Sunday, March 20, 2011

Good Things are Happening:Teaching & Learning (Part 2)

In a recent post, I profiled a Communications 11/12 class taught by Mrs. Bronwyn Fackler that had worked on technology presentations about Social Issues (here), and the associated skills needed for students to be proficient in this area.  It was an inspiring lesson because it showcased some creative teaching strategies and celebrated some fantastic student work.  Shortly after observing that class, I stumbled upon an English 11 Incentive class and got the chance to watch the presentations they had been working on representing the poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" using music.  Again, the students were so engaged and will remember the processes and learning that took place in the class for a long, long time.  It was inspiring for me to observe, and I asked the teacher if she would be willing to comment on the process.  Mrs. Debbie Ten-Pow is today's guest blogger:

            I would like to claim ownership of all great teaching ideas, but I am of the belief that most thoughts have been experienced at some point by others and over time are just renamed and described slightly differently. I have been teaching this lesson on and off for many years; and while I would love to claim it as my own original idea, I am quite certain that I came across it while reading or while conversing with a friend.           

            In any case, one afternoon, Jason happened upon my students carrying violins, guitars even lugging a cello into my English classroom and being his curious, investigative self, he invited himself in to observe.

            We had just spent a week studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner; we had just spent sixteen minutes listening to Iron Maiden’s version of this lyrical ballad. We needed to get the rock beat out of our heads.  There are seven parts to the poem so students were divided into seven groups and assigned a section of the poem. They then had to select a different music genre -- country/western, rap, hip-hop, opera, lullaby, anthem, disco.  Students were asked to write lyrics and to find or compose music for their assigned parts and genre; they had to show understanding of the content of the poem as well as capture the atmosphere and tone of their passage.

            The students worked extremely hard and after a few days of planning and rehearsing, students did a live performance during class.

            The students were also asked to respond, individually, in writing about their process and the contributions they and their bandmates made to the procedure.  Here is a sampling of what they wrote:

* “I found this one of the most fun and exciting projects of the class.  Putting lyrics to the poem and choosing the song to do so with, especially under a genre constraint, was an excellent way to get involved in the story.”
* “We also spend a large percentage of our work time working on the syllables and rewriting verses of the poem...not only did the lines have to match the syllables of the song, but it had to rhyme as well.”
* “This project was very unlike any other project that I have had to do.  It was very enjoyable and felt very satisfying when we were able to fit parts of the poem into the song.”
* It was difficult at times to combine both the lyrics of the song and the story together because of the rhythms...This project was engaging and allowed us to gain understanding of the story in modern day language.”
* “I had such a fun time with this assignment.  At first, I was a bit hesitant, but as my group worked farther into the song-writing process, we became excited and engaged.
* “Can we do this again for Macbeth?”

(Music to an English teacher’s ears.)
Below are the video snippets of the student performances (my apologies for the poor video quality).

Like the Communications project, this was an incredibly creative class from both a teaching and learning perspective.  The chance for students to create inspired them to be engaged and to work together, learning so many more skills than just the understanding of the poem.  Most exciting for the teacher and for myself was seeing the students engaged to the level they were, thoroughly involved in all the processes required for the group and the assignment to come together.

Thanks so much to Mrs. Ten-Pow and the class for inviting me to observe.  This is great teaching and learning, and it makes me proud of the work being done at this school.  Again, I welcome the opportunity to observe other classes in the school where creative teaching and learning are being promoted.  We need to continue to share these success stories.

Dance Fever

I have referred before to Ken Robinson's comments that schools are educating our students "out" of their creativity.  Another fine example of where this is not occurring is in Physical Education classes at J.N Burnett Secondary.  I have recently read posts about the Arts and their value from both Johnny Bevacqua (here) and Chris Wejr (here) and am proud to say that we are promoting their value at Burnett, allowing students to create, perform and appreciate the Arts via dance performances and several other student projects around the school. 

Twice per year (just before Winter break for semester 1, and just prior to Spring break for semester 2) the PE department teaches the dance unit.  The concluding assignment is to have students get into groups and create dances that incorporate different genres of music, rhythms of dance and the other elements taught throughout the unit.  In the two weeks prior to performance day (usually the Friday before the break), the hallways are packed after school with students and their music systems, relentlessly rehearsing their dance performances.  Students are fully engrossed in preparing and performing their routines, working collaboratively, sharing thoughts and ideas and putting countless hours and energy into the process.  The PE staff recognizes the popularity of the performances, and sends an email to school staff welcoming them to bring their classes to observe the show on the last day.  Invariably, the gym is packed with students keen to watch and support their peers, sometimes hosting as many as 600+ observers.  The more reluctant students are given the option of performing the day prior in front of only their teacher, but most choose to perform in front of the live school-wide audience.

This is student creativity at its finest, and is breeding some risk-taking, adventurous and highly engaged learning.  When we see the energy poured into rehearsal, the smiles on the performers faces and the pride they feel about what they have produced, we know that what students are doing is worthwhile, has them involved and is something they will look back on fondly for years to come.  Coupled with the way the audience behaves, we can see the learning taking place is about so much more than dance.

Assignments such as these did not exist when I was in school.  If they had, I probably would have opted to sit out, and it is likely that I would have been someone in the back of the gym ridiculing other students due to my own insecurities and inability to put myself out there and take risks.  In fact, the audience behavior is one of the things that impresses me most about the performances.  Students are all supportive and respectful of one another, encouraging and politely applauding all efforts.  I am confident that this would not have been the case a generation ago.  The focus our school has had on Socially Responsible behavior, as well as the popularity of television programs like "Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol" have made risk-taking and creativity more acceptable and certainly more encouraged.

We are moving in the right direction.  Let's keep promoting risk-taking and creativity in our students learning.  It gets them excited, and enables them to produce some of their best work.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Student Council Elections

This past Friday, Burnett Secondary school had its Student Council speeches and elections for next year.  All students made their way to the cafeteria (different grades in different periods) to listen to the students who are running for positions on the Student Council Executive.  The speeches (24 of them for 6 different positions) are delivered to every student, whether they are interested in what the candidates have to say or not, and then all students are given a ballot to complete.  Candidates struggle with students not paying attention, sometimes the speeches sound eerily similar, and there is no opportunity to ask questions or engage in debates or discussions.

While I am pleased we have such an interest in student government, sadly, it seems more like a popularity contest, and in the end can result in people not feeling very good about themselves, their competitors or the process.  Most distressing is that it seems to brew "bad blood" in that with three excellent candidates running for Student Council President, only one can win.  All three candidates have indicated that if not successful in the competition, they may not serve on Student Council in any capacity, even though we try to encourage any unsuccessful candidates or others with interest to join the "Breaker crew" who assist the Executive with any activities the Student Council plans.

I question this process, wondering why we make ALL students come to listen to the speeches and make each individual vote.  In no other political venue is this the case.   Civic, Provincial and Federal elections all have opportunities for interested voters to listen to and ask questions of candidates, and voter turn out is not mandatory, in fact in many cases it is well below 40%.  While I can appreciate the value of giving students a chance for public speaking, the process at our school seems not to have changed much from the days depicted in the movie "Election" starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. 

In saying this, I am not being critical of  Student Council Sponsor, I am just looking for different ideas to share with the students regarding campaigning and voting.  Ideas that lead to all students feeling good about the process, learning about democracy and government, and resulting in good candidates being able to work together, regardless of the outcome.

I have looked on-line for processes used in schools around North America, and found some very descriptive rules and procedures, but nothing that seems to address how campaigning is done, when speeches are delivered and to whom, and what people have found voter turn-out to be. While I am sure there are great suggestions and practices out there, I have been unable to locate them.

Suggestions our Administrative team made to the Council members running the election included moving the speeches to lunchtime in the theatre (perhaps spread out over many days to focus on different grades) so that only interested spectators would attend, and opportunities for question and answer or debate could be provided.  The voting could  also be held at lunchtime over a few days, with students having to sign for their ballot.  Students were, of course, concerned that these suggestions would result in poor turn-out for both the speeches and at the polls, but our argument was that leaders, as they have to in political elections, must figure out ways to enhance voter interest.  These are skills they need to develop to become effective leaders.  The students heard us but some seemed hesitant, wanting things to continue as they have in the past.  We feel that some changes should be made in order to move the excercise away from a popularity contest and become more engaging for audience members and candidates.  We do not, however, wish to take away opportunities from students if they still feel they are worthwhile and important.

If you have any ideas or suggestions, we are very curious to hear what you have to say. How do you balance the sense of democracy, voting and the opportunities for student leaders to speak publicly with barriers like language issues, disinterest from audience members and the potential for poor voter turn out. We would welcome any feedback you may have.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Ash Girl

The Burnett Drama department, under the direction of Mr. Marco Soriano, is performing their Spring production, The Ash Girl, from March 8-11.  I had the chance to watch the show last night, and although I am no Roger Ebert, my review is that the show was a smashing success.
To quote director Marco Soriano,
"The story is a poignant retelling of the classic 'Cinderella', where a girl, abandoned by her father, abused by her step-family, Ash Girl has buried her memory, her identity and is being seduced by the forces of the 'monster' Sadness and the Seven Deadly Sins...the dark voices inside our heads.  Whether we choose to listen to them, to fall under their spell, is ultimately our choice.  Everyone we encounter in life is a mirror; they show us a side of ourselves, either good or bad.  Only when she is able to see her own beauty in the mirror, when her passions are awakened by seeing herself reflected in the eyes of love, can Ash Girl be fully recognized."
  A familiar sounding fight that so many teenagers wrestle with....

Productions such as these are not single person efforts, and Mr. Soriano knows this.  His program thanked the countless people who aided in preparing the set, the program, and everything else that went into the performance. 
"I am humbled by the outpouring of support from both staff and students for this production.  It is said that 'it takes a village to raise a child'; well this child, Ash Girl,has had the fortune to be raised by the most supportive of villages: Burnett school."
These events truly exemplify a community coming together.  Special thanks go out to Mr. Bevan and the Technology department, Mrs. Carvalheiro-Nunes, Mrs. Moss and Ms. Taylor and the Art department, Ms. Cain and the Leadership class, Ms. Freeman and the Music classes, Ms. Johal for donations, Ms. McGuire for her help with program printing and Mrs. Jackson and the Textiles department for all their assistance with costume design.  Also worth thanking are the special guests Mr. Soriano brought in to assist with so many of the technical issues.  I have likely missed a few who contributed, but know that your efforts are appreciated. 
What always amazes me about the productions put on around a school is just how inspiring, talented and engaged our students are when given opportunities such as these. A crew of 21 actors, over 15 behind the scenes students plus countless others involved in set, costume and advertising efforts, plus the many staff involved in coordinating the production came together.  Students become so enthused about what they are doing, and so proud of what they produce that they do things that many people would doubt they are capable of.  The Ash Girl is a play of mature subject matter, somewhat dark by high school standards, and dealing with issues of self identity that must be handled delicately.  The students rise to the occasion, performing difficult roles with humor and inspiration, addressing difficult issues deftly.
Thanks again to all those who aided in the production, and special thanks to Mr. Soriano for his tireless efforts involved in pulling together a show of this magnitude.  Also, kudos to the students who amazed and inspired us with their performances and behind the scenes efforts.  Looking at the set, the costumes, the transitions, music, lighting and makeup, it truly was a production performed at a professional level.  Well done!  The show has 2 more performances, Thursday and Friday at 7 PM.  Don't miss your chance to watch something special.  I would be curious to hear your reviews.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Feeder School Basketball Tournament

The last few weeks before Spring Break are always very busy at schools.  Interim reports, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Program Planning for next year's timetable, Professional Development conversations, the school Drama Production (which I am going to watch tonight), and so many other things going on make it an exciting but exhausting time of year. 

One of the most exciting things of March is always the Feeder School Basketball Tournament.  Last night our gym was alive with the excitement of 3 boys and 4 girls basketball teams from neighboring elementary schools playing games that for them are the highlight of the season.  We do many things to help welcome new students to our school, and this is one of the most memorable.  The elementary students are excited about playing on the big floor, in front of lots of people, and getting to see what life is like in the school they are soon to enter. 

Another fantastic element of the Feeder school tournament is that the entire event is run by students.  Ms. Catherine Bateman's PE 10 Incentive class has been planning the event, inviting the teams, scheduling referees and scorekeepers, setting up a concession stand and putting together packages for the visiting coaches.  Highlights of the event, aside from the games, include a welcoming ceremony, a Hot Shots shooting competition and a poster contest.  The tournament was exceptionally well run, and the students involved in it learn much about event organization, how to work with others and they all get very excited about seeing their former elementary school teachers.  Their happiness about seeing former teachers is a great reminder of how important the relationships we develop with our students.

A special thanks goes out to all the students who organized the tournament, Ms. Bateman for her leadership,  the parents and students who came to support the event, and of course the athletes who put on quite a show.  We look forward to working with all of you next year, when you officially become Breakers!
Also, special thanks to school photog, Ms. Moreen Takada for the great action shots!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Good Things are Happening: Teaching & Learning (Part 1)

I work at a fantastic school, full of motivated, intelligent and creative students, with an equally progressive, dedicated, and engaging staff.  I know that there exists a call for reform in education, and I agree with much of the conversation about how schools need to change to better serve our students.  I have watched several times the video of Sir Ken Robinson, discussing how students are being educated OUT of their creativity.

System-wide, I agree with his comments, especially when reflecting on my own schooling, but I am happy to report there has been growth in this area, especially at Burnett Secondary School.  I have been fortunate enough to be invited to observe a couple of lessons in recent weeks that reinforce much of what is good in education, and intend to blog about what I have witnessed in a multi-part series about the good things that I see happening in an attempt to share the news with other staff members at our school.  What follows is part one.

In late January, I was invited to a Communications 11/12 class where the students were presenting the projects they had spent the previous month working on.  They had been assigned a multi-media presentation project where the students, in groups, would share information they had learned about a social issue of their choice.  The presentations were spectacular, and the students were extremely proud of their work.  After I had observed the class, I asked to speak with the teacher.  Mrs. Bronwyn Fackler agreed to sit down and share some thoughts on the exercise, its trials and tribulations, and what she felt the students got out of the assignment.  Here is what she told me:

The idea for this assignment came from our district literacy leader whom I was working with marking Grade 8 Performance Based Assessments as part of the district's Intermediate Reading Initiative.  I was speaking with her about some suggestions for a Communications 11/12 class I was teaching, and she suggested that I observe a class on Digital Storytelling at another local Richmond high school.

I approached our Principal about the idea, and she quickly supported it, finding the money for some release time to enable me to go.  I observed an English 10 class presenting what they called "Twisted Fairytales", and got several ideas for my Communications class.  I decided that I could move the focus from fairytales to Social Issues, since my students were a little older, and may relate better to a topic of their own choosing.

As I planned out the unit, I referred to a series of lesson plans I had seen via a Professional Development day in 2009 called "Let's Get Digital".  I had the students get into groups, and then asked them to brainstorm some ideas about what was important to them, who they felt their audience should be and what was the purpose of the message they were hoping to send. 

I asked them to put together a proposal based on some basic questions, and led some discussion about what aspects of a media project are important for grabbing audience attention.  Students commented  about how music, visuals and text influence people's emotions and can greatly add to the impact of such a presentation.  I provided some very quick feedback to their initial plan, then booked the computer lab for the next 4 weeks so the students could start putting together their presentations.  We spent a great deal of time researching information on the internet, accessing clips, music, literature and messages, and inserting photos and text.  Students checked in with me periodically and I provided instant feedback about where they were, what they may want to tidy up, and tried to provide them some editing tips.

For those 4 weeks, the students were completely engaged and learning in such a way that classroom management was never an issue.  They used all the classtime they had to work on the assignments, and sought out opinions from the teacher and each other for how to make improvements.  The learning about the social issue of their choice was apparent, since they had picked the topic, and they seemed to care passionately about the message they were trying to convey.  What they were learning about the technology and how to work together was significant, as I helped them navigate some difficult social situations, and together we stumbled through some obstacles with the technology.  In fact, much to my surprise, every student in the class agreed that Windows Movie Maker was preferable for them to work on than iMovie.

As we neared the end of the assignment, I also asked the students to perform some metacognition and be prepared to answer questions where they had to reflect on the assignment.  I wanted students to comment on what they had learned, what they struggled with and what the obstacles were, and what made them most proud.  

When it came to presentation day, I invited a number of staff, including our librarian, the administration, the counsellors, and the literacy leader who suggested the project, to observe the final products.  At the conclusion of each presentation, the groups included a visual summarizing their responses to the reflection questions, and they were asked to elaborate on the learning process.  This was likely the most rewarding and enlightening part of the assignment.  The students indicated that they thoroughly enjoyed the process, and all felt that they learned a great deal.  The students were very proud of how hard they had worked, what obstacles they had overcome, and what they had produced.  The sense of accomplishment is something that will stick with these students for a long time, along with some of the skills they learned about the technology, problem solving, working togther, and of course the social issue they profiled.

Topics covered included Teenage Pregnancy, Cruelty to Animals, Global Warming, the War on Drugs and Drinking and Driving.  Below is one example:

The content, while edgy, is relevant to the students, and, as echoed by their teacher, the learning that took place (on the topic, about the technology and how to work together), is extremely valuable, and will resonate with students for a long time.

The teaching that went into this unit was progressive, risk-taking and had the results all teachers want; engaged students who reflectively looked at their work, pushed themselves to do better and created assignments that they were proud of and learned tremendously from.  Congratulations to the students on what they produced and to the teacher who created the environment.  As stated in the title, good things are happening.  Now we need to share them with each other.  Vehicles like blogging and enabling teachers to observe one another in action allow these great ideas to spread.

On a side note, classes such as the one described here are not the exception.  Burnett staff are looking to create engaging learning opportunities throughout the school.  These are learning experiences that resonate with students, hold their interest and thus their engagement, and promote creative thought, problem-solving and collaboration.  Kudos to Mrs. Fackler and the students in her class.  I know there are more classes like the ones I have seen recently, and welcome the opportunity to be part of them.  If you have one planned in the near future, I would love the opportunity to observe.  I am encouraged to see that they are much more common than some critics of education may claim.