Ashcroft Secondary School’s 2011-2012 Action Plan for Learning inquiry question is, “Will increased school wide multi-aged activities improve student engagement?” Their action plan was to provide an “X block” once per week to students. For years the X block structure has been used in secondary schools in a variety of ways; at Ashcroft Secondary School X block is one block per week where all students have an opportunity to engage in a learning focus of their choice. These learning opportunities are designed to be engaging, hands-on and experiential. In the second semester students were able to choose between X blocks themes of: making a difference, robotics, cosmetology, drama, cooking, outdoor education and athletic performance. These themes were selected based on student input. For the term students work with their Grade 8 to 12 peers in the selected X block. The multi-grade learning experience has been positive for all students and has allowed older students to mentor younger students. Staff at the school have noted that students are excited and deeply engaged in their learning during X block.
In a rural district we face the challenge of how to provide students with all of the core courses they need for a complete Grade 8 to 12 educational experience. At times it is difficult to balance this need with the overwhelming necessity to ensure that students have what is too often referred to as elective courses. I believe that for the majority of our students courses such as drama, cooking, athletics, shop etc. are not electives – they are essential. They are the programs and courses that get students to school each morning and keep them there throughout the day. They are the courses that allow students to explore their interests and potential passions. They are the courses that connect to everyday real life.
I am appreciative of the efforts of the staff at Ashcroft Secondary School to find a balance to this unique challenge of this rural district.
Gold Trail is a rural district serving the 7 geographically disperse communities of Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Clinton, Lillooet, Lytton, Gold Bridge and Shalath. Each of these communities has been impacted by a downturn in the resource based economy over the last ten years. As a result, families have had to leave their community in search of work and enrolment has declined. This year the enrolment for the district is 1286 students. As you can imagine class sizes have also decreased. While we often celebrate the opportunities of small class sizes and the flexibility it provides to personalize the learning for each student. A small class size can also mean a small community of learners by which to share, deepen, and celebrate your learning. It can also limit a student in their ability to find someone like themselves.
Hayley O’Connor, Grade 2 and 3 teacher at Lytton Elementary School is using a classroom blog as a way of expanding the walls of her classroom for her 16 students. They are now Quad Blogging with Year 3 at Aldermoor Farm Primary, Class 3T and Warminster Prep Year 3. Check out their blog at http://www.div2les.blogspot.ca/ .
As I visit schools this year, I have noticed that classrooms across the district are beginning to take on the feeling of a room in a home rather than the traditional classroom setting. Comfortable furniture is being brought in for students, lamps are being used to soften the lighting, plants are in corners, and pillows everywhere. What a dramatic difference this makes to the learning environment. It feels open, flexible and welcoming, qualities we want for a positive learning environment.
The legacy of the controlled industrial system is so pervasive in the classroom and it is wonderful to see the movement away from the tightly controlled environment of the past. I think desks, chairs and school furniture reflects our feelings about learners and learning. One can recollect when desks and chairs were fixed together ensuring no control whatsoever for the learner. A factory determined how far your chair would be from your desk with no flexibility in that space regardless of your needs. We then moved to desks with separate chairs, a significant improvement but still kept students and learning in silos, with each student having their separate space for their belongings and their learning. Over the years, teachers have tried to work with desks by putting them and therefore students together; however, a division between students remained.
Learning is a social experience where learning is deepened with collaboration, creative and critical thinking which depends on learners working and learning together. We are seeing teachers furnish their classrooms with large tables where a community of learners can work together. Furthermore, an array of chairs is in classrooms, allowing each individual learner to be comfortable in their learning environment and successful no matter what their unique needs. Ball chairs, cushions, and rocking chairs allow students, who struggle to manage their energy, enhance their learning experience and help them become far more successful.
As we continue to work towards a personalized system of education we need to look at our schools and classrooms and reflect on what they are telling students, parents and community about our collective and individual beliefs about learning and students.
In this month’s Adminfo there is an article by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser discussing the OECD’s Innovative Learning Environment project. As a district we are so proud that the Elementary Connected Classrooms has been selected for this project.
The Elementary Connected Classrooms project started four years ago. The project connects three intermediate classrooms in three different communities: Ashcroft, Lytton and Lillooet. It was a project that was seeking to connect students and teachers through engaging learning strategies supported by technology. The goal was to expand the community of learners and create a broader more diverse learning community. Each teacher is a member of this collaborative team which strives to embed critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, cross cultural understanding, communication, inquiry and the tools to be a socially responsible citizen in an online world into their teaching. Every day the classes connect via videoconferencing, during this time each teacher leads the learning in an area that is their passion and expertise. As a result, students in each classroom benefit from participating in the learning opportunities from each of the three teachers. The three classes remain connected throughout the day through moodle for online literature circles, current event discussions, numeracy problem solving challenges, and digital photography. In addition, the students are guided through a yearlong inquiry project of their creation. Three times a year the classes meet in each of the three communities to develop and nurture a face to face relationship that supports their online relationship.
The last four years of the project have been extremely positive. Students are meaningfully engaged in their learning, they have taken ownership in their learning, and they have developed a technological literacy and proficiency that is outstanding. District assessments have also shown a positive impact in students reading and writing. The other success of the project has been the excellent professional development each teacher has received by working in a collaborative professional learning community that is focussed on improving student learning opportunities.
In my last post I shared a number of videos made by students in a Digital Media course. These videos highlighted the powerful political voice of youth today. The videos have created significant conversation in the district with many of these discussions focused on the importance of allowing students to express their voice in a way that reflects their learning, understanding and beliefs. It is great that the work of these students has been such a catalyst for meaningful professional dialogue. However, the accolades for these students and their creations continue, as the videos made their way to Rick Mercer and he sent a personal response to the students.
How wonderful for these students to have their thoughts, ideas and creativity validated by someone beyond the classroom, school or local community. While this type of feedback is not possible with all of the work done by students on a daily basis, I cannot imagine the impact this message will have on these students. A Canadian icon, known for speaking his mind and being celebrated for it, took the time to recognize the work of these students, encouraged them to keep at it and not be distracted by detractors. What could learning and feedback look like if all Canadians took such an interest in encouraging students in their path of personal expression?
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a Kurzweil Camp at the District Training Center. These camps have been happening around the district and the feedback from students, staff and parents has been great. Kurzweil is a software program that supports students who struggle with decoding, but have good comprehension, to have the materials read to them. Too often students with such a learning challenge spend their time struggling to decode the text in an attempt to fit in with their peers, rather than reading material that “looks” different. Often this results in a student becoming a reluctant learner. Kurzweil allows students to access grade level curriculum and resources with their peers. Students that could benefit from this program were invited to attend the camp along with a Special Teaching Assistant or the Learner Support Teacher from their school. The premise of these camps is for both the student and the adult to learn together how to successfully and confidently use this program.
I knew most of the students that attended this camp, students who are often quiet and reluctant to share or participate in class. What I saw at the camp were students completely engaged, expressive and confident. One student, who often shuts down when presented with something new, was raising a hand to share answers or insights, handing out materials to new peers and most importantly smiling. When I asked the students what they thought of Kurzweil they replied, “It will make everything so much faster and easier”.
While faster and easier is not often thought of as a goal for learning, proficiency most certainly is. This tool allows students to engage with text at a proficient speed, which then allows them to interact with their peers in follow up discussions and activities. These students, despite a learning challenge, can now be equals within their learning communities. I think this is an excellent example of providing a personalized approach for each student’s own learning experience and paving the way for their success.
At January’s Education Committee meeting, I had the privilege to share a number of videos created by the students participating in Digital Media. The classroom teacher wanted to expand and deepen student learning about digital media so she organized for Reel Youth http://reelyouth.ca/ to support the students in their learning. Reel Youth came into the classroom and taught students about claymation, but more importantly they encouraged them to use their voice through this medium. The results are amazing.
For me these videos highlight two important aspects of learning today:
First, we live in a world where content is rapidly changing; as a result, it is difficult to expect teachers to know everything on the subject matter they are teaching. Rather, the importance is on teachers being content learners, which may include learning alongside their students.
Second, each student has a powerful voice; however, they need to be empowered by learning different strategies through which they can share that voice. I often hear people comment that today’s students lack an awareness of the world around them and the desire to engage in it. I think that these videos demonstrate that today’s students have a strong awareness of the world around them; how they express those thoughts and ideas looks different in the 21st century.