A Rich Seam and EQAO

Okay, so this will be a short one!  I am just starting to read, A Rich Seam, which was emailed to all principals in the Algoma District School Board today, and will form a good portion of the work we do in the next two PD days, and hopefully, in the next 8 years!

I have only read through a bit of it, but already, I am wondering about the connection between this document, and the EQAO announcement that I wrote about last.  The following line, taken from A Rich Seam, “Until we find new ways to define and measure success – ways that measure schools’ adoption of new pedagogies and students’ achievement of deep learning outcomes – crucial system factors will stand in opposition to innovation.” (sorry….I am unsure of how to properly cite in this new forum…..forgive me!) has got me stirring.  One of two things is possible, both of which I think are fantastic.

1.  EQAO is ahead of the curve on this, is in sync with this thinking, has been involved in the work as outlined in this first of essays on the 21st century school system and is being proactive.

2.  EQAO is not working in step with this report/thinking, but has come to similar conclusions in its own.

Either way, it is good.  Are we finally leaving behind schools and strategies and curriculum and processes that clearly disengage the majority of our kids?  Resisting the urge to use an expletive here, I sure hope so.  It is too late for my eldest, now in University, who survived despite the system put in front of her, but daughter number two, currently in grade 10 may be able to find a school system that engages her.  I hope.  We have come a long way in 30 years, but I still see kids as disengaged as I was, in 1984. One of the reasons I eventually sought teaching as a career, and even more so, administration, was because I wanted to provide kids with a learning experience that engaged them, taught them, opened their minds and made them global citizens.  One does not do that by writing science definitions on the board.

So, I have only read a bit of this essay I referenced and am already excited that it is only the first of some, and perhaps many to come.  I am tentatively excited again.  I have been talking a lot about technology in the last few years.  I have written a bit about it too, but I am afraid that my enthusiasm has not yet translated into much in the way of changes in teaching in my schools.  I am sorry, no wait, I am not even sorry, but a power point of slides, though a projector,  that illustrate the parts of a cell, or the timelines of ancient Greece is no more using technology than is making bunny shadows when the Power Point is done.  It is still the transmission of basic facts from a sage, to those horribly disengaged students, many of whom are hoping to remember about 7/10 of the parts of the cell, so they can go onto to something else just as mundane.  I know this is hyperbole, and that there are great things going on in all schools, including my own, but I think we have to be very, very critical of our system if we want to change it, and we have to change it.  It will change on its own if we don’t, so we have to take the opportunity to manage that change ourselves, instead of having it done to us.  But I digress, yet again….

So before this degrades into something already more rambling than it already is, I will conclude.  I love technology.  My latest love is an app for my iPhone called “Plane Finder”  It shows on a map, all the commercial planes flying in the world.  So when  a contrail goes over me, I look at it and find out info about the plane (I can even point my phone at it, and use the lens…really cool!) including direction, airline, type of plane, altitude, etc.  It all started one summer day (Oh God, there he goes again) when I was at my camp, and I could clearly see a large 4 engine commercial jet flying over us.  Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of commercial aircraft, it was either a 767 or an Airbus A380.  So, my neighbour’s grandson, a 15 year old digital native, hops on our Seadoo, goes across the lake to get a signal, and comes back with info on the Korean Air flight from Soeul to JKF!  In the meantime, I had photographed the plane, and zoomed in on the camera screen, and I could clearly see blue and red colouring (photo attached, unsure of resolution in this app, and hence you might not be able to zoom as I could) on the tail.  Branden returned with his phone and showed me the data!  I was hooked, yet again, to another piece of software.  I now also have two apps that detail plane ownership, based on tail letters, one for the US and one for Canada.

The point is, this technology for me is just fun and interesting.  I drove my family nuts for a few weeks, running out of the house to check out the planes way off on the horizon!  However, this is the world we are talking about.  In a stunning ode to the old days, I could tentatively show this to kids, have them spot a plane, then research a pile of data about it….based on interest:  some could look into the plane, others into the geography of the flight, others into where the plane is going and why, or where it came from and why, etc, etc, but I am afraid even that is not 21st century deep learning.  It is just a spark, and a weak one at that, but, I believe, that somehow, someway, there is so much more we can be doing, and while I know for sure I do not know exactly what to do and how to do it (that is what my PLN is for….:D) I know that I hold the tool in my hand.  It is as if I have a hammer in my hand for the first time, and Notre Dame’s construction awaits.

So, I will read the rest of A Rich Seam and see what my little mind can find to get excited about.  The scariest part is, while I do not know where it is going, I know that it has to go there, somehow.  I have 8 years or so left in this business (so many other experiences await me!) and I really think that the system I walk away from will be drastically changed, and I hope I have a small part in making that happen.  And, just in case that sounds just a wee bit narcissist, it is not intended to be.  I want to be part of the change that is going to make our system much better for my daughter who is hoping to be a part of it, and for my grandkids, if they ever come, for whom I worry, as the world becomes more and more complex and challenging, as it continues to shrink in scale.  The world’s problems, both physical and social are growing and in order for the next generation to find solutions, they need to know have had nothing but deep learning experiences from JK-12 and onwards.  And no, a power point is not going to cut it.

And, in case anyone happened to read the blog before, I am even more intrigued now with how the EQAO changes are going to look and the change they themselves may drive in our practice.  I still think that the EQAO changes are good for kids, but perhaps even more important for the system that professes to be “teaching” them!  I guess ultimately, that is a good deal of the problem isn’t it?  Our system “teaches”.  Our kids need to “learn”.

Korean Air Airbus 380 as photographed above Hornepayne, Ontario, early August 2014

Korean Air Airbus 380 as photographed above Hornepayne, Ontario, early August 2014

EQAO’s Move

So, I have never been a fan of large scale assessments.  I agree they offer information, as does anything and everything a student does.  However, I suspect it is because of the small environment I have always worked in, large scale assessments rarely tell us anything we did not already know or suspect.  They are far more valuable to me, to track trends over time in a larger scale, than in individual data.

I will tell a funny story though. Not sure my daughter reads my blog, but she will be mad at me.  My eldest daughter was an early reader.  When she arrived in school, she was more than ready.  She also, was very interested in math as a child too.  So, along came grade 3 testing, and when I received her information (my first year as principal), I was a bit surprised to see a lower level in reading, as compared to math and writing.  So, I asked her about it. Her response, perhaps not verbatim after all these years, but very close to it, was:  “I like to read, but I do not like answering stupid questions about what I read”.  Out of the mouths of 8 year olds.  She is now 19, in second year university, loving her chemistry major with courses in math and french…..other than some reading in French, no “stupid questions” to answer, but she still reads voraciously.  Go figure.

So, I got away from my intended path with that anecdote, but I love telling that story.  How many results in EQAO testing reflect student engagement, or lack thereof?  However, that goes for every assessment, doesn’t it?

So, EQAO, or for those of you reading who might not be from Ontario, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, has announced that starting this fall, they are moving towards all EQAO testing to be electronically done.  Again, for non-Ontario residents, we do large scale provincial testing in grades 3 and 6 (math, writing and the aforementioned reading), grade 9 mathematics, and grade 10 literacy.  The grade 10 literacy test is a graduation requirement.

My first thoughts upon reading the news release on Twitter, was “wow, they finally moving the pencil and paper test, to a format more conducive to the pedagogy we all practice!”  I was pleased.  Then I thought “wait, this is a government agency.  Could simply be a money saver…”.  So I took a closer look, and much to my great surprise and glee (well glee is a bit heavy of a word), but the first two points in the news release were, in regards to why the move is taking place:

  • bring the provincial assessments in line with the digital world we live in and the digital classroom that plays an increasing part in education;
  • make the assessments more engaging for students by allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a number of different ways;

There are also several other bullets that highlite other reasons, all of which are sound and to me, an improvement in the testing.  If you are interested, check out:  http://www.eqao.com/NR/ReleaseViewer.aspx?Lang=E&release=b14R008

So, I suppose I should wait for the proof before I become a convert to the new EQAO, but I have to say, that I am buoyed by the prospect.  It sounds to me that EQAO is moving testing into the 21st century digital world, and with a reference to “flexible scheduling”, perhaps even beginning a massive shift from the very structured environment within which we deliver education.  You know, that system that still operates on the agricultural calendar.

However, of all the elements that intrigue me the most, is the form of the test.  It hints, ever so seductively at a test that can offer students a wide array of ways to demonstrate their learning, their intelligence and their creativity, in ways that paper and pencil simply cannot do.  This is the exact reason our pedagogy is slowly lumbering towards this goal.  However, what this shift will do, is accelerate that process.  Everyone knows that schools “teach to the test” in the sense that our pedagogical strategies and expectations are aligned with EQAO, which represents the curriculum.  It is not the old days of “teaching to the test”,. but an acknowledgement that our strategies in the class must align with the expectations of the curriculum, as represented by EQAO.

So, excited I am, because I truly believe this seismic change will help to prepare students for the world they are living in, and the future world we know nothing about.  I also believe it will help to move our school system to one that recognizes that fact by using more and digital and interactive resources to develop our students’ minds and creativity.

Now, I am on the clock….not time for an edit, so please, forgive my numerous, I am sure, syntax and style errors….

Blogging about Blogging

So, today was the day I finally caught up with Donna Miller Fry, @fryed, to talk about a little project that she has ongoing at the ministry level.  The project involves (if I understood Donna correctly, in the late August frame of mind I was in) building capacity among principals and other school leaders around blogging and its use in education.  An obvious corollary, perfectly intended, is as school leaders, we must lead by example and if a Director blogs, more likely is it that the SO community will blog, which will encourage the principal’s and VP’s to blog, which should lead it all down to teachers using blogs in schools.

Of course, as it is with administrators in general, but especially those of us in the North, our conversation weaved through several other winding alleys, all related in some way to how our unique geography and social realities affect our jobs and how we do them, but….after agreeing to share some thoughts about my own blogging journey, as short as it has been, I realized, I had not blogged since the bogdown known as June happened, and it was time to get going again.

So, just a short blog, about blogging.  I asked myself, why do I blog?  What am I achieving?  Is it actually useful to me either professionally or personally?  Many more questions, but just a few to start.

Why do I blog?  To express myself to a wider audience, and to use a format that will help me to frame my thoughts around issues that usually complex.  I do not blog about how to put siding on my summer project, as well, there is only one way, which is straight….but if one were to be really bored, or an insomniac, and went through my postings, they would see most of my posts are a way to think out loud.  As well, people comment, and contribute.  It is like an essay, on any topic I want, with no painstaking references and feedback of the entirely non-judgmental type… so really, it is pretty cool.

Am I achieving anything?  Well I am contributing instead of consuming.  Even if the contributions are not earth shaking nor Pulitzer bound, they are contributing, in a small manner.  I also achieve a sense of satisfaction, for the ability to express thought and think out loud, again, without the usual judgment that has always been around in almost every other situation….

The last question, I may have already answered, in a nebulous way, but I think i did.  I enjoy blogging, and not just about education, about everything.  So if I enjoy it, it is useful to me both professionally and personally.  I have made contacts professionally, and felt enjoyment in letting some ideas flow, so yes, it is useful.  Like music though, the feeling and mood must strike me properly, or I can go for ages and blog not a thing!  Who knows whether the coming month will be a flurry of blogging of barren ground, but regardless, as it meanders in and out of my life, it does serve a purpose, and may even possibly connect with others and produce something new for myself, and for others…..

So, until next time, I shall leave you with a view that all of us Northerners will look at and “get” immediately!

To all my loyal readers (less than  5, I know), have a great school year and keep in touch!DSC_6091

Technology, and its use in schools

I am an avid user of technology, at work, and at play.  Actually, I use technology more at play than I do at work, but I do use it everywhere.  Of course, at work, I use a computer.  I make use of various applications at work, and in particular, the ability to have one calendar on my computer, phone and iPod is crucial for me in keeping organized. I am not an organized person by nature. I have had to learn how to become more organized.  Anyone of you reading this that has been in my office would surely gasp at my concept of organization, but trust me, this is better than it could be.  I am a JK-12 principal, and keeping things organized is essential…….it reduces unnecessary anxiety, and no one likes unnecessary anxiety.

However, at play……oh, at play, I love technology.  Just a few areas I like use technology:  photography, music and fitness.  Photography is impossible to do without technology, but I like it.  I like to store photos on my various cloud drives I have.  I like to photoshop a bit…not a lot, but a tweak here and a tweak there, a crop here, a crop there.  Music, my saving grace in life…..is one of my favourite releases.  I had MIDI music composing software years ago, it was Cakewalk.  I assume it still exits, but I no longer use it.  I loved it!  It was amazing.  It even made my poor timing fix itself!  Then I moved to a portable digital recorder, that could save my work to a CD….I actually posted a song to a free song hosting site on CBC.  It was short and shabby, but it was mine!  Well, it is mine, as it is still there.  Production values need work, as does almost every other part of the song, but damn it, I recorded a song and put it out there.  Lately, I have been looking at apps for my iPhone to attach my guitar, and presumably, my keyboard too, as well, but have yet to really look at them, but, man if, I do…watch out!  There could be more.  I have a million songs in my head, all floating around, with little structure or planning, but they are there.  My iPhone may help me bring them to light, and then you can all just cringe together!

It does not end there, though, as I use technology in different ways in music as well.  One more way I use technology is with my voice.  I am a late arrival at the vocal party.  I have been playing instruments for many years, but have only just recently, as in the last few years, tried to sing.  I am not very good, but I have learned a lot about myself.  This could also lead to a discussion about, yet again, engagement and ultimately the Growth Mindset as in Carole Dweck Mindset stuff, but I will save that for some other time.  I also use a harmony box when I sing.  Purists call it cheating, I call it making the audience wince less. All it does, for those of you who are unaware of it, is, allow me to simulate other singers harmonizing, but it is all my voice.  Now, having to listen to my 15 and 19 year old daughters’ music, and its proliferation of “autotune”, I think my crime is quite minuscule.  However, if that is cheating, so too is an effects pedal, and I have not heard very many people refer to Jimmy Hendrix as a cheater, so…..

However, I also use technology in my ever constant attempts to remain somewhat fit and healthy.  When I used to run a bit (I hated it), I tracked it on a spreadsheet and made cute little graphs for myself.   I also had a cheap heart rate monitor and I plotted heart rate, maximum, minimum, time in my zone, etc, etc. Then, a few years ago, I purchased a nice GPS unit.  When I would ski, or cycle, I would bring the GPS and then download the data into the GPS mapping unit on my computer and stare lovingly at where I had ventured.  I would even “open in google earth” and look at it with the satellite imagery.  It was fun, but not earth shaking.

Then, in my struggle a few years ago to have a more structured eating regimen, I discovered Myfitnesspal.  A simple App for my iPod/iPhone that tracked the calories I ate, and expended.  Neat charts and data too, lots of fun.  On the computer version, one can print out their diary and keep it.  I have done so for the last year and a bit.  I look back on it lovingly too, when I was in a good groove, and then skip right by the blank entries, I know are blank because I ate so much on those days, it was not worth putting in and making me look so bad.  However, it did help me.

Now, here we are in June 2014 and the integration and seamlessness is only increasing.  As of the early part of May, I downloaded Runtastic’s mountain biking app.  I am once again in love.  It is great.  It tracks my ride, gives me all sorts of data.  I even purchased the Pro version, and I do not often purchase anything!  It takes seamless up a step.  I synced it with the Myfitnesspal app and when I finish a bike ride, it then sends the calorie burning data to my app automatically.  Also, those of you who have the fortune/misfortune to follow me on Twitter, it also posts my rides to Twitter, including my big 0.8 K ride to work and home again.  And, to top it all off, for about $70, I purchased a new heart rate monitor, that works directly with the Runtastic app.  The only thing I am missing is the cadence tracker, but I am personally not that interested in my cadence.  To know my heart rate, as well as how far I have gone, how often, calories burned and many other things, is great for me.

Now, I just read this morning on some online paper, that Apple’s iOS8 operating system, may contain improved functions related to the synchronization of these many health and exercise apps, within the phone itself, I can see that perhaps I am riding a wave that is only going to be more interesting.

However, the long and short of all of this is certainly not to bore anyone with my interest in technology for music, photography and exercise (I did not even mention I bought a depth finder and plan to map my entire lake this summer….), but to make one, simple plain point.  I know what you are all thinking…..but it is coming now.

Technology for me is useful.  I made the point about the cadence for a particular reason.  I am not interested in my cadence on the bike.  The other data engages me more.  So, that technology, while just as interesting, using Bluetooth, etc, is of no use to me, whereas the other items are all very important to me.

Ultimately then, as we decide about technology for upcoming years: do we go with tablets, chromebooks, desktops, laptops or something else entirely, or all of the above in some measure, then I ask you:  What are we using the technology for?  If we are not using it for something, if our kids are not using it for something related to their learning, why do we have it?  It has to be a seamless part of what we are doing; otherwise you cannot convince me to spend a penny of my ever shrinking budget on it.

Oh, those tardy children…

As I sit in my office, having already done secondary morning announcements at 8:15 and doing a few items before elementary at 8:50, a student saunters past my office window, on this sunny day, 15 minutes late for class.  Not the first time.  Will not be the last.  We have struggled here with tardiness, with a small group of students forever.  In the fall of 2011 when we moved to a new schedule, starting school at 8:15 instead of 8:45, the dire predictions of massive problems with late students never materialized.  I was presented with a research study showing the teenage brain could not engage before a particular time, and I did not buy it.  I have teenagers at home.  I do not see their brain engaging much before noon, on any given day, so really, what is a half hour?  

So, was my problem with tardiness increased?  No.  Now, I did not do specific research in a double blind placebo study….but we are small enough, I just know.  The kids who were often late at 8:45 are the same ones late at 8:15.  They are also often late after an hour lunch in a community in which there is not really one house more than a KM or so from the school.

The problem with tardiness is extra-educational.  It comes mostly from attitudes born in the home, and the measures taken there.  I know in my house, even if I was not in education, if my kids were late for school for any reason other than a good one, the measures their mother would take, would ensure it would be a very, very, very rare occurrence.

In ten years in this job, I have experimented with countless ways to discourage tardiness.  I do not like the punishment paradigm.  Perhaps elsewhere it works, but in our school it is not a deterrent.  If there is a consequence, like a detention, or extra school work, or suspensions, etc for being late, kids will simply not show up to that particular class if they are going to be late, and that clearly does not work.  As frustrating as it is for everyone, I would rather have them here, in class, late, than at home sleeping, or playing Xbox until period two.  I face a lot of criticism over that, but so be it.  

My belief, is that until it enters a student’s mind that being on time is important, for those who are late, nothing will change.  The question, then is, how do we instill that idea, when it is probably not being effectively instilled at home?  I know many of the parents of these students themselves have a great deal of respect for being on time, because they are good employees and show up to work on time, but somehow it is not being transferred, yet to our kids.  I also know that many of our kids who are often late, get part time jobs and are never late.  Why is that?  Certainly because they are motivated by money, and they know they will get fired, and they do not want to get fired.  They have an intrinsic motivation.  School is not that for them.

So, in thinking about my previous post about teacher choice in PD, and some of the conversations I have had in person, in the twitterverse and elsewhere about student choice, I have come to a thought that has been percolating a bit in the past few weeks.  How effective would it be, if when we run into tardy students, and they have hit that magic number, whether it be 5 or 10 or whatever you want, we give them choice about the consequences?  Not even sure what the choices should be?  Detention, lines, writing assignment, letter of apology, make up time, internal suspension, etc, etc, etc.  However, I wonder, if I engaged the students and gave them ownership of the problem, and some choice in the appropriate “consequences”, would a difference be made?

I wonder?  Perhaps in September we can give it a try?  Stay tuned!  By the way, here is that sunny day I was referencing, in case no one believes it!

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Professional Development for Teachers

Way back when, when I was a ‘young-un’, and taking courses for professional development, and yes, to move up in QECO, I took, among many courses, an Adult Education course. I really loved it. It really spoke to how I learned as an adult, and it made me reflect on my own experiences as a student in high school. I believe that adopting some adult education principles while I was teaching in a high school, helped me help students I might not have helped without the ideas.

Now, as I spend bits and pieces of my days reading insightful educational ideas on Twitter (now, if you told me two years ago, I would have written those words, I would have laughed, heartily!) I am seeing the explosion of ideas that help us all to meet student needs better. No longer is “DI” just an afterthought, but classrooms across North America are adopting ideas and strategies that really do better meet our students’ needs. Yes, we have so far to go. Teaching is a craft and a science and an art, but it is dealing with the most complex material possible, the human mind, the human condition, with all of its variables, both genetic and environmental. The fact that we ever think we “have it right” is a thought that has to be eradicated from our thinking. However, my thoughts around how we better tailor our schools and classrooms for learning have lead me to start thinking about, how, as a principal, and as a member of a board team, we deliver curriculum to our staff members? I have read some interesting tidbits on Twitter but have begun to think a little more about it.

An example I want to point to, is a conversation I was having a few weeks ago, about student transition to high school. Often a grade 9 class looks and operates much differently than a grade 8 classroom, yet the kids we are teaching are only two months older. Does that much change happen between June 29th and September 3rd in an adolescent brain, that we can justify, in some cases, a pretty significant change in how we do business? If how we are setting up our grade 8 classrooms is good, aligned with research and being reflected on, then how is it that the environment in grade 9, which is often different, is the right thing to do?

I am not suggesting that the change in grade 9 is better or worse than the grade 8 experience, but it is significantly different, and I am not sure we talk enough about it. Does the grade 9 class need to be more similar to the grade 8, or perhaps vice-versa? I am not sure. But that is not what I want to get to here, though, I am just using it as an example. Although, I suspect that examining this further may make for an interesting blog post down the road.

What I am getting at is this: We are gaining ground in realizing school systems need to make some changes to engage students in their learning. We are shedding the “one-size-fits-all” model all over the place and are replacing it with DI, choice, student voice and many other things, and the evidence of its success is slowly building.  I ask then, if we are recognizing that this is what is good for our kids, within the framework of curriculum which has been given to us, and one of the main arguments is the increase in engagement, then why are still at a “one-size-fits-all” model for PD? Why do we have a really top down system of PD?

The question is somewhat rhetorical, because I know we have to have some degree and it needs to come from the ministry, and then through the boards. I understand the need for structure, just as I get that in a Canadian History course, we need to follow curriculum, and cannot frame the entire course around the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs (as inspiring as that would be), but if we are so hell bent on engaging our students by listening more to them, why are we not doing the same with our staff? Is their learning less important? Have they now moved to a place in their development where choice and personal needs no longer affect their engagement in learning? I can only speak for myself, but I find as I age (with grace, of course) I am even more dependent upon engagement to keep me learning. I used to be able to force stuff through my brain, but now, if I am not engaged in the material, I am done. And conversely, if I am engaged, I am even more engaged than I ever was as a teen, or a learner in my mid-twenties.

So, I leave you all with the thoughts that are swirling in my head around PD for teachers. How can meet ministry dictates, board initiatives, yet also speak to teacher engagement in their own learning, through their voices? I would suggest that teacher learning is crucial to student learning, and if we want to continue to move forward as a system, this is something we could be looking at as another way to increase learning in schools!

Baby and the Bath Water

Okay, so I just had a short Twitter conversation with a colleague in the western portion of Superior Greenstone.  It was prompted by my retweet of Marc Prensky, on the idea of letting kids arrive at expectations in their own way.  With apologies to Marc if I should not be quoting him in this forum, his tweet read:  “Outdated: Having students all do the same thing at once. Better: assigning goals & letting each kid reach them in their own way.”  Marc Prensky, Twitter, April 18th, 7:30 AM.  @marcprensky.  (No idea how I should be citing this…when I graduated from Western in 1991, Jack Dorsey and his gang were in high school, likely unaware of their impending role in the development of social media sites…).

The resulting conversation, while short and to the point as only Twitter talks can be, was interesting, because while I wholeheartedly agree with Marc, Jenni also made an important point that I often think about too.  That point, I think, can be part of a “baby and bathwater” conversation.  Jenni correctly pointed out, that depending on the subject, the type of assignment, the goals of the project, the assessment, and many other variables, that theory may not sit as well.  Her example was related to an accounting course.  Accounting being a relatively exact science (to the best of my knowledge, but please keep in mind, in my house, I “don’t balance the books”…..and we will leave it at that) I agree with Jenni.  There are surely very specific skills that have to be learned in very specific manners.  I cited a similar thought in a tech course and tweeted, with typos and all, that really there is only one way to cut a large piece of lumber in a shop and that is on a table saw. Now, I could not examine this further in Twitter, but I do realize that this statement is not completely true.  If one wanted to rip a large piece of plywood, (if that was the task assigned, and the kids could choose their method), there are multiple ways.  A student could grab a hand saw and do it by hand, use a skill saw, or a jig saw, and complete the task.  However, assuming all those tools are there, the table saw makes the most sense.  It is the most efficient method, and in my limited experience, by far the method that will most likely result in the best product at the end.  One could argue for using a flush bit on a router on a router table and the outcome could well be similar, however, the table saw is designed to do many things, and in particular is an excellent tool for ripping and cross cutting large pieces of wood, as well as making more exact and fine cuts.  So, in a tech class, it would not make a lot of sense to suggest to a group of students that they each rip a piece of plywood into a very specific dimension, but to choose how to do it.  (unless it was a discovery activity, but I do not think the “discovery method” is probably the safest in a shop….)  While it might be interesting and fun, if the goal is to do it as well as possible, as efficiently as possible and theoretically to do something further with it, then the table saw is the real deal….Plus, one must practice using the table saw to get good at it too…

Now, woodworking is just my hobby, not my teaching area, so I will examine something for a moment before finally getting to my point.  As a former history teacher, and lover of history, I can see how it would work in my class if I was in one.  I would ask myself:  “what is the goal I am trying to get at here”.  Let’s say we were looking at a topic like Canadian Confederation, or the Russian Revolution.  Let’s pretend we had gone through the information and the students should have an understanding of the “factors that influenced Canadian Confederation” or the “events that led to the Russian Revolution”, and my goal is now to have them demonstrate their understanding.  This is really a simple task, low on the taxonomy and hardly more than recall.  However, as a history teacher, I need to know that kids understand the basics of these topics and can explain them.  So, I could tell them they have some choices as to how they do it.  Essay for the writers….oral presentation for the speakers, visual presentation for the visual ones.  So long as I had made it clear to them what I want them to be able to communicate, then it does not really matter to me.  Now, keeping that in mind, I am being very simplistic in my goal here.  The goal is recall of facts, and some explanation.  However, if my goal is to see how well they can put these thoughts into writing, and I am evaluating the writing as part of the activity, then creating a diorama is not going to cut it, and neither would creating a “Confederation Song” song for the musicians in my class.  It would be the same if I wanted them to create a multi-media presentation (assuming I taught them how to do it and gave clear expectations about what I wanted in the product….you know, a learning goal, success criteria, descriptive feedback along the way…) I would be evaluating not only their information, but also the delivery of it, the medium they have chosen.  In that case, again, choosing the medium would not work.  However, would it not make more sense, that if I wanted to evaluate their ability to create something in a given form (essay, oral presentation, media presentation, etc), that the topic is no longer that relevant?  If it is a history class, give them some leeway within the realm of the class and course, but go to town on whatever you want to do, but show me you can make a really kick-ass presentation, or write a ridiculously fantastic essay about a topic that excites you!

So, in getting to the point after a long and drawn out build up, what I believe is that as teachers we all have to make the commitment to always be thinking about the products we are asking our students to produce.  If in our expert opinion, all students need to create a certain type of product, and we can justify it and explain it and the reasons are clear, then this is not a problem.  Perhaps if in the entire semester there are no choices or options, then maybe we have to think further.  As well, courses that have a 4 and U in them, are often courses that directly prepare our kids for universities.  The last time I checked, introductory English courses at university do not suggest to first year students that they can “make a diorama to exhibit their understanding of Macbeth” instead of an essay, so in these cases, it is our responsibility to ensure that kids are prepared and do these things.  Likewise, first year chemistry requires lab reports in a typical paper form, not an iPhone video with music to explain the reactions of magnesium and water, so we cannot forget these things either.  However in these two isolated cases, the reasons for the same thing done by everyone easily defensible and even more importantly, part of our moral duty to teach and evaluate.

As well, some subjects as mentioned above, especially in introductory courses, may lend themselves to the rigidity of very similar assignments.  It is all about professional judgement and openness of teachers to always consider varying the products we ask for, when it suits the situation.  All classes are different, subject areas lend themselves in different manners to these theories, but so long as teachers are willing to open their thoughts and apply it as best as they can, then that is what makes a professional.  Furthermore, reflecting on our experiences is also important.  We may have decided a certain approach works, and then fails miserably.  We have to think about how and why and make changes.  In a similar manner, just because a group of kids hit it out of the park in one activity, by choosing their products and methods of learning, does not mean that it will work in the next activity/lesson/topic.  There is so little of this job that can be put down to a template, so it all about thinking about what we are doing…and collaborating…..talk to one another….seek out the optimistic one on the staff and talk about it and also seek out the “less than optimistic one” on staff because those ideas hold value too and may help you to frame your own attempts and thoughts.

I think if we empower teachers to make these decisions based on their professionalism, so long as there is a willingness to always be open and to work differently when appropriate, then those who are in a subject area, or grade, or even a certain class who require more of the “everyone does the same thing” will be okay and will not feel as though they are somehow not living up to the new standards.  It really is all about thinking about what we are doing, being able to justify it and keeping it as varied as possible, to suit our students’ needs, when appropriate.  

Well at least that is what I believe.  Alas, my less than interesting and engaging duties are once again calling me away!  I wish there was another way to get laundry done, get bathrooms clean and floors washed, other than the traditional ways, but despite my attempts to find such alternative ways, the final products, as evaluated by someone in my house, never live up to the standards that were clearly laid out in front of me prior to attempting the task…..so I must rely on the old ways and actually do what has to be done!