No Longer a Middle School Monkey!!

Hey everyone!

I have been neglecting this blog for so long! For those that don’t know, I moved to high school this fall, so I don’t teach middle school monkeys anymore. When my domain ( came up for renewal, I let it lapse, not realizing that I couldn’t access it anymore through my edublogs address. So, now I am back to

The move to high school has been fabulous, yet challenging. All of the work I have done in the field of assessment and literacy over the past two years is definitely being challenged in a high school world of credits, averages, honour rolls and scholarships. I am sticking to my guns as much as I can, but am also being careful to not rock the boat too much until I prove that I know what I am doing. So far, I have ticked off a few people with my strong opinions, but nothing too disastrous. I know – patience and baby steps!!

The biggest issue I have so far is with the punitive grading system. Last semester, I taught science and drama, so in drama I had huge support from my department head to assess and instruct as I saw fit. The science department was a little more against my grain, but they allowed me to do second chances and implement many of my philosophies as long as kids were learning. Science is definitely not one of my stronger areas of teaching, so I just followed the herd and implemented small changes.

This semester, I have my babies – language arts and drama. My philosophies on assessment are polar opposite to our department’s philosophy. My department head and I have agreed to disagree and he is being very respectful of my choices. I really don’t feel the punitive nature of their policies is in the best interest of students and learning. But what do I know? I am used to teaching middle school monkeys, not high school monkeys?

I have been using my creative instincts to get around the policies as well. For example, one of the department policies states that late assignments will be deducted 10 marks a day up to 50 marks. Yowza – no thank you! My solution: I don’t have “due dates”, I have “checkpoints”. An assignment isn’t late if there isn’t a due date, can it??? I know, semantics, but when you run a workshop-style classroom, I think there is room for these creative distinctions!!

Slowly and surely, I will rock the boat a little more, but until then, I will continue to do what I feel is best for my students. I will be setting up a teacher blog and student blogs on wordpress in the next few weeks, so I will post the link on here when I do that. (edublogs gets blocked in my district because of “blog” in the address, but wordpress doesn’t).

Looking forward to seeing Alfie Kohn at teacher’s convention tomorrow! After I hear him speak, I am sure I will be ready to challenge the establishment and get rid of grades!! However, I need to build the bridges that need built before I look like a totally loony tune. I have to remember, that I was a firm believer of punitive grading, zeroes and all sorts of other poor excuses for teaching for almost 15 years before I found the “better way” to enhance student learning!!

Until then, happy educating!

The Head Monkey

The Homework Folder – An Idea I Would Have Implemented 10 Years Ago

Hello everyone!

I have heard a lot in the last few years about parents wanting “Homework Folders” that are full with useless… (oops-Did I really write that??), I mean… interesting worksheets for the kids to prove they are working hard and the teachers are “rigorous”. I am not “anti-homework”, I am just “anti-useless- homework”! My students do have homework – weekly assignments that involve choice and reflection. Response Journals, Personal Journals and Social Studies Journals that include an overview of our discoveries for the week and some questions for further inquiry with family and friends. How dare I not send home more proof of their learning? (Are you picking up my sarcasm?)

About 10 years ago, I would have been all over this “homework folder” idea like a dirty shirt. You see, I really liked neat little boxes with scores and checkmarks in them to prove that I was a fantastic teacher and my kids were super-students. Now that I am older, much wiser and MUCH better looking, I know that it WHAT my kids are learning, not how much barf they are regurgitating. I am all about accountability – that’s why I have my students reflect in numerous ways – blogs, journals, digital recorders and voicethread projects- about what they have learned.

Now that my school has jumped into the 21st century (apparently there is this whole “21st century learning” buzzword kicking around, so they decided I might need a projector, wireless internet and computers to teach the students in a 21st century way!), we are looking forward to adding wikis and moodles to our bag of tricks.

So with any book (or audiobook,video, topic…) of their choice, they can communicate their thoughts and ideas to me in a kazillion ways!

Sometimes I will put a packet of activities together to work on together in class. Some of these activities we do and some of them we don’t. When we were studying poetry, if they wrote 3 great similes, why would I make them do 3 more pages of them? However, if some kids were having trouble, I could get them to pick out a few more questions to practice until they got the hang of it. At the end of the unit, the kids could go back and review by doing some of the questions that were not previously answered. I used to do this frequently when I taught math a few years ago. It is a simple way to differentiate your assignments and always have something on hand for the kids that need more reinforcement. Some of my colleagues call this the MO!  (Move On!) Strategy.

With MO!, you make a packet of worksheets and you put a star or MO! besides some of the most difficult questions on the page and ask the students to try those questions first. If a student completes those questions correctly, then obviously they can move on (hence comes the MO!) to some form of inquiry project or problem solving activity.

The weaker kids get the reinforcement they need and the stronger kids get the enrichment they need. Everybody gets what they need! (That sounds kinda familiar… Oh right, everybody gets what they need in my classroom (not what they want!))

Thanks to this blog post at Moving at the Speed of Creativity for reminding me that my kids aren’t missing out by not having a Homework Folder!

Until next time,

Head Monkey

Motion 503 (PATs) and “Every Human has Rights” Book Review

Every Human Cover

I am starting to think of myself as a “blog-lover” instead of a “blogger”! There is so much good stuff out there to read and comment about, what is left to be said here in the jungle!

Well, for starters, I have been spending more and more time in the last few months expressing my freedom of speech as a lobbyist for many causes that are very important to me.

After 10 years of trying to get my voice heard regarding our Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) and their ineffectiveness, out of the blue, the door opened a crack and I had to seize the day and join the cause! I hadn’t totally given up on any reasonable changes to the PATs, but to say I was getting cynical and grouchy would be an understatement.

On March 16, I sat in the Alberta Legislature and watched what will hopefully be a new set of discussions about how we can effectively and efficiently measure what our kids know. You all know my slogan “I am not AGAINST standardized tests – I am AGAINST the MISUSE of standardized tests. I just sent my latest draft of “PAT Reform” ideas to the minister of education for his perusal. Even if he laughs hysterically at them, at least I tried.

CBC article about Motion 503

In other democratic news, I just received a great new book from The Picnic Basket called “Every Human has Rights: A Photographic Declaaration for Kids”. I can’t wait to read this book to the monkeys since we are knee deep into our inquiry about democracy. Here is my review from The Picnic Basket site:

“Every Human has Rights: A Photograhpic Declaration for Kids” will be well read in my classroom! The delightful pictures will be used for encouraging the students to explore their connections, impressions and wonderings about children from around the world.

I like the mixture of student-written texts, captions under the photos and the quotes from the declaration. I think this will show the kids that there are many ways to represent your thoughts and ideas.

I think this book will be especially popular in our room because of our curricular emphasis on democracy in grade 6. Daily, we engage in discussions and activities that relate to many of the pages in this book. If I didn’t teach this grade with the democracy focus, I know my kids would be interested in it, but would need a lot more encouragement to “dig deep” into the themes and ideas.

Overall, a wonderful book that I will share as a read aloud, as well as use as an example for future representation projects on democracy.

Picnic Basket Rating: 5 out of 5

Tracey Bowes
Gr. 6 Humanities Teacher and Literacy Lead Teacher
Chestermere Lake Middle School
Chestermere, AB Canada

Check it out!

Internet Resources and Plagiarism – How Far Should I Go?

Hey! I’ve taken a break from posting for a few months and have spent more time reading other blogs and commenting on them. Following over 80 blogs tends to keep me busy!

I recently did a project with my kids called “Buy This Book Because…” and during individual conferences I realized that many of the kids had cut and paste summaries from the internet. The kids that did this were not trying to avoid work – they just thought they were “researching”. When everything is only a google search away, it couldn’t be wrong, could it? They didn’t have to include a summary, but if they felt it would help “sell their book” they were encouraged to include one.

The students are on a break right now and when they get back, we are off to winter camp for most of the week. That gives me some time to plan my attack on plagiarism. Should they be providing citations for every picture they print? My initial response is “yes” but I would like some feedback from others before I draft my own policy.

I have been trying to embed a parody of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (courtesy of TeacherTube) to get your creative juices flowing. I will keep trying, otherwise search for it on TeacherTube until I can get it figured out!

Til next time,

The Head Monkey

Head Nodders and Engagement!

While reading my feeds this morning, I enjoyed (as usual) Mr. McGuire’s post on The Reading Workshop about needing more “head nodders” in his class to help him assess whether the kids “got it” or not.

In my comment to his post, I expressed my opinion about how we expect so little from our kids when someone is presenting or sharing in our classrooms. I have had this discussion with a few colleagues who either agreed with me and thought it was unrealistic to expect kids to actually make eye contact with a speaker, or who disagreed with me and said my expectations were “old school” and our kids can multi-task while we someone is presenting. (Some actually agreed with me and I consider them very wise!)

To quote my buddies at SNL on Weekend Update – “REALLY?? ” An 11 year old has the brain capacity to read a book, do their homework from another class that is due the following period or talk with a neighbor while someone is sharing their story or teaching a concept? And they can comprehend and respond to what was taught? Really???? Did I miss that research paper? Citation please!!

I know very few fully developed brains that have that capacity, let alone pubescent ones.

For example, let’s talk about staff meetings or pd sessions. Maybe some teachers can cut out letters or grade papers (or talk to a neighbour incessantly) when the chairperson/presenter is speaking, but why couldn’t that info be passed off in an email then if it didn’t require full engagement? However, if the speaker is presenting thoughtful and educational information, why wouldn’t all staff be engaged? And head nodding???

Maybe I am “old school”, but engaging my students is one of the things that I am just not willing to throw to the “kids just can’t handle it” pile. If I am not engaging them, after I have eliminated all distractions, then it is up to me to find a way to engage them! Maybe I am talking too much?? (Shocker – that I would talk too much!) But without eliminating the distractions first, how do I know if they really are “getting it”??

Thanks for letting me vent. I must go watch Justin Timberlake in a body suit and high heels on SNL. As enjoyable as SNL is to me, I do have the brain capacity to multitask while watching it! But then again, I don’t have to use the information I get from SNL to learn a new skill or apply it to a new situation.

Til next time,

The Head Monkey

Book Review – Fabulous Terrible by Sophie Talbot

I requested a reviewer’s copy of this book from The Picnic Basket not only because I thought it would be of interest for my students, but I wanted to read it myself! Since I prefer YA fiction to adult fiction, this was a great read!I enjoyed the pop culture references and modern feel to the book. It is written in the second person so the whole book is happening to you as the main character. Hence, the name of this new series by Sophie Talbot is called “The Adventures of You”.

The main character (aka “You”) has had a troubling life, abandoned my her parents and gifted with “shimmers” to foresee the future. She is living with a caring foster family who is starting to question their decision to have her live with them. The solution – find a boarding school to move to with a full scholarship to cover tuition. After a few rejections, she is accepted at Trumble Woodhouse – a very exclusive all girls boarding school. We then follow the trials and tribulations of her/your adventures at TW and why someone is out to get you/her!

 My first impression was how lucky she was to find such a caring foster family. I know very few foster children who have had this experience. Many of the children that I have taught that have been in foster care were with families for very short periods of time and did not get very attached to their new found family. On another note, I know that fantastic foster families are out there – we just don’t hear a lot of stories about them.

Another impression I had was that it felt like it was happening right now – today! I felt like I was right in the action!

A few questions I had were:

1.Would Karen, the foster mother really send her back if she hadn’t got accepted at TW? As a mother myself, I couldn’t imagine giving so much of myself to a child and then sending her away because she was “different”. However, I know how protective we can be of our children as well.

2. How could Samantha Carden could have fooled the entire Trumbull Woodhouse faculty with her unprofessional behaviour? Makeovers and sleepovers with select students? I don’t think many schools would be tolerating that kind of preferential/unprofessional behaviour. 

I found myself reminded of times when I was younger and had to go to new places where I knew no one. As a young musician, I frequently went to music camps and travelled with music groups. I found myself having flashbacks to meeting my roommates the first day and how difficult it was to figure out where I fit. I was fortunate to always find a group of great kids to hang out with who accepted me for who I was. Maybe it was because we were all a little strange??

 I enjoyed the pace of the book and found it to be an easy-read. I am sure most of my grade six girls would enjoy reading this book and would have little trouble following the storyline. They may have a hard time relating to the rigors of a strict boarding school,but a reference to any of the Harry Potter books may make the connection clearer.

 In the beginning, I had some difficulty putting myself into the main character’s shoes. After I got my head around it, I think it helped me feel more attached to the main character’s feelings and actions.

Yes, there were a few inappropriate words in the book, but I really didn’t feel it overrode the generally clean nature of the book.

Overall rating: 4.

Can’t wait for the next book in the series!

Fair Isn’t Alway Equal – Ch.3

Now – back to our book study!

Overview of this chapter: (Warning – this is long. Grab a glass of wine, your book and enjoy!)

1. Begin with the end in mind (p.21) – design the summative assessment before you begin teaching the unit and give it to the students to try before you teach so they know what you are trying to teach them. Then do the assessment again at the end of the unit to measure outcomes. If it is a test, the format can be juggled to stop students from memorizing patterns (if it is multiple choice,etc.)

**Reflection: Has anyone done this? What subject/grade level/unit? What were the students’ reactions?

2. Using EEK (Essential and Enduring Knowledge concepts or skills) or KUD (Know, understand and able to do) (p.22) – We call these “clear targets” at our school and post them in our classrooms during each unit. Often these skills are based on “Essential Questions”. Determining these essential questions can be tricky. On p. 24 many sources are listed to help you find the essential questions.

**Reflection: Are you presently using EEK or KUD or is it called something else in your school? Do you use essential questions as well? If you are, how is it helpful?

3. Determining Student Readiness (p.25) – Further explanation to the “Begin with the end in mind” philosophy as discussed earlier. Choose lessons based on what the kids demonstrate on preassessments.

**Reflection: On p. 26 when describing how we know if an assessment is actually assessing what we want it to, one of the suggestions is to do the task yourself. Does anyone do this?

4. Designing the Assessments (p. 27)/Wisdom of the Formative Assessment (p. 28)/Take Action As a Result of What We Learn (p. 29) – Design the summative assessment first, give preassessments (smaller pieces of the summative assessment), give formative assessments to guide instruction, then give the summative assessment at the end of the unit.

**Reflection: Should we give “grades” for the formative assessment? Should we give “grades” for any of these assessments or feedback only??

5. Varied and Over Time Assessment (p. 30) – Wormeli uses the analogy of our teacher evaluation being determined by one day of observation and how disastrous that would be if we just happened to have a bad day. Isn’t that what we do to students with high-stakes tests and projects?

**Reflection – Do we assess our students the way the Wormeli described with the teacher evaluation analogy? Do you know of any incidences when we do?

6. Authentic Assessment (p. 32) – assessment that are close to how students will apply their learning in the real world.

**Reflection – What are some authentic assessments that you have done with your students? What are some “unauthentic” (is that the word??) assessments you have done with your students?

7. Be Substantiative – Avoid Fluff (p. 34) – some good guidelines to follow.

**Reflection – Have you used any “fluff” assignments with your kids? I don’t know if I have enough time to list all of the ones I have used over the years!!

8. Assessment-Guided, Differentiated Lesson Planning Sequence (p. 35) – a 12-step program that doesn’t involve addiction! Very thorough.

9. Summary (p. 38-42)  – Definitely worthy of a “post-it note” flag for future reference.

Whew – that was a long one!! Please pass on any thoughts or reflections.

“Did I Really Write That?” – The Sequel!

Way back in the spring when the whole “Homophobia is Gay T-shirt Fiasco” took place at our school, I wrote about my experiences in the post “Did I Really Write That?”. It detailed my adventure with the local newspaper and their editorial page and how they were “edit-happy” with my letter to the point of it being almost unrecognizable.

This summer, a few former students found me on Facebook and we got back in touch. They told me that they had googled my name and had come across a blog that talked about me and how I had written a letter to the editor. I was curious, so I googled myself (doesn’t everybody???) and found the blog of the woman who wrote the first letter to the editor that I was replying to!! What a co-inky-dink, eh??

I proceeded to post to her blog about my experience and linked her to my blog to get the whole story. I didn’t hear back so I put that chapter of my life to rest and moved on.

Tonight, I see she has replied to my “Did I Really Write That?” post and here is what she says:

Dear Ms. Bowes,
My name is Sarah Rean. I apologise for taking so long to reply to your comment on my blog, I tend to be quite lackadaisical about checking my comments. When I first read “your” letter in response to mine I thought it was strange that you were being so hostile towards me (my letter in reply was a knee jerk reaction to that, I’m not sure if they printed it or not, I hope they didn’t!) As for my original letter, it was edited beyond recognition. I felt that I came across as a psychotic, drooling idiot! I’m glad that your student found me online and you wrote to clear things up. It’s funny, I knew they’d edited my letter but I simply assumed that they’d left yours intact! I’m sorry if my letter caused any hurt feelings. I’d like to link to your blog with your permission.
Sarah E. Rean

So what do you think of that? I am going to ask Ms. Rean if she will come to my class someday and we’ll have a little chat with my students about democracy, letters to the editor and free speech. Timely, too, as my topic in social studies is democracy! After that, I need to invite the editorial department of the Calgary Herald back for a visit. (They declined my last offer. I even offered to bring snacks!)

I’m going to check the scorecard. One little letter to the editor taught my students about:

  • standing up for what you believe in.
  • having rights AND responsibilities in a democracy.
  • proper letter writing technique.
  • disagreeing while still being respectful.
  • comparing and contrasting the letter I wrote with the letter the newspaper actually published.

Whew! That’s a lot of authentic learning.  It just doesn’t get any better than this! (Well a day at the spa could come close! Or a glass of wine…)

Til next time,

The Head Monkey

Book Study on PAUSE!

Hey everyone,

I have been so busy getting my students’ blogs up and running (as well as all of the other fun that comes with the beginning of the year!) that I have decided to put the book study on hold until next week.

Chapter 3 synopsis and questions coming your way soon!

Sorry for the delay (but I know you understand!!),

The Head Monkey

“Fair Isn’t Always Equal” – Ch.2 – Mastery

The chapter opened with some examples of mastery vs automaticity. This really got me thinking about a program that I was very passionate about in my old school.

When I taught math, I sometimes experienced opposition from colleagues and parents who disagreed that basic math facts needed to be “mastered” in order to succeed with difficult concepts. At first I think I believed this because “that’s the way I was taught” and then the longer I taught I really started to see the freedom of exploration that the kids who could retrieve their math facts quickly were experiencing. I’m not usually a fan of the regurgitation of facts in any subject, but with basic math facts, I was passionate about it.
In my last school we had “The Master’s Club”  and it was modeled after the Master’s golf tournament. I taught grade 6, and on the grade 5 CAMP assessment ( CAMP stands for classroom assessement materials project) the students were given 60 math facts  for each operation. It was a timed test and they were given 2 minutes per test to see how many math facts they could get correct. These CAMP tests were optional and so many teachers didn’t give much notice to them. When our students came to Grade 6, very few were close to reaching that benchmark. So  I started The Master’s Club to improve their skills and we adopted this procedure for our entire grade 6 team.
In order to be part of The Master’s Club, a student had to score a minimum of 54/60 correctly on each of the timed tests and then they could wear the coveted green jacket (just like the Master’s Golf Tournament) and get their picture taken. There was a whole teaching component that went with the program as well. By the end of  November, all of our students were either members of the Master’s Club or receiving assistance to help them get there, and we found this extremely beneficial to our teaching for the rest of the year and on our government exams at the end of the year. Our kids became great problem solvers and had a good sense of number. (Okay, most of them did.)
Now what I am starting to wonder is – were they really mastering those facts or were they just making them automatic? My students all understood why 5×6=30, but were they really mastering it?? Or does it really matter for math facts as long as they learn them? I see that Rick touches on this on p.13 in the column that says “not mastery” but this idea was still rattling around in my head for a while after I was done the chapter. Are math facts different than other facts?
Don’t you just hate when you’re wrong???? (Or am I?)
I really like the section –  “Determining What’s Important to Master” on p.17 as I find that is one of the most commonly questions asked by teachers, both new and experienced. We use “clear targets” at our school, and although the curriculum is the place to start, I do think we need to explore mutliple resources to use our time and energy wisely.
In conclusion, it is difficult to assess or differentiate if you don’t know what is important to master or what mastery is. Definitely a good place to start!
The Head Monkey