Learning Something New

As a student in school, I struggled to learn new ideas, concepts, skills, and content.  I needed repeated exposure and much hands-on practice to grasp and learn something new.  Unfortunately, my public school utilized a traditional model of education and so I wasn’t allowed the extra time I needed to learn new things.  Therefore, much of the “learning” I did in school was to pass a class, matriculate into the next grade, or take a test.  The learning was never made genuine or real for me.  Because of this, I did not retain most of what I learned in elementary, middle, and high school.  It’s all a blur now, reflecting on my school experience.  Most of what I know now, I learned in college or on my own as a teacher.  In college, I had time to learn at my own pace using methods that worked for me.  If I needed extra practice or study time, I took it.  If I needed help or feedback from a teacher, I got it.  I was able to learn on my terms.  It felt good to actually be learning something that would stick in my long term memory.

After having just finished my second and final summer reading book, I felt inclined to learn something new that I could incorporate into the classroom for the upcoming academic year.  I read an education article recently that discussed different types of technology teachers utilize in the classroom.  While the obvious ones are used in most every school and classroom around the world, a few others surprised me.  Knitting is a form of technology that teaches fine motor skill development, mathematical patterns, stamina, problem solving, following directions, and creativity.  So, I decided that I am going to learn how to knit this summer so that I can determine how I might best incorporate knitting into my STEM class.

I purchased a teach yourself to knit kit earlier this week in hopes of using it to teach myself to knit.  Luckily, my wife is a star knitter and wanted to share her passion with me.  So, last night, she taught me how to cast-on and knit.  She was a great teacher, very patient.  When the lesson was done, I had knit four or five rows.  It felt great.  I like this knitting, I thought.  Later last evening, I tried to continue what I had started, to no avail.  I couldn’t remember what to do and then ended up doing the wrong thing.  I basically ruined what I had started.  I was frustrated.  I thought I knew what to do.  Then, I thought about how I learn best as a student: Practice.  I need much more practice before I can truly learn the skill.

So as to not completely forget what I had started learning yesterday, I decided to take matters into my own hands today.  After I finished reading Creative Schools by Ken Robinson, I felt motivated to try something new so that I could revolutionize my classroom.  I jumped on Youtube and watched some videos on how to cast-on.  The first four I watched were useless.  They explained the process way too fast for me.  Even with pausing it and rewinding, I couldn’t understand what they were trying to show me.  I was frustrated, but not done trying.  I persevered.  I watched one more video, and wallah.  I was back in business.  This video broke the steps of casting-on down into manageable chunks.  The demonstration and words used to explain the process were easy for me to understand.  So, I cast-on many stitches, and then undid them.  Then, I cast-on again for 22 stitches, and undid them all.  I repeated the process of casting-on several times until I felt very comfortable with the entire process.  At that point, I felt as though I was beginning to make the process of casting-on stick and begin to move into my short term memory.  By the end of the summer, I hope to move that skill into my long term memory.

I continued practicing, undoing, and repeating casting-on and the knit stitch process.  It felt good and a bit easier.  I’m learning, on my terms, and I’m loving the results.  This entire experience simply builds upon my belief in the learning process.  Every student needs to learn how he or she learns best and then be given ample time to work through the process when learning something new.  Classrooms should be work centers, hubs of creativity instead of factories with desks in neat rows.  Some students learn like me, through repetition and practice, while others learn through listening, observing, or just doing.  As teachers, we need to provide our students with the space, time, and materials to help them learn how they learn best.  For me, I needed to practice, observe, and repeat.  Although learning new things is challenging and frustrating, it’s all part of the necessary process.

Personal Summer Reading Part II

Grading has always been a sore spot for me as a student and a teacher.  What does an A really mean?  How do I know what skills I’ve mastered if all I see is a big, fat red A at the top of my paper?  How can I help my students learn to focus on the skills and process of learning instead of the grades?  Why is our society so focused on grading and assessing everything?  This hotel received 3/4 stars.  So what?  What does that really mean?  The problem with grading is that despite using the best objectives, grading is almost always subjective.  So, then why do we grade our students?  If grading only negatively impacts students, why do we continue to do it?

In Sir Ken Robinson’s book Creative Schools, he devotes several chapters to talking about grading and assessment.  He tells the story of a teacher who struggled with grading and so got rid of it in his classroom.  However, at the end of every marking period, his school makes him report grades out to parents.  So, at that point, he asks the students to give themselves a grade based on their progress towards the learning targets.  He reported that they were almost always spot on or even a little too tough on themselves.  When we help students focus on the process of learning and growing instead of grading, students are more able to focus on what really matters: Learning and growing as students.  With the vast amount of research available that shows how standardized testing and formalized assessments destroy the educational process and negatively impact teachers, students, families, and schools, it’s baffling to me why our world is still implementing them.  The old adage, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply to grading and assessment in our country because our current model is indeed very broken.  We need to rethink how we assess our students.

In Robinson’s book he goes into detail about how some schools and teachers are doing away with grades to focus on the entire learning process.  They start by answering this question: What skills do students really need to be equipped with in order to be successful global citizens?  Then, they work with the students to help guide them towards understanding.  They utilize project based learning and real-world problems for the students to solve.  Following each project, the teacher meets with each student and debriefs the process.  What skills did you learn and how?  What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  What skills do you still need to work towards meeting?  How can I help you meet your learning goals moving forward?  Grading and assessment then becomes a learning process deeply rooted in self-reflection and conversations.  Through this paradigm shift, strong relationships are formed between the teacher and the students that will allow for more genuine learning and growth to take place in and out of the classroom.

While I would love to see my school move in this direction, I know that we can’t because of the secondary schools that many of our students attend.  They still utilize the traditional grading system and, in the words of my school’s administration, “Wouldn’t understand what our new grading system tells them about our students.”  They worry that our students wouldn’t get into the schools that we are currently sending our students onto.  So, for that reason alone, I’m forever going to be on an island.  Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to send out an SOS and move back to the dark side of letter grades.  Oh no.  I’m still going to fight the good fight and continue to rethink how I grade and assess my sixth graders.

I currently use the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade.  We don’t talk about letter grades even though the school makes us report letter grades out at the end of every marking period.  We talk about the four-point scale we use to measure the progress our students make towards the learning objectives.  We have conversations with the students throughout the year to debrief their learning process.  We provide them with clear and specific feedback on their progress and what they still need to work on.  The students are continuously self-evaluating themselves and reflecting upon their progress.  By the close of the academic year, the students have a good handle on their learning process.  However, I do feel that some students struggle to see outside of the realm of letter grades.  They have been taught their whole lives to strive for As even though they have no idea what that really means.  When we try to help them see beyond grades and look at the skills needed to be successful students, some of them struggle to see the light.  So, as a teacher, I need to work on helping students see the value in our grading system.

At the start of the year, I need to get the students talking about grading.  What does grading and assessment mean?  Are they good or bad and why?  Why do teachers grade students?  What do grades mean?  How do grades make you feel?  How do grades impact you?  Then, once we have started the students talking and thinking, we need to change the dialect.  Assessment is a vital part of the learning process for every student.  Teachers need to know where students are on the path to learning enlightenment so that they can best support and help them continue to grow and develop.  In the sixth grade, we will be assessing you on a series of learning objectives that you will need to demonstrate proficiency in.  We want to help each of you understand where you fall along this learning continuum and so we will be meeting with you throughout the year following assessments to help you understand your strengths and challenges.  We use a four-point scale on which to do this.  I would then use a mountain as a metaphor for the entire learning process.  Life is like a series of peaks in a mountain range.  Each peak gets progressively taller and more difficult.  At the start of each new learning adventure or grade, you begin at the bottom of the new peak and have to work your way upwards.  Sure, you will stumble and fall, but your teachers and families will be there to belay and support you along the way.  Hopefully this metaphor will help the students see why and how we utilize a different method of grading in the sixth grade.  I want to try something new to better help the students see their year in the sixth grade as a learning process and not another boring year in a classroom filled with desks.

Personal Summer Reading Part I

Now that I’ve finished my required summer reading text, I’m onto one final book that a colleague let me borrow back in February.  I meant to read it sooner but never got around to it.  What better time than now.  So, before I get into learning how to knit and working on my first STEM and Humanities units for the new academic year, it’s time to increase my knowledge base.

Creative School by Sir Ken Robinson is a book about how to create effective and great schools that allow students to embrace their passions and curiosities while also challenging themselves.  Although it contains some great ideas for big, sweeping changes to education, I haven’t snatched up any knowledge nuggets just yet.  It’s more about the need for changes from the top.  It’s a book about the philosophy of education and how to bring about and foster schools that will empower students to grow and change the world.  He uses vignettes to support his thesis that the educational system in the world is defunct and in need of a complete overhaul.  We need to rethink how schools are structured and eliminate a set curriculum based on random standards.  Trying to fit students into a one-size-fits-all education is like trying to put a size 10 boot on an infant.  It just won’t work.  As we are no longer preparing students for life in the industrial age where everyone is expected to do the same thing, trying to educate students in this manner is futile.  Students are bored, dropping out of school, causing problems because they are disengaged, and complaining about school and their teachers.  It’s time to break the cycle, he laments.

Reading this book does lead me to wonder if school leadership might be in my future.  I would love to start or lead a school that is built upon the ideas Robinson discusses in the text.  Imagine a school where students can explore, play, work together to solve problems, learn what intrigues or interests them, and be excited to come to school every single day.  That’s the kind of school I would love to be a part of.  With all of the research on the need for change to come to education in our country and the world, it’s baffling to me why more schools aren’t changing or adapting to better meet the needs of their students and the world in which they will live.  Most schools in this country are still bound by standards and time.  There is a structure for everything.  Schools are failing students and nothing is being done about it.  Then, I worry that if I leave the classroom I might miss it and the direct contact with the students.  Leading a school is more about politics and direction than it is working with the students.  I don’t want that.  I want to be in the trenches helping to inspire students and trying to bring about change in my classroom that others will hopefully see and want to replicate.  But is that enough?  If I don’t reach for the stars, will any real change actually happen?

For now, I will let Sir Ken Robinson impart his knowledge upon me as I think about how to foster change in my school.

  • Flexible Grouping: Should students be grouped by ability or age?  Does it matter?  What about having stronger students paired with struggling students?  Would that make any difference?  Having the ability to fluidly group students throughout the year would help to empower students.
  • Longer Class Chunks: Should we have a set daily schedule for every grade or allow the teachers to tailor the schedule for their team or group of students?  Do we need 40 minute classes every day?  Is that really enough time to dig into the learning?  Providing students with longer chunks of time to learn, explore, and play would help to engage students in the educational process.
  • Make Learning Meaningful: Does there need to be a set curriculum or set of standards?  What about rethinking the curriculum and creating a flexible map that students would follow to help them gain the skills they will need to be successful members of a global society in the 21st century?  How often do you need to recall basic facts you learned in 8th grade science?  For me, it is rarely.  That should be a wake-up call right there.
  • Teachers as Guides: Who should be driving the classroom forward, teachers or students?  How fun is it to listen to your colleagues talk about something in a faculty meeting for 20 or more minutes?  Perhaps your brain functions differently than mine, but I grow bored quickly.  I want to be doing the learning myself.  I want to talk to my fellow teachers and bounce ideas around.  I don’t want to sit, listen, and take notes.  And I would imagine that our students feel the same way.  Teacher-directed instruction isn’t going to help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.

Change needs to come fast or we will continue to fail future generations of students.  Then what?  Who will help to save humanity from rising ocean levels, increased levels of pollution, and limited access to food and water?  If we don’t inspire or better challenge and support our students now, we, as the human race, will be in serious trouble in 10-20 years.

Summer Thoughts on Teaching

Rules are the backbone of our society.  I love rules.  I crave the structure that rules provide.  I often invoke rules for myself: Eat ice cream after working out, brush my teeth for five minutes each morning, and no listening to music of the artist you are going to see on the day of a concert.  Simple and effective routines for keeping my life on track.  Rarely do I break one of my own rules, and when I do, I feel absolutely awful, like my life is thrown into chaos.  However, last night on the car ride back home from celebrating my in-law’s 4oth wedding anniversary, I did the unthinkable.

The ride to Canaan from Merrimack is quite an easy one.  Get on Route 3 North, merge onto 93 North, and then turn onto 89.  The ride is simple enough.  I’ve done it so many times that I could probably drive it asleep and make it home just fine.  Don’t worry though, I will not be trying that anytime soon.  The only real problem with the drive is that once I get on highway 89, access to radio stations is limited.  One country station, one classic rock station, one pop station, and a bunch of talk radio stations are all that come in somewhat clear enough to hear.  I have a rule while driving in the car: No talk radio.  If I wanted to listen to someone talking about a banal subject that has little to no impact on me, I would talk to myself.  When in my car, I want to jam out to some rockin’ tunes.  In NH, the hands-free law was recently passed and so since I did not set up my iPhone to play music ahead of time, that option was out of the question.  So, what do I do, I thought?  I listened to bad pop music for a while until my ears started to bleed.  Then, I scanned the stations over and over and over again.  Nothing.  Then my ears perked up.  Hey, is that the voice of America’s sweetheart Luke Burbank I hear on an NPR station?  No, it can’t be.  He hosts a show out of Portland, OR or Seattle, Washington.  There’s no way that is him.  But, I listened anyway.  Then I realized that it is him hosting his show Livewire that he does for NPR.  Oh boy!  You’re probably asking yourself, who the heck is Luke Burbank.  Now, while I don’t listen to talk radio while I am driving alone, when my wife is in the car, we do listen to the podcast TBTL that is co-hosted by Luke Burbank.  It’s a fun little imaginary radio show about life and a bunch of other mundane things.  We like it, my wife and I.  So, I recognized his voice even though it does sound very different on a podcast.  Anyway, I started to listen to him hosting Livewire.  And that’s when I realized I was violating my own rule: No talk radio in the car.  Oh no, what do I do?  Listen to the City Colour CD I have in the player that I have memorized or break my rule and listen to talk radio?  I decided to live on the edge and break my rule.  What’s the worst that could happen?  I’d be bored for an hour?

Luke was interviewing two comedians who had recently gotten married.  They were talking about the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony they had had.  It was quite humorous.  Then there was a musical guest that did not tickle my fancy and so I started scanning for a new channel.  Nothing, still after 15 minutes of driving.  So, I turned the radio back to Livewire and listened to Luke some more.  His big guest for the episode was Sebastian Junger, the author of War and The Perfect Storm.  Oh, I thought, this might be interesting.  He’s written a new book entitled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  It’s all about how humans are evolutionarily wired to live in small communities or tribes.  It’s how we survived through ice ages and disasters.  We rely on each other for support, help, need, and care.  However, due to advanced technology and access to money, many people no longer need to live in tribes.  People can venture off on their own, move away from the town in which they grew up, and start a whole new life for themselves.  What Junger found through his research is that this has caused the breakdown of American society.  With people no longer living in tribes or groups, rates of depression and suicide rise.  However, when people join the army or fight for our nation abroad, they live in small tribes and the bad issues go away.  During and after disasters, people usually rally together in a communal way, forming a big tribe.  After the 9/11 disaster, suicide and depression rates dropped in New York City because tribes were being formed again.  This is so interesting, I thought.

But what does it have to do with me?  In the classroom, I teach students to think for themselves and to work independently.  When students are struggling to work together, I help guide them to the realization that working alone would be more beneficial.  I’m creating a culture of aloneness in my classroom, at times, which completely goes against our basic human instincts that have made us such a successful group of living things for so long.  Rather than helping students figure out how to effectively work in tribes or groups, I’m teaching them that it is better, sometimes, to rely on one’s self to solve problems.  From personal experience, when I taught by myself in the classroom, I was not as effective an educator as I am today through co-teaching.  I needed to be a part of a tribe to realize my full potential.  So then, why am I working against what humans are meant to do?

This caused me to think about next year and how I might structure things differently.  Sure, tribes fight and argue and have their problems, but that’s part of the process of living and working in a community.  I might begin the year by introducing Junger’s research to the students so that they realize why we spend so much time working on teamwork skills and strategies in the classroom.  I might also get away from providing students with an option to separate from a group or partner when the going gets tough.  I will try to work with them to figure out how to solve their problems by working together.  I’ll try to reinforce the ideas that Junger talks about in his new book.  I’ll try to capitalize on the evolutionary traits that all humans have and need to build upon in order to live in a thriving global community or tribe.

So, the moral of the story here is that sometimes, when rules are broken, chaos doesn’t ensue.  Sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.  By breaking one of my own rules, I learned something new that I think will be of value to me and my students next year in the classroom.  So, thanks Luke Burbank for filling my car stereo speakers with your soothing voice last night as I ventured home in the fog and mist.  You gave me a reason not to fall asleep or throw my car radio out the window.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part V

I worked with a student a few years ago in my science class who quickly grew bored of the traditional kind of education that included reading a text, taking notes, and answering questions.  He demonstrated his understanding of the content very easily and finished far ahead of the other students.  At the time, I hadn’t created any sort of Extend Your Learning sort of activities that I have in place in the classroom now.  I didn’t know what to do.  I feared that I was losing him to the sad game of repetition.  And that’s when I got a bolt of creativity.  I constructed some extension activities that he and other students who showcased their learning ahead of schedule could work on.  One of the projects involved using the game Minecraft to create a usable model of the layers of Earth, highlighting important facts about each of the major layers.  As he loved Minecraft, I knew that this option would pique his interest.  Well, to say the least, he and the rest of the class, went bonkers for this project and worked outside of class to finish their Knowledge Phase to get to this extension activity.  They also spent much time working on their Minecraft model outside of class.  The screencast videos they made of the models were amazing.  My students are so creative and always have been.  I just didn’t always create opportunities for them to showcase it.

Chapter 5 of Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck was all about the importance and benefit of being creative when crafting assessments, tests, and projects to assess students on their understanding of the content, learning targets, or graded objectives.  Creativity is a crucial life skill for our students.  He cited educational gurus Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson to help him make his point.  Creativity allows for a variety of ideas and a unique way of thinking, he states on page 120 of his book.  He then goes onto mention how creativity will be necessary for problems to be solved by future generations.  Teachers need to allow students options and choice when showcasing their learning.  Empowering students to utilize their strengths to demonstrate learning of a particular concept leads to engagement and focus in and out of the classroom.

  • Dueck suggests using Test Feedback Sheets to allow students to examine and reflect upon their work on a test or final assessment.  While I use a more simplistic form of this type of reflection in the classroom, the specificity of his example would better allow my students to reflect and grow as test takers and learners.  He asks questions such as, “Are there parts or sections where you felt more confident than others?  Explain.”  I like this idea.  I might not use it after every assessment, but for unit assessments it could be a useful reflective tool for the students.
  • Although I am not a fan of multiple guess tests, the author asserts a new approach to multiple choice exams.  He calls it the “I Know I am Close” Multiple Choice Response Format.  It allows students to choose more than one letter or answer to a question when they feel as though they have a specific reason for not being able to select just one answer.  The students would select more than one letter or answer and then explain, using support, why they have chosen more than one answer to the question.  Cool idea, if multiple choice tests must be used in the classroom as an assessment tool.  I try to steer clear of them for many obvious reasons.
  • Dueck suggested using a Twitter Format as an assessment tool.  Students would create a Twitter conversation between two or more parties or items pertaining to a topic and have to meet one of the learning targets through the conversation.  The example he provides on page 150 is to create a Twitter conversation between two of Earth’s spheres.  They must discuss the effects of deforestation on their sphere.  Each sphere needs to have a handle and a relevant hashtag.   Only four tweets can be used.  Keep it simple.  I love it.  It allows for brevity and succinctness in a creative manner.  While this task could be difficult for some students, it may allow other students to feel successful when attempting to meet a learning target or graded objective.  The idea is about providing students with options and choices in how they can showcase their learning process.

As I have only the Conclusion chapter remaining, I’m feeling a bit let down by the book.  I longed for more.  Sure, the chapter on Unit Plans was fabulous and has provided me with much fodder in crafting my new units for the next academic year; however, the other chapters were not what I was hoping for.  It would make a great text for new teachers or teachers who are stuck in the traditional ways of grading and teaching, but for someone who has been utilizing the methods discussed in this book for several years now, it is a bit basic.  I’m not putting the book down by any means because the author does a fantastic job outlining some of the components of great and effective teaching.  It’s just not the professional development text I was hoping it would be.  It’s more of a primer on great teaching practices.  With that said, it has been a fun ride this week digging into Dueck’s ideas and thoughts.  The prose was interesting and captivating.  He used personal stories to help state his case, which added depth and humanity to the points he was trying to make.  I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part IV

If school is all about the process of learning in order to help students grow and develop into meaningful global citizens, then isn’t it our job as their teachers and guides on their learning journeys to help support and challenge them in any way possible?  So then, why do so many teachers refuse to retest or alternatively assess students?  Some students, like me for example, are not good at taking tests.  I get confused by the tricky multiple choice options and the short answer questions overwhelm me with the critical thinking involved on the spot.  But, when I was in school, that was my only option for demonstrating my learning.  How is that a process?  If I did poorly on the test, I received a low grade and thus did not showcase my understanding of the content covered.  Yet, I continued to matriculate onto the next grade each year.  How?  In retrospect, I wonder how effective my learning process was based on the teacher guides I had and grading systems with which I was faced.

Chapter 4 of Myron Dueck’s book entitled Grade Smarter Not Harder is all about the idea and philosophy around retesting or re-assessing students.  Most traditional schools and educators take the low road and refuse to retest students.  They view a test as a final game with no opportunity for a rematch.  Is life like that?  When my friend failed his driver’s education test, he was able to retake it a few weeks later and passed.  When I was once late to a class because of a meeting, I wasn’t fired.  I was given another chance to prove myself.  So then, why do we not provide our students with second chances to demonstrate their learning?  Dueck suggests just that in this chapter.  Students should be allowed to retake a test, part of a test, or redo an assessment as long as the redo process is more rigorous than the first time through.  Plus, the students need to somehow show that they have genuinely learned the concepts or skills involved.  If a student did not showcase his understanding of rates and ratios on a math exam, he should have to attend study sessions, create vocabulary cards, or make and take his own self-created exam to prepare for a test redo or retake.  This way, the students will really learn what they should have grasped the first time through.  Sometimes, tests prove challenging for students and don’t really allow them to demonstrate their learning of the content because they were so caught up in the format of the test or section.  Retesting allows for the teacher to change up the format of the test and questions, thus allowing students to demonstrate their true understanding of the concepts covered.

Some key points that Dueck brought up in Chapter 4 regarding retesting that I found intriguing…

  • Rick Stiggins, an educator, preaches the idea that all students should be able to answer three questions throughout the learning process: Where am I going?  Where am I now?  How can I close the gap?  This would be a great way to formatively assess students throughout a unit.  How might I incorporate this into my class?  I would have to reword the questions and use more student-friendly language.  I would also have to help students understand how to know what the end result of a unit is.  Using unit plans in the classroom might help the students see the entire process for each unit, and thus, allow them to know what the end result should look like for them.  I want to keep this idea of reflection in mind as I plan my units for next year.  I feel as though this process could be beneficial for my students.
  • The author utilizes Tracking Sheets in his class for the students.  When he hands back exams or projects, the students fill out a Tracking Sheet which lists the individual learning targets or graded objectives.  The students then denote their progress and outcomes on the sheet.  If they need to redo a section, they then explain what they will do to prepare before completing the re-testing phase.  Great idea.  This would help the students own their learning process.  It would also be a great entrance ticket to a redo.
  • Changing educational norms as they pertain to grading and assessment will require huge shifts in the culture of the school.  So many students who come from families that have always had great access to education, generally tend to have been exposed to traditional sorts of teaching and grading.  They feel as though this is how the game of school is played.  Listen to a teacher provide you with information on a new skill, topic, or concept, study, take a test, and repeat.  Getting students and families that come from this kind of world and society on board with objectives-based grading and assessment redos is no easy task.  It will take many conversations for some students and their families to understand the hows and whys of the changes happening in the classroom.  I dealt with a family like this during this past school year.  They didn’t understand why we didn’t have numerous tests on a weekly basis.  They also didn’t understand why we didn’t mark up student work with grades.  They come from an educational background that is based in the industrialization of education: School is like a big factory where every student graduates having learned the same stuff in the same manner.  That no longer works in our world.  If we want students to be effective global citizens, they need to be creative problem solvers and innovators.  Retesting is one way we can help bring about change in the classroom for our students.
  • The only problematic idea Dueck brought up in this chapter pertained to how he grades retests.  He blends or averages the scores together.  This seems to go against the concept of grading just what the students should have learned: The graded objectives.  Shouldn’t tests or assessments be graded on individual learning targets or objectives and not given an overall score?  How would one flat score tell students how they are progressing regarding the individual learning targets covered for a unit?  Tests or assessments should only be graded on the objectives covered.  For example, if the students have to create a forest field guidebook that lists and describes various flora and fauna samples found in their assigned plot in the forest, the final product should only be graded on the two objectives covered throughout the unit: Identify accurately, by common name using a guidebook, various flora and fauna samples in Cardigan’s ecosystem and construct a diagram that describes and illustrates the cycling of matter and flow of energy among the living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.  The final projects should not be graded on neatness or organization if it is not a graded objective.  Therefore, they are not going to earn an overall score on the project as it is all about the process of learning.

I hope that as a school we are able to have open discussions and conversations about our grading, homework, and testing policies throughout this next year.  While I would love to have change come about right away and make all teachers utilize the objectives-based grading system, no longer grade or assess homework based on the letter grade, and allow for redos of tests and assessments, I know that I can’t expect monumental change in one year.  I do hope that my school administrative team will help educate teachers to see the value in moving away from a traditional way of teaching and grading students so that change will happen within three to five years across the board at my school.  Fingers crossed.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part III

When I hear the words Unit Plans, I get a bit queasy because they are yet one more hoop my school makes teachers jump through.  While I do feel as though all teachers must have a written curriculum that outlines their course for the year, do all teachers need to then complete a separate file that lists the same information over again in a different format?  That seems repetitive and unnecessary to me.  Shouldn’t teachers be spending their time helping their students grow and develop and not having to complete a bunch of busy work.  Filling out Unit Plans is the equivalent to Homework for students.  Great, effective teachers already have a road map for their class.  Why not just allow teachers to submit that in place of separate Unit Plans?  If we know that offering students choice and freedom in the classroom helps better engage them in their learning process, shouldn’t we take the same approach with teachers?  Why must I spend an extra 2-3 hours creating a Unit Plan for a unit I already have detailed for the students?  I’m sure my school’s administrators might answer that question with, “Accountability and integration.  We want all teachers to be held accountable and see how units fit together.”  Okay, I get that.  Why not then meet with each teacher and have them show you their curriculum or units?  That way you are creating a culture of caring and support rather than uniform accountability.  I would much rather have an open dialogue with my administrators than just click the Share button on a Google Document I created because I have to.

So, going into Chapter 3 of Myron Dueck’s book Grade Smarter Not Harder did give me pause.  What else could he possibly tell me about Unit Plans that my school’s administrative team has not already shoved down my throat 10,000 times?  But then, I was surprised and elated when I realized that he was not talking about the mandated Unit Plans I have to draft.  Instead, his third chapter outlined how to create unit plans that can be used in the classroom for the students.  At the start of every unit, provide the students with a unit plan that outlines the graded objectives or learning targets in student-friendly language.  Beyond that, there is much flexibility in what a unit plan for students should or could contain, he suggests.  Teachers could include due dates, places for students to enter grades, or room for students to make comments or note areas in need of improvement.  What a great idea!  Instead of spending hours crafting unit plans that not more than one or two people will ever see, create useful documents that will help make the process of learning for the students, transparent.  What a concept!  I love it.  Although I do utilize, in the classroom, a very modified and watered-down version of what Dueck’s suggesting, making it clear and easy for the students to reference and understand makes so much more sense.  And I thought I wasn’t going to learn anything from this book.  Wow, was a I wrong.  Even if the rest of the chapters are filled with fluff or concepts I already know, this one chapter will make the book worth it.

Some highlights regarding his idea of crafting unit plans for the students to use:

  • Break the learning targets or graded objectives into four categories: Knowledge Targets (What do students need to know?), Reasoning Targets (What can students do with what they know?), Skill Targets (What can students demonstrate?), and Product Targets (What can students make to show their learning?).  While this follows Bloom’s Taxonomy as it pertains to the learning process, I’ve never thought of chunking my graded objectives in such a way.  Cool idea.  I like it.  I think I will try this for my first STEM unit of the year.
  • State the learning targets or graded objectives as “I can” statements for the students on the unit plans.  This will make the learning more accessible for the students.  It will also provide them with ownership in a meaningful way.  When they read statements like, “I can list the four causes of weather on Earth,” they feel as though what they need to do is attainable rather than listing its as a vague and broad objective, “Students will be able to explain the causes of weather on Earth.”  Using student-friendly language in an active manner that speaks to them directly will make for more relevant unit plans.
  • Research shows that students and teachers benefit when the learning targets or graded objectives are made clear to the students at the start of a unit.  On page 75 of Dueck’s book, he cites some examples and research to prove this.  When students understand what is expected of them in and out of the classroom, they can easily track their learning progress and grow and develop meaningfully and appropriately.  When confusion or unknown variables enter the classroom, such as “Where did this letter grade come from?” or “Why do I need to write an essay on WWII?” learning becomes more like a convoluted puzzle for students.  While I’m sure we all loved the David Bowie movie Labyrinth very much, it would not make for an appropriate classroom environment.
  • Is using student examples of work helpful or harmful to students?  I’ve always been on the fence regarding this issue.  I tried to use more student examples this year than ever before and found that sometimes this helped the students fully comprehend what was being asked of them.  In years past, I avoided using examples because I felt like they would have prevented the students from creatively interpreting the assignment or task.  However, Dueck makes the case that if students have no clue what the project or assignment should look like when they are finished, how will they be able to employ creativity?  Confusion leads to more confusion and not answers or creativity.  Perhaps using student examples of work when introducing a new project or learning task will help students be and feel more successful in their learning journey.
  • One area of projects and learning tasks that I have always wrestled with is the planning stage.  How can I help students effectively map out or plan a project or task before they begin working on crafting it?  I usually tell students to plan out their idea before hand and check-in with a teacher to be sure they are on the right track.  Conversations, I find, are more beneficial than just having the students complete a mind map or planning worksheet.  Dueck suggests using Student Planning Stations.  Have the students map out or plan how they hope to meet the graded objectives for the assignment.  Then, have the students partner up and pitch their idea to their partner as though they are securing a deal for a television show and their partner is the “producer.”  Allow the “agent” a set amount of time to share his idea with the “producer” before the “producer” provides feedback on the idea and how it addresses the graded objectives.  The students will then switch roles so that each person has a chance to share his or her idea and receive feedback on it.  This way, the students have a chance to revise their idea before they even begin working.  I love this idea.  I can’t wait to try it in the classroom.

Chapter 3 wowed me to the max.  I’m so excited to plan my first units for Humanities and STEM class using this format for the unit plan.  Isn’t it always about our students?  Couldn’t we then just use these plans as the ones our administrative team requires we complete?  Why jump through even more hoops?  As Dueck’s book is titled, shouldn’t the same be true for all aspects of teaching?  “Teach Smarter Not Harder.”

Professional Development Summer Reading Part II

Homework is repetitive and unnecessary.  If classes are relevant, engaging, and meaningful, extra practice is not necessary for every student.  Why make the students spend what little free time they have outside of the classroom doing busy work?  Who’s doing the homework anyway?  When the day students go home and complete their homework, who’s really doing the work?  The students or the parents?  What about their peers?  If homework is uniform like a worksheet and every student should be getting the same answer, how do we know students aren’t working together?  Isn’t that what we want?  Teamwork amongst our students?  But, who’s doing the learning if students work together to complete a homework assignment?  Can we appropriately and fairly assess students on their understanding of concepts covered or graded objectives through homework completion?  If students do the homework consistently but fare poorly on exams, tests, or quizzes, are they able to truly and genuinely showcase their learning?  Why do we as teachers grade and assess homework and count it towards their letter or achievement grade?  Isn’t homework practice?  Should we be grading practice?  Is the record of a football team negatively impacted if the team “loses” to themselves during practice?  So then, why are students rewarded or punished for not practicing a skill?  Not all students need extra practice and sometimes those students who do need extra practice, need a structured environment in which to practice.  Homework is not the best way to help challenge and/or support students if we are grading it.

In Chapter 2 of Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck, the author details and explains why homework should not be counted or assessed in the same way we grade objectives.  Homework should not be a factor in the overall grade a student receives in a course.  Homework is practice and will look different for each student.  Some students need more practice while others need less.  As teachers, we need to help students learn how much practice they will need to do for particular skills, concepts, or objectives.  We should not objectively grade the homework practice students do.  It should count as part of their effort grade only.

  • Uniform Homework: Assignments or homework used as practice or follow-up regarding an in-class lesson.  It is usually designed as a worksheet or series of problems for which every student should have the same assignment.  This means that each student would have the same answers.  How do we know who did the work if students collaborate to complete the homework?  Therefore, teachers should not grade uniform homework.  In fact, uniform homework should not be assigned.  Students should choose to do the extra practice or not based on how they want to prepare for in-class quizzes or exams.  Uniform homework should also come with an answer key so that students can check their work as it is just practice anyway.
  • “Grading Homework Confuses Completion with Understanding,” Myron Dueck states on page 45.  Just because students complete the practice work as homework regularly does not mean that they have mastered a concept or skill.  It simply means that they have figured out the school conundrum: If you do the work, you will get good grades.  We, as teachers, are trying to help our students learn new concepts, grasp new skills, and grow and develop as students, thinkers, collaborators, etc.  We should not be grading homework in any objective or standards-based manner because then students will become confused by the purpose of school and education.  Learning is a process and not a videogame in which points affect your outcome.

While I was already aware of the big ideas Dueck conveyed in this phenomenal chapter that every teacher who is unfamiliar with objectives-based grading should read, it did give me some food for thought.  Huh, having a growth mindset going into this second chapter of the book really helped me glean a cool idea that I will implement in the classroom next year.

  • I will create regular check-in assessments on Haiku that students will complete in class following the introduction and practice of a new skill.  Mostly this will apply to STEM class, but could also be useful in Humanities class as well.  I will input the answers so that it can be corrected as soon as the students complete it, providing the students with instant feedback.  They will know right away if they completed the appropriate amount of practice outside of class.  Apparently, there is data to support the idea that frequent quizzes help increase learning.  On page 56 of Dueck’s book, he cites a study done by Kent State University that found that “frequent testing that involves recall of information from memory improves learning.”  Who would have thunk that?  Not I.  I had always been under the impression that over testing is redundant and a waste of time.  Perhaps I was wrong or maybe this study is wrong.  Well, since I’ve tried my way for so long, it might be time to try an alternative method.  I like it.  Change is good.

Although this book is preaching to the choir as I read it, it is filled with valuable and useful information for all educators.  I can’t wait to read what Chapter 3 has in store on Unit Plans.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part I

Last week, the parent of one of my sixth graders called me to share her son’s feelings on a grade he had received recently.  Of course, as teachers, we all know that phone calls like this are about far more than what they appear.  She didn’t want to tell me how her son was feeling, she wanted to argue with me about his grade.  His free verse poem had met the two graded objectives and thus he had received a 3/4 on each of them.  I said, “This is great.  He is doing what we expect.  Sure, I do wish he had better incorporated the feedback his writing group and I provided, but he is clearly working at grade level and meeting our expectations.”  Her response, “What do you mean he didn’t utilize the feedback?  Did you look at the bottom of his poem?  He had listed the feedback provided and explained how he had incorporated it.  I don’t understand why he wasn’t able to exceed the objectives.”  At this point in the conversation, I reminded her that I am not about to debate her son’s grades.  This caused her to change her tune a bit, but then of course allowed her the opportunity to bring up more grades and assignments.  “My son spends every weekend doing work and he doesn’t understand why he’s not earning As,” she said.  I reminded her that we focus on the learning process and the graded objectives and not the letter grade.  Still confused despite the numerous conversations I’ve had with her throughout the year on our grading philosophy in the sixth grade, she continued, “My son said that many other students didn’t have their work done on time and needed to finish it during their free time.  How is that fair?”

I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with parents like the one I had recently.  They don’t want to understand why we are trying to change the grading system to help support the learning process.  They wonder why their child’s grades are lower than they had been in the past.  They want to blame everything or everyone else but their child.  While families like these tend to be a rarity, we will still encounter them in the classroom, on the playing fields, on the phone, in the grocery store, etc.  So, why does this mindset of letter grades and timeliness still exist in our country?  Why are some families and students stuck in thinking that if they turn in a beautiful poster with a plagiarized map, they should still earn an A because it is pretty?

It’s all about the grading systems used in schools around the country, and in many cases around the world.  Schools and teachers are still arbitrarily giving students As and Cs at the top of their paper or on the side of a project with no conversation or explanation.  How do we expect students to be able to reflect on their learning process and understand what they need to do to grow and improve as a student if they have no idea where a grade came from?  We need to change from what was acceptable 100 years ago and realize that we are preparing very different students for life in a vastly different world.  Students need to be equipped with different skills now than they did even 20 years ago.  To help students learn and grow, we need to be clear and specific in our grading.  Students need to understand what skills or objectives an assignment or task is being graded on.  For example, the free verse poem that the parent referenced in the phone call I mentioned at the start of today’s entry was graded on two objectives: Students will be able to craft a unique free verse poem and Students will be able to craft a poem that accurately utilizes flow, rhythm, at least two examples of figurative language, and stanzas.  We didn’t grade their poem on spelling or topic.  We focused solely on those two objectives that we had spent our entire poetry unit focusing on.  We then had conversations with the students on their poem and the two graded objectives.  Almost every student understood where they grades came from.  They got it.  Sure, it took the whole year for them to understand why we grade them on the learning process, but they finally got there.  Many of our students, at the close of the academic year, understood that learning is a journey and not a game with a set time limit.

My first summer reading professional development text Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck totally aligns with our sixth grade grading philosophy.  He explains the whys and hows at the start and then digs into the big ideas chapter by chapter.  I’ve been grading and assessing my students in this manner for four years now and I’ve noticed a huge difference in their growth over the course of the year as well as their long term progress.  The students own their learning and realize that it is a process that must be continually refined.  No student is born being able to exceed every objective just like no person is born being able to run a marathon in record time.  Everything he’s preaching about, I can support and advocate for because I’ve seen it work first hand.  However, for someone who has been using an objectives-based grading system for a few years, this book is repetitive and hyperbolic.  He spends the first chapter or 35 pages explaining why teachers should not award students zeros or take off points for late work.  I’ve thought this for years.  This book, while completely necessary for schools and teachers around the world who do still use the broken and innaccurate grading system of letters and random numbers, is not for me.  I want to learn about how to take my objectives-based grading to the next level.  How can I improve upon what I already have?  This book would be great for the teachers at my school who still insist on docking students for turning in an assignment late.  What does that prove?  I think it’s all about power.  Some teachers want to control everything in the name of teaching ownership and responsibility.  Those teachers need to step back and really assess their grading system and how it affects students.  Students with whom I’ve spoken to who have teachers who use defunct grading systems are unhappy, unmotivated, or scared.  They don’t want to do the work or feel as though they have to so that they don’t fail.  How is fear or apathy going to help inspire students to change the world?

So, in conclusion, academic grading systems around the world are broken and in need of repair.  The objectives-based or standards-based assessment method is one that works well.  Dueck’s book details this grading system very well for new or inexperienced teachers unfamiliar with this grading format.  While I will finish this book, it’s a bit basic for me.  But, like I try to encourage my students to do, I will go into the rest of the book with a growth mindset because who knows, I might learn something new or change my perspective.

New Ideas for Next Year

The underclassmen departed campus last Thursday and Friday and the ninth graders graduated this past Saturday.  We finished our final faculty meetings yesterday.  And so, summer vacation has officially begun. Yah for us!  It feels weird to not be teaching today, but I like it.  It’s nice to sleep in and relax.  I ordered new sunglasses and fun bandages for my classroom as a way to use up my unspent FSA money.  Who wants to see that go to waste?  Not me.

Now begins the fun part, preparing for the new school year, which will be starting in three short months.  Where do I begin?  Should I read my professional development texts first or start planning my first STEM and Humanities units?  I suppose either way could work, but I’d like to learn a little first before I dig into planning.  That way, I can incorporate all of the new ideas I glean from the books I read into my new units.  Sometimes I make a lot of sense, while at other times, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.

Before I get into reading my two professional development texts, I wanted to lay out some ideas I’ve been brainstorming so that I don’t forget about them when I start planning my lessons and units for next year.

  • Incorporate a Financial Literacy component into my STEM class.
    • I really enjoyed the Stock Market unit I taught this past year and would love to help my students better understand how to save, spend, and grow their money.  I’m going to reach out to my local bank and see about getting some check books and other related materials.  I want to start the year with some basic lessons on checking accounts.  I will then have each student create a checking account that they will maintain and keep throughout the year.  While I haven’t solidified every idea about how they will earn money, I do have some ideas.  The students will begin with $20.16 based on the fact that the year is 2016.  They will earn money for their objective grades.  A 3/4, which is meeting the objective in the sixth grade, will give the students $5.  If they earn a 4/4 and exceed the graded objective, they will earn $10.  If they don’t meet the objective, they will owe the bank, which will be my co-teacher and I, $5.  If they turn in work late, they will lose $5 as well.  Throughout the year, they can spend money to purchase fun gifts, homework passes, or other academic related materials such as extra wood for the bridge building project.  Over the course of the year, I will introduce the students to different ways to make and earn money.  They will have an option to open a savings account or another type of account that will earn interest.  We will also complete the Stock Market Game unit again as another way to teach students how money can be earned or used.  At the end of the year, special prizes will be awarded to the students with the most money in all of their accounts.  I’m very excited about this idea because I feel as though it will help teach the students number and money sense.  Plus, it will be one more way to motivate the boys to put forth great effort and meet deadlines.
  • Return to Grading Rubrics.
    • A few of my students were often confused this year about their grades and how they earned them.  While I’m not a fan of grading rubrics because I feel as though they become checklists for the students and don’t promote great effort and exceeding the objectives, I do think that they might help my students see on what and how they are being graded and assessed for each project or assignment.  So, for each objectively graded assignment, activity, or project, I will create a grading rubric that the students will keep in their Planbook Binders.  My new co-teacher and I will enter the grades the students earn onto these sheets.  The grading rubrics will also include due dates and requirements for the assignment.  The students will be able to use them to check over their work prior to turning it in.  This will hopefully help the students understand the importance of reviewing their work before giving it to a teacher to be graded.  I’m hopeful that these grading rubrics will help the students be more successful and truly own their learning without confusion.

That’s what I have so far.  I’m sure I will generate many more ideas in the coming weeks as I learn and grow professionally.  My main goal is to find more relevant and meaningful ways to support and challenge my students, and I believe the two ideas listed above, will help me to do just that.