Students in Motion York University FESA
STUDENTS IN MOTION The Problem with Exam Season
Issue 2, December 2014
Student Submissions The Problem with Exam Season Tara Schell Crimes of Punishment: The Dangers of Punitive Grading Michael Gyssels “Don’t Worry Miss. It’s Okay.” Nadine W
I am not writing this with a level head. My thoughts are clouded with anxiety, and have been so for roughly two weeks. Coincidentally, it was about two weeks ago that the unofficial start of the exam period began. Over the next 5 days, I will write two exams, one paper, hand in a project, and prepare two portfolios. Over the past 5 days, I have handed in three essays, prepared a portfolio, and wrote three papers. When I first realized the amount of work I had ahead of me, I thought this was just a particularly unlucky run, and that I would simply get through it. However, after discussion with my peers, I’ve learned that this is not an uncommon amount of work at all. Of course, there’s still the fact that I am a chronic procrastinator, and if I planned my time better, I would probably be far more equipped to handle the end of term rush. And yet, even those friends of mine who are incredibly organized, plan their time, and do work regularly are just as stressed as I am. What then, does this suggest about university? Indeed, it seems that it has become taken for granted that students are sleep deprived, stressed, and loaded down with work, but is this really healthy? 2
A Discussion with Dr. Lorin Schwarz Michael Gyssels
News Releases Margaret Wilson to Examine Governance Issues at Ontario’s Largest School Board Ontario Newsroom
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EDible News In a recent Globe and Mail article, the following statistics were given on student stress in university: • • •
90% of students feel overwhelmed by all they have to do More than 50% of students say they feel hopeless 63% of students say they feel very lonely
But perhaps the most startling statistics were not about feeling stressed, but what it can lead to. The article revealed that 9.5% of students had seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year, while 1.3% had attempted suicide. Initially, 1.3% seems like a small enough number (though of course, any number would be too high); however, this was no small survey, and of the 30,00 students that were surveyed, 1.3% is equivalent to 390. That means that at least 390 students attempted suicide in the past year due to stress.
December 2014 This is not only an incredibly heart wrenching statistic, it speaks to the need for change in the university system. Getting an education should never be something so closely related to mental illness. And perhaps worst of all, this is an issue that is only really beginning to be taken seriously. It is my hope that knowing what an impact stress can have, we as future teachers will be able to help our students work through anxiety in a healthy way, without simply looking at it as a “normal” part of school life. Of course, it is important to be concerned about your studies, but it should never reach a point where success in school is seen as equivalent to someone’s worth as a person. With that being said, I’ve listed some suggestions on how to deal with all the stress and anxiety we are all experiencing at this time of year. Please take the time to consider them, and best of luck at this hectic time of year! • • • • • • • • •
Practice some deep breathing Spend time outside Exercise Watch a movie, or episode of TV show Talk to a friend or family member Cook or bake something Listen to music Read something you enjoy Stop, take a step back, and remember that you will get through this!
For further reading, you can access the Globe and Mail article here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ed ucation/college-university-students-feel-stressanxiety-have-suicidal-thoughts-surveyreveals/article12613742/
Crimes of Punishment: The Dangers of Punitive Grading Michael Gyssels Call me brazen and reckless, but my interpretation of this month’s theme, Students in Motion, will likely seem, at first, only obliquely related. The educative system as it exists tends to mark punitively. In other words, students are punished with poor grades when assignments do not meet expectations. The current system, however, does not recognize that “does not meet expectations” can mean any number of things: that students have not handed in their work (often due to circumstances beyond their control); that students did not understand the assignment; that the assignment itself and the grading criteria were unclear; or that students simply did not pay enough attention in class— and their marks therefore suffered. A common thread runs through four of those five scenarios: other than not paying attention in class, the student is not directly responsible for their poor performance, though our current system almost always assumes it to 4
be the case. Thus my thoughts here focus more so on evaluative motivation and student ascension on the grading scale than physical movement: how can we help students help themselves? Punitive grading ignores the impact of poor pedagogy, placing too much emphasis on student agency or lack thereof. Of course, students should be actively working toward better education for their own sake, but without inspiring teaching methods students have no reason to want to learn. Moreover, students must also possess the means to learn—a healthy home environment and stable emotional state, for example. Thus when considering that students who are struggling are likely struggling for a plethora of reasons that do not include laziness—especially marked laziness or disinterest different from their high-performing peers—punitive grading severely hinders those students already struggling within a specific classroom paradigm.
EDible News In other words, marking low-achieving students harshly only reinforces their low achievement; it sets a precedent for poor performance and predicts further failure because it enforces the rules that cause said failure. More troubling is that, especially in the case of work not submitted, punitive grading actually validates poor behaviour: the student is, for whatever reason, not doing the work, yet we are giving that non-work a grade. That is, if a student resists work or does not hand it in, stamping a violent O or F ascribes value— uncharacteristically negative value—to work that does not exist. Thus unengaged students never actually have to confront work and will thus never have to challenge themselves the way the work asks: they never have to do that thing they don’t want to do, and are therefore not learning in your classroom. In effect, punitive grading also devalues the educator’s teaching practices and skillset— though perhaps justly. Where teachers are valued based on student performance, punitive grading both shifts blame to the student, but also implies that the teacher was unable to connect with the student, was unable to teach them. Consider Growing Success, which emphasizes a culture in which student and teacher learn together in a collaborative relationship, each playing an active role in setting learning goals, developing success criteria, giving and receiving feedback, monitoring progress, and adjusting learning strategies. (30) Thus pedagogical success should not be measured by student grades, but student achievement, which is markedly different (i.e. where a final grade indicates an average, a student’s performance on the last assignments in a course better demonstrates their learning). We owe it to students, and to ourselves as educators, to conduct more assessment for learning, rather than assessment of learning, to ensure that learning is actually happening. When we assess for learning before
December 2014 evaluating, we give students a chance to learn and to ask questions, and we gain the opportunity to flex our pedagogical muscles, so to speak. In other words, we are able to teach in a healthy environment. By deemphasizing numerical feedback, we reemphasize student thinking. But how do we assess for learning? A valid question, for anyone who has taught in a high school or elementary classroom likely finds my suggestion naïve and utopic. Still, I stand by my answer, no matter how equally naïve it might seem—thatPellentesque: answer being “building trust.” Punitive grading is entirely distrustful and cruel. As I noted above, it ignores students’ emotional climates. Perpetual, unfair evaluations emphasize and rely on the uncomfortable and unlikely assumption that if a student does not complete an assignment, the student is wholly and undoubtedly to blame. Teachers problematically forget that they were also young once and that, as highly educated persons, we likely had the academic tools we needed most of the time. Many of our students will not. And so, those students are hesitant, they are resistant, they sometimes cannot muster the requisite energy to complete an entire assignment, but we must trust that our students are doing the best that they can, with the tools they have, in the environment that they inhabit. Of course, as a TCConsectetuer: I have heard often about “assessment for learning” without any idea how to implement it. Like most of my peers, I was extremely hesitant. “Students won’t complete the work.” “They don’t care.” “They’ll zone out during the lesson if it isn’t for marks.” I learned quickly, however, that if students are not interested they’ll zone out anyway, regardless of numerical punishments. I also 5
learned quickly that “incomplete” does not mean “invaluable,” and that students might very well produce insight, even if they only answer half of your questions. Though seemingly contrary to this notion of trust, my first suggestion for implementation is: don’t let students take the work home. One of three things happens: they take it home and finish it; they take it home and cheat; they don’t take it home. And none of those three things guarantees that the students bring it back to class on time. How does this help students see their own value? How does confining work to the classroom emphasize trust? As the teacher, you spend time exposing their value in your feedback. Encourage lines of thought. Ask questions. Show students their thoughts have incited your own thinking process. To foster mutual growth, ensure students that learning is a conversation. Again, punitive grading assumes that the teacher knows everything and can subsequently assign students a numerical value based on correspondence between teacher-knowledge and studentthought. 6
December 2014 The most important factor to successful assessment for learning, rather than of learning, is to hand back assignments quickly. When students are evaluated, they internalize their value based on the number you write on the page. That number is a cruel solipsism: it obscures the work the student did, the feedback you provided, even the assignment’s content. It does not matter how long the assignment has been out of their hands, students’ mood when they receive your feedback will correlate directly with the mark you’ve given them contrasted by the mark they want. When you give verbal feedback quickly and directly, students retain context. Your most active and engaged students might still be thinking about the material from yesterday’s lesson when you give back their assignment. And when you give that assignment back, you open a dialogue and answer questions they might have had. You might also pose more questions yourself and continue a conversation later. But more important are your struggling students: they might have forgotten about the assignment completely. They might have written only a few sentences and crumpled the paper into their bag, forcing you to stop them on the way out. But, when you ask the student questions and comment on their work, regardless of the scope or quantity of that work, you validate that student’s ideas. You remind them that their thinking does pay off, and that their contributions can, should, and will be valued in the classroom. Likewise, assessments recognize that students may not fully comprehend something the first time, engaged or unengaged. You may have noticed by now that I avoid “good,” “bad,” “strong,” and “weak” in my pedagogical discourse, the reason being that I believe all students have the skill to be strong if they can engage—and that means giving them the right tools to engage with the material.
So, we have an engaged student who misses the point of a lesson and answers unsatisfactorily. The student’s grade drops unnecessarily (and unjustly based on their normally outstanding performance). Later, we look at the grade report and notice a strange valley along the student’s performance graph and wonder “what went wrong, ” but it was the instructor who evaluated unfairly. Thus we are inadvertently punishing a normally “strong” student because something in the most recent lesson didn’t click. I believe that we must always assume, first and foremost, that the problem comes from the instructor. Only by exhausting your pedagogical knowledge and strategies can we begin to blame the student. It’s our job to foster an environment that various students can learn in and from. Luckily, the engaged student may approach you and ask where s/he went wrong and how s/he can improve. The unengaged student, on the other hand, generally expects to do poorly. They may not meet the requirements, and even if they express flashes of insight that you respect and admire, their overall grade is poor—just as they expected. Will they give this grade a second thought? Not likely, as it’s par for the course. You might comment on some strong insights within a poor assignment, but if they have no reason to read those comments no learning really takes place. Rather, the unengaged student learns that s/he gets 50s, s/he will always get 50s, and there is no way to stop getting 50s. But, if we provide assessment— especially on new material—instead of evaluation, students might exceed their own expectations. If they stop associating their worth with a number and begin to associate their worth with class contributions, something interesting happens: your unengaged students engage, while your consistently engaged students enjoy the new voices in the room. To cement my ideas, I want to consider an anecdote that sparked this lengthy tract. Last week in my history class I delivered a lesson on Holocaust poetry. As 2P students, poetry in a history class is like mayonnaise on peanut butter sandwiches—or some other unappetizing analogy. They were hesitant and nervous—resistant, even. They chattered as we picked through poems to elucidate historical context and they snickered when we talked about “hope” and “butterflies.” And then I administered a group assignment and I sat for the entire period with the snickering boys. They mumbled at the floor, fiddled with pencil shavings and averted their eyes. If I turned my back they
begin to snicker again. With 10 minutes remaining, I asked them to “please write something for the fifth question. I don’t care about the first four, I just want to know what you’re thinking and feeling after this lesson.” To my surprise, one of my consistently unengaged students produced an insight I hadn’t thought of myself. I frantically scribbled superlatives commending this student for such a profound thought and asked them some follow-up questions. In my class the next day I returned the assignments and requested commentary. To my surprise, this student, a notorious “in-risk” student, a “weak” student, a “poor reader” managing a 51% average and has never raised his hand to say anything other than “Can I get a drink?” answered my call: “I think the butterfly can escape and he can’t, so he’s jealous…and stuff” “And stuff.” I smiled to myself. He’d spoken up, even if he left “and stuff” lingering like some rebellious and standoffish badge of honour. I have an answer—but I still don’t care…not much, anyway. And to think, if I had evaluated the assignment, he would have gotten a zero.
“Don’t Worry Miss. It’s Okay.” Nadine Wyczolkowski This past week at placement a student asked me a question I did not know the answer to. I encouraged the student to look up the answer for the following class I would be teaching, and I would look into it as well. As I apologized to the student for not knowing the correct reply on the spot, he responded, “Don’t worry Miss. It’s Okay.” This was one of the most beautiful moments for me thus far in the classroom environment. His empathetic and kind statement made me smile. The student taught me an important lesson that I believe will shape my teaching philosophy. Teachers are human; we do not always have the answer; we make mistakes. It is important for students to relate to us as fellow humans, not some role model on a pedestal teaching at them, but rather an individual learning with them and from them. When I encourage shy students to participate, I sometimes say, “Don’t worry if you might not have the right answer, I just want to hear what you think, as we’re all here to learn.” Letting our students see who we are, seeing our humanity, I believe is essential in developing a genuine rapport with the students. I do not believe it to be a moment of weakness, just one of honesty; the vulnerability that we are all susceptible to unites each and every one of us. It is important to remember that “It’s okay.”
A Discussion with Dr. Lorin Schwartz Michael Gyssels Recently, one of EDible’s staff writers, Michael Gyssels, sat down with Lorin Schwarz- a man he finds truly inspirational. The following conversation should shed some light on why. MG: What is the single most salient point to be taken away from your high school teaching philosophy? And how might it differ from the way you approach university courses? LS: I'm going to start with the last question first. I don't really see a difference in my pedagogical philosophy between teaching university and high school. In fact, as someone who has taught every grade (except kindergarten) as well as at college and university, I can say that the foundations of teaching for me are uniform throughout all levels. I start with the premise that this project, the work of education, is a human endeavor. We are human beings involved in a communicative process with other human beings. Within that equation are all the wishes and dreams, fears, hopes and limitations—as well as all the possibilities—that come from any experience of the human. We have to keep this in mind, because I think there is too much emphasis on "best practice" and test scores—increasing the numbers, advancing careers. What we should be concerned with is what kind of knowledge is produced (both curricular and otherwise) when we are together. As John Dewey said almost a hundred years ago, "What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul?" MG: You teach at The Dragon Academy, a private alternative school. Could you talk a little bit about the intersections of the private and alternative spheres? What kinds of kids do you teach and how might you teach them differently than traditional private schools or public alternative schools? LS: Sure! At the Dragon, quite often our student population is one with what we call "multiple exceptionalities." Some of the students have ADD or ADHD or social anxiety disorder, dyslexia, some undiagnosed learning exceptionality or Asperger’s. Many of these exceptionalities also come with a
measure of what the Ministry calls "giftedness." (I think that most children and most people are "gifted" at something, so I balk at this as a label.) Some of the students were simply unsuccessful at other schools for various reasons; we have had gay students who were being beaten up so badly that they simply stopped going to school and needed a more supportive environment. I think we teach with an emphasis on helping students advocate for themselves, telling us what they need. It's a success when a student who has dyslexia tells me on the first day of class, "I am dyslexic and I am going to need you to read important parts of the text out loud to me." We specialize in this kind of support, but we are also good at playing to the kids strengths—and we have high expectations. Nobody gets away with "doing less" because of exceptionalities or learning challenges. Last week, one of my 9
EDible News students in Grade 12 English was having trouble with anxiety over writing an essay. She is severely dyslexic, but a gifted artist. Together we came up with the idea that she might create a movie poster for the book— with the conditions that the poster demonstrate to me that she understands something about the major themes of the novel, the characters and the setting. On my first day at the school, Meg Fox—the principal and founder of the Dragon—told me that the only classroom management I should worry about at the school is "relationship." This has been good advice. The classes are small, the students are often grateful to be somewhere supportive—usually after they have been asked to leave other schools--and when they know that I have high expectations and am there to support them, this works really well. It's what we do best at the school. It's not perfect, and we don't always get it right—it doesn't work for everyone, on both sides of the chalkboard! A few teachers have run screaming from the school and obviously not every student passes every subject—but we try. I think the fact that this is a private school allows Dr. Fox to set the tone and culture of the school somewhat more intimately than would happen at a public school. The parents are very involved and they can come see us at any time. We also have really long staff meetings each and every week and this allows us to conference and talk about each student and program. Larger public schools don't always do this. It is a private school—which is a business. Dr. Fox sets the rules; when she says there's a staff meeting, we go. There is no union to protect us or to tell us we are working too hard—although most of the time, to be honest, Dr. Fox is a better advocate for fairness and equity than anyone could ever ask for. We also struggle with money issues, student recruitment and retention, and passing all the rigorous inspections the government sets for private schools. These are issues teachers in the public system don't have to worry about. MG: How does the alternative system augment your philosophy of “teaching poetically” and vice versa? LS: I'm not sure if it's the alternative system or simply having a really great boss who has a PhD in English! I am able to "teach poetically" at the Dragon 10
December 2014 because the classes are small enough that I can get to know my students and can try to offer them something beautiful in the curriculum and their experience of our time together. Part of the mandate of the Dragon Academy is to go out into the city often, not to stay in the classroom for all school hours. We go to the Royal Conservatory of Music and read poetry together; we see films and have dinner together afterwards. All of this makes for a more human experience and hopefully increases the poetry of our time. MG: What kinds of pedagogical opportunities does the alt. system present? Or, to ask this question another way, what are some highlights from your time at the Dragon? LS: I think the alternative system allows for a bit more interaction with students, it allows us to get to know them, to help them self-advocate, to give them a chance to do well on their own terms. These are great skills to have as a teacher, and probably should be part of what we do in education across the board. We teach students how to write academic essays—which is an important and beautiful thing to be able to do, and everyone graduating high school should be able to do it—but how many of them will ever have to do that when they graduate? The alternative system allows us to create programming that plays to student strengths—using the computer to create brochures, using visual media to demonstrate understanding of text, using embodied forms of the arts such as dance to express learning. The students who are great at these skills are given a chance to fulfill curriculum using them, so they learn and grow from what they already love and are good at. I like to think that this means they will continue doing this after graduation, which will lead to successful careers and happy lives! There are other ways of knowing and of being in the world, and the alternative system specializes in these. There are so many moments at the Dragon I'd like to discuss. I think the field trips are my favourite, when I get to know the students outside of the walls of the school, when I experience the
museum or an art gallery or a film with them, through their eyes. I think the average days when I walk in the school and someone has created a website or written a short story or finished reading a novel and they can't wait to tell me about it, those are among my most special memories, the times I cherish most. I think the time I am most grateful for happened last year. I wasn't at the school because I was diagnosed with cancer. I felt really awful for doing that to the students; the teacher should be caring for and protecting and supporting the students, not making the kids worry about him! However, every single time I went for a chemotherapy treatment there were text messages and emails and cards from the Dragon community wishing me luck, telling me they were thinking of me, demanding that I get better and come back soon. That was education too, for the Dragon students and for one very appreciative teacher. We learned something about what it meant to be together, to care about each other, to have a community and to be in relation to one another in the face of frightening and difficult knowledge. I grew as a teacher and as a person from that. MG: What is one change you would make to the B.Ed. program if you could? LS: I thought about this question a lot and decided to stick to the "one" change rather suggesting a few! I think in the B.Ed. program new teachers should be given more of a chance to talk, in a non-judgmental and ungraded atmosphere, about their experiences. Students in our faculty seem so frightened of getting the wrong answer or of not being perfect enough—or of living up to some impossible standard of teaching. Nobody can teach another person how to teach; at best, we can offer stories about what we did that worked, and this is always incomplete and emotionally local. What we can do, though, is give a context, contain the good and bad classroom experiences—as well as the emotions and affects that arise from the time in school— so that when a bad day happens, it doesn't seem like the end of the world and when a good day happens it doesn't become a fantasy victory. To go back to my first question, I think having a space within teacher education for really honest and open discussion will allow the human element to flourish—the element that can't be put on a rubric or assessed on a report card or written up on a curriculum document. It's the most important thing, and if we ignore it in favour of best practice theory or how great technology is (without wondering who it is great for, and why it might be great, and what's not great about it) at the faculty of education, we have to ask ourselves what kind of a system we will have in twenty years.
Students from The Dragon Academy
Margaret Wilson to Examine Governance Issues at Ontario’s Largest School Board News Release from the Ontario Newsroom The province has asked Margaret Wilson to conduct a review of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) amid growing concerns about the governance of Ontario's largest school board. The review will include an examination of the current operational issues at the school board, and a focus on the board's governance structure. The final report, which will be submitted to the Minister of Education before the end of the year, will include recommendations on how to address current operational and relationship issues, as well as recommendations on how the government should conduct a consultation about possible improvements to the governance structure at the TDSB. The purpose of the operational review is to ensure the school board - with 11 new trustees to be sworn in on Dec. 1, 2014 - has the tools it needs to succeed and ensure the board is focused on student achievement and well-being. Over the past two years, the province has worked to support governance at the TDSB. In December 2012, the province assigned a special assistance team to help the board eliminate its capital deficit and implement recommendations from a report by PwC. The province also released a forensic audit in December 2013 - conducted by Ernst and Young LLP - at the request of the board, following concerns raised by the board's audit committee. Despite this support, the board continues to be plagued by accusations of inappropriate behaviour, "insubordination" and an ongoing "culture of fear" among staff and elected trustees at the TDSB. These ongoing concerns have put public confidence in the governance of the TDSB at QUICK FACTS •
Margaret Wilson served as the Registrar at the Ontario College of Teachers between 1995 and 2000. Prior to that she served as the SecretaryTreasurer of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation. In order to allow the Minister to provide direction to the board, the government has amended the “Provincial Interest in Education Regulation” under the Education Act. The amendments are specific to the TDSB and include a sunset clause to revoke the amendments on Dec. 31, 2015. The forensic audit of the TDSB conducted by Ernst and Young LLP covered the period from September 2009 to June 2013. The final report was released in December 2013. The province imposed a funding freeze on new capital projects at the TDSB in the fall of 2012, after several capital projects had run over budget. The capital freeze was lifted in July 2013.
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