Friday, February 25, 2011

Inspiring Question

Recently, on one of my walkabouts through the hallways after school I was approached by a Grade 8 student who asked me a question:  "Mr. Leslie", he said, "do you think tests should be based on memorization or application?"  I was a little stunned by the depth of the question, since the young man was new to the school and to the secondary system.  I also assumed that he was like many students, more interested in "playing the game" and getting good scores than questioning the methods and thinking about learning.  Really, I should not have been so surprised.  Students are all thoughtful and capable learners who know what is important in their education, and are often being encouraged to question and challenge.  He continued, "I am not great at remembering things, but I can look them up.  Isn't it more important that I be able to know how to use those pieces of information?  That is what I am pretty good at, but too often I don't get to show it on a test, because I am being asked only what I can remember."

I responded to him with, "That is a great question.  I think the best tests will ask us to apply a concept to solve a problem."  Careful to cover myself and any teachers he had in his timetable, I added, "However, there may be some examples of tests where you need to be able to recall information, especially those having to deal with safety."  I then asked him, "Why do you ask?"  His reply was that he was worried about an upcoming exam where he felt he might have to remember things that he could not retain.  I told him he should prepare for the test, and if he felt he was not able to accurately represent his knowledge, he should talk to his teacher about giving him another opportunity to show his understanding, perhaps in a different way.  He thanked me for the time, and agreed that he would do so.  I saw him a few days later, and asked how the test went.  He said it was fine, and that the test was fair and he was able to demonstrate what he had learned accurately (he did quite well, and indicated the test was not simply recall of facts).  I thanked him for asking me the question, and reminded him that anytime he felt an assessment did not accurately reflect his understanding of a concept, he needed to ask his teacher for another, perhaps different, opportunity to show them what he knows. 

My answer may have been a little superficial (perhaps some of you can share with me how you would have responded to such a query), but I was pleased that he felt he could ask me.  I was also pleased that he was willing to express his concern to his teacher if he had one, and am encouraged that the majority of teachers in our school are willing to give students different opportunities to show them what they know.  More than anything, I walked away from the interaction engaged in some thinking about what we do, how it impacts students, and how they feel about it.  It was a great question, and one that I have repeated to several staff at the school since.  I will continue to think and talk about it with others in education.

Thanks for the reminder of what we are here to do, Travis.  Teachers are supposed to help you develop your critical thinking skills, and your question reminds me of that purpose.  Tests should not be about regurgitation of isolated facts, and I love that you understand this.  I will be sure to ask your question of our staff as we work through the District Assessment Policy and Guidelines.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Healthy Competition

This past Thursday night in J.N. Burnett's gymnasium, two fierce Richmond rivals faced off in the Junior Boys Richmond basketball championships.  The Burnett Breakers and McMath Wildcats had split their 2 earlier match ups, and have developed a spirited rivalry with one another.  Thursday nights championship final lived up to the billing as the two teams went at each other from the outset, with the lead being traded back and forth throughout the closely contested game.

The end result was an overtime victory for the Wildcats, but I think all competitors and fans got a chance to be part of something special that night, and since both teams are moving on to next week's Vancouver and District tournament, there is a pretty good chance they will meet again.  That is something that we can all look forward to.

A special thanks goes out to all the players who put on a great show, and also to the coaches of the two teams.  Both are young men in their early twenties, former Richmond school district students, now volunteering and giving back to young people in ways they were helped while in school.  They seemed to relate well to the students in their care, and are impassioned basketball coaches doing good things for kids.  As written by Aaron Akune in his most recent blog post, "Opportunity", these coaches have created an interest level for these students in what they are doing that has them dialed in and learning so much about life.  They are learning to work together, how to overcome obstacles, to commit to something and throw tremendous amounts of energy toward it and so many other important lessons, regardless of the result of the game.  These experiences will last a lifetime for these students, and are among the most powerful learning lessons of their time in school.

It was a great event, as the gym was full and though tensions ran high, the contest was highly entertaining, passionately contested, and something the students, parents, school staffs and spectators can be proud to have been part of.  It summarized so much of what is great about school sports, and why those of us fortunate enough to have been involved in similar experiences in our high school days still look back on them with fondness.  Chris Kennedy has also recently written about what it means to participate in high-school athletics in his post "The Value of School Sports" and stated,
"So many of the qualities of a full and meaningful life are honed on a soccer field, in a gymnasium, or in the pool.  The passion that drives you to compete and better yourself.  The discipline that forces you to maintain a schedule and balance your life.  The selflessness that epitomizes being a great team player.  The respect you develop for each other, teammates, opponents and the games you play.  The perspective and resilience you find by realizing life goes on, even after a big loss, and winning and losing is not only about the score in the game.  The courage you show to triumph over adversity, and the leadership which defines special athletes whose greatest accomplishments are not only about making themselves better, but raising the level of all those around them." 

This is exactly what I witnessed Thursday night, and in so many other venues like Drama productions, Music concerts and other extra-curricular endeavours.  These are the most memorable things students can experience during their time in school.

Special thanks also go out to the spectators who cheered passionately for their teams, but in a respectful and well-mannered way.  As an administrator for one of the schools involved in the event, I was disappointed for the students from our school who appeared devastated by the loss, but I was more than proud of the event in its entirety.  As Gino Bondi wrote about in his post "Isopraxism and Basketball", it was something special to observe the community coming together to celebrate the efforts of students in these two schools.  Wins and losses aside, the galvanizing effect of people bonding in support of students in any extra-curricular endeavour is extremely rewarding to witness.

It was truly an inspiring night, and one that left me feeling very good about what goes on in our schools in ALL extra-curricular pursuits.  I would like to say congratulations and thank you to both teams and coaches, and to all parents and volunteer supporters for all you do in your roles supporting young peoples lives.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sometimes we forget...

Recent months have taught me a few things, with the passing of my friend, and a few other less jarring incidents in my personal life.  Among the lessons (or perhaps more appropriate, reminders) are:  Be giving of your time, listen and try to help, difficult decisions can be for the best, what you do for others impacts their lives in a much greater way than you may be aware, and so many more....

I have started reading "The Last Lecture", the story of professor Randy Pausch the young professional, husband and father from Carnegie Mellon University who offered an inspiring lecture about living life despite battling pancreatic cancer.  It truly is an inspiring read, and has made me think about my life, the example I set for my family to follow and the professional example I set for staff and students to (hopefully) appreciate.

Last month, I signed up to participate in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, a bike ride from Vancouver to Seattle in which each rider must raise at least $2500.00 to participate (this is not a solicitation letter, but if you are interested in making a donation here is the link).  I am not a bike rider (in fact, I was hit by a car while riding a bike when I was nine years old and nearly lost my life).  I was not even equipped with a bike until yesterday when I purchased one.  The $2,000.00 investment still has me more than a little unsettled from a financial perspective, but as I look at it, what it allows me to do is change a few lives, my own being one of the first.  I am now involved in a life-altering experience; training for and riding in an event that will have positive impacts on a community.  Ultimately, the cause being supported is one that hopefully will change countless lives for the better in the future.

The recent experiences have also made me think more about what I do at work, and how it impacts others.  I wrote a month ago of what my friend has taught me (here).  I think many of us in education forget about how powerful and long-lasting the impact we have on students in our care and the staff with whom we work.  At the Celebration of Life for Lorne I saw many former staff and students of both Lorne and myself, and was given so many thanks for the time he and I spent with them.  I had forgotten how much those relationships impacted their lives and mine.  In my career there have been several students who have come back to see me, coach with me or play basketball with me after their time in high school.  I have also had the pleasure of being at weddings of former students.  In each of the instances of students taking the time to speak or interact with me or invite me to a special occasion in their life, it reminds me of the relationship we had when they were in school.  It goes for staff, too.  The simple things we do can have a long-lasting effect.  A smile in the hallway as we pass, taking the time to ask a question about life away from school, and engaging in conversations about challenging situations all tell people that we care about them and want to help.  In some cases, the individual may not agree with the advice offered, but later in life, they will greatly appreciate that you took the time.  In fact, I recall an interaction between myself and a student whom I had asked to leave the school in my first year as a Vice Principal.  I saw him a few years later at a convenience store, and he told me that although he was angry with my decision at the time, he now recognized and thanked me for what must have been a difficult decision. He went on to say that it was the best thing that could have happened to him.  He needed to get his life together, and leaving the environment and reputation he had created for himself was the best way to get back on track.  He was appreciative of my taking the time to help him, and lauded a tough decision that I felt was in his best interests long-term.  I think we can all recollect interactions like the ones I have outlined here, and sometimes we don't get the feedback to remind us that the efforts we poured into those relationships were much appreciated.

The more I think about the impact people have had on me, and I on others, it reminds me to appreciate all that has profoundly affected my life.  I need to continue to make (and more often recognize) the difference I make for others within my role at school.  The question recent events in my life have made me start to ask is... "Could what I am doing change someone's life, and/or even my own?"  If the answer is yes (and in our work, often it is) then carefully choose any next steps, because it will be time and/or money well-spent.

Friday, February 4, 2011


I have spent much time reading all kinds of information about the need for change in school, and I agree with much of it.  A special concentration seems to be focused on technology, and for good reason, since it is such a powerful tool, and is changing the game for learning and teaching.  What surprises me, however, is that in all of this discussion, not enough seems focused around the topic of assessment, and regardless of what changes we make in attempts to improve the educational experiences of our students, without making some improvements to our assessment practices, I am not sure how much success the changes will result in.

The Richmond School District has decided to put assessment at the top of its priority list.  Superintendent Monica Pamer, has a blog about the subject, and the district is now looking at having schools develop their own statement of purposes and practices surrounding assessment and evaluation.

The school board has come up with some guidelines still in draft form, to be brought to school staffs for discussion. The first area (Policy 607) for discussion looks at the purpose of Assessment and Evaluation, and recognizes that it is not for ranking, sorting or categorizing students, but rather to support their growth, and enhance student learning and achievement.  Another element (Policy 607-G), also still in draft form, discusses Assessment for and as learning having a purpose in guiding instruction and enhancing student growth, and the last section (Policy 607-R) looks at feedback as the key to student learning.  The goal for the district in bringing these topics to the forefront is to have each school develop their own statement of purposes and practices related to assessment and evaluation by initiating these conversations through a series of guided discussions that staffs will engage in.  Making schools create their own statement helps develop a shared sense of what schools are and should be doing, and involves the students and the community in the process.  Creating this shared vision of purpose and the practices involved in moving toward that purpose is important, and consistent with what Terry Ainge is writing about being done in Delta.

Some of the guided discussion questions include looking at research on the topic of assessment, discussing Damian Cooper's 8 BIG ideas of assessment, and discussing individual practices and successes with one another.  Also, discussion will look at some of the work by Ken O'Connor and his 15 fixes, as well as the strategies involved in Assessment FOR learning.  All of these conversations will be based on the principles of assessment and evaluation that indicate assessment should:  Be focused on clearly identified curriculum outcomes and criteria;  Inform teachers as they plan for instruction; Include a clear description of learning intentions and standards for students and parents; Be ongoing and offer many opportunities for students to receive descriptive feedback; Respect the developmental differences of the learner by differentiating instruction and recognizing that students learn at different rates and in a variety of ways, as well as many others.

Ultimately, the conversations with school staffs and community will result in a common understanding of purpose and practices regarding assessment for teachers, parents and students.  This is a massive undertaking in Richmond, and once each school has developed their own statement, it is to be reviewed annually with staff and community members.  It will take some time, but in the long run, is a huge step forward in improving the educational experiences of our students, with the hope of moving assessment and reporting away from simple numbers or letter grades used most often for sorting and ranking, into more prescriptive feedback for parents and students.  As a colleague often recalls, "When I get my kids' swimming lesson report cards, I know what they do well, what they need to improve, and why they did or did not meet expectations.  In high school, I too often get a number or letter and a comment that does not always share much information about areas of strength or ways to improve."

It is an ambitious, but very worthwhile, conversation and project for the Richmond school district to undertake.  Other districts have likely already begun similar initiatives.  Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions for how to get the conversations started, or where they see them going?  I look forward to getting your feedback.