Ravaged. Snarling. Hungry. The beast is on the prowl. Can you feel it approaching? Students sense it. So do teachers. I know what lies ahead. No one can escape. Anxiety levels rising. The end is near. The semester is coming to a close.
A dark cloud of reality disrupts the sunny skies of the fairy tale world in the secure, carefree (gradeless, gamified, personalized, fill-in-the edublank) classroom. All the talk about learning and growth, feedback and revision, fades into the past, like a story from our childhood. Once upon a time there was hope—exciting new worlds to explore, characters to encounter, paths to choose. With challenges and adventures at every turn, lessons were learned, progress made, and artifacts collected.
But now, with one turn of the page, the fable reaches a resolution. The moral of the story speaks truth. There is no more practice. No opportunity to reassess. Time has expired. Despite months of training, the report card reduces an entire body of work to a single letter grade with room for several prefabricated comments. Although learning will continue into the next term, the calendar says it’s time to report a grade. How can one letter grade narrate an entire story? No wonder the end of a mark period is as daunting as the evil figure from a child’s bedtime story.
As an educator, the semester grade haunts me as well, but I refuse to let it become the symbol of evil in this tale. However, in a predictable plot twist, I somehow become the bad guy, holding the fate of each student in my hands and delivering a final judgment. Why is the teacher always perceived as the Big Bad Wolf?
Fortunately for the learner, the final grade is not about how long it took to get to Grandmother’s house, nor how many points were collected on the way. Rather, each student, with my guidance, will do a thorough house inspection to provide an honest, accurate assessment of the structures they’ve built. Then, we will reread the learner’s story to determine a final grade together.
Non-educators discuss education by using the language of an economics lesson—analyzing the material impact of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Public decision-makers assess a school’s value and teacher performance on ratings attached to standardized test scores. The political community seeks to reform education in terms of funding, privatization, policy, vouchers, and budget cuts. While recognizing these concepts have no connection to kids, educators also use business-related diction when referring to educational trends, college and career readiness, stakeholders, ownership, investment, portfolios, risk-taking, and assessment. Educators must be intentional and learner-focused, understanding how words and actions communicate core values.
Despite positive intentions, we have created a competitive, high stakes culture of success or failure. When we rank by grade point average or add merit to weighted grades, we assess students’ educational “worth.” Transcripts keep score but fail to identify what students know and can do. Online gradebooks turn reporting into nauseating stock market games.
We live in an ‘A Culture.’
In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. Reassessing our culture of learning is serious business… Continue reading
At this time of year, the inevitable happens.
The splendor of autumn in Wisconsin is replaced by barren trees and morning frost on windshields.
Parents disguise their children as superheroes and princesses and send them on a quest to replenish the family candy bowl.
The World Series ends the baseball season, which means I lose a favorite excuse to avoid my To Do list.
And the first quarter of school comes to a close, leaving students and their parents anxious to read report cards.
Throughout the early stages of the school year, I have carefully monitored the progress of my students–with success attributed to community building, differentiated lessons, and standards based learning and grading. Students have overcome obstacles to own their learning in much the same way as highlighted by Rik Rowe in his recent post, “Student-Centered Learning.” My juniors, in particular, are learning to take risks while facing academic challenges, knowing they have continuous opportunities to show their learning. Continue reading
It’s Brian, reporting to you from the future. Don’t be frightened. What I thought was the door to the restroom, actually turned out to be a portal into our future world. You should see this place—pretty rad.
I know what you’re thinking: “Brian’s been playing with the smelly markers again.” Not so, my friends, and I assure you, there was no head injury during transport. Before I return home to the present to continue searching for the perfect school for my children, I want to give you a glimpse of what I experienced (just in case there is some time warp lag memory loss). So check out the letter I composed thanking the administrators who gave me a tour of SBL High School in the Culture of Learning Global School District…
To The Visionary Staff of SBLHS:
I would just like to take a moment to thank you and your enthusiastic staff for giving me a tour of your public school. As the parent of a prospective student in your district, I must say I am most impressed with the warm greeting I received as well as the education I witnessed.
After visiting numerous institutions of so-called “higher learning,” it was refreshing to be welcomed by smiling secretaries in the main office and a cordial support staff. One custodian even stopped writing an inspirational quote on the message board to show me to the fresh bakery in the faculty lounge and cafe. As I enjoyed a long john, I waited briefly for office coordinators Tamra, Lisa, and Rodney, to finish laughing over a humorous tale about how the back up function on the self-repairing copy machine had to be used for nearly an hour yesterday–someone must have tried to make a worksheet…how 2005! Michele, the director of positive relations, was eager to introduce me to the team of administrators assembled in their morning school improvement conference. I didn’t catch all their names, but it was a pleasure to meet Rick, Ken, Tom, Bethany, Darin, and Charity. I most appreciated Lead Learner Hillman’s willingness to guide my tour of the school; her positive energy was reflected by the entire staff.
One of my early observations on the tour was that our intellectually stimulating conversation was uninterrupted by bells. She informed me that students have complete autonomy in the classroom and take responsibility for their education; therefore, bells are unnecessary. How refreshing to see students not being herded to the next class after a learning time limit.
As we journeyed through the hallways–with fresh-brewed coffee in hand–only the giddy buzz of eager adolescents engaged in academic conversation could be heard. Students and staff warmly greeted each other by name and were equally excited to let a new day of opportunity commence. The head learner showed me the library media center, where students are actually invited to read and research; college-level athletic facilities, field house, and fitness center; and the beautiful, park-like, enclosed courtyard–known as the Study Dome–such a visionary design. Lead Learner Hillman then removed herself from the tour, indicating she had to tend to her typical Wednesday routine of contacting parents of courageous risk-takers. Reporting these positive behaviors in such fashion allowed teachers spend more time with students to focus on learning. Novel concept.
Teacher teams were just finishing their morning session of personal reflection, collaborative practice, and activity coordination–they insisted I partake in the day’s adventure. Rik, Oliver, and Brett, several brilliant minds from the STEM wing, introduced themselves, then apologized for having to move on. Today was the day they were taking groups of students into the community to present their research-based projects. The Masters of the Humanities, including Starr, David, and Joy, invited me to their wing. I must say, they were a dynamic, thought-provoking, inspirational group.
From there, I followed Mr. Durst, a teacher of life, critical thinking, and the communication arts, but was slightly apprehensive due to my years of experience as teacher (prior to the breakdown, which my therapist determined to be a result of political targeting, public disrespect, parent grade-grubbing, and student apathy…). I kept thinking this aura of sincerity and optimism was an act, simply fabricated to lure my division-one college basketball prospect son to the district. Mr. Durst informed me that all teachers show up ready to learn along side their students, providing guidance and opportunities for students to grow in their self-generated learning goals. Teachers are empowered to design all curriculum and craft learning standards. Unlike at my former school, Dystopia High, these teachers are respected as professionals and are amply compensated for their efforts to improve their craft. What is this, the future or Finland?
As we entered Mr. Durst’s room–the Clubhouse–I was awed by what appeared to be a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park, inviting and full of possibilities. The sun’s rays were spilling through the skylights in the vaulted ceiling, providing natural lighting for a secure, tension-free environment. In the centerfield section of the room, adolescent seekers of knowledge were already sharing examples of life experiences, connecting to the day’s literary themes. One group of self-regulated learners was in the rightfield bullpen exploring solutions to passion-based problems. I was surprised to see no rows of desks, just scattered tables and an assortment of overstuffed couches and comfortable chairs.
The leftfield wall (known as the Green Monster) housed a giant scoreboard, which is how most traditional teachers of the past used a grade book. Instead, Mr. Durst posts standards, learning targets, levels of proficiency, criteria-filled rubrics, and indicators of student progress. Every time there is a celebration of knowledge, the video board reports growth to students and parents, giving Mr. Durst extra time to provide personalized feedback to each student. He was then able to differentiate future instruction. I was intrigued by an absence of zeros on the scoreboard, but had already asked enough questions.
Throughout the rest of the day, Mr. Durst was true to his clubhouse mantra, “Learn With a Purpose.” At one point, students gathered themselves around the pitcher’s mound for a whole group dialogue to reflect on their learning process and celebrate individual success. The level of respect, shared control, and autonomy was inspiring. I finally found a school that values authentic learning and relationships over high stakes testing, strict curriculum, and punitive grading.
Thank you for providing this parent with hope for my child’s future.
So, my friends, there is hope for the future of education after all. When I return to the present, please join me in leading others to educational enlightenment. For the sake of our children, we must not sit back passively and wait for shift to happen. And to the fixed mindsets of our traditional world, do not fear; you may take comfort with knowledge that schools in the future will still feature chicken nuggets and corn dogs for lunch…although they are all gluten free.
For today’s TeachThought reflection, I turn to the wisdom of John Wooden. His words continue to inspire my thinking and shape my philosophy of education and coaching…
Today was the official opening day of the school year in which all students reported to classes. I stood outside my classroom door and greeted one class of seniors, two groups of juniors, and introduced myself to two classes of freshmen–a healthy sample of our student body. As usual, some students were excited to reunite with friends, share adventure stories and buzz about the latest happenings, while others drag their way down the hall, not at all enthused to be back in class.
In my quest to create a culture of learning in our district, I avoid handing out a course syllabus with rules, curriculum, and grading policies on day one (or two). We need to establish some level of community through relationships build on trust and respect. So after welcoming them to the class….(I pause and quickly scan to see if anyone walked into the wrong room)…we have to take time to get to know each other. I’m not a fan of cheesy name-game-ice-breakers but it is important to give everyone an initial voice in the class. Instead, I dedicate the first few days to identifying and analyzing our learning styles. A self-understanding leads to a greater sense of identity and recognition of our diverse strengths as learners. These discussions launch our study of culture, behavior, human nature, and our perceptions of success.
Because everyone’s definition of success varies, so does the meaning of failure. I have outstanding students. I really do. They are under tremendous pressure due to the expectations of parents, society, and themselves. Many of them stress over grade point average rather than understanding; they play school–compliant, but not truly invested in their education. And this is why I need to be as transparent as possible in communicating learning expectations and performance standards, not only with students, but with their parents as well.
I am finally prepared to guide my students through the year with standards-based learning and grading (despite our traditional system of reporting). In the past, I have implemented pieces of the system, but the transition takes patience and time. Our department has five categories of standards, common assessments linked to learning targets within each unit, rubrics with descriptors and levels of proficiency, and a commitment to have students monitor their progress–all of which will be documented in future posts. My mission, as always, is to help students learn with a purpose.
The new strategy to my approach: I will start by exposing students to failure–fun, everyday failures we hardly notice. Throughout the room will be competitive challenges. Some will challenge the individual, like mastering a Rubik’s cube within a short amount of time, a game of solitaire, and a station of Nintendo DS Super Mario Bros (I swear it’s my children’s). Other tables will feature peer competition, with a determined winner (and therefore, losers). We will have dice and card games where only one person can win before re-dealing. But that doesn’t sound fair…
The key to the activity will be the reflective portion to follow. Why do we continue to put ourselves through the pain of resetting our Mario game before we conquer the level, or reshuffle the cards only to fail again, or even bother with a Rubik’s cube? How do we cope with failure? How do we deal with others’ success? Why does it take longer for some to learn? What can we do to improve the next time? Do we get frustrated, quit, or persevere?
The conversation will set a foundation for this year’s journey. Hopefully, it reinforces what is most important in school and we shift the mindset. Learning must be the priority over grades. As Garnet Hillman (@garnet_hillman), co-moderator of #sblchat, advises, “When learning happens, the grade will follow.” I love that mantra.
Last year was a whirlwind of educational initiatives in our high school—14 on our agenda as I recall. I’m not sure how many items were officially launched, implemented, or addressed, but I do know very few were carried out to a point where they may be evaluated for level of success. The conversations about technology integration, teacher effectiveness, student learning and behavior, and (insert 21st Century buzzword here) were stimulating, necessary for progress, and—as many would admit—frustrating. The purpose of these initiatives will become much clearer now that our district has adopted Wisconsin’s CESA 6 Educator Effectiveness model to evaluate teachers. Educators must reflect on their performance and growth in the following six standards, so I figured I would get an early start.
Understanding the Common Core—fortunately, there was little adjustment needed when the Common Core was adopted; if anything, it just organized the basic expectations of English Language Arts students. Skeptics must understand the CCSS is not the curriculum, nor does it limit creativity in my classroom. It simply validates the education we provide the students in our department courses.
I’ve never taught to a state or national standardized test and never will. If standardized test results are the purpose of my teaching, I am a hypocrite every time I urge students to be individuals and create original products. I provide strategies for success (in life) and challenge critical thinking, maybe even point out how knowledge or a strategy could be helpful on a test, but there are better indicators of my performance if I am being evaluated. My true evaluation comes much later, when former students keep in touch, share stories of college success or visit my classroom in their military uniform or wave a labor charge as long as I have replacement parts available. I don’t need to be rated or given a grade to know I had some influence on those majoring in creative writing, communications, English, or education.
The one area I need to improve upon is keeping up with new literature and the fine arts, as well as discovering informational texts to pair with other course readings. As the new department chair, I have to keep my colleagues informed, but will rely on their expertise and professional knowledge to support my efforts. I also have to learn about budget and policy matters to fulfill my new role.
Much of my focus during the school year was designing thematic units based on open-ended, essential questions to shape our curriculum. I created several unit-planning forms/spreadsheets which I shared with the staff to model a backwards design process. To make our purpose more transparent, I crafted and posted visible learning targets attached to standards assessed in each unit. I want to continue to provide opportunities for all learners by finding effective ways to differentiate instruction.
Last year, I improved my class website, where I provided helpful resources and updates, but I want students to make greater use of the site, possibly by flipping some lessons. Now that I have a handle on short- and long-range curricular plans, I feel prepared to personalize learning as much as possible—my long-term goal.
As far as I’m concerned, instructional delivery involves acting on the other five standards. Is the learning environment active, differentiated, project-based, student-centered? Are students engaged as a result of curiosity, variety, and resources? Do they know what and why they are learning? All of this should be a natural daily occurrence if the teacher is passionate, prepared, reflective, and understands the needs of his/her students.
The most common form of differentiation I use is planning for students in two levels of understanding: “Got It” and “Not Yet.” Accommodations need to be made for both groups with flexible boundaries built in and multiple opportunities to show growth toward each learning outcome. Reinforcement of a growth mindset maintains a positive attitude—one of improvement—without categorizing kids as smart or not smart. Students are more likely to stay engaged and complete coursework knowing there is always a chance to show learning over time.
My most unique strategy for instructional delivery is through a paperless classroom, which utilizes the Google Apps for Education. I have documented our digital success resulting in my seniors’ improved in writing. The approach is personal, feedback is specific, and progress is easy to monitor. Writers are able to verbalize their rationale for revisions and work from anywhere. I am efficient, students are organized, and the writing produced is ready for publication.
Assessment For and Of Learning
Many educators will be surprised to discover this standard will have the greatest impact on student motivation and success. Standards-based learning, grading, and reporting is my passion as well as the reason some colleagues avoid conversations with me. My quest is to transform our school into a culture of learning—not a simple task. I introduced the importance of growth mindset and shared my “10 Steps to Promote a Culture of Learning” during the spring in-service. Formative assessments guide instruction and summative assessment expresses level of proficiency. Students are not graded on percentages. Grades are no longer averaged. Constructive, frequent feedback has replaced letter grades on all work. I have an on-going dialogue with each student on everything they share with me. I want every student to know what and why he/she is learning from day to day and have a specific plan for personal, long-term growth. That is why I developed a system of tracking student progress using spreadsheets to chart and communicate performance.
I began sharing this information with parents, something I would like to improve upon this year. Reporting will be an emphasis of my growth. When more teachers, schools, and districts move from traditional grading practices to a more logical, purposeful competency-based system, I will be happy to share how assessment can guide planning and instruction while providing a clearer picture of what each student knows and can do (without saying, “I told you so”).
The A15 “Clubhouse” motto “learn with a purpose” creates an environment of trust and invites collaboration. Last year, I experimented with concepts of a model classroom in personalizing education for students, paying particular attention to the physical layout of the room. I even added a comfortable reading area with carpeting and a couch.
I eliminated several desks, added tables, created collaboration stations, and left some traditional seating, hoping to accommodate every learning style.
The student-centered environment also includes elements of readers’ and writers’ workshop—complete with mini-lessons, cooperative learning, conferencing, and work time.
Students are constantly in motion and emit a buzz of productive interaction—organized chaos which makes some educators uneasy. My favorite classes are ones in which I step aside, careful to avoid interfering with the flow of learning. By fourth quarter of each year, I have established an environment where I can move freely around the room simply observing, inquiring, and appreciating the conversations.
I have always provided students with choice in their education through a project-based or passion-based approach, but will continue to increase my documentation of the process. Last year’s 20% time/genius hour was an overwhelming success and gave me time (and an excuse) to write about the experience. Throughout the last two years of posting on my blog, eleventh grade student learning in Perspectives in World Literature and Composition has been a frequent topic. This year’s goal is to give students more opportunities to network with classes around the globe (especially in a world literature class), share learning through class blogs or websites, and continue to impact their world. Access to a set of Chrome books will help.
I will even play along with PBIS as long as we continue to separate behavior from learning in calculating and reporting grades. Reality says we have really good kids who do not need rewards to behave appropriately, but any acronym with “positive” is positive for a school culture.
As an education PD junkie, this is the standard on which I spend the majority of my time, and to be honest, would dispute any evaluation below distinguished. I crave opportunities to learn, reflect, and collaborate. My Twitter feed is constant and at times, overwhelming. I pay attention to the waterfall of information, but use TweetDeck for clarity and follow hashtags to narrow the focus. I will continue to be part of several regular chats, to collaborate with and be challenged by both familiar and new perspectives. There is value in staying current, to be a resource for and representative of my district.
Last year was the most significant in my professional career, as I took great initiative in increasing my leadership, networking, and sharing with others. I was sent to conferences, attended edcamps, and served on a number of committees which provided opportunities for growth as a teacher leader—an invigorating step in my professional development. I learned more in one year than in any of my nearly two decades in education.
But the thing about learning is it carries little meaning if not reflected on and transformed into new practice. Last year also confirmed I need opportunities to connect with other professionals—to feel respected as a professional and challenged intellectually—but my place is, as it always has been, in the classroom.
My leadership and learning continues throughout the summer. I am honored to help plan and facilitate our district’s first Summer Teaching Summit, three 3-day professional development sessions. Day 3 of each session will be highlighted by the inspirational, compassion-based presentation of Oliver Schinkten (@schink10), an emerging voice in education I admire and cannot wait to meet in person. Teachers will walk away from the three day summit with renewed passion for their craft, clear purpose and direction, and practical resources for implementing strategies to make them more effective educators.
The challenge for everyone is to take action on something introduced last year. Dive in. Invest in one—or if equipped—several areas of emphasis and make an impact on our culture of learning. Now, my duty is to organize my learning, reflect, and turn ideas into action. I owe it to my district, myself, and most importantly, my students.
This post was inspired by #COLchat on June 30, 2014
Topic: Reflective Practice
Question #6: What is the most important step of this cycle: practice, reflect, or take new action?
Perfection may be a lofty goal in a chaotic school day, but on our quest for mastery, I expect students to:
- “Determine the central ideas of a text”
- “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content”
- “Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research”
- “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole”
- “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience”
I am not superhuman—I am a teacher of high school English and the communication arts.
Whether we use the formal language of the Common Core or make the standards more student friendly, these are daily expectations in most language arts, literature, and composition classes. The purpose of English language arts courses is to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills so students become insightful, creative, empathetic citizens—a worthy cause. Best wishes and keep up the good work, English Language Arts department.
Of course these concepts are addressed in language arts classes; however, according to the Common Core State Standards, the aforementioned list is now the shared responsibility of teachers in all content areas. In fact, these examples are quoted from the science and social studies Common Core Standards—not from language arts. Naturally, the expectations have been received with mixed reactions, primarily due to the insecurity of teachers uncomfortable with their ability to “teach” writing.
To alleviate the anxiety, I recommend “Two Perfect Sentences,” a versatile approach to assessing students’ understanding of content, while holding them accountable for the craft of writing. The strategy is as simple as—and may be used as—an exit or entrance slip.
Each student receives a slip of paper with one sentence on it (I prepare enough so no more than three students have the same sentence). Typically, the statement is an academic thought about a selected chapter, article, or excerpt of assigned reading. For example:
Juliet unknowingly foreshadows her impending doom.
Siddhartha recognizes the downfall of humans competing in the material world.
The directions state:
- Find evidence from _____(the text)______ to support the statement.
- Practice integrating the “directly quoted evidence with fluency, while adding the appropriate in text citation” (author’s last name page#). Pay attention to punctuation.
- Then, add one more sentence of analysis to clarify or highlight the significance of the information. This is your chance to make a connection and show critical thinking.
- Two perfect sentences will be assessed on the following criteria: ___________________________
Teachers have the freedom to adjust the focus on specific areas of emphasis, which should be communicated with students in advance. I always check for content understanding, making sure the evidence is logical and the argument is coherent. Quote integration and fluency is also simple for any reader to assess. Do the sentences flow smoothly or is the writing mechanical?
At this point, I hold students accountable for proper formatting of in-text citations. While language arts teachers prefer MLA format, they applaud any efforts to see appropriate use of content area citations. All teachers have written research papers throughout their education; therefore, they should feel comfortable requiring students to credit a source.
Having limited the task to two sentences, there are nonnegotiable expectations of writing conventions, such as punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and usage (I add tense and point of view here). If students receive a consistent message from all teachers, the quality of writing will improve.
Variations, Results, and Teachable Moments
A simple variation is to supply the quote and have students provide a main point before the evidence. This forces students to draw conclusions from the text. The activity may be done in small groups (competitively), with a partner, or individually (especially to check for learning).
Students are undaunted by the challenge of composing two sentences. The word “perfect” simply narrows their focus on detail and craft. They do not have to worry about organization or content development—although many ask if they may write more.
Teachers do not have to stress about increasing their workload by collecting long writing assessments. Missing work is not an issue; this is easily made up after students return from an absence.
Two Perfect Sentences is an ideal formative assessment. Teachers may survey student understanding with efficiency and provide immediate, specific feedback. I often walk around and check for perfection before I accept a submission, especially at the outset of class. I do not provide answers, but I will comment on the criteria not yet proficient. Students revise in front of me or ask their peers for advice—simple, effective peer editing practice.
When used as an exit slip, this strategy guides planning for the following day by organizing differentiated instruction. The learning process is easy to track using the Two Perfect Sentences approach.
We acknowledge the art of writing is never perfect, while the teaching of writing is certainly an imperfect art. In a world of increasing expectations and accountability, let’s work toward mastery two sentences at a time.