Ahhh…the weekend has arrived. Time for Saturday morning cartoons and eating breakfast with my kids. Then, I typically check my messages, catch #satchatwc on Twitter, and prepare to go out for a run before college basketball or football brings our living room to life. Weekends are family time–a time for play.
Therefore, I give little homework over the weekend. If anything, I set direction for the following week, possibly providing a teaser to build anticipation and a reason to return to class. Students may use the time to read for pleasure or increase their understanding of what we covered throughout the week.
I do not use weekends to recover from a long week; I use them to plan for the next week. Although that mentality does not sound very fun, I ease my active mind by taking time in advance to get organized. We can all agree: there’s simply not enough time during the week to accomplish everything we want. So, I do as much front-loading as possible. I try to catch up on providing feedback to students, plan differentiated lessons as necessary, and monitor student progress. By Monday morning, I want to see the big picture for the week. That being said, it is impossible to plan every day in advance without student contact–an inflexible trap many teachers fall into.
Holidays are a little different. Extended vacations are a time to catch up on things I want to do, like reading and writing and taking family adventures. These are additional opportunities to learn and expand our life experiences, which enriches our education. We can travel, shop, explore, laugh, and grow. This is what life is all about.
*Day 27 of the TeachThought #reflectiveteacher 30-day blogging challenge
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
I put considerable thought into planning my classes, but the best lessons result from the spontaneity of my students. While I take comfort in being organized for each hour, the random-abstract part of my brain cringes at the limitations of set routines in a cookie-cutter classroom. That would explain why I teach 4-5 different preps throughout the day–the variety keeps every day exciting and reminds me to experience school from a student’s perspective. I can empathize as the bell interrupts one thought process and insists on passage to another. However, for learners who need structure to alleviate anxiety, I use a simple strategy of establishing theme days at the outset of class. Class periods are 52 minute long (45 minutes on late start Wednesdays) so I dedicate the first 5-15 minutes, depending on the plan for the rest of the hour.
In Creative Writing (an elective English course for juniors and seniors), the theme days are as follows:
We need to make the most of fresh minds at the beginning of each week, so Metaphor Monday launches the critical thought process. I approach the prompt from the standpoint of thinking at two levels, emphasizing the figurative beyond the literal. We start with an intangible concept related to one of the week’s learning targets and make a direct comparison to something tangible. Of course, students must then provide the rationale for the connection. Our first example (to initiate a conversation about writing) is:
Good writing is a(n) __________________________, because…
The variety of thought processes is fascinating and worth noting how many writers want to turn metaphors into similes. They overuse like as a natural part of their language, and are totally unwilling to state anything with–like–conviction. Right? It also provides a first impression of my learners and how I should approach instruction.
On Tuesdays, I take advantage of my students’ obsession with social media. Adolescents are undaunted by the 140 character limit and attack this prompt. After composing the thought in their writer’s notebook, many students opt to publish via Twitter. The purpose is to get writers thinking before the day’s lesson, but teachable moments are plentiful (and may be habit-forming).
Please don’t tell my students they are learning to:
1. Write for an authentic audience
2. Increase self-reflection and social awareness
3. Leave a respectable digital footprint (possibly making up for careless social media posts they might someday regret)
4. Appreciate the potential and value of social media as a means of global communication
5. Write clearly and coherently, edit, and revise before publishing (including the importance of word choice, effects of punctuation, and beauty of a clever hashtag #creativewritingrocks)
Wednesday Wellness (not a writing prompt, but oh, so necessary)
By midweek, the creative process calls for celebration and a break from the writing workshop (in the computer lab). We move to my classroom–a field trip of sorts–where the desks are arranged in a semi-circle, inviting whole class conversation (see Clubhouse in Learning With a Purpose page). Writers use this time to celebrate, sharing their work within a circle of trust. When the sharing is complete, everyone reads independently selected books in silence (SSR!) for the remainder of the 45 minute period. Students exit the Clubhouse with a sense of pride (in their work), community (of mutual respect and support), and well-being (relaxed and appreciative of quality time with a good book). The teacher also deserves some guilt-free wellness time to recharge for the remainder of the week.
Deep Thought Thursday
On Thursday, we return to the writing workshop, but before the lesson of the day, we need time to contemplate life. For days when inspiration is lacking, I suggest writers start by asking themselves a question (possibly about something nagging just beneath the surface) or begin with “I wonder…” or “What if…” prompts. Hopefully, a thought is sparked. One unintentional result of the Deep Thought Thursday journal entry is the potential for a future research topic, argument paper, or premise of a story–all of which could become publishable works.
Free Write Friday
Alas, the end of the week arrives. What could possibly maintain our attention? Can anything be more important than getting the weekend party started? Should we shut it down–call it a week? Let’s be real–we need Free Write Fridays, our version of 20% time. Not everyone is going to appreciate each of the genres we cover throughout the semester (from creative nonfiction personal narratives to fictional poetry, short stories, and screenplays). Students signed up for Creative Writing with different intentions and strengths. Based on last year’s feedback to the previous Creative Writing teacher, students crave the freedom to experiment with and explore individual passions in writing beyond the established curriculum. How awesome will it be to someday hear their song on the radio, read their best seller, or watch their movie in the theater?
Whether the alliterative theme days are simply cheesy or possibly clever, they set an expectation and generate enthusiastic, memorable learning experiences at the outset of class. And for those with color-coded planners–ease that anxiety–there is structure within our creative chaos. Of course, I make no promises of what will take place for the remainder of each class period.
I recently completed a post about going paperless in my Foundations of College Writing course. As I continue to experience the benefits and efficiency of the Google Apps in the classroom, I want to share a simple strategy for formative assessment using Google Forms. The spreadsheet creates a visual model of every student’s research paper thesis statement. I provide meaningful, specific feedback (by color) to my seniors simply by reading one column of sentences and highlighting according to the standards on our writing rubric. Students immediately locate and compare their work to that of their peers, creating conversations before I start teaching.
RED=BEGINNING, ORANGE=DEVELOPING, YELLOW=PROFICIENT, GREEN=ADVANCED
Obviously, modeling is a best practice in the classroom. If you spend hours preparing writing lessons, which may or may not leave a lasting impact on learning, consider using the spreadsheets created by student responses to Google Forms. I use similar strategies to formatively assess samples of student work, including: effective introduction paragraphs, conclusions, organization of an argument, quote integration, word choice, and any other writing standards I wish to address. I insert comments to explain the rationale behind each writer’s assessment, but students often know the reasoning before I unveil the feedback.
This instant feedback teaches more in a mini-lesson than I can model or attempt to explain (especially for struggling writers). Students in Foundations need to see their words removed from the computer screen and hear their sentences read out loud. Immediately, they want to make adjustments before I even have a chance to comment or suggest improvements–so I let them. This promotes independent and critical thought. Writers gain confidence as they make minor revisions to attain proficiency, and beam with pride if their work is already green; they are not accustomed to receiving positive feedback–a major cause of their writing inhibitions. As revisions are completed, I change the color of highlighting for all to witness–simple, authentic, and lasting.
I have never been much of a technology expert in anything beyond the basics, although I was quite an Atari legend in the 80’s, made a smooth transition from VHS to DVD in the 90’s, and more recently converted from Windows to Mac. With all the talk of twenty-first century learners entering high school, I accepted the opportunity to become the first member of the English department to use a smart-board in my classroom (when Wisconsin’s educational budget was more promising). I learned how to incorporate PowerPoint into my lessons and entertained students with some less-than-artistic illustrations using smart-board tools. After a dozen years of inhaling chalk dust and smearing transparencies, I have grown fond of my new toys.
One of my favorite applications of technology in the classroom is Microsoft Word’s comment feature, which I use to provide quality feedback to my writers. I have designed numerous lessons in which students utilize the comment functions for peer editing while rotating from station to station in the computer lab. I have also crafted assessments based on students’ ability to comment on the revisions they make within the text of their own papers. Students must identify and articulate any changes to their previous draft on which I have typically provided feedback. I gain an accurate understanding of each student’s learning by reading the rationale behind the improvements. This is an excellent practice but it is inconvenient to access student school accounts, save as a new document with comments, or exchange emails with attachments. If only there were a more efficient system…
Last year, our high school’s library media specialist introduced me to the functionality of Google Docs during a freshman orientation session with my class. While many of my freshmen were not paying attention (naturally) to Google’s accessibility and collaborative capabilities, I was intrigued by the potential.
I had already set up a personal Gmail account and was in the process of constructing a classroom Google website, so looking into the rest of the Google Apps made sense. I set a professional goal to learn the system and teach students to utilize the new technology, knowing our district is heading that direction. A collection of new documents soon accumulated in my Drive (impressively organized in folders)–easily accessible from school, home, and my phone when needed. A creative vision of increasing student success and accountability began to form: no more misplaced flash drives or emailing between accounts; no more printer dilemmas; no more forgetting to save; no more “it’s on my home computer;” no more excuses; and not nearly as much paper.
At the outset of this school year, I explored the idea of going paperless in Foundations of College Writing, a semester-long senior composition course stationed in the department computer lab. I experimented with Google Docs for the majority of writing projects throughout first semester and learned with my students. Very few students were even aware they had a Google account already established by our district technology coordinator so I proudly guided them across the threshold. Initially, I relied on several tech-savvy students, who had no problem grasping the system (it cannot be that difficult if I taught myself). They communicated when something was unclear and helped me explain areas of confusion to their peers. By the time I officially assigned the research paper–the required touchstone of the course–my seniors showed no hesitation (how refreshing).
In response to a Google Form consisting of several guiding questions, students generated ideas for their research based on articles (informational texts) independently read throughout the semester. They identified issues worthy of further investigation, narrowed their topics, and composed a preliminary thesis. Student replies were neatly registered on a spreadsheet grid–a highly teachable document–in my Drive, rather than through multiple documents or a stack of papers.
The copy-and-paste generation learned to record and properly document research in a Google Presentation rather than on cumbersome note cards (so 20th Century). Visual learners arranged slides by topic or color–depending on individual preference–and soon sentences formed paragraphs. Bibliography slides were alphabetized and posted to a works cited page. All stages of the research process were organized and digitally recorded without having to save progress. Students shared their work with me, permitting access to monitor each step.
When writers composed ample content, I had them share with at least two other students. I have never witnessed such quality feedback through a peer editing exercise. They offered constructive advice to each other, while verbalizing their knowledge about writing (but is not always reflected in their writing). I learned as much–if not more–by reading peer feedback to check editors’ understanding of writing (see formative assessment), and was most impressed to see a student insert a comment reflecting my teaching.
The seniors appreciated the authentic conversations about the craft of writing, and preferred the immediate and ongoing feedback, “not days or weeks later.” They considered this exchange “educational” and “not as embarrassing” as begging for help from a writing instructor. Ultimately, after years of neglecting feedback scratched in the margins of their work, they were “more willing to pay attention to advice” and “finally understood what [I was] talking about.” My red pen was slightly offended, but technology had impacted my effectiveness in teaching students to write.
I sense the contempt of critics chiding me for selling out to the Cloud–paranoid of Big Brother. What about days when the server is down? Doesn’t reading student work take even longer? What’s the point? Well, Big Brother should be proud of our productivity, efficiency, and human progress (or does that make us a threat?). It is also our nature to adapt to technical difficulties as they occur, hence we store writers’ notebooks in a file cabinet, and occasionally practice our fine motor skills of manipulating a pen. Yes, the process of reading and commenting on student work is time-consuming, but the technology opens new opportunities to multitask; I can even read student work on my iPad while running on the treadmill without worrying about sweating on their papers. At the risk of alarming some, good teaching is time-consuming; the learning process is a journey requiring trust, patience, and commitment from teacher and student alike.
After a successful semester of experimentation, I confidently welcomed a new group of seniors to my first hour, paperless composition class. I will continue to reflect on my experiences, challenges, and improvements, and share the results. I am well on my way to understanding NCTE’s definition of 21st Century Literacies (see http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition), but more importantly, so are my students.
Note: no trees were killed nor red pens sacrificed in the 2012-2013 writing process