s another post.) As our daycare provider put it the other day, “How can she be so small and so cute – and so willful at the same time?”

Teenager or Toddler? You be the judge.

  • She talks almost nonstop;
  • She often deliberately shows her belly button;
  • She experiments with kissing;
  • She loves accessories and bling;
  • She wants to choose her own clothes;
  • Unacceptable clothes are offensive to her;
  • She likes to hold hands;
  • She flies into rages with very little provocation;
  • Reasons for her anger are not always clear;
  • She alternates between needing help and being insulted by help;
  • Her moods possess a quality of epic drama;
  • You cannot convince her she’s wrong, ever;
  • She frequently bugs her brother on purpose;
  • She is learning and growing at a scarily fast pace;
  • It is amazing watching her discover her potential.
You think she'd take no for an answer? Of course not.
You think she’d take no for an answer? Of course not.

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BLOGGER INADVERTENTLY WINS RAD BEVERAGE CONTEST

Also on Sunday, I had the pleasure of brunching with the lovely ladies behind bear & lion, Heather in Heels, Friends in my Closet, Eightyink, Rustric Retrievals, and Heart, Heather. We ate at State & Main, a restaurant chain which is still new to Ontario, and we were treated very well indeed.

When I arrived (typically late), most of the group was already there and had ordered Caesars, because apparently they’re brunchy. I did not order a Caesar (because CLAM BROTH), and there was no Mimosa on the menu, so I went with something that sounded good: a Mexican Bulldog. Little did I know it would be approximately the size of my daughter’s head, and look like this:

The Mexican Bulldog. If you're alarmed, please note that's a Coronita, not a Corona. Ahem.
The Mexican Bulldog. If you’re alarmed, please note – that’s a Coronita, not a full-sized Corona. Ahem.

The ladies agreed that my beverage took the proverbial cake. And it was quite tasty and refreshing. And it was almost noon by then, so. Yeah.

Conversation was really fun, as usual, and the food was great. I had veggie eggs benedict, and it was delicious, but next time I’m having the Baileys banana-bread French toast.

Signs you might be surrounded by bloggers, #278: everyone immediately instagrams her meal.
Signs you might be surrounded by bloggers, #278: everyone immediately instagrams her meal. Except Dilovely, who is afraid of Instagram.

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COUPLE TRIUMPHS BY WATCHING 40 SITCOM EPISODES IN NINE DAYS

Naw. That’s just too outlandish.

Sean and I wanted to triumph: I’d found out that How I Met Your Mother would ending forever on March 31st, and we had nine days to go. I figured out how many episodes we had left to watch (about 1.5 seasons) and I felt the fizz of determination. We got one evening in – I think we logged a solid six episodes… and then failed thereafter. Sean was working evenings and, well, it’s one of those shows we must watch together. The weekends were hectic and blah blah blah. We still haven’t even started the final season.

Fortunately, Skye was watching, and like a true friend, she sent me real-time non-spoiler updates, such as “I can’t believe that happened!!!” and “Now some tears…” so I could feel like I was participating. 😛

Oh, how I'll miss you all. On the bright side, it may be years before we finish season 9!
Oh, how I’ll miss you all. On the bright side, it may be years before we finish season 9.

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