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The Importance of Routines (In the Time of Pandemic)

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I have had students tell me that they are not feeling all that motivated to do school.  Some of these students are “attending” their classes from their beds.

My carefully edited response to this is, “Don’t do that.”

Get up.  Shower even.  Get dressed.  Have a work place.  And get to work.

I have found routines to be very helpful in getting my work done–and not just school work.  Routines during the time of the pandemic are essential.

I think we are made for routines–throughout human history, our lives have been patterned by the seasons.   We picked berries in summer and killed salmon in the fall.  Then we planted in the spring and harvested in the early autumn and killed pigs in the winter.  We had festivals and ceremonies to commemorate these annual occurrences.  In the Old Testament, God established a pattern of worship that celebrated his providence and holiness and the Christian Church established a calendar that would teach the people the story of God’s faithfulness.

Things are different today, at least before the pandemic; we can get berries, salmon and pork year-round.  Air conditioners and furnaces keep us at a steady 21 degrees Celsius through all seasons.   And the pattern of our worship calendar is down to, basically, two annual events–Christmas and Easter.

We were made for daily patterns too.  Wake up, shower, eat a quick breakfast, go to school, class-break-class-lunch-class-break-class-home, watch something, eat dinner, homework, friends, bed.  Or something like that.

Then came the coronavirus.  Covid-19 with its social distancing and quarantines has messed up our annual patterns–we didn’t go anyplace for Spring Break.  It messes up Airband and Sportsday, and Grad.  This is very disappointing, but the effect of the disruption of our daily patterns can be even more significant.

We sleep and when we wake up we spend our time on a screen, either for school or for fun.  Without a more robust routine, the day can devolve into a featureless morass of sedentary listlessness.

Wake up when you wake up–lay around in bed until you feel like getting up–grab a granola bar as you walk past the kitchen to the couch–watch three screens at the same time till you don’t feel like it anymore–then do it some more because there is nothing else to do–heat and eat a frozen thing–return to screens and maybe fall asleep–take 5 minutes do something your mother asked you to do–back to the screens…

This can mess you up bad.

Creating a daily routine can have important mental health benefits, and by creating one, you can make room for the important things in life.  I found that having to create a new routine has helped me refocus.

Here are my suggestions for routines:

  1. Set an alarm, or at least get up when you wake up.
  2. Sit still, without a screen, while you drink the hot beverage of your choice.
  3. Be deliberate about all your meals.  Fry an egg or make a sandwich.
  4. Do devotions.
  5. Set aside time to produce something–don’t just consume.
  6. Set aside time where you do something your mom or dad wants you to do–and give it the time it needs to do it well.  Inform your parents of this plan so they don’t randomly ask you to do little things all day.  But be open to helping whenever needed of course.
  7. Do something physical every day–I go hiking up “My Mountain.”
  8. Don’t fill up your free time with screens–read a book!!

Some students have a difficult time with school under the current circumstances.  Motivation is only one of the struggles they are experiencing, but it’s a big one.  This is something akin to what many experience when they move out of the house or start their first year of university.  The motivation doesn’t come from employers or professors.  It’s got to come from within.

For grade 12s, this is a lesson that was going to have to be learned in September.  You’ve just got a jump on it compared to other years.

How to Wake Up Well

Here is the message I delivered to our school’s chapel today:

Click on this link: How to Wake Up Well

 

Teaching in the Pandemic (3)

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

We’ve just completed the first week of school in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It went very well.  I think that the majority of students were ready for it and are happy to be connected to the school again. That’s my first observation.

A Few Observations

  1. I’m putting in just as much time I would have during normal school.   In order to have effective online schooling one needs to communicate with students and their parents.  Every Friday, we post the general outline of the objectives and activities for each of our classes.  This is very helpful for both parents and students, but it takes time to create it.  Most of my communication with individual students during normal operations would be a quick conversation before or after class.  Now I have to compose an email or a message.  Then there is the production of learning materials–I’m making videos and creating documents that would not be necessary if we were in the presence of each other.  A lot of this work is important, even when there isn’t a pandemic–now it’s essential.
  2. Students are, by and large, happy to be at school.  They’ve told me so.  They like having something to do besides watch TV, play video games and argue with their siblings.  The felt like they wanted to be “doing something productive.”  They like the connection to, not just friends, but acquaintances and even teachers.  I don’t think they necessarily appreciated what they have at school, despite the homework.
  3. We’ve shifted from content to competencies.   This is the direction that the government has been moving education so it might accelerate some teachers’ shift to the new paradigm. You can’t lecture very well in this mode of teaching; you can’t expect students to sit passively and learn content for a test, if for no other reason than the test is no longer secure.  In this learning environment, students can be more active, doing the work of learning, while the teachers provide feedback on their work and create resources for the next steps in developing essential competencies.  Active students learn more than passive students.
  4. Speaking of competencies.  Students are having to become more competent at producing, revising, communicating and collaborating in digital environments.  It’s amazing what kids have had to learn out of necessity.   Many of these skills will be necessary for future learning and careers.
  5. Students are learning more self-discipline.  At least, if they aren’t learning it, the effects will be significant.  I can tell when a student has arrived into the digital classroom, but once they are there, I can’t tell very well if they are engaged, or even if they are in the room.  I can assign work and tell them I expect them to be working on this for the next 30 minutes, but I can’t tell that they are.  If they need to knuckle down, it’s just their knuckles.  It’s up to them. Until now, many have been reliant on others to do that work.  I think this is great. Some have told me that this is hard–to be self-disciplined.
  6. From where I am sitting, student learning has not been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic at all.

 

Teaching in the Time of Pandemic (2)

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more relaxing spring break than this year.  We didn’t go anywhere, or do anything.  We left the house once a week trips to the grocery store. That’s it.  Consequently, it was the longest spring break I’ve ever experienced.  By the end, I was so relaxed.

Then came the week just past.

Teachers got the marching orders.  We got schedules for classes and the list of expectations.  We went to work researching, planning and creating resources.

I loved what I was doing.  One of my favourite things about being a teacher is linking content to students to skills, in other words, I like planning.  And then trying to figure out how to optimize the technology to do it.  So I happily dug into the work.

By Friday, I could barely stand.  My back was seized up from my hips to my neck.

I hadn’t really paid any attention to my body–my mind was completely engaged, and it expected the body to do it’s bit; it just couldn’t keep up.

Reflecting on it, it was a combination of stress and too much sitting at the computer.

But I have sat at the computer for days without these effects.  Just two weeks ago, my gaming buddies and I met online for our bi-annual Game Weekend LAN Party.  It was supposed to be in Seattle, but we cancelled of course–so we worked out a four-day schedule of gaming, and went at it.  By the end of it all, my back was the same as when we started–it was like jelly.

So I figure it’s not just sitting.  It must also be the stress.

And when I teach in “real life” there is some stress as well, but then I walk and stand all day long.  All last week, I just sat.

It would have been a good idea to get away from the computer this weekend, but that wasn’t possible.  So I sat in front of the computer for two more days.  I got up every once and a while and I think that helped.  I’ve been stretching some.  So it’s not as bad as it was.

Here I am, sitting at the computer, awaiting my first virtual class.

If you have any suggestions as to how to get the back loosened up, and then keep it that way.  Let me know.

 

Teaching and the Pandemic (1)

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

It’s six in the morning, and I’ve been working at the computer for the last two hours.  Covid-19 has changed our lives.  Even for those who aren’t sick, or don’t know anyone who is.  Some of this change is very difficult–people’s jobs and businesses are at risk.

My life is not changed so drastically.  But I wanted to write about how the coronavirus changed my teaching, and that story started this week.

Spring Break was extended a week in order to give teachers time to plan for remote teaching and learning.  It wasn’t until Monday morning, in the swirls of ever-changing edicts from the Ministry of Education, that we received our marching orders.

Our principal said that we are not going to turn into a school where isolated students perform fill-in-the-blank tasks to earn a grade; we will remain Abbotsford Christian School, we will just do that differently.  This means “engaging hearts, nurturing minds and shaping God’s world.”

So now we have to figure out how to do that with our students.  We need to have full class instruction, meaningful one-to-one conversations, and small group discussions.  We need to create opportunities for them to do as well as think.  This involves teachers learning new technologies with enough proficiency that we can teach students how to use them.

It involves a lot of clear communication with both parents and students.  Today I will send out an email to the students, and their parents, in each of my four classes, informing them of the plan for next week.  To write that letter, I need to know exactly what I am doing and how I am doing it.  A tall order.  I worked till 10 last night and woke up at 4 this morning to finish these letters.

Now that I know what I am doing, I will create the resources.  For me, this will be making instructional videos, documents, and assignments.  Thankfully, these don’t need to be done until Monday.  So that’s the plan for the weekend.

In the middle of all this, I received an email from a student who had turned in an assignment that was 3 weeks overdue.  They said, “I handed in my assignment yesterday and I was wondering why my mark still indicates it’s missing.”

I would have been able to get all this work done without getting up so early, but today is grocery day.  I used to go to the grocery store almost daily.  Now we don’t even go every week.  Shopping also now includes parents who are isolating themselves in their homes. Two weeks ago, this took half the day.

The rest of this school year will be a lot different than we expected–for me, it will mean a lot of time in front of the computer.  For my students too, I expect.  I am excited by this challenge.  And I am confident that, although my student’s social lives might take a bit of a beating, their education, and I use that term in a broad sense,  will not.

How to Rock the Literacy 10 Assessment

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I just finished a weekend of marking the brand new Literacy 10 Assessment–brought to you by the Ministry of Education in British Columbia.

As I read through hundreds and hundreds of student compositions, I wanted to talk to the students that wrote them, or their teachers and tell them if only they did this or that little thing, they’d get a far better score.  There are some pretty simple ways you can get better results on this assessment.

Why do well?

But before I get into how to do well, perhaps we’d better talk about why.  This is not one of those “high stakes exams” we hear about. One of those that determine if you get into university or how much funding your school gets. This doesn’t have that kind of baggage–that’s a good thing.  The response of the narrow minded is “then it doesn’t matter.”  This is absolutely correct if having an accurate assessment of one’s reading, writing and thinking does not matter.

If students do their best on this assessment, the results will provide them with some valuable information about what they are good at and what they can work on over the next few years to improve important competencies.  Competencies that, once developed, will certainly be personally relevant.  This is not an English test, it is about literacy–the skills it assesses transcend English class, and reach beyond high school graduation.

The Structure of the Literacy 10 Assessment

Part A

Students are given a selection of texts.  These include graphs and diagrams as well as as various passages including narrative and expository.  Students will answer a variety of questions on these texts–these are not typical multiple choice, but a variety of forms that break the mold of traditional assessments.

There are two writing tasks in Part A.  A Graphic Organizer and a Critical Response.

This section is called “What They Say” in that students write about what other people say about a topic.

Part B

This section is called “What I Say” because here students are invited to enter into the conversation.  Students can chose between Literacy for Information and Literacy for Expression.  Each of these have readings and a prompt for an essay.

How to do well.

Tip #1 — Understand the task.

There are three writing tasks on this assessment.  The Graphic Organizer, a Critical Response and Writing for Information/Expression.  The expectations for each task are very different, so students must understand which task they working on.

  1. Graphic Organizer — Here the student is expected to organize ideas found in texts.  They will organize ideas one a graphic organizer–a table, a pyramid,  a Venn Diagram, etc.  Here they show an understanding of cause/effect, coordinate and subordinate ideas, explanation/example, etc.  Students are asked to make assertions and briefly explain.
  2. Critical Response — This section is nicknamed “What They Say.” This is a multi-paragraph response.  For clarity’s sake, let’s call it an essay.  Students must have more than 1 paragraph.  Technically 2 is fine, but I suggest a minimum of 3.  Write an intro that ends with a thesis statement–be explicit.  A minimum of a one-paragraph body that starts with a topic sentence.  And a conclusion.  Most students should try for two or three body paragraphs.  Again, this is “What They Say”;  The instructions say, “With reference to one or more of the texts.”  Students should show they’ve read the texts.  This is important: students don’t offer their thoughts or ideas here–their task in this section is to clearly communicate what others are saying.  Students should write about the texts–not about what they think or know.   This is not a personal response, that comes later.
  3. Literacy for Information or Literacy for Expression — This section is nicknamed, “What I Say,” and it offers students more freedom in what they say and how they say it–they may write an essay, or a story, or even a poem.  In this section, students are given a prompt to which they respond in writing.  Readings accompany the prompt.  Students may use these as inspiration for their own writing, but there is no requirement that students refer to them.   It is important that students answer the prompt and not allow the readings to pull you off of this task.  Tell students to dare to be different–write a story, use dialogue (but know how to format it).  Show their insight and creativity from the first line!

Tip #2 — Be Specific

For all of these tasks, be specific, not general.  Clear, not vague.  Make sure the support is relevant and specific.  Back up all of your assertions with specific evidence or examples.

Tip #3 — Give Students a Word Count

For some reason, the creators of the assessment are very reluctant to give students a word count.  I don’t know what the reason is.  Anyone who has taught grade 10 students knows that most will write a one-sentence answer to any question unless specifically told to write more.  Then most a quite willing to comply.  This will also the case on the Literacy 10 Assessment–if they write a 50-word response to any of the essays, they will do poorly, and there is no need for this.

For the Graphic Organizer, don’t over-write.  The exception is the Graphic organizer.  Two sentences per box will be fine.  A quote doesn’t hurt, but it is not necessary.

For the essays tell students that they should write a minimum of 300 words.  A 600 word response is completely appropriate.

Tip #3 — Exceed Minimums

When then instructions say, “With reference to one or more of the texts,” refer to at least two.  When the instructions say multi-paragraph, write at least 3.  Exceed minimums, but don’t get carried away–don’t refer to all the texts multiple times and don’t write a seven paragraph essay.  Good writers know when their point has been made and don’t need to compensate with volume.

Tip #4 — Read for Main Ideas

Most of the tasks in the assessment revolve around picking up on the main ideas for each text.  Students should practice this in their classes, and they should focus on this as they read the passages on the assessment.

Tip #5 — Capitals and Periods

I’ve marked provincial exams for more than two decades, and have always been baffled as to why so many students consider the caps and periods optional, as if they were some sort of stylistic device that only pretentious professionals employed.

If you know what a sentence is.  Show that you know.

If you don’t know what a sentence is, toss a few periods and capitals into your writing. It can’t hurt.  At least the assessor would get the idea that you’re trying.

Tip #6 Refer to Texts by Name

And put this name in the proper format.

Tip #7 — Read It Over

Typos and spelling mistakes don’t leave a very good impression.  Ideally, every spelling and grammatical error that remains in each composition should only be the ones the student is not aware of.  If they know how to spell “environment” they should not allow “emviromint” remain uncorrected in their essay.

Tip #8 — Paragraphing

Reinforce the importance of paragraphing to your students.  It shows the students understanding of structuring writing, and it makes their writing easier to understand.

So, topic sentences, specific evidence with explanations, and transitions will really boost those marks.  It’s fine if students don’t write in paragraphs, but only if they legitimately don’t understand paragraphing.  That’s one of the things we are assessing.

Tip #9 — Answer the questions even if it’s not relevant to you.

Sometimes students will be asked to give a personal opinion or reflection to an issue or an idea.  They need to put some effort into this, even if they honestly don’t have an opinion, reaction or to describe something they learned or how their opinion has shifted.  They should explain why they don’t have an opinion, or talk about an opinion that a student might have.  A specific response in these cases can bump students up a mark.

Silent Night, Holy Night

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

My third-grade teacher taught us how to sing the carol, “Silent Night” in Dutch.  We sang it for the residence of the retirement home.  I still remember the Dutch lyrics, but I never really knew what the words said.

My dad was commenting on the song the other day and complained that the words of the English version of the song have very little of the depth found in the original German or the Dutch translation.

I dropped the Dutch version of the song into Google Translate.  The third verse goes like this:

Silent Night, Holy night,
Salvation is brought.
To a world lost in debt,
God’s promise is wonderfully fulfilled.

Keep in mind that the translator has no consideration for the rhyme, but notice the focused theological assertions.

I don’t need to remind you of the third verse that we sing every year:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, oh, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace

Unfocused.  A little weird.  Confusing.

I agree with my dad; something has been lost in the translation.

Just for fun, the Original German version has a whole different tone:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, oh how laughs
Love out of your divine mouth,
For now the hour of salvation strikes for us.

Pretty Pike

In the fishing store on the north end of Red Deer, Alberta is a photo of a 3 pound pike on the line that has been reeled up to the side of the boat.  No big deal, but the photo shows a 50-plus pounder hitting the smaller fish like it was bait.  This picture is awesome.  And it perfectly illustrates my impressions of the Great Northern Pike.

The Great Northern Pike, or just plain Pike has a head like an alligator and it’s got a lot of teeth.  This is where the similarities end, because compared to the pike, an alligator is affectionate and cuddly.

In that same tackle shop you can by flies for any kind of fly fishing for any season.  They have a “fly” for the pick too–a mouse.  On the wall, you can get a lure that, as it moves through the water, imitates the movement of little cute baby ducklings.  Yes, pike will eat mice and ducklings.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they at the feet off of geese just to be mean.

Pike are Mean

One time, I was fighting a rambunctious pike for a few minutes.   Given the bend of my rod, he was a big one.  Horsing him to the boat with 50lb. test line with a 3″ yellow Five of Diamonds treble-hooked spoon.  I pulled him right to the edge of the boat and we looked into each others eyes.  His eyes held malevolence.  Mine astonishment.  He had the spoon in his mouth sideways.  He isn’t hooked at all.  The hook dangles uselessly beyond its left cheek.  He’s holding onto the tackle, just because he doesn’t want me to have it.  Sensing the net coming under him, he just let go of the lure and, obviously miffed,  swam off.

Another time, after fishing an area for a while, we decided to try another area of the lake.  My buddy Keith set down his rod and went to drive the boat to the other side of the lake.  As we get up to cruising speed, I get this silly idea of casting  in my spoon.  We might have been going 20 km/hr.  My rod is bent by the drag on the large spoon and hook.  All of a sudden, my rod bends double.  “Fish on,” I yell.  Keith is surprised, and kills the engine.  I have a large pike on the line.  What’s going on in this fishes head, when he attacks a lure travelling at 20km/hr?  Nothing but loathing for anything that moves, is all I can figure.

I caught a 5 pound pike while fishing from a canoe.  I strung a leader though it’s gills and paddled home.  Perhaps it was primal instinct that caused me to occasionally I looked back to look at the fish.  Never turn your back to the enemy.  It’s eyes were filled with malice and as he trailed behind the canoe, I began to feel more like prey than predator.  I swear I heard raspy whispers of threatened revenge bubbling up from behind me.  I got safely to shore and prepared the fish for the barbecue.  When I through the head into the woods, one of the razor sharp teeth hooked my finger and left a nasty wound.  Was this carelessness on my part, or was it a posthumous act of revenge?  The latter is consistent with my experience.

Poet Stevie Smith is familiar with the pike.  Here poem “Pretty” contain these lines:

And in the pretty pool the pike stalks
He stalks his prey, and this is pretty too,
The prey escapes with an underwater flash
But not for long, the great fish has him now
The pike is a fish who always has his prey
And this is pretty.

The pike is not pretty.  Smith knows this.

Here’s her poem, “Pretty.”

Shark Week? BORING!! Pike Week! Fishing stories about one of the most dangerous denizens of the lake. Pike are mean. Click To Tweet

An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

stevepb / Pixabay

When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers — a B.  I was happy with that.

I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took only one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many sections of this course; apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students.  To fulfill this promis, I would have to take a different approach to teaching students how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing I did was eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence, and if they are used as punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Another reason for my No Zero Policy is that I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class.

The major feature of my system for teaching academic writing is to have students submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.

Students can turn a first draft.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the drafts that I marked.  This feedback helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are better than the first so the marks are higher.  Although students like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month before and apply them to the new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help with understanding the material on which the papers are written.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are discussed, explored and referenced in class.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have more work to write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

Read, “But can I please have an extension?”

How biased is your favourite news source?

A while back, I posted Vanessa Ortero’s Media Chart.  A new chart has been made that is even more detailed.

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