Saturday, October 13, 2018

Voluntary Homework

This year, I've started a new weekly routine in my English Language Arts classes. I call it "Would You Rather Wednesday", and my students are very invested in it. It often comes up as something they're looking forward to in our morning circle on Wednesdays, and the conversation frequently extends past the end of our scheduled class time. It's quite a simple activity, but so far it has paid enormous dividends. 

I choose a "would you rather" statement, then we sit in a large circle and talk about it. It's that simple. So far this year we've discussed the merits of traveling in time to visit distant ancestors vs future descendants, having a pause or a rewind button on life, being bored contrasted with being too busy, and preferred position in sibling order (oldest or youngest). The last two have prompted the voluntary homework after which this post is titled.

During our conversation last week about boredom vs being over scheduled, one of my students said the magic words... "Well, research shows that being bored can actually increase your creativity." To which statement another student responded, "There's research that shows that there are benefits to being busy." Ding ding ding! Voluntary homework was born. I told both of them that they couldn't just throw statements about research around without following up with documentation to support their claims. Each of them was tasked with finding one article to support their argument. This was completely voluntary. There would be no effect on their grade in my class, and there would be no penalty for not completing the task. By 7pm that night, one of the students had already provided me with an excerpt and a link to a full article about the benefits of boredom. I shared it with the class the next day, and awarded the student 500 XP in our Classcraft game.

This week, our question seemed fairly mundane : "Would you rather be the oldest or the youngest sibling?" The conversation went as might be expected in a grade 8 classroom with some students expressing dissatisfaction with their place in the pecking order of their family and wishing for a change, while others were content to uphold the status quo as they felt the privilege of being oldest/youngest/middlest. And then, in an attempt to keep the conversation going, a student asked about being a twin. Or a triplet. Or a... dectuplet? A whole basketball team made up of identical "me"s! That's when the magic words were uttered. "Has a woman ever had ten babies at once?" "Voluntary homework!" I exclaimed. She reached into her pencil case, pulled out a Post-It note, and proceeded to write herself a reminder while everyone looked on. Six more hands flew into the air, and each question began with the words, "I'm pretty sure I'm going to get voluntary homework for asking this, but I really want to know..." In all, seven students were "assigned" voluntary research homework on a range of topics involving twins, birth weight, rates of conjoined births, births of boys vs girls. By evening, I had 5 emails with various documents attached, and I created a post on our Google Classroom to share the results of the voluntary homework done by those students who took the time to complete it. One of my students has even coined a phrase for this action : Searchez uup! (We are a French Immersion class, and we looooove franglais)

A few of the students who received voluntary homework haven't done it, but the percentage of those who are choosing to research something on their own time and then report back to the class is very gratifying. They are seeing a connection between the classroom and their interests, and taking ownership of their learning. I foresee some very strong Passion Projects later this year.

Next steps, I will do some explicit teaching on how to find scholarly articles to support claims, and how to effectively search using keywords. Creating a culture of excitement around research seems like a great way to encourage lifelong learning. Searchez uup, tout le monde!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Professional Goal Setting

Setting goals is something we ask our student to do all the time. In fact, right now my grade 7 students are working on crafting a short-term goal for themselves. We have talked about what an appropriate goal looks like: it has to be attainable through efforts by the goal-setter, it has to be personally important or motivating, it has to include a clear action plan, and there have to be ways of measuring progress towards the goal.

Something I have been saying to my students since Day 1 this year is, "I don't ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself." Each year, I am asked by my administration to set a goal for professional growth. Each year, I do so. I write up a goal, an action plan, and make a list of possible supports. And then I hand it in to my principal. During class visits, my goal might come up. And I might revisit it on my own from time to time. But I haven't ever shared my professional goal with my students, the parents of my students, or the broader world of education.

I am working hard to embrace a culture of openness and personal accountability within my classroom, and it's time for me to more explicitly practice what I teach.

So. My two goals for professional growth this year are :

1. To use blogging as a self-reflective strategy, and to have my students do the same. I have always used this blog as a tool for reflecting on my own practice, but my action plan is to blog at a reasonable interval (to be determined), and to be more deliberate about seeking out feedback (both on my blog posts and on my teaching)

2. To improve on my record-keeping for conversations. I am required to report on students' speaking and listening skills, and I would like to base this reporting on informal conversations in addition to formal presentations. This will require me to develop some strategies for keeping track of my observations.

I am sure that these goals will grow and change as the year progresses. I am excited to share them publicly, and to hold myself accountable for keeping them at the forefront of my mind.