Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation.
It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.
All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.
Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading
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
Back to School
Stores taunt shoppers with Back-to-School savings in early July. By mid-August, denial transforms into anticipation. Hallways are waxed. New classroom designs are configured. Bulletin boards become thematic works of art. Pencils are sharpened. School is ready for students.
Educators focus their vision on the master plan for student learning. What worked last year? What adjustments need to be made? And why? Always know the WHY to move forward with purpose. After addressing the WHY, it is time to figure out HOW to set the plan into action. Every day, students should ask and be able to answer: What am I learning today? Why am I learning this? and How will I know I have learned it?
We know from the research of experts and from personal experience—in its simplest form—learning must be visible to maximize educational effectiveness. John Hattie reminds us, “Know thy impact.” So, we proceed thoughtfully…
Course curricular units. Planned.
Department standards. Identified.
Visible learning targets. Posted.
Student-friendly language? Yep.
If we can get to this point, we are in great shape; but a new conflict emerges. How do we know students are learning according to expectations? Is there a transparent means of assessing and organizing evidence of learning? This becomes a gap in what well-intended educators want to do versus what takes place in the classroom. Here is a simple plan to align standards, learning targets, and assessment. 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
As my Twitter handle @RESP3CTtheGAME indicates, I am passionate about baseball–a dedicated student and teacher of the game. Baseball is more cerebral than most sports, not necessarily won by the bigger, faster, stronger team. I crave the competition, strategy, and team success; there is no greater reward than watching players execute the skills emphasized in practice. Baseball is a dignified team sport–especially when played the right way–but those who understand its intricacies know baseball is also a game of individual failure, constant adjustment, and mental combat. Fighting these demons requires sustained focus, patience, and a growth mindset. This is where we lose many participants over time, be it on the field or in a classroom. Learners must be willing to overcome educational adversity and constructive discomfort in order to improve.
In my roles of high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, I attempt to create memorable, brilliant (potentially award-winning?) practice and lesson plans. I love strategically differentiating to meet everyone’s needs, while adding enough variety to maintain enthusiasm. I do not want practice to feel boring, tedious, or laborious–the negative connotation of work. Reality reminds me that the majority of those involved want to skip the preparation and get right to the performance. One of the greatest challenges of any coach or teacher is to get participants to invest in the value of practice time.
Allow me to introduce my coaching staff…
Anyone who has attended one of my baseball camps or practices around the batting cage knows that after I introduce each member of the coaching staff, I present my top instructor… the hitting tee. He gives specific, immediate, continuous feedback; he is flexible, patient, and adjustable; he is always willing to put in extra time without expecting recognition. These characteristics also separate the master teacher from the rest of a staff. Despite the impressive qualifications, even the master teacher must show results to validate effectiveness and earn respect. So, we allow the tee to do the teaching.
Some of the most physically gifted athletes overlook the value of tee work. They find it mindless, repetitive, and pointless–an insult to their abilities. Many consider it a child’s toy, a prop used by beginners incapable of hitting live pitching. As I passionately speak of fundamentals, discipline, and work ethic, players hear, “blah-blah-coach-speak-here-we-go-again-blah.” They know better than to roll their eyes, but I see doubt in faces of nonbelievers. Peers look at an invested teammate as an overachiever, or Coach’s pet, rather than a hard worker attempting to avoid a slump.
In an ideal world, baseball players and students would arrive ready to practice–eager to learn. Obviously, this is not always realistic, so we must initiate a level of excitement. This happens naturally in a culture of learning. Hitting consistent line drives to the far end of the cage is not as easy as it seems, but the goal is clear and attainable. The depth of the tunnel reminds the hitter to swing hard, but the ball will not travel properly unless the head remains steady and eyes focus softly on the point of contact. None of this is possible unless the lower half rotates and allowing the hips to clear a path for the hands to follow.
Every learner has strengths, where understanding and skill result in quick mastery. This comfort zone enables students to grasp concepts with relative ease. In hitting terms, this is finding the sweet spot. Given no specific instruction, hitters place the tee in the most comfortable position and hack away. I support these “feel good” reps knowing they increase confidence, build muscle memory, and identify individual strengths. However, learning stagnates when unforced beyond a comfort zone; fear of failure inhibits growth. If only pitchers were more considerate in delivering the ball to the sweet spot with regularity; unfortunately, stepping into the batter’s box is an unpredictable, overwhelming test at times. The enemy scouts our weaknesses and attacks our flaws. Nine players on defense versus one hitter doesn’t seem fair.
Many students approach their academic reps in the same way. They use the most comfortable–often apathetic–shortcut, through the formative process. They fall into a routine of compliance to appease the teacher and keep parents satisfied, especially where points are awarded. An even greater challenge is awarding no points for practice work, especially in a world where grades dictate student “worth.” Will this be graded? Does this count? How much is this worth?
Teachers, coaches, and parents must work with students to shatter this harmful mindset. Yes, it counts–more than any quantifiable grade, percentage, or average–but this is where teachers need to make sure students and their parents understand the value of the learning process. If practice is perceived as worthless, it is disrespectful to students and detrimental to a culture of learning. Formative practice is where learning occurs; this is the time for interaction and growth.
Those who respect the game of baseball, honor the importance of preparation. They find beauty in the art of practice. Classroom learning must be purposeful in relation to course standards. It should be interactive, engaging, and (dare I say?) fun. When students refuse to accept the value of practice, they turn the process into a points game. Maybe the class work is too easy, mindless, or repetitive; they can test without doing any work. Maybe the work is not tied to any standards. The teacher assigns homework because that’s what is expected; there is no clear rationale for completing perceived busy work. So, students rush to complete the assignment, copy a peer’s answers, or accept a zero–none of which prepares them for game time. When formative assessment is calculated to determine an average, the final grade is not an accurate indicator of learning.
Time to reconsider the educational purpose behind instructional practices, home work, and assessment. Time for educators to adjust the tee.
Adjusting the tee
Teachers tell students to be more creative but use the same lessons, tests, and plans every year. Schools tell teachers to be innovative, while expecting educators to increase standardized test scores and stick to the curriculum. We have predetermined outcomes that control learning, yet complain about kids’ lack of creativity. Children have wild imaginations (maybe video games are beneficial), but do not have the time nor freedom to express their creativity.
Learning, like tee work, requires the complex thought process of visualization. Hitters must conceptualize scenarios to discover the feel of staying on top of a high fastball, or driving a pitch on the outside corner. Reset. Move the tee out–then in–to simulate various points of contact. Initially, hitters might need situational prompts from a coach, but if effectively modeled, visualization becomes an art. Growth requires multiple opportunities for success–a full bucket of balls. Stretch the imagination. How does it feel to drive in the winning run with two strikes and the game on the line? What if it’s an off-speed pitch? Adjust. Make learning a memorable event–celebrate growth.
While the real education takes place throughout the formative stages of each unit, if treated properly, the final product will reflect successful growth. Formative feedback should guide further instruction and provide clear indication of preparedness for the summative assessment–game time. If I have done my job of providing multiple opportunities while communicating continuous, target-specific feedback, students should want to showcase their learning. In my classroom, such assessments are known as “celebrations of knowledge.”
Allow space for failure and recovery
Learning is messy. The growth process must be nurtured with care. No one wants to be evaluated on every swing in practice. Even with the best intentions, a batter inevitably strikes the rubber tube with such force practice stops to locate the source of the embarrassing thwack. It’s bad enough having to pick up the tee in front of teammates, let alone the judgmental eyes of a coach. As difficult as it is to resist the teachable moment, sometimes I have to step back and allow a hitter to work through his flaws. Proud or stubborn competitors don’t always seek a coach’s advice. The tee provides ample feedback. The hitter makes corrections. Following failure or success, I ask what he learned from the hitting instructor. Self-assessment and verbalization of the learning create ownership of the lesson. The hitter will adapt in much the same way during a game when isolated in the batter’s box.
Such cognition is powerful; this hitter may share his learning with teammates through understanding only one with experience can express. A partner can make helpful suggestions or simply provide support by loading the tee with another ball. The team builds a unique culture during practice, which should transfer to the dugout and onto the field. The chatter around a batting cage highlights my summers in much the same way an active classroom composes the soundtrack of the school year.
Join the Culture of Learning team–dominate the Major Leagues of Education. Lead a team where everyone shares a vision of success, outworks the competition, and earns playing time. But we must careful with our analogies. There are plenty of games to enjoy in life; if we make learning a priority in education, we will stop playing the game of school.
*Day 21 of @Teachthought #reflectiveteacher 30-day blogging challenge
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.
At the end of every school week our teachers receive a bulletin which provides valuable updates, cites interesting educational research, recognizes staff accomplishments, and highlights upcoming events. The format remains the same but new content is presented. The one constant is the series of (Du)Four questions intended to guide our practice and reinforce our mission statement: As the faculty and staff of a comprehensive high school, we will provide opportunities to all students giving them the skills needed to better themselves and society.
1. What do we expect our students to learn?
2. How will we know they have learned it?
3. How will we respond to students who are not learning?
4. How will we respond to students who already know it?
These four questions have provoked some of the most stimulating and challenging professional conversations I have experienced in eighteen years of training and professional development. In 2008, Dr. Tom Guskey opened our school year with a memorable inservice presentation, sharing his wisdom and expertise in healthy grading practices. As a result, the district formed a committee–of which I was thrilled to be part–to research, discuss, and establish a philosophy of best practices for instruction and grading. The brilliant work of Wormeli, Reeves, O’ Connor, Marzano, DuFour, Wiggins, Tomlinson, Wiliam, and Guskey–among other educational experts–inspired my teaching and affirmed my classroom philosophy (learn with a purpose). After numerous drafts and revisions, the committee published a 6-12 grading document which our learning community continues to review. The most positive improvements include:
- the elimination of zeros and extra credit
- grades indicate achievement only
- behaviors and work habits are reported separately with criteria identified on a citizenship rubric
- distinguishing between formative, benchmark, and summative assessments (as online grading categories)
- common summative assessments and consistent reporting in like courses (taught by multiple teachers)
- a reassessment policy for summative assessments
While teachers continue to make significant progress in building workable classroom models, some have struggled to transition from a traditional mindset of grading and instruction. The cause of this discrepancy is mostly due to varying interpretations of the grading guidelines document. The research highlights what Frank Noschese identifies as the spirit of standards-based grading–a positive first step in a traditional model; however, traditional district practices impede the path to officially commit to the philosophy. I anticipate many school districts can relate to being caught in a similar predicament.
So now what? In an educational world where so many conditions are predetermined, attitude is the one factor we as individuals are able to control. As more questions arise, teachers, administrators, parents, and students must seize the opportunity to create an environment with freedom for growth and expectations of achievement. Rather than resist this positive shift or complain about the inevitable challenges, let’s act with the mindset that all may thrive if we fully commit to a culture of learning.
In addition to expressing our own passion for teaching, love of our students, and zeal for learning, here are ten immediate, attainable solutions to impact our culture of learning.
1. Increase our reflective practice to contemplate what works or does not work and why.
Returning to the four guiding questions above is the best starting point. With respect to colleagues and friends, I challenge everyone to put their responses to the big questions in writing. And if those questions are too broad to start with, try answering these:
- Have you and your department identified standards and learning targets for each course?
- How are you assessing student performance on learning targets?
- What are the reasons why students are not learning?
- How effectively do you differentiate to provide opportunities for all students to learn?
2. Identify the purpose of each course and design units to meet course goals.
- Determine the course content and performance standards
- Craft essential questions to guide teaching and learning of standards
- Break each unit into student-friendly learning targets (“I can” statements)
- Allow common formative assessments to inform instruction as necessary to meet success criteria of learning targets
- Design summative assessments around common standards to measure learning
3. Define levels of proficiency so students can achieve course goals with the encouragement of a growth mindset.
4. Make Learning Transparent.
- post learning targets so they are always visible to students (then, attach them to reinforce purpose and refer to them throughout the learning process)
- emphasize the formative process to guide teaching and learning (continuous consideration of practice needed to become proficient on learning targets)
- know expectations of summative assessment
- students are accountable for monitoring their progress–there should be no surprises
5. Stop grading and reporting everything online.
- instead, provide constant feedback on progress toward standards without including a number or letter grade
- differentiate next steps for learning according to individual student needs
- teachers may record student performance but this should not factor into a grade
- better yet, have students chart their progress and take greater ownership of their learning
- homework should be considered practice–ungraded, assigned as necessary on an individual basis, and respectful of each learner’s time
- allow the process to determine when students are ready to be formally assessed. Then ask, “What can you create as evidence of your learning?”
- remember: learning stops when students see a grade
6. Stop grading on percentages or points (ex: 7/10 = 70% = C-).
Instead, assign a score based on a scale of proficiency (7-8/10 = PROFICIENT or 9-10/10 = EXEMPLARY). Teachers have professional freedom in this and may report as required by the online grading program or district guidelines (ex: 7/10 = PROF = B or 85 online).
7. Redesign assessments to compartmentalize learning.
- arrange by learning targets and label headings accordingly
- reassess portions only–the most recent learning gets reported
- students must prove they are ready–promote the mindset that students have earned the opportunity to reassess
- have students reflect on their growth or verbalize their learning
- embed reassessment into portions of the next assessment or formative piece (graded for individual students)
- make sure rubrics reflect an accurate description of success criteria toward mastery of standards
8. Change the gradebook and reporting of grades.
- set up categories to organize course standards
- report performance on standards separately, not as a single grade (traditional example: “Chapter 1 Test” does not communicate learning)
- report online by standards (ex: Understands How to Multiply Fractions)
- learning is continuous and should only be final at the end of a semester, which means stop averaging Quarter 1 with Quarter 2–allow for improvement, recovery, and growth. Remember, the MEAN is MEAN!
9. Network with other educators. Learn from their expertise. Be inspired.
There is no excuse for neglecting professional development. If we do not seek to improve our craft, we will fall behind. Yes, we lead busy lives, but teaching requires reflection and constant adjustment; it’s our responsibility to be lead learners. Twitter provides a constant flow of information and is always available for educators–begin by observing and then get involved. Follow #SBLchat #TG2chat #ATAssess #COLchat, some personal favorites and an outlet to engage in conversation about my passion–student learning.
10. If you commit to one suggestion from this list, PLEASE make it this one:
In every conversation with students, teachers, administrators, and parents of the community, make a conscious effort to replace “grades, scores, and points” with “learning, progress, and growth.”
Taking these simple steps to promote a culture of learning–with an emphasis on learning–will benefit any school environment. The reality of acting on these improvements will undoubtedly:
- guide daily instruction, planning, and assessment for teachers
- empower students to learn with a growth mindset, rather than be point chasers
- increase communication with parents about what their children know and can do
- impact the public image of the learning community
- shift the mindset of a culture