The Time For Courageous Conversations In The Classroom Is Now

Educators have to engage in courageous conversations in our classrooms. Teaching is a political profession. Our students look to us to help them understand the complex issues they hear about in the news or via social media. The reality is that it is all too easy for us to look the other way.  

Tackling these conversations in our classrooms requires courage. Sometimes it may mean going against the leadership of your school who prefer that you leave ‘that topic’ out of your classroom. It means being prepared to hear a range of opinions from your classes that may fundamentally differ from your own. It requires you as an educator to get uncomfortable, to make your students uncomfortable and to realize that discomfort is a necessary prelude to discourse and change.

I am definitely not an expert on having difficult conversations, but I wanted to share with you some of my experiences, resources and strategies for tackling courageous conversations in the classroom.

  1. It is important to discuss explicit and implicit biases with staff and students and recognize that we are not immune.

We all have biases. So do our students. Our beliefs and values are products of our socialization. We need to recognize this before change can occur. The video series Who, Me? Biased from the New York Times effectively examines how our implicit biases impact our actions. Each video is only about 2 minutes long and could be used at a staff meeting and/or in the classroom as a discussion prompt for looking at our own biases. Another activity is to have students reflect on their own political socialization. I recently had my Grade 12 Politics students create a reflective piece examining their political socialization. Some students recognized that many of their beliefs are shaped by their family/social media and that they themselves know little about the issues. The point is to get students thinking about their thinking (metacognition), and reflecting on how we are influenced to believe what we believe. Teachers/Admin need to do this as well.

  1.         We have to build a climate in our classroom for courageous conversations.

When Trump first proposed his immigration ban, I tried to discuss this topic in my classroom. I had a number of articles, resources, quotes, videos, etc, that I had stayed up late curating. I was nervous, but I felt prepared. I wasn’t. My class became extremely emotionally charged and divided. I had to stop the lesson, apologize to my class and tell them that we would revisit this topic. I think this happens to a lot of us. We plan to tackle a difficult issue, we lose control of the class and we decide to walk away from it. However, I wasn’t prepared to walk away.

I went home that night and worked on a presentation on how to have Difficult Conversations. We also looked at the Oatmeal Comic The BackFire Effect. We then practiced having courageous conversations with some historical topics. Later, we revisited Trump’s immigration ban and were able to tackle the issues as a class together courageously.

This year in my Politics class, I reused my presentation on Difficult Conversations but I turned to a lesson plan from Facing History to help me tackle issues of race in my classroom and create a contract for courageous conversations. Before discussing Charlottesville, we looked at our own biases, practiced how to have difficult conversations and created a contract for courageous conversations in the classroom. You can see the overview of this lesson here in:  After Charlottesville adapted from the lesson plan: Lesson: After Charlottesville and the Fight Against Bigotry.

  1. There are certain issues we need to address explicitly. Our goal as educators is to teach students how to think not what to think. We want our students to be critical and creative thinkers. This can make us uncomfortable to share our beliefs with our students. There are many times when teachers should keep their opinions to themselves and try to facilitate a conversation that reflects/values differing viewpoints. However, there are times as teachers where we have to be worried about the dangerous middle ground. Sometimes there is no middle ground. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice and discrimination are wrong and have to be called out by teachers in the classroom. We need to talk about why the middle ground that we are often taught to value can sometimes be dangerous and perilous. We need to stand up for human rights – otherwise all of our courageous conversations are little more than empty words.

 

Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

When I first starting blogging in June, I didn’t know how important it would become to me. It is hard for me to always put what I am thinking into words, and writing has been a tremendous release for me. I took the last 2 ½ weeks off from blogging because I finished my Masters and wanted to fully devote time to my family, friends and recharge a bit before September. My first ever blog post was about the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, as we head into a new school year I wanted to write about the importance of relationships with other educators.

In my last blog post, I shared a curated Google Doc inspired by Melinda D. Anderson’s hashtag on Twitter #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. I started curating these resources because I didn’t want the great ideas that I witnessed being shared across Twitter to be lost. I shared the Google Doc on Twitter thinking that a few people would be interested, and instead the Google Doc collected over 19 pages of resources. It is difficult to put into words how much this impacted me. I experienced first hand the power of collaboration and I felt overwhelmingly connected to other educators who like me were using part of their summer to find, curate and share anti-racist resources, because they recognized that protecting our students was our first priority. It reminded me how lucky I am to work with people who commit their lives to educating others.

As teachers, we don’t just teach curriculum, we support students through social-emotional issues and sometimes we make a connection with a student and discover that we are one of the few caring adults they have in their lives. This is overwhelming, immensely rewarding and sometimes incredibly stressful. Our job is hard – it is wonderful, I truly feel that this is what I was meant to do, but it is hard. If it is hard for us, then that means that it is hard for our colleagues as well.

Student-teacher relationships are incredibly important, but as educators we also need to reflect on how we treat and talk about our colleagues.

First, be kind to yourself. I have never ended a teaching year and thought to myself, “Well, that was a perfect year.” You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have a kid you didn’t reach and beat yourself up about it later. You are going to deliver a sub-par lesson a few times throughout the year. You are human. You are flawed. You are enough.

My fifth year of teaching, I left on the last day of school and cried in my car pretty much the whole way home. That year had been extremely hard for me personally, and I felt like I had failed my students professionally. I was angry at myself, frustrated and saddened by what I had achieved in my classroom that year. I thought about quitting teaching. I wanted to quit teaching. I was tired.

At the time, my Department Head invited me to meet up with her later. She didn’t give me a hard time for all the mistakes I had made that year, and there were many. Instead, she told me that my bad days were still pretty good, and that next year I had a clean slate. She told me that I was only human, and that sometimes life gets in the way of who we want to be in our classroom. She gave me the courage and support to teach again.

This may not seem like much. But she could have done something very different.

Too often, I have been to Professional Development sessions or see Tweets on Twitter that begin by disparaging teachers. Sometimes this is posting their Syllabus on Twitter and ripping it to part as outdated for all to share and retweet and comment on. Other times, it is idle chatter in the hallway or discussions in the staff room. At times, I am guilty of this.

Now, I firmly believe that we should definitely be critical of teaching and teaching practices when we are focused on improvement. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to close the blinds and just pretend that everything is lollypops and rainbows in the education system. Also, I want to make it clear, if a teacher is harming a student, you have an obligation to speak up. You have to.

However, if one of our colleagues is struggling and feeling overwhelmed then we should offer help, support and share resources/ideas as opposed to disparaging them.  If they are struggling, we should see what we can do to help them as opposed to making their job harder.

I am so fortunate to work with the people that I do. They are my colleagues and my friends. They support me through the good and the bad, and I value their insights, creativity and friendship. Most of all, I know that the people in my department truly put the welfare of kids first everyday and want to support their students. We don’t always agree, but I never doubt their commitment. They love their students and they want to support them just like I do. The teachers I work with and the students I teach make my work meaningful. Without the support of my colleagues, I would feel lost.

Professional Learning Network’s (PLN’s) on Social Media are extremely powerful. However, we all need to work at building our own PLN within our schools as well. This job can feel very isolating and places like Twitter can offer solace and help for that, which is wonderful. However, there is nothing better than a face-to-face relationship with a supportive colleague. 

 

Make Assessment Meaningful And Empowering

Assessments requiring sophisticated student responses such as writing assignments, debates and/or presentations are recognized for fostering critical thinking and problem solving skills.  However, faced with large class sizes, teachers are overwhelmed by the marking these types of assignments require.  12225331274_fdeb7d98c4_b.jpg

A high school teacher often teaches up to 100 students per semester. If this teacher assigns 100 essays, and spends only 5 minutes per paper this creates 8 hours of additional work. Also, who can mark an essay in 5 minutes?!?!

However, this traditional marking system creates several other issues. Research shows that students learn best from assessment when they receive timely and relevant feedback.  One teacher marking 100 assessments takes a long time and feedback becomes less meaningful as time passes. I also find that the quality of my teaching goes down when I am overloaded with marking. It is difficult to create and execute engaging lessons when you are drowning in paperwork.  Another problem is that students only see their own work.  Seeing and critiquing peers’ work is said to promote deeper analyses of the student’s own work, and leads to better quality work, yet this rarely happens.

I would love to embrace the gradeless movement, but as a high school teacher grades count heavily towards their post-secondary acceptance. Here, in Canada, it seems like the GPA needed for most post-secondary programs is continually rising putting added pressure on our students (but that is a post for another day). Although we can’t eliminate grades in high school, we can provide assessment opportunities that offer our students rich, meaningful feedback. Not everything should be graded, and formative feedback needs to guide our teaching and assessment practices. 

Ultimately, I believe three tools hold the answer to making marking meaningful and manageable: peer assessment, self assessment and assessment of conversations.

Peer Assessment

Peer feedback allows assessments to be marked simultaneously resulting in feedback that saves teachers time and provides students with descriptive feedback in a more timely manner. Assessing other students work is also believed to be connected to improving a student’s understanding of their own work. The assessment process becomes transparent helping students understand how their own work is assessed and graded. This shifts the power dynamic in the classroom so that students have a voice and are equal partners in their own learning.

It is important that peer assessment is confidential. This can be done by assigning random numbers to student work or using an online marking system like Peergrade. The Peergrade system is an online tool that is customizable by the instructor. This allows instructors to make peer assessments confidential. It has the additional feature of providing immediate real time feedback to students while also giving them time to reflect on this feedback. Teachers can create rubrics or use rubrics and lesson plans already designed by the Peergrade team. Teachers can also decide how many students will assess each student’s work. Educators can also see the student’s work before, during and after feedback to see how the work has progressed over time. Also, this tool is free for teachers to use.

Self Assessment

Self-Assessment involves students evaluating their learning progress. Through self-assessment, students apply metacognitive skills to evaluate strengths and gaps in their learning. This can help students in goal-setting, tracking their learning progress and making critical decisions about what areas they need to work on. Personally I have found that self-assessment is most effective when students co-construct the rubric with the teacher. This often results in more student-friendly assessment criteria that is easier for the student to apply. I usually have my students write a max 250 word response explaining their self assessment. One thing I am hoping to try this year, thanks to the suggestion of a colleague, Zack Teitel, is to try out self-assessment as self-marking. Students self-assess their work, provide a detailed reason for their assessment and give themselves a mark. Then, I would look to see if I agree with their assessment or not. If I don’t, then I would have a conversation with the student explaining my viewpoint and the student could explain theirs, and we could decide together what grade they should receive. This again shifts the traditional power dynamic by giving the student a voice. Here is a link to a Google Form Learning Skills Survey that I use for self-assessment of learning skills (designed by my amazing husband jeffboulton.ca)

Conversations

Often our classrooms have very rich conversations that don’t get assessed or ‘count’ for marks. I personally do not think that we should ever ‘mark’ students without telling them or allowing them to prepare. However, I do think that unstructured conversations offer rich assessment tools that we often overlook. In my blog Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice I discussed a number of tools that could be used to promote conversation in the classroom (i.e. fishbowl debates, Socratic Dialogues, Newspaper headlines, etc.). All of these types of conversations can be used as assessments providing that you discuss this with students ahead of time. Here is a link to a Conversation Tracking  sheet that we designed for our Grade 10 History students. I also like using this as a Google Form as I can quickly track it on my IPAD, Computer or phone.

Effectively using peer assessment, self assessment and conversations can transform our classrooms. Before using any of these, it is important that we use assessment criteria with our students and practice using it together. Ultimately, these tools empower students by giving them a voice in their learning and empowering them with the tools they need to succeed.

References

Paré, D., & Joordens, S. (2008). Peering into large lectures: examining peer and expert mark agreement using peerScholar, an online peer assessment tool. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(6), 526-540. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2008.00290.x

Sadler, P., & Good, E. (2006). The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning. Educational Assessment,11(1), 1-31. doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1101_1

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). Cell Biology Education,13(2), 159-166. doi:10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

@ZackTeitel Twitter

 

Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice

As educators it is important that we focus on maximizing student voice. According to Edgar Dale’s Learning Pyramid, we learn very little of what we hear, read or see, but retain 50% of what we discuss, 75% of what we practice and 90% of what we teach others.  Although this has proven to be an oversimplification of learning – the message holds true. Students need to actively engage and interact with the material to learn. Learning Pyramid .png

Critical conversations teach students how to develop well thought out responses and arguments supported with specific evidence. They facilitate collaboration and can effectively build community in the classroom. When done properly, they create student-centred classrooms and empower student voice. As such, it is important that we learn and incorporate instructional strategies that maximize conversations in our classroom. Here are a few that I find useful:

Fishbowl Conversations

I set this up with four desks in the middle of the classroom, and arrange the remaining chairs in a circle around those desks. I put a bowl of papers in the middle that contain the questions or topics of the discussion. I also include a bowl of gummy worms – the bait – for the students who participate in the Fishbowl. I begin with four volunteers who select a question from the bowl and begin discussing. During the discussion, the other students are watching, listening and taking notes. If at any time, another student wants to replace a student in the centre they tap on the student’s back and they switch places. From my experience, Fishbowl conversations tend to work best for controversial topics or topics that students are familiar with and/or passionate about. You want students on the outside of the circle to want to come into the discussion. In order to do that you have to frame your questions in an engaging manner. Source:  Teaching History: Fishbowl

Socratic Dialogue

Before the day of the Socratic Dialogue, students will read an article, watch a video or engage in critical research on a particular topic. The teacher will provide the students with questions or themes to explore. Another option is to ask the students themselves to come up with three critical questions on the assigned task. On the day of the Socratic Dialogue, the students sit in a circle. The first time that I do this, I act as the moderator to model, but by the second Socratic Dialogue a student should be acting as the moderator.

I would generally suggest that the teacher chooses a moderator who is comfortable speaking in front of the class. From there, the moderator will lead the class discussion. The moderator is responsible for ensuring that all students get a chance to speak, that the conversation is respectful and on task.  During the dialogue, the students will discuss and debate in turn. If it is a large class, you can have the students form two circles. The inner circle will engage in the Socratic Dialogue, and the outer circle will watch, take notes and they can pass questions to the students in front of them. When done correctly, the teacher should be observing, taking notes on student conversations, but not verbally participating.  Source: A History Teaching Toolbox  

Use Technology

Technology provides a wonderful tool for conversations. Many – myself included – prefer texting to speaking on the phone, and you can use this type of conversation in your classroom.  You can run a twitter chat for your class on a particular topic. This could be particularly beneficial if you have already set up a class twitter page and have some followers. For example, you could invite an outside expert to moderate a class twitter chat. Similarly, you can also use Google Classroom for an online class discussion or tools like poll everywhere and padlet as classroom brainstorming tools or exit cards. Likewise, blogging when done effectively, can be a great tool for students to share and respond to each other’s ideas. Similarly, you can have your students take on a role and engage in a SnapChat or Facebook chat in character. These online conversations may be particularly advantageous to your more introverted students.

Increase Wait Time

A simple but effective strategy to get more students talking is to increase wait time. When you ask a question to the class and hear silence, it is easy for the teacher to rush to fill that dead air. Instead, get comfortable in the silence. Give students the time to think about what you have asked. Ask them to engage in a think-pair-share or write down their thoughts on the question, before opening it up to a full class discussion.

Conversation Prompts: Newspaper Headlines or Photos

Post a number of different newspaper headlines around the classroom. Get the students to choose one that they think is interesting and discuss in pairs or groups what they think it may be about. You can do this same activity with photos around the classroom. Ask them to look for evidence in the headline or photo that can tell them what the article is about? What do they know? What questions do they still have? 

Post-Its

Provide the class with three-five questions. Post each question at a different point in the room. Then distribute Post-Its to the students. Have each student write down their response to the question on a Post-It and paste it under each of the questions. Afterwards have the students walk around the classroom and discuss the answers that they see.

Give Students Choice

Choices give students a sense of control, purpose and ownership over their own learning. You can give them a choice board where they are asked to discuss one of the topics on the board. Or you can give them a choice in the format of their discussion. Maybe some students want to talk about it in small groups whereas others want to do so on Twitter. Sometimes the format of the discussion may matter to you, but when it doesn’t than allowing students ownership over how they communicate can be a powerful tool to facilitate greater participation in your classroom.

Let Students Play

In my last blog, Practical strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play I outlined strategies to promote play in your classroom. When we play, we engage in material deeply, negotiate rules of communication and work together collaboratively to achieve a particular goal. Role plays, simulations and games can be great tools for enhancing and empowering student conversations in your classroom.

Overall, when we design our lessons it is important that we think about what the students will be doing. How will they be actively involved in their own learning? This may require some creative thinking, but it will arguably result in a much richer learning experience.