education, Teacher, Uncategorized

Report cards – Who are we writing them for?

In response to a request for feedback put forth by Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education, I wrote the following letter which I forwarded today.

writing117Dear Minister Jennex,

In a recent letter to The Chronicle Herald, you invited families, students and educators to offer feedback on the report card system.

In my experience, teachers are often extremely reluctant to speak publicly on matters of education for fear of being seen as insubordinate or disrespectful. They often worry that speaking out will affect their current teaching position or their future job prospects. This fear silences teachers and keeps valuable information from being shared.

As an active teacher currently working in the Nova Scotia school system, I am taking you at your word that my feedback will be accepted in the manner in which it was requested. I expect that you will consider my comments to be neither disrespectful nor insubordinate. My only intent is to pass along my experience with the current report card system with the hopes that this ‘insider information’ will help to improve the current system.

My concern is that there appears to be a disconnect between what is being said and what is being done.

In your letter, you stated:

Comments on report cards should provide clear, straightforward information to parents about how their child is achieving and progressing in relation to program expectations and learning outcomes.

The HRSB policy on assessment states that report cards must be written: “using language that is based on learning outcomes and is easily understood by parents/guardians.” 

What we have here is an oxymoron.

To ensure report cards are easily understood by all parents/guardians, we need to use clear and straight-forward language. But, when we must deal exclusively with learning outcomes, we are forced to use eduspeak.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do both at the same time and have anyone, other than other trained educators, understand what you ‘really’ mean.

In your letter you also stated:

It is important for families to know that teachers are expected to produce individual report cards for students. The idea that they must use only “canned” comments is not true. Teachers are encouraged to include personalized comments.

While I don’t presume to speak for all teachers, the ones I know, myself included, have not been encouraged to include personalized comments. In fact, most personalized comments have been discouraged and crossed out by administrators only to be replaced by general outcomes-based language.   

As a former teacher, I know you are aware that teachers spend hundreds of hours writing report cards every year. And while it is true that we are not given “canned comments”, it is true that we have been specifically told by our administrators what we may and may not include in these comments.  Over the years, this list of what is permissible to say has been whittled down to such a narrow point that often all that is left is what you might call a ‘canned’ comment.

All Nova Scotia schools (as far as I am aware) require teachers to submit their report cards to be proofread and edited by an administrator before they are sent home. This helps to pick up on most of the inevitable typos that occur when you type 100+ pages of reports, but it also ensures that all comments are outcomes-based and do not include any information that strays from this focus.

HRSB policy states that teachers are required to develop accurate report cards by always relating grading and reporting to the learning outcomes and excluding characteristics that are not linked to learning outcomes (such as effort, behaviour and attendance). 

As well, individual student achievement will be measured against defined curriculum outcomes rather than compared to other students or measures of individual academic growth (and is) not be based on measures such as students’ social development and work habits, bonus points, student absence, missed/late assignments, group scores, neatness.

How is a teacher supposed to personalize a comment for a student when all personal information has to be excluded?  Once again, we have ourselves a paradox.

There are many different ways for teachers to communicate with parents outside of report cards. As we used to say at my school, “No parent should ever be surprised by what they read on a report card.” Yes, we send home completed tests and projects and samples of work, we write newsletters, we make appointments to meet with parents and we call them when specific issues arise. We also have board scheduled parent-teacher interview times. Unfortunately, in the HRSB at least, parent-teacher interviews are no longer scheduled to follow the issuance of report cards. Any parent who is confused by their child’s report card must make a separate appointment to meet with or speak to their child’s teacher. For a variety of reasons, not all parents are able or willing to do this. Many of them rely on their child’s report card to be self-explanatory, as they should be.

In the end, it’s simple.

Parents want to know how their child is doing in school. They want to know what their child is good at and what they struggle with both academically and socially. They want to ensure that their child is a happy, independent learner. They want what’s best for their child. And students, even the little ones, want to know when they’ve done well and how they can do better.

We need to improve our current report card system so that parents and students understand what we are saying. Otherwise, what is the point of having report cards at all?

writing118

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education, Raves, Teacher

A heartfelt thank you (Sorry, no coffee card included)

writing107As the school year rolls to a close, some parents feel the need to go out and purchase a gift for their child’s classroom teacher.

Been there done that. When my kids were little, I bought their teachers gift cards and bottles of wine and mugs that said “You’re A+”. Once my kids hit middle school, though, they put a stop to all that. (If you make me give a card to my teacher, I will never speak to you again.)

As a teacher, I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the concept of year-end gift giving.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the heartfelt notes and the coffee gift cards, but I always feel slightly uneasy accepting them.

I want to say, “You know I didn’t do this all by myself, right?”

Like Hillary Clinton, I know that it takes a village to raise a child and school communities are just little villages. Everyone has a job to do to ensure that the village is successful.

So, here’s my thank you note to all of those people who work together to keep the village running smoothly.

  1. The Teacher’s Aide (otherwise known as the TA or EPA or EA) – These valuable employees are among the lowest paid in the system and yet they are often the key to making our schools function successfully. In the course of a day (or an hour), they may be called upon to act as a nursemaid, teacher, parent or paramedic. Integration is a wonderful thing IF it is done properly and IF students with special needs get the support they need within the classroom.  EPA’s work with the most vulnerable members of society every day for little recognition. It is often back-breaking physical work, not to mention emotionally all-consuming.  Their dedication is admirable.  To all the EPA’s I have worked with over the years? From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
  2. The Custodian – Mopping the main hallway in a school might just be the most futile job in the word. The minute you mop it up, someone messes it up…again. You know that feeling when you’ve just cleaned your house and you look around and think “ahhh” and then everyone comes home and throws their stuff down on the clean counter and the dog tracks mud all over the clean floor? Imagine that times a hundred. A hard-working, diligent custodial staff makes a difference in the way children and adults feel about their school. It’s a dirty job and I’m glad they do it.
  3. The “Other” Teachers – These are the people who teach French, music, art, phys.ed, home economics, shop and all those other subjects that people often dismiss as “not that important”.  I taught home ec one year and I couldn’t tell you how many kids said to me, “My parents don’t care what I make in this class. It’s only home ec.” I learn the most interesting things about my students when I talk to these teachers. A boy who constantly causes trouble in the regular classroom, may be good as gold in gym class because it’s a place where he can move. A shy girl who may not say a word in math class, may love to sing and be totally confident in music. These teachers help me see a different side of my students and they give all of the students a chance to develop gifts they may not have known they had.
  4. The Resource and Learning Centre Teachers – These teachers offer pull-out and in-class support for students with special needs. They help with designing and implementing a program that meets the needs of individual students who would otherwise flounder in a regular classroom. If your child is struggling, you need more than the classroom teacher to make a plan for your child. Through their daily support they may also help the classroom teacher from completely losing her mind. (Not speaking from experience or anything…)
  5. The Specialists – Having the services of well-trained outside professionals makes a huge difference in a school. They often get to work with kids one on one and can give a perspective on a child that the teacher may not see in the classroom. I have worked with the best school psychologists and speech pathologists and I can tell you, they can change lives.
  6. The Parents – Supportive parents are the key to confident, hard-working children in the classroom. A big bouquet of thanks to parents who work WITH their child’s teacher to make every school year the best it can be.
  7. The Cafeteria Staff – These folks feed hundreds of kids everyday. I am in awe. I can barely get dinner on the table 6 days a week. (Day 7 is pizza day. Don’t judge me.)
  8. The Administration – The principal and vice-principal(s) can make or break a school. I’ve seen strong schools crippled by poor administrators and weak schools made strong by great administrators. Administrators set the tone for the village. If they set one of respect for all and put in place policies that back up what they say, everyone wins.
  9. The Government and the School Board – We all love to bash the government and the school boards for what they “aren’t” doing but we rarely acknowledge the good that is done every day. A friend of mine works for the department of education and she works her butt off. She cares about children and teachers and does what she can for the students in her area. Is everything perfect in the world of educational government and school boards? Of course not. But people need to stop being armchair coaches and get in the game. No one ever changed the world by complaining about it.
  10. The Students – Well, we couldn’t do it without you, could we? Teachers are not in the manufacturing business. We don’t go to school everyday to make widgets for what-nots. We teach people. So thank YOU for being amazing, funny, talented, awe-inspiring individuals who make us want to come to work everyday.

THANK YOU on speech bubble price labels

p.s. Seriously, put your wallets away. If you want to do something,  just tell your child’s teacher one thing they did that year that benefitted your child. It will be appreciated more than you know.

education, Memoir, Princess, Rants, Raves, Teacher

Bearing (or baring) it all in the Huffington Post

writing105Well, there goes my secret identity.

Yup. Suburban Princess Teacher, Clark Kent, Jason Collins – we’re all out of the closet now.

A few days ago I sent a story into the Huffington Post about the mini-mental-breakdown I had following a very trying school year. I wasn’t expecting to hear back…this was the Huffington Post, afterall.

But I got an e-mail back within the hour.

“We want to publish your story but you need to use your real name.”

To paraphrase the foul mouth kitties above: Damn! Now things just got real.

I checked in with a good friend who is both an amazing writer and a trusted mentor. She said it was time. Time to stop hiding and step out of the shadows.  Let the writing speak for itself.

So, I put on my big girl panties and took a big cleansing breathe and…pushed send.

Let me know what you think. I’m pretty sure I can handle it.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heather-hollis/the-moment-i-knew_27_b_3427778.html

writing106

education, Teacher

Ten Important Lessons I Teach That Aren’t Part of the Core Curriculum

writing100Some folks are predicting that live teachers in classrooms will soon be replaced by disembodied voices over the internet.

I hope that doesn’t happen.

Not because I’m anti-technology or because I want to preserve my job for all eternity, but because so many important things that are taught in schools every day aren’t officially on the curriculum.

I think there are plenty of aspects of grammar or math or science that can be taught on-line. And good teachers can and do access this technology and use it to benefit all students.

But what about the other things? Call them life lessons, if you want. We don’t plan on teaching them but when you deal with children, and people in general, these things come up. And I, for one, am glad they do.

Here are a few of my favorite life lessons

  1. Everyone has strengths and challenges…even teachers. Every year I tell my students the things that I am terrible at. I tell them that my drawing skills are abysmal and that I have absolutely no sense of direction and that I am woefully uncoordinated. Then I tell them that I am good at teaching writing and math and that I will do everything I can to help them have a great year. I tell them that each of them is going to be good at some things and that other things may be more challenging for them. And then I tell them that’s OK. All that matters is that we all try our best.
  2. Equal does not always mean the same. It’s important for kids to know that everyone learns differently and that sometimes other kids will get something they won’t because they need it. That doesn’t make it “not fair”. It just evens out the playing field.
  3. The world is a big place. One year I had two South Korean exchange students. Our social studies curriculum outcome that year was not to learn about South Korea but boy did we. Even showing kids where we are on a map of the big, wide world opens a flood of questions and wonder.
  4. Sometimes we have to work with people we don’t particularly like.  Some people will be bossy and some people will slack off. Some people will fool around and others will work like dogs. It will happen at school and at home and maybe even on your hockey team. It’s a fact of life. Learning how to deal with all different kinds of people is part of leading a successful life.
  5. Tests are no more than a measure of what you are able to express at this particular time in this particular place. They do not measure your worth as a person. A few years ago, I started reading report cards (privately) with my students before they were sent home. Knowing I would have to look into a child’s eyes as they saw their marks and my comments made me more accountable and conscious of what I was writing. When I sit with the student, I explain why I said what I did and why they got the mark that they got. I answer their questions and sometimes dry their tears. And I tell them that this piece of paper in no way measures them as a person. No test can do that.
  6. Respect and manners matter. Like all of us, kids often speak without thinking and sometimes that causes hurt feelings. In a classroom situation, they learn how important it is to be respectful of each other. Helping kids make the classroom a “safe” place to learn and take chances is one of the most important things a teacher can do.
  7. If you can laugh about something, everything is better. Once I sent a student out in the hall for disrupting the class. I told him I would be out in a minute to speak to him…and then…I promptly forgot about him. About 20 minutes (!) later, I went out in the hall to get something and was startled to see him sitting there against the wall. He knew instantly that I hadn’t been coming out to talk to him. “You forgot about me!” he said, incredulously. “No, I didn’t,” I stammered. “I just…I…” He started laughing and pointing at me, “Ohmygod! You forgot me!” I couldn’t fake it anymore. I started to laugh. “I’m sorry! It was just so quiet in there and I…” By this point we were both laughing hysterically – me and a 10-year-old boy who had almost driven me to distraction 20 minutes earlier. I apologized for forgetting him and he apologized for being a pain in the…neck…and the rest of the day was lovely.
  8. When you help out and contribute to making your class YOUR class, you are a part of something bigger than yourself. I generally like to leave some time at the end of every day for clean-up and organizing. Yes, I could do it myself at the end of the day. No, this doesn’t mean I’m a lazy teacher who is trying to race out the door as soon as the bell rings. Children who help keep their classroom neat, tidy, and organized are less likely to throw garbage on the floor or draw on their desks. Children who put their artwork on the walls and their writing on the bulletin boards are more likely to see their classroom as THEIRS. It’s not MY room, it’s OUR room. Hopefully these same kids will transfer this lesson to their home and their community.
  9. Today may have been a difficult day, but (hopefully) tomorrow will be better.* Some days will just not be fun and kids will end up learning a lesson that is not warm and fuzzy. Sometimes other kids will lie to them or be mean to them. Sometimes they will get in trouble for something that wasn’t their fault just because they were hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong time. Sometimes the teacher will get mad at the whole class for “no reason” just because she is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.** And that sucks. But hopefully everyone will learn that these things happen and that it doesn’t make someone good or bad but, rather, human. And that tomorrow will be better.
  10. Grade 4 (or 8 or 12) is a journey, not a destination. To paraphrase the great Steven Tyler, “Life’s a journey, not a destination” and school is a part of life. If every lesson plan is based on preparing for the next test or the next project or the next report card, then we are missing out on an amazing journey. Enjoy the moments. They are what matter.

Now YOU tell ME: If you are a teacher, what are the most important lessons YOU have taught that weren’t part of the curriculum? If you are/were a student, what important lesson did you learn from school that wasn’t part of the regular lesson plan?

“Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” – Lily’s teacher, Mr. Slinger, helps Lily deal with disappointment in the amazing, hilarious Kevin Henke’s book, Lilly’s Plastic Purple Purse. I doubt Mr. Slinger checked that particular goal off any core curriculum outcome.
*“Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” – Lily’s teacher, Mr. Slinger, helps Lily deal with disappointment in the amazing, hilarious Kevin Henke’s book, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. I doubt Mr. Slinger checked that particular goal off any core curriculum outcome.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day - Judith Viorst.
**Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day – Judith Viorst.
Rants, Suburban, Teacher

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be assholes.

Like the rest of the world, the folks in my small Canadian community watched the court proceedings of the two boys charged with raping a classmate in Steubenville, Ohio with shocked dismay and horror. It was easy to look at those boys in Steubenville and say, “Oh, they’re different from us. They were small town football heroes, protected by their community.”

March 13, 2013, Facebook post by Rehtaeh Parsons. Less than month before she committed suicide.
March 13, 2013, Facebook post by Rehtaeh Parsons. Less than month before she committed suicide.

“That is so awful,” we said.

“Those kids are being raised with absolutely no morals or values,” many said smugly.

“I am so glad I am not raising kids in the states,” some said. “Thank God those things don’t happen here.”

Then today’s paper arrived and smacked that smug look right off our faces.

The headline screamed, “Who failed Rehtaeh Parsons?”

Rehtaeh Parsons was a 17-year-old girl from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

On Sunday night, Rehtaeh died after trying to commit suicide earlier that week.

A year and half ago, she had been raped by four boys. The rape was photographed and shared on the internet. Rehtaeh was shunned by her classmates and eventually changed schools.

Even after Rehtaeh switched schools the bullying continued. She received texts from boys asking her if she wanted to have sex and texts from girls calling her a slut.

Rehtaeh told her parents what happened a few days after the rape occurred. They immediately went to the police. Rehtaeh’s mother said the investigation took over a year and the boys themselves weren’t interviewed until long after the rape occurred. After a year of investigating, the RCMP said there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.

Could someone please tell me what the hell is going on???

What possesses a teenage boy to rape his classmate while his friends look on and join in like it’s some sort of bizarre drinking game?

What possesses a child (and I say “child” because these kids were children) to take a picture of this crime and post it on the internet for the world to see?

What possesses a teenage girl to send hateful text messages to someone who has already been victimized many times over instead of helping her?

Where was the empathy? Where was the sympathy? Where was the compassion?

Where were the adults???

It sounds like Rehtaeh’s parents were doing everything they could to help their daughter. What about the parents of the other children?

Don’t tell me people didn’t know. Cole Harbour is a small community. Everyone knew.

What did the parents of these boys do when they were told what their children had ‘allegedly’ done? There was photographic evidence for godsake! Did these boys go to counseling? What did their parents say or do to let their children know that what they did was wrong?

Did Mom and Dad stick their heads in the sand and say, “Not my boy. I know, I know. You have a picture of him doing this awful thing but it must have been her fault. My boy wouldn’t do that.”

And what about the parents of the kids who tormented Rehtaeh on Facebook and through text messages? Did they take away their children’s computers? Their phones? Were these children counseled on how their actions made another human being feel?

The scariest thing about all of this is that these kids who raped, bullied, and tortured Rehtaeh didn’t think of her as a human being. They dehumanized her, so that they could treat her the way they did. This is how bullying happens. It’s how genocide starts. It’s how the Holocaust occurred. If you don’t think someone is a person, worthy of your respect, then you don’t care what happens to them.

In her book “Just because it’s not wrong, doesn’t make it right” parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso talks about how we need to be raising compassionate, caring, empathetic children.

I know there are no quick fixes or easy answers. Nor is it possible to pour into our children all we have learned. Their learning must come from the inside out. They need opportunities to care and to share and to do. They need to be accountable for what they do or fail to do. They also need opportunities to reflect on moral issues, work through ethical dilemmas, and determine for themselves what kind of people they would like to become.

For godsake people. A child is dead. How many more children have to die before we start doing our jobs?

http://www.kidsareworthit.com/uploads/ethics_handout.pdf

Raves, Teacher

Yoga + Writing = Happy Students who Will Write and Write and Write…

Author: Sheree Fitch
Author: Sheree Fitch

I recently published a review of the book Breathe, Stretch, Write in the winter edition of AVISO, a magazine for Nova Scotia teachers. I was paid the princely sum of $75 for my efforts. (Yes, this why writers are such wealthy, wealthy people.)

But it wasn’t the promise of great riches that drew me to write this article.

This book has made my writing classes more enjoyable (for both me and my students), more interactive, and best of all, more productive.

Like most Canadian parents, I knew Sheree Fitch for her lyrical children’s books. Our family copy of Toes in My Noes is 18-years-old, ripped, stained and completely well-loved. You know those songs that get stuck in your head? Earworms? Sheree’s poems are like that. To this day, I can start with, “I stuck my toes in my nose and I couldn’t get them out” and someone in the house will follow with, “It looked a little strange and people began to shout!

As a teacher, I still read her poetry to my students, of all ages, because it’s fun and well written and the kids like it.

But this book? Wow. It’s an incredible teaching resource. She has made the lessons so easy to follow that you could put a sticky note on any one of the pages and leave it on your desk for a substitute teacher…without any explanation. It’s that straight-forward.

If you teach writing to children, do yourself a favour and get this book. You won’t regret it.

Here is a link the AVISO article, Breathe, Stretch, Write: Using Sheree Fitch’s Writing Resource in the Classroom.” The article opens in Adobe and starts on p.22.

To purchase this wonderful resource, link here to Pembroke Publishers.