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The Reformation, and what it means to you

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This morning, the Gazette ran an item reporting that parents and students generally perceive the infamous educational reform, first introduced by the MELS (that's the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport, which is the subject of a rant unto itself... seriously, given how quick the provincial MNAs are to lambaste Ottawa for 'interfering' in portfolios that are 'provincial jurisdiction,' why does Education not warrant a ministry of its own?!? Oh, don't get me started...) in 1997, and fully implemented in 2005.

As a teacher and a parent, and a Quebecer in general, I have been hearing about "the reform" for what feels like a million years. At the Cegep level, we were in a collective tizzy last fall because - deep breath - the first cohort of students who had only ever been taught under the reform was about to hit us. Seriously, we had entire Ped Days devoted to what to expect from these students, what to do with them, and how to get our insurance to cover the expected increase in sedative prescriptions.

A 1999 article from the McGill Journal of Education summarizes the aims of the reform this way:

The curriculum reforms in Quebec share the same general orientation as reforms currently taking place in Canada, the United States and other industrialized nations. These include: greater stress on standards, accountability and student success; definition of essential learning expectations (or outcomes, results or benchmarks) to be attained at different levels of the system; shift of responsibilities from the bureaucracies of systems and school boards to the individual school; recognition of the importance of the role of the school staff in curriculum development; rethinking of the focus and essential content of various subject areas; emphasis on cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning; integration of information and communication technologies; introduction of new approaches to assessment and reporting; more effective involvement of parents and the community; and closer links among objectives, programs, teaching and assessment.

In short, the reform purports to:

1. encourage student success
2. be competency*-based (essential learning expectations vs. 'rethinking' essential content)
3. decentralize curriculum planning
4. move toward interdisciplinary learning and interconnected stages of teaching and learning
5. embrace IT
6. favour new forms of assessment
7. involve parents/communities

*competencies are, essentially, skills. For instance, high school students are expected to adopt "effective work methods" and "construct a moral frame of reference." Both of these things are considered competencies, although in different learning areas (methodology and moral education, respectively). Methodological competencies are cross-curricular, which means they can (and should) be transferable from one discipline to another, and should be developed as the student progresses through the grades. Other competencies, such as the moral framework one, are subject-specific, but again, are meant to be developed as the student goes from one level to the next. The Lester B. Pearson School Board has a handy page of links to various pdfs summarizing the competencies at elementary and secondary school.

It's important to keep in mind that at the Cegep level, we've been planning and teaching courses according to a competency model for ages, so really, the fundamental pedagogy of the reform was not completely foreign to us. So why were we all so nervous about the reform? I suspect there were a few aspects of the issue that contributed to our angst - although not every teacher was apprehensive for the same reasons:

a) the idea of increased use of IT in the classroom - some of us are all over every technological innovation, while others are still a little queasy about phones that do anything more than voice calls;
b) fear that there is no content being taught at all - if all of the learning objectives are expressed solely in terms of skills, what actual information do these students have? Do we have to teach all the content we used to assume they already knew?
c) fear that these newfangled touchy-feely self-esteem-boosting instructional methods have produced students who don't know how to work for grades and feel completely entitled to a pass, regardless of performance;
d) Chicken Little syndrome - all of my colleagues are freaking out about this, and the college is inviting experts to address the faculty at Ped Day, and there are articles in the paper every three weeks... Ack! Terror!

So, before I share my own reflections on the big scary influx of reform students, let me share my friend Mark's question with you:

"Since I'm about to graduate my second class of grade 11 reform students, I'm curious how my cegep teacher friends find last year's crop. How are their abilities, skill levels, preparedness, etc?"

On behalf of Mark, I open the question to other high school teachers, as well as my Cegep colleagues, and fellow parents, too - in fact, please encourage others to comment and/or link to their own musings on the matter. What is your experience with the reform?

Plus ca change...

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Naturally, as we near the end of the semester, my inbox is filling up with dead grannies and desperate pleas for more time, more insight, more input, more instruction, more, more, more.

In most of these cases, I do my best to be understanding, flexible and helpful; however, every semester there appears at least one student whose last-minute missives just rub me the wrong way. This term, that role is being filled by Omar.*

Omar began this semester by being absent for the first eight classes - one week before the term began, he sent me an e-mail explaining that he was "stuck" in the Middle East with his family, and could I please let him know what he missed. Since he was due to return to Canada shortly after the first week of classes, I assured him that he'd be able to catch up - but then, new messages arrived explaining that he'd be further delayed, and suddenly his arrival coincided with our first essay assignment.

The course in question is an Introduction to College English, a required first English course for all our students. Since it is prerequisite for all other English courses, students typically take it in their first semester, and that means the fall. "Winter 101" is notoriously weird - the class tends to be filled with students who have failed the course, but only a small segment of that population failed because of actual problems with the skills - most of them tell me that they failed the course the first time around because it was "too much" on top of their program courses, or they were "adjusting" to college, or they got a new part-time job; in other words, they bailed out of the course and just didn't finish it. The result is that the winter course has some students who have turned over a new leaf and are over-the-top keen, other students who are still bored out of their skulls by all things literary, and a few students who oscillate between the two extremes and tend to flame out two weeks before the final paper is due.

All of this is to explain that I cut Omar some slack at the beginning of the semester, and rather than telling him it was too late for him to catch up, I went out of my way to create a special electronic package of readings, so he'd have a chance to read the stories upon which the first essay was based.

I should have listened to the alarm bells that went off in my head when he wrote to ask me if I really meant he had to read all six of the short stories I sent.

Now we're at the end of the semester, and Omar is barely passing. A week before our last class, I calculated who was missing what in terms of the small, online assignments I give over the course of the semester, and told each student which ones s/he could do to boost his/her mark a little. A few students, including Omar, stayed after that class to clarify the instructions for the missing assignments.

Omar, after a week, sent me this:

Hi miss can you pls tell me what exxctlybi have to still post up on Lea I'm really confused thank u

I replied:

Hi Omar,

You can still post the following assignments:

-the essay analogy
-the "Everyday Use" heritage story
-the personal poetry song analysis

Maggie

...and got this in return:

okay sorry im a bit confused..
what aws the essay analogy? and for everydays use, do i answer the questions in the back? and for the poetry song i just choose a song and send the lyrics right?

At this point, I was getting to the end of my patience. I replied:

Omar,
First, read the forum instructions in your blue text. If you are still confused, try reading some of your classmates' posts. If, after that, you still don't know what to do, send me another message.

You have to understand that (a) you are very late with this course work and (b) I have spent the semester giving everyone as much instruction as needed for every one of these assignments. It is quite frustrating for me to have to explain everything all over again for the benefit of one student who didn't bother to do these exercises when they were assigned.

Maggie

A day later, I get this:

k sorry...
for my essay, i seen your comments and everything but im having a hard time re-constructing my outline

I took a deep breath and replied:

Hi Omar,

I am sorry you are having a hard time, but I can't help you based on a single sentence - a hard time with what, exactly? Please remember that I teach more than one course, and all of my students have submitted outlines, so there's not much chance I'm going to remember what your outline was, nor what my comments were. You need to be more specific.

Maggie

His reply was "i sent you the outline"

Sob. I fear at this point I let my frustration get the better of me - my reply:

So did a lot of other people. What, exactly, are you asking about?

The essay, of course, is due tomorrow. Any bets on (a) how soon the extension request arrives and (b) how many heinous grammatical errors it will contain?

*Stealing a page from my good friend Siobhan, I have given Omar a pseudonym.

Plan A: Make a Plan

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The new semester is about to start, and I am ready. More or less.

I tend to be among the first to order text books, prepare course packages, and submit course outlines. I respect deadlines. I like to know that the "big" prep is taken care of, and that I won't be frantically making copies ten minutes before class begins, or trying to find texts to work with for two weeks while the bookstore tries to track down my last-minute order.

(All of this is notwithstanding unforeseen and uncontrollable issues, such as being assigned courses after the deadline to submit orders, or publishers who discontinue a text but don't inform their customers, or unscheduled machine maintenance at the printshop that takes two weeks... all of which I have experienced firsthand.)

I also spend about a day planning the schedule of major assignments for each course, from which I reverse engineer the reading schedule, and then the quiz schedule, and so forth. This is actually one of my favourite parts to getting ready for the term - I can see the whole semester, planned and precise, and I feel ready. I know where we're going to be by the end, and the path to get there is clear.

Here's where the "more or less" comes in...

It's usually right after I plot the semester, and have that little glow of readiness, that panic sets in - what did I forget? Is there a ped day/holiday/scheduling glitch that I have overlooked? Is there some personal commitment that I have now scheduled a heavy correcting load on top of? Have I scheduled too much? Not enough?

The next wave of panic comes along about then, when I try to figure out how to cope with the first two or three classes (I am convinced I have written about that minefield already, but I cannot find the entry...) and stay on schedule, as opposed to doing next to nothing for a week and a half and then playing catch-up for the next fourteen weeks.

And, as usual, the final wave of panic - how to keep the semester on track despite all the other things I'm trying to juggle? Things are winding down with one project, but I'm submitting my research proposal today for my M.Ed., which means (fingers crossed) collecting and analysing data this semester, and then there's the Liberal Arts curriculum project - I love this project, but so far it keeps getting pushed back onto that back burner by things like cegep a distance and major school change. This semester, though, it has to be front and center.

I'm ready... more or less.

A few minutes ago, I updated my facebook status as follows: Maggie quit two jobs in two days, and feels AWESOME.

Panic has ensued, which, in a weird way, makes me feel loved. I think I have issues.

But my friends and I aren't getting any younger, and I don't want to stress anyone's system more than necessary, so an explanation is in order.

I should start by saying that I did NOT quit my actual job, as a college English teacher. In fact, for those who missed that announcement a couple of weeks ago, I just got tenure, so I'm not going anywhere for a while.

I should also amend my original statement, in the sense that I didn't actually "quit" anything:

Job #1: Content expert for the development of an on-line/distance education English Literary Genres course
I was hired for this almost three years ago, and at the time, was faced with no teaching for the winter semester, and no real guarantee of full-time teaching in the following semesters. This contract seemed like the perfect stop-gap - it involves taking one of my pre-existing courses, and developing the content, assessments and pedagogy for a self-directed learning package. Since I wasn't teaching in the winter, I'd have plenty of time to write content, create assessments and the accompanying tutor/marker guides, and so on.

Ah, the best laid plans...

The project director was hired by another institution, so my direct manager was promoted, and a new manager was hired. Naturally, this whole management shift took a while, and all the ongoing projects had to shift their timelines to compensate - so all of a sudden I was being asked for lots of work, but about six months had gone by - and I was teaching full-time, fall and winter. I panicked - but the new project manager was very understanding, and we compromised by hiring a co-author.

This was great, particularly since the person we hired was a spectacularly competent friend I know from Vanier, and she was looking for work she could do from home so that she could justify extending her time at home with her son, beyond her mat leave.

For the winter semester, this worked fairly well - but I still found myself checking the caller ID on my phone, nervous that it was the project manager calling to remind me of deadlines or outstanding course elements; I got nervous when I checked my email for the same reason. I spent a lot of my summer "vacation" working and worrying about the project - in fact, I spend a significant number of hours on one section of the final chapter, only to be told that none of the material was necessary, since it had been covered elsewhere by my co-author.

Suffice it to say that my stop-gap had turned into a big ball of stress.

So yesterday I called my co-author and asked her how she'd feel about taking on all of the remaining work, with the remaining money, obviously. Turns out she was thrilled to have a bit more work while she's still at home with her son. I called the project manager, and while I suspect she was not entirely surprised, she was very understanding, and tada, it's done.

I'm still involved in the sense that I will be available as a consultant while my co-author works on the remaining material, and that I'll review the entire course when it's, well, entire, so in that sense, I did not "quit." But I quit!

Job #2: Chairman of the Board

Two years ago, I was encouraged to become a member of the Governing Board for my sons' elementary school. I accepted the nomination, and was elected (to a two-year term as a parent representative) by the parents on hand at the first school gathering of the year.

Now, as a former high school outcast, being elected to anything at school is, like, wow. You like me!

Initially, this added commitment meant an evening meeting once every month, which wasn't too arduous, even if it did mean limiting myself to one glass of wine with supper, instead of getting roaring drunk, like the rest of the week. But then last fall, our chairperson was not re-elected, much to everyone's surprise, given that she'd been chair for years.

Another parent nominated me as chair, and I accepted that nomination too (I know, I bring it all on myself really. I can't say "no." That's how I ended up with the two sons in the first place). I was acclaimed (which is really cool, except that no one else wanted it, so, well...)

Again, this wasn't a particularly arduous position - a little more prep time before the monthly meeting, but that was spent with the principal, who is an awesome lady, and whose educational/global philosophy is just like mine, but more articulate.

But then, at the beginning of 2009, the school board announced a Major School Change consultation. Anytime you've heard some lunatic ranting on CBC/NPR about the school board and the government threatening to close schools, change programs, move students, etc., that's Major School Change. As the Governing Board, we have to attend meetings with the school board, meet with other schools' GBs, draft proposals, consult our fellow parents, and so on.

Ack!

This was, quite literally, not what I signed on for.

Now, as it happens, my two-year term as a parent rep is up, and I would have to be re-elected to continue on the GB. So I sent the principal an email and said, as nicely as I could, that I was not going to accept the nomination this time. So, technically, I did not quit, I just didn't seek re-election. But I quit!

Jobs #3, 4, 5 and 6: the ones I didn't quit
~ I'm still teaching full time, and loving it - three courses, 120 students... but I'll write more about that some other time.

~ I'm getting ready to present my proposal for my M.Ed. research. I'll be gathering data this fall, and writing my thesis next winter.

~ I'm also preparing and heading a project for our Liberal Arts program, with the aim of creating a more interdisciplinary and coherent program.

~ Despite all my other commitments, my family hasn't kicked me out, so there's the whole wife and mother thing.

So, yes, I am a free(er) woman. Maybe I'll even have time to blog :)

On ‘Teacher expectations for the disadvantaged’

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Yes, it's that time again - I am now into the research cycle of the M.Ed., which includes the course I'm taking this semester. Our first assignment was to reflect on the ethics of a case study conducted in the USA in the 1960s.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore F. Jacobson’s experiment on self-fulfilling prophesies, in the late 1960s, led educators to reflect on their “attitudes and behaviour towards students,” and inspired further research into the impact of teacher attitude and the concept of the self-fulfilling prophesy. Four decades later, however, such an experiment might not get past an academic ethics committee, despite what appear to be significant and desirable effects in the field.

Reflections on Interdisciplinarity

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Constructing Knowledge Across the Disciplines, Journal 3

Constructing Knowledge Across the Disciplines is the last full course before I begin preparing my research project next fall. The ideas to which we’ve been exposed in this course have implications, for me, not only in terms of interdisciplinary studies, but also as fundamental precepts upon which we can build a stronger system. From the beginning of this course, I have felt at home with the idea of interdisciplinarity, not least because general education courses, such as English, fit so neatly into an interdisciplinary Cegep. In fact, in many ways, the best part of the course is the fresh ammunition (to expand on Klein’s geopolitical metaphor) I bring to the fight for general education courses. I sometimes feel that the powers that be have forgotten the importance of general education courses, despite the essential role of such courses in the epistemological framework within which the Cegep system operates. Every once in a while, a new ominous rumour circulates that “they” are toying with the idea of eliminating some or all general education requirements; naturally, such speculation worries me for personal job security reasons, but beyond that, I genuinely believe in the value of general education courses at the college level, and it concerns me that students may one day be without them.

A few semesters ago, when reflecting on the Assessment as Learning course, I realized I had been fundamentally changed as a teacher by the experience. That course made me rethink my approach not only to individual assessments, but to course design, program planning, and departmental alignment. The effect has been longstanding; in fact, I have convinced my department that rather than focusing on whether or not we give the same mark for an essay, we should be examining how consistent we are, as a group, when it comes to feedback. I sense the same profound change with this course. I have embraced the idea of interdisciplinarity, and in particular, the idea of collaborative curriculum planning.

Generally speaking, general education teachers in the English Cegep system are accustomed to a great degree of autonomy. Unlike our counterparts in the French system, or our colleagues in certain other departments, we have a great deal of freedom when it comes to course content and planning. Our MELS objectives and standards are relatively vague and flexible, so we can essentially do what we want as individual teachers. There are, obviously, certain parameters determined by our colleges and departments within which we develop our courses, but as long as our course outlines fulfil the given criteria, we are left to our own devices. As a result, students have many options when it comes to choosing their genre (102) and theme (103) courses – for example, according to the 2007-2008 course catalogue at Vanier, students could choose from 26 theme courses, and 31 genre courses. In short, there’s not a lot of collaborative course design happening.

As a direct result of my work in this course, I am now deliberately seeking out collaborations with teachers both within the English department and in other areas. For instance, next fall I will teach the third-semester Liberal Arts English course, and in preparing the course, I have been working with my departmental colleague who teaches the fourth-semester course. Not only has this teamwork helped me immensely in planning my course, but I feel that we have defined a coherent whole, so that our students will see connections between the work they do in the fall semester and new material in the winter. My colleague and I are planning assessment projects that span the two semesters, and are looking for ways to share on-line interactive resources, and we’re planning course material that reflects the connections we’ve identified. Although our courses might be considered quite different, once we thought about it in terms of Beane’s organizing centre, we realized that both courses share a desire to consider literature from unconventional perspectives. Now that we’ve had our “great idea,” things are falling into place, and we both feel very confident that in the next few years we’ll refine this package, and may even be able to engage in some team teaching in the classroom – and in the meantime, we can at least make it clear to our students that we’re working together to make two courses more rewarding for them.

I am also hoping to take the preliminary course design that I developed with my simulation teammates and develop a complete course that can be offered at Vanier. I will be proposing this idea to our dean in the coming weeks, and if I get the green light, I’ll solicit input from teachers in our healthcare departments and computer programs. I don’t know that team teaching is likely at this stage, but perhaps if the course goes ahead and is well-received, the next logical step will be taken, and teachers from the disciplines will participate in the classroom. Ultimately, this course can indeed be a model for other Block B English courses, and perhaps be adapted for Humanities courses as well.

The CKAD course has been a very rewarding one for me. Now I need to take this new interdisciplinary perspective and change the system – after summer vacation, obviously Vacation!.

Another semester in the can

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As of noon today, my semester is done - every last essay corrected, every straggler accounted for, and every grade calculated. Yay!

It's been a strange semester. It began abruptly and unpleasantly, because the day after I learned that I had a full-time daytime course load, my grandmother passed away. This was less than a week before the term started, which means I was frantically getting course material together - and then the funeral happened on the second day of the semester. I taught my first course the day before the funeral with almost no preparation and while completely distracted, and had to call on a colleague to fill in for me on the day of the funeral, so I missed Day 1 with two of my classes.

I felt not quite on track for about a month, and I never really felt at ease with my first group.

On the other hand, my 101 course worked really well this term. In the winter term, the 101 groups tend to be volatile. The students are in an Intro course, but it's the second semester - which means either that they failed the first time around, or they're starting their first year halfway through. Either way, these groups often feel not quite right. In fact, although there were 27 students registered in my course right up to the end, nine or ten of them stopped coming to class altogether by the last month of the semester. The group that remained, however, was enthusiastic and did some great work.

Next fall, for the first time ever, I don't have a 101 course. I'll be teaching two sections of my genre course on Formula Fiction and one theme course for Liberal Arts. I'm pretty happy with this assignment, although I am a little concerned about the 2009 winter term, and whether or not I'll have enough CI (the calculation of my individual workload) to have a complete year. Not only does this CI matter in terms of salary - if I fall below a certain CI, I get paid rather a lot less - but also in terms of tenure. The 2007-2008 year is the first full year for me at this college, and I need another one to qualify for the next level up the ladder.

Wake up!

Anyway, right now I'm focusing on making some minor adjustments to the Formula Fiction course (I taught it this winter and it worked very well, so the adjustments are really very minor) and making some major ones to the Liberal Arts course. I've been collaborating with the teacher who gets the Liberal Arts group in the following semester*, and we're coming up with some really exciting ideas. We may also be plotting a coup, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you plan courses while under the influence.

If you made it this far in the post, you get a reward - my new favourite student essay typo: according to one student in my Formula Fiction course, Bridget Jones is "in a retaliation ship" with her boss.

Admit it - don't you sometimes feel that you're in a retaliation ship?

*Incidentally, this is the same angel who came to my rescue at the beginning of the term when I was in funereal dire straits. She is officially my favourite colleague EVER. :D

I [heart] Taylor Mali

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As a follow-up to the previous post, may I present:

Silver lining?

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So we're nearing the end of the semester, which means piles of correcting, as always. This semester I feel like I'm actually on top of things, which is a good feeling, let me tell you.

Of course, when you're on top of things, you have to be careful to stay balanced, lest you tumble off and get smothered...

As always, one of the minor joys of all this correcting is the inadvertent laughs provided by typos and other unintentional errors. For instance, I'm reading an essay now, written by one of my Intro students on Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral.' The student states that the lesson of the story is "don't be sterotypical or jugdemental."

Jug-de-mental... hee!

So on Thursday, one of my classes had to hand in their rewritten essays. Naturally, a few people didn't show up, presumably under the (mistaken) impression that if I don't see them, I don't notice that their papers are not on time.

Ten minutes into the class period, there's a knock on the door. I open the door to find one of the missing students, who hands me her paper, coughs, and then says she can't stay because she has bronchitis, but she wanted to get her paper in.

So yes, kudos for demonstrating that you respect my deadlines and take my class seriously, but I'm not sure about the whole pulmonary infection thing. Also, I believe this is your plague rat.

*I have a leftover, unopened roll of rockets from Hallowe'en that goes to the person who first correctly identifies the reference in the title.

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