Listening Tails

Listening Tails

Child Development Advisor – Chestermere Therapy Dogs Society (CTDS) was created in 2014 from the heart and vision of an amazing individual, Steven King. He believes that animals, particularly dogs, can add tremendous value to our lives. From this vision, several programs have been developed. The one I would love to introduce you to is Listening Tails!

The Listening Tails program is designed to help children improve their reading skills and confidence by reading out loud to a therapy dog. Each student will read for 15 minutes once a week for six weeks. Prairie Waters Elementary School is so blessed to have two dogs (Shadow and Atlas) and two handlers (Tanya and Sheldon) once a week for an hour and a half. This allows for 10 students each week to participate in the program.

Listening Tails has been running strong at Prairie Waters Elementary School since the Spring of 2015. We have been lucky enough to provide this opportunity to approximately 75 students. The program’s success stems from the fact that dogs love the attention they receive when children read to them. Another key to the success of this program is that dogs are non-judgemental listeners. There isn’t an adult looking over their shoulders correcting them, and no added pressure of an audience of people.

Steven King quotes that “being a volunteer-driven organization, nothing could have happened without the dedication and commitment of the volunteers in Chestermere and surrounding areas who, from day one, have embraced the idea of help through therapy dogs. As an organization, CTDS understands that the dogs are the centre of attention, but nothing happens without the loving care of their dog handlers who give selflessly of themselves each time they attach the CTDS bandana around their dog’s neck.”

Our students absolutely love being chosen to participate in Listening Tails; choosing which child gets to have a coveted spot on the list is one of the hardest decisions to make. Every student who has participated in this program has nothing but positive things to say. Many students ask to partake regardless if they are an emerging reader. The connection our students feel towards the dog is magical.

Our school is a happier place when Shadow and Atlas are here. The dogs bring a positivity to the hallways that is difficult to describe. Prairie Waters is thrilled to have the Listening Tails program at our school and is so appreciative of the dedication and commitment that Tanya and Sheldon have for bringing the dogs once a week from September to June.

The Listening Tails program is truly a win-win situation. The students love the time they spend with the dog, the dog loves the one-on-one attention they receive from the student, and the handlers leave our school feeling they have made a difference in the lives of a child. If you have any questions about this program, please do not hesitate to contact me or visit the Chestermere Therapy Dogs Society website.

PISA Day 2016

PISA Day 2016

Superintendent of Schools – Today the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of the 2015 administration of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a two-hour standardized test that attempts to assess the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. It is administered in 70+ countries / regions. This version of the assessment focused mostly on science but also measure literacy and mathematics as well.

PISA is not without controversy. Canada and Alberta traditionally has done quite well on the tests and these results are often cited by jurisdictions around the world where results are strong. It is often one of the measurements used to compare provinces and countries. In Alberta, the government states that “Alberta participates in international studies of achievement, along with other provinces and countries. These include: Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).”

Recently the Alberta Teacher Association voted to urge the Minister of Education to withdraw participation in PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. Here is some background on the issue as described by the ATA:

“The PISA ideology accepts that economic imperatives, growth and competitiveness are the primary aims of schooling, and assures that student achievement in math and science are used as the key indicators of the future economic health for a region or society. It fails to recognize that the role of education is much broader and includes (among a host of other responsibilities) the nurturing of social cohesion in rapidly changing complex societies, passing on our diverse cultural heritage and the promotion of civic engagement and citizenship.

The real issues affecting society at this historical moment are the rise of societal inequalities, the need for greater social cohesion among polarized perspectives, and the collective actions necessary to combat climate change and its impact on local and global economies.”

Canadian students are doing well on these international measures. We remain a very high performing system across the globe. Alberta continues to be a strong performer and the results demonstrate there is no need to panic. In science, Alberta (if it was its own country) would be the 2nd highest performing jurisdiction in the world. Our reading and math results are strong too. Reading remains very high overall and our math results continue to tell the story that we have work to do in that area. In science, overall, performance for girls and boys were equal which is good. In reading girls outperformed boys and in math the boys outperformed girls.

We need to empower and support our classroom teachers continue to provide effective classroom practice to improve overall student achievement, including aspects that are never tested on tests like PISA, PIRLS or TIMMS. Yes, literacy and numeracy and science are important but so are the arts, wellness, social studies, along with competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, citizenship, wide variety of literacies, etc. Truth be told, I’ve never hired anyone based on their PISA score, grade point average, or IQ test.

A number of countries have made PISA results the end-all and be-all. Students are subjected to repeated test preparation sessions and “drill and practice” to try and move up or maintain PISA results. In the end, is that the type of schooling we want for our leaners? I say “no”. We need our youth to be able to learn throughout their life and take on challenges that do not even exist today. They need a strong foundation of literacy and numeracy skills but it needs to extend well beyond just that.

In my humble opinion – our professional teachers, who know our students best, are in the best position to assess the achievement of students and support them on their own learning journey. Observations, reflections and classroom based assessments really tell the story. When we make learning real, engaging and visible it answers the questions about the effectiveness of our classrooms.

For more about the Canadian results see – http://www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/365/Book_PISA2015_EN_Dec5.pdf

Greg

Let’s Take a Look

Let’s Take a Look

RVS Literacy Team – Dear Independent Reading Level Comprehension Benchmark Assessment,

It has been such an adventure to send you out into the world this August. You started out with the wind at your back, a document with a reputation for gathering valuable data about student reading comprehension.

With time, some teachers began to grow familiar with you, and made great efforts to incorporate you in their classroom practice as a tool that helped to guide the next steps in their literacy instruction.

It wasn’t always easy, Independent Reading Level Comprehension Benchmark Assessment, it wasn’t always easy. Teachers tried different strategies, and attended meetings to provide valuable feedback about how the relationship could improve. With growth and time, and the support of the RVS literacy team, a special bond has started to blossom between you and the teachers in grade 3 and 4 classrooms across Rocky View Schools.

As in all relationships, it is important to be honest and true to what the relationship is built upon, and teachers continue to do their part in providing feedback, and giving you a chance… a chance to be something great.

The RVS Literacy Team

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Middle School Literacy at CLMS – Let’s Celebrate!

Middle School Literacy at CLMS – Let’s Celebrate!

RVS Humanities 8/Reading Intervention/Drama Teacher, Chestermere Lake Middle School – Nothing brightens my day more than seeing kids learn a new skill or strategy and knowing deep in my gut that it will pay off in their lives for years to come. As a reading/writing workshop teacher in the middle school, luckily this happens regularly and my days are extremely bright!

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wuosFor all of you middle school ELA teachers out there, choosing a method/strategy/program… can be extremely frustrating. The ELA Program of Studies is extremely complex, and how can we possibly teach “the good stuff” that is going to stick, when all of those outcomes are so incredibly vague?? (Pet peeve #1) I learned long ago, that implementing a reading and writing workshop in my class was the only way that I was going to move kids forward in multiple strands and enjoy the ride along the way.


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I have had the pleasure of studying with Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in NYC for the last two years. After teaching 23 years, I wanted MORE STRUCTURE with MORE STUDENT/TEACHER CHOICE in my reading/writing lessons and the new middle level Units of Study in Reading were exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately, these reading units for grades 6-8 weren’t available to the public yet, so I decided to save my pennies and take the plunge to learn straight from the masters at TCRWP and get my hands on those units!

In my grade 8 classroom, the first month is spent developing the students’ reading lives. Many students read very little outside of school time anymore, so I need to give them mass amounts of time to explore, investigate and analyze their reading interests, skills and goals. While building this reading life, I also focus on one aspect of narrative reading that is beneficial to them in later analytic endeavors – characterization. It is difficult for kids to analyze and interpret the themes in a piece, when they are still struggling to analyze and interpret the characters and their actions. Through a series of read-alouds, minilessons, conferences and mostly INDEPENDENT SELF-SELECTED READING, I see kids slowly reaching their reading goals (which were all based on growth mindset, of course), talking about books they are reading daily.firstfrenchkisscover2

Mentor Text for Unit 1: First, French Kiss: And Other Traumas by Adam Bagdasarian – Humorous memoirs of a boy growing up in the 80s…so many cringe-worthy, laugh out loud moments! This novel was exactly what I needed to motivate uninspired readers to want to search harder for more books that interested them.

At the end of the unit, I followed the lead of my colleagues at TCRWP and celebrated! This year, I decided to have a “Glow-In-The-Dark Reading Party” complete with toasts to their reading accomplishments (with water in champagne glasses) and gummy worms (to symbolize their status as bookworms, get it??). I don’t know about you guys, but after 25 years of teaching, I need to pat myself on the back more often for a job well done and the students need that boost as well. Candy is usually part of that celebration in my world!

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As part of a balanced literacy program, I alternate a reading unit of study with a writing unit of study, so my students have now moved on to building their writing lives and figuring out what moments of their lives they want to share in their first published memoir. Now how should we celebrate? I’ll let you know when we do!

Until next time,

Tracey Bowes

Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety and Learning

Principal, Langdon School – Steven Feifer, D.Ed, and Douglas Toffalo Ph.D are leading experts on cognitive neuropsychology in their latest book, A Scientific Approach to Reading, which offers teachers and parents a firm understanding of how the brain learns to read and how teachers can prevent learning barriers.

Since I can remember I have heard students at all grade levels talk about their natural ability to be a logical or a mathematical thinker. They would say comments such as, “I’m good at math or my parents aren’t good at math and neither am I, or this is too hard for me.”  Somehow along they way they have decided that their brain either has the ability or does not have the ability for math. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong believer in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. However, I also have read compelling arguments in research (Feifer). How can an elementary student already know they are not proficient in mathematics and never will be? The answer is, they can’t know. Here is where the teacher, the parent, and the school culture must come into play. What does prevent the long-term storage of math skills in the brain? Feifer talks about various reasons to why students struggle, have trauma, anxiety, executive functioning issues, learning disabilities and more. You can find the list in their latest books, “Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading”.  One that resonates with myself, is anxiety.  

Anxiety and Learning

“As Hopko, Ashcraft, and Gute (1998) noted, the central executive system lies particularly vulnerable in the anxious brain of a math student.  The central executive system serves primarily to suppress or inhibit any negative distractors that may have an adverse effect on problem solving.  If this mechanism is not functioning efficiently or perhaps is preoccupied by worrisome thoughts, the central executive system becomes consumed with directing cognitive resources toward more rudimentary flight or flight response” (Feifer & Toffal, p. 59).

Master teachers are aware of student anxiety because they are keenly aware of their student needs. However, today we still make the error of putting students in positions where a) we have not helped them deal with their anxiety (whether, social, emotional or academic), or b) we put them into situations where they need to perform under undue stress.

I remember taking a psychology class in university (1996) where our professor openly talked about how the exams will be tough to finish in the time he is going to give us. I found this intriguing as to why a professor would design such an experience; he continued to inform us that only the brightest will do well on the exam, and the majority will hit the bell curve. Do you think the anxiety level of my class went up at that moment? You bet. Though my experience is personal and may not represent the masses, let me tell you what happened. For each exam I put in countless hours of studying, I can remember being anxious and worried that I would not remember the hundreds of pages of information and lecture notes. In the first three exams, I achieve the bell curve. For myself, this was disappointing given the hours of preparation. On the fourth exam I decided to try something different, (partly due to frustration and partly due to curiosity), I chose only to review my notes and reading but did not take the time to memorize. I decreased my studying time by 80 percent. My “gut” was telling me my memory recall was being interrupted during the exam. Can you guess what happened? You guessed it; I achieved the same result, the curve. At this moment, I began to understand that my anxiety level was preventing my short-term memory recall from occurring. One might argue I did not spend enough time memorizing, or that I had a faulty study system, however, my other courses did not have this issue.

Students are at the whim of their thinking, social constructs, teacher comments, and the environment they learn in. Whether we are an adult in a university setting or a grade 4 student, effective learning requires us to be in an anxiety free classroom (Feifer & Toffal0, p. 66).

Helping Teachers 

Sometimes, adults will use forms of motivation that fall on the competition or manipulation side of learning. For instance, we use skill and drill with a timed response in many of our classrooms. I am not saying you can’t have a time limit, but the time is what we ask students to focus on, not skill of strengthening the neural pathways. Neuroscientists will tell you we must still have repetition for skill development to strengthen neural pathways, but this is not what I am referring to. Throughout Canada we see systems in Mathematics that promote speed recall where students are both leveled and pressured to perform under time constraints. We also see teachers using comments such as, “You should have learned that last year? I don’t have time to teach this again!”, “You need this for the next grade, you better get it right.”, “If you don’t learn this you will not be successful next year.”, and  “This is necessary knowledge; how can you not know this?”  Comments like these and more, do not motivate students; they create anxiety.  Students today are keenly aware of what is being said to them, and over time, they will begin to believe certain untruths about themselves, especially when they are confronted with failure due to the inability to recall learning while under stress or because it was learned under pressure.

6 ways schools can practically remove barriers:

  1. School-wide programs for classroom culture including practical techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety.
  2. Educating students on mental health, from the standpoint of how to have sound mental health and how to help others who are lacking it.
  3. CDA (Child Development Advisor) must have effective processes for guiding especially anxious students.
  4. Teacher training on both positive classroom culture and brain-based learning. (Given our learnings of the brain in the 21st Century, this goes without saying).
  5. Have an RTI system in the school to help students with areas of struggle, resulting in greater confidence.
  6. Jurisdictional support for students with high needs (top of the pyramid) for appropriate school resources.

Appendix:
Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading
Steven G. Feifer, DEd, and Douglas A. Della Toffalo, PhD

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