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In this episode, we are talking all about change. We are at semester turnaround, and so we are going to talk about what we liked about the semester, and changes we want to make to help improve it and/or to save our sanity!

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Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel holding tools. Text above them in the form of pieces of wood nailed together read "DIY"

Show Notes

This week, we are going to talk about some of the changes that we are looking forward to as we are getting ready to switch over to a new semester, with a new set of students. We always love this time of year because we get a fresh start.

For those that have a semester turnaround in January, this might be a little late for you, but here in Ontario, it’s a really great time for us to reflect and think about changes that we want to make moving forward.

One of the big changes that we made this year is a move towards mastery-based, or skills-based, learning. We have done a lot of changes starting in September, and with it that has come a lot of growing pains, and times when we felt like we were treading water, and just needing to catch our breath.

It has given us some time to figure out what words, and what doesn’t, and what we want to change or abandon as we move forward. As we head into a new semester, and a fresh start, now is the time to have these conversations and start to make some of these changes!

Katie and her colleagues started with some pretty lofty goals of creating all of the instructional videos for their mixed-level ESL courses. That being said, a lot of the PD and release time got cut last year, so they didn’t have enough time to develop all of the resources. Eventually, they all felt like their heads were going to exploded, and stress levels were through the roof. They decided to stress less about videos, and more on doing ESL differently.

The great thing about a language course is that you can differentiate easily for language based on outcome expectations. There are still small group instruction, where vocabulary and language can be simplified or made more complex based on the students’ English levels, as well as learning goals. So, they are able to use the same (or similar) prompts, images, videos, etc. and differentiate from there.

It has really taken the stress of of the need to create videos for all five language levels in the classroom, giving us time and opportunities to build up resources.

Rachel has been hinting a few times about the changes or ideas she has. Over the winter break, she read “Implementing Mastery-Based Learning” by Thomas Guskey. It talks all about mastery learning, though not exactly in the format of the Modern Classrooms Project (MCP) model. She wanted to take a step back and just look at hte mastery-based learning part of it.

MCP has three pillars: blended instruction, self-pacing structures, and mastery-based learning. Guskey’s text does a deep dive into just the mastery-based learning pillar.

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel, looking evil. Text: "Excellent"

This allowed Rachel to go back to a lot of the research and the premise of what mastery-based leraning is. Guskey defines it as having a period of initial instruction, and what that looks like; it could be chalk and talk, videos, small group activities, etc. After that initial instruction, you give an assessment. You then use that assessment to split your students into two groups: those who have demonstrated mastery, or those who have not. From there, if students are not demonstrating mastery, then that were you have to provide corrective activities in a more structured manner. Once they have done these structures activities, and the teacher has worked with the students, then they are ready to be reassessed. While all of that is happening, those who demonstrated mastery are doing enrichment activities.

This works well because many colleagues are apprehensive about the creation and use of instructional videos. It makes a lot of sense because it can be intense to create all of these videos and make them feel like your own. Using somebody else’s videos also feels unnatural and ineffective since it isn’t your own mannerisms, word choice, or ways of teaching or speaking. To top it off, using someone else’s video also doesn’t have the same impact on students. If you don’t have the time or interest in creating instructional videos, you are much better off with live instruction.

This idea of instruction and assessment followed by either enrichment or more instruction is quite similar to MCP’s classifications of “must do,” “should do,” and “aspire to do.” The enrichment is similar to the idea of the “aspire to do” tasks, whereas the must and should do activities are all about the instruction of a skill, and ensuring mastery.

This has led to Rachel rethinking her reassessment policy a bit more. It wasn’t formally defined at the beginning of the semester, so now she wants to make sure she has specific activities and lessons that she can pull when students don’t demonstrate mastery on that first mastery check. From there, she will have check-ins with students before allowing them to do a second attempt, and hopes to add more structure into this reassessment policy.

This all makes a lot of sense. It’s important to really go back to the basics of mastery before diving into a more complex model. There’s something to be said about getting a handle on mastery itself, and then building from there. MCP is a phenomenal learning model, and we are certainly not diminishing it in any way, but we don’t want to implement it too quickly, experience failure, and then drop it because it’s too much too quickly. It has a lot of potential for the classroom, and we want to do it right. With that in mind, focusing on the mastery-based learning pillar is a great place to start!

Not only is it a great place to start, but it’s an easier entry point to start implementing mastery-based learning in your classroom. It helps you get used to the structure, and how to shift your focus towards ensuring all of your students can master and acquire these new skills. You can still do live instruction, maybe a mini lesson – it doesn’t matter! Your students can then work on activities to practice applying their knowledge – and this part can be more self-paced. From there, you can do a mastery check, or even an exit ticket style of mastery check at the end of the class to help inform what students need the following day. This could mean enrichment for those that are ready, small groups or one-on-one instruction with the teacher, or other forms of corrective activities.

Another thing that Rachel is wanting to do is to play with the self-pacing time in the classroom. She wants to create seating charts that change daily, depending on what students are working on, which students she wants to work with, etc.

bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Katie has pompoms, Rachel has a megaphone that says "Go TEAM"

The use of seating plans is an interesting idea, and Rachel is going to report back and let us all know how it goes. Some students may not like the idea of seating plans, and may end up slowing down their progress if not able to sit with their friends, etc. That being said, Rachel is thinking in terms of desk groupings and seating areas in the classroom, not traditional rows. It will seem more like stations in the classroom versus a seating plan.

Rachel also wants to introduce more activities that integrate the Thinking Classroom. She wants to use the vertical learning spaces more, and get students more minds on.

Katie also wants to do more with ungrading. She has continued to do some learning and explorations with ungrading, trying out some different things in her classroom. For example, she has allowed students to replace marks with a different mark as they continue to develop skills and demonstrate them more effectively. The idea behind this is that if students can learn and develop the same skills over the course of the semester, then they should be given the opportunity to increase their marks as they improve their proficiency.

While she’d love to be able to get rid of markbook (a grade calculating/reporting system) entirely, it can be really difficult to make that work within the Ontario system. It doesn’t mean that changes can’t happen, but it’s going to take some time to figure out what that can look like in the classroom. We both recognize the need to shift from a grades-focused classroom, to one that focuses on the learning, and ungrading is an excellent way of making that happen.

Another area to explore, and change, are the rubrics being used in our classrooms. Rachel and her course team had developed mastery rubrics with descriptions for each of the levels: got it, almost, and not yet. They found that most of the students were falling in the “almost” stage, and there wasn’t enough descriptors to show how to get to those next steps.

They are thinking of moving away from this style of rubric, and coming up with a scales-type rubric, or a checklist of all of the look-fors. If students have 80% or more of the required items from the checklist, then they’ve mastered it. It still kind of conforms with the idea of levels in Ontario (1-4). It’s hard when working with these ungrading structures, and checklists and mastery, because we still have to put it in the context of a 100 point system, and we have to report marks/grades.

Rachel’s thinking that she’ll also move towards looking more at most recent and most consistent, replacing grades as students progress in their skills.

In terms of the use of trackers, when going through these types of courses for the first time, it can be difficult to know what the pacing is going to be like, and how long it’s going to take for students to master skills, etc. Now that she’s gone through her courses once with the mastery model, Rachel is looking to add an individual tracker, with an electronic or paper option based on student needs. This way, students can have that visual reminder, and it will help them to see suggested dates of completion, and reminders of everything that needs to be completed in that particular week or unit. She also does this in the form of a slide deck that lays out the schedule for the week, and will continue this moving forward.

A challenge that Katie has faced with her mixed ESL classes is that she feels like she needs to find more time for the beginner English language learners. There have been some really great effects on most learners in this format, however when just starting out learning a language, there needs to be a little more attention and time spent to help build necessary communication skills. She’s also trying to brainstorm more ways to use the strength of some of the other students to help support the beginner language learners.

Part of the challenge this semester has been that students that are just starting their language journey are often quiet, and don’t ask for help. Plus, with mixed levels and mixed needs, it means can be difficult to work with everyone every day.

Another piece of feedback that her students have shared is that they would like more opportunities to mix up the first language groups so that it can encourage them to speak more in English, and help them get to know more students. Katie has never been one for forced seating arrangements, so some students have opted to sit with a student or two that share their first language. And while this is great in many ways, it’s also important to mix up the groupings and help encourage the learners to expand their peer group.

Building Thinking Classrooms talks about how it takes around 20 days for students to feel normal in a new routine or classroom structure. Mixing up groups may be difficult at first, but it’s important to persist and normalize the shifting in groups.

No matter what changes you are looking to make, remember that meaningful change in education can take up to 3 years. So persist, keep trying, failing, learning and growing – it’ll happen!

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel giving each other a high five.

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