Holding Students to High Standards

I expect a lot from my students and make sure to tell them that from day one.  I am open and honest with them throughout the school year.  Doing well takes great effort, perseverance, and hard work.  It will not be easy.  I want them to grow into the best possible version of themselves over the course of the academic year.  I expect them to turn in work that is more than just legible.  I expect them to be kind and caring citizens.  I expect them to spend time working outside of the classroom.  I expect them to do their best in and out of the classroom.  While I set the bar high in the classroom, most of the students are able to jump over it by June.  If I set the bar low and didn’t make them redo messy or incomplete work or didn’t talk to them about unkind acts, then I wonder how much progress they would really make over the course of the year.  The students can only work towards what I expect.  If I expect greatness, then they will work towards that.  If I expect mediocrity, then they will work towards that.  As teachers, we need to set high standards for our students.  We can’t allow them to just do the bare minimum to get by.  We need to push them to do more and be more.

The awesomeness that occurred in my Humanities class today was a direct result of the high standards I set for my students.  In class today, the boys presented the final map they created for the Globe to Flat Map Project.  Each and every group performed an amazing presentation that was rehearsed and well organized.  They didn’t use cue cards or any sort of digital tools.  They merely spoke to the class about their flat map and the process by which it was created.  In the three years I’ve been doing this project in the sixth grade, today’s presentations were by far the best I’ve ever seen.  The boys did a phenomenal job describing what their map showed, how they transformed their globe into a flat map, and how they overcame problems encountered throughout the process.  The students were articulate and clear when they spoke.  They were specific and detailed in their explanations, and every group kept to the allotted 3-minute time period.  Wow!  I was amazed and impressed, but not surprised.

Because I expect a lot from my students, they know that everything they do needs to showcase their best effort.  They know to never turn in something that is just barely finished.  They know to refine, revise, and redo their work until it is truly their best possible work.  What happened in class today was no accident.

I began class today by explaining the three points I expected to be addressed in their presentations:

  • Describe what your map shows so that your peers can make sense of what they are looking at.
  • Explain the process by which you and your partner created your flat map.
  • Describe and explain problems encountered and how you overcame those challenges.

I then asked the students to list what they should be doing during the 10-minute preparatory period that they would have in class to get ready for the final presentations.  I wanted them to own their options and possibilities.  I wanted them to brainstorm and problem solve how they will be able to do what is being asked of them.  The students did a fine job brainstorming some great ideas.  They then got right to work.  And work they certainly did.  Every group was focused and diligently working throughout the short chunk of time.  They were discussing talking order, talking points, and time frame.  Some of the boys also used the time to refine their maps and make sure they showcased their best effort while also meeting or exceeding the graded objectives.  It was awesome to observe them in action.  It was controlled chaos as students moved around the room, talked, and prepared.  Then, finally, came the remarkable presentations.  They were amazing.

Getting to this point in the year takes much time and deliberate effort.  It starts with fostering a sense of community and family within the classroom.  Our mantra is, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  Teaching the boys how to apply this way of living takes much work, but pays off in the end when the students learn to care for each other, respect one another, and work together towards a common goal.  Once the boys feel cared for, the rest falls into place very quickly.  It boils down to structure and engagement.  The students need to see the relevance in what they are learning or doing in the classroom.  Creating activities and projects that allow the students to engage in the content in meaningful ways allows for this to happen.  Then it comes down to the structure of the class.  The students need to know and understand the routine.  Everything that happens in the classroom needs to serve a purpose.  Today’s lesson was all about that.  I explained what they needed to do, while they brainstormed how it would take place.  Then, they put everything into action.  If I hadn’t provided the students with an opportunity to own the process today in class or described what the presentations needed to include, the outcome would certainly not have been as wonderful as it was.  Creating high standards in the classroom takes much effort and hard work, but is totally worth it in the end.  My students leave the sixth grade feeling confident and able through hard work, perseverance, and the use of a growth mindset.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

How Do You Motivate Students to do their Best Without Focusing on their Grades?

I was really good at the game I called school once I hit the seventh grade.  I figured out what my teachers wanted and so I gave it to them.  It wasn’t about learning for me, it was about jumping through hoops and meeting the expectations my teachers set.  My English teacher, for example, liked it when students used lots of adjectives and descriptive words in their writing and so I made sure to do just that in each and every written assignment.  For me, the focus was on grades.  My parents bribed me to get good grades by paying me for every A and B I received.  So, I made sure to complete work that would earn me high marks in all of my classes.  It worked.  I earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society and spent every term on the Honor Roll.  I kicked butt at school because I focused on the grades.  Unfortunately though, if you asked me what I learned back in those days, I would have very little to say as I didn’t retain much.  I was a passive learner.  I regurgitated facts and information and then erased them from my mind.  I wasn’t actively looking to learn as I was so focused on earning high grades.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more interested in the information and skills my teachers were trying to teach me as I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of my school experience.

Learning from my mistakes as a student, I make sure that as a teacher, my students don’t just go through the motions to complete work and earn high marks.  I want my students to see school as a journey and an adventure, not a game they are trying to win.  To do this, I craft meaningful and relevant assignments that allow the students to think critically about the content and skills learned to answer questions, reflect, make or construct something, or simply write.  These engaging, hands-on, and creative assignments force students to think about information learned in new and unique ways that prevent them from simply restating what was discussed in class or learned on a website.  The next big piece that helps me be sure my students see school as an exploration is grading and assessment.  Students don’t earn letter grades or percentages for assignments as we utilize the objectives/standards-based grading system in the sixth grade.  Each assignment may be graded on more than one objective and so they are earning more than one grade for most every assignment.  Our grades are as follows:

  • 4: Exceeds the Objective
  • 3: Meets the Objective
  • 2: Working Towards the Objective
  • 1: Insufficient Data to Assess Ability to Meet or Work Towards Meeting the Objective

The students learn, early on in the academic year, how our system works.  We don’t talk about As and Bs in the sixth grade, we talk about objectives and skills.  This puts the focus on school as a journey towards understanding rather than a game to win.  We also make use of the redo process in the sixth grade.  When a student earns an objective grade that he feels does not display his best effort and work, he can redo it in a timely manner to be reassessed.  This allows the students to strive for success and their best effort in the class at all times.  This restructuring of school by using the objectives-based grading system and making assignments meaningful and challenging for the students helps us change the perception our students have of school.  School then is no longer about jumping through hoops and completing busy work; school becomes a learning process for the students.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in a writing activity in which they had to write about a picture that showed a woman or women from the Middle East region wearing some sort of head scarf.  The writing task was very open ended: They could write a story explaining what they believed to be the woman’s story; they could write a poem explaining the picture or their thoughts about the picture; they could describe what the image shows; or they could explain their thoughts and feelings about the picture and what it depicts.  The paper on which they were using to record their writing included questions to inspire them as they reflected on the picture.  The students had ten minutes to complete this activity in class.  We want our students to learn to be able to sustain their writing stamina for a long period of time while writing about one topic or idea.  This activity is yet another way for them to practice this skill.  My co-teacher and I had no expectations for what would come from this activity as we just wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write and reflect on their prior knowledge and perception of women who wear a headscarf.  We didn’t know what would come from this activity.

The result was inline with what we’ve observed from our students during the past few months, and so we were not surprised by the outcome.  Those students who put forth their best effort in everything they do in the classroom, did just that again for this assignment.  They filled at least one page with meaningful and reflective words.  They stayed focused for the entire ten minutes and worked diligently to write as much as possible so that they could showcase their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective.  For these students, doing their best work is just how they live their lives.  They like to be challenged in order to demonstrate their strengths.  We don’t need to discuss the importance of working hard in and out of class with these students.  They get it.

Those students who struggle to process information, had the same trouble with this task.  They wrote nothing on their paper despite helpful hints, ideas, and reminders.  They were so stuck in one way of thinking or processing the information, that they couldn’t write anything at all.  While we have seen much progress from these students since September, tasks like the one we did today in Humanities class do still challenge them.  To help motivate these students, we work with them independently, ask them questions, provide them extra support outside of the class day, and remind them of the graded objectives they need to meet or exceed.  In some instances, these strategies we employ work and the students are able to showcase their best effort and work.  On some tasks though, like the one we did today in class, the two students who had nothing written on their paper aren’t motivated by the typical strategies we use.  The only way to motivate these two students to work and display their best effort on assignments that challenge them is to focus on the grade they will receive.  “If you don’t complete this task, you will earn a 1/4 for this graded objective.  This low score will cause your overall Humanities grade to go down quite a bit,” are the the lines we are forced to use from time to time with these two students.  As my co-teacher and I don’t like to focus on grades in our classroom, we don’t like having to stoop to this level.  However, it seems to be the only way to inspire them to work.

Are there other strategies we could be using that would not focus on grades and help motivate these two students to accomplish a task they find quite difficult?  Are we missing something?  We know that they can write and be creative as we’ve seen it in the other courses and on many other assignments they’ve completed this year.  So, what’s the issue?  Should we just let them fail at the task if it means we have to focus on grades to motivate them?  I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me wonder how I can inspire and motivate students to do their best work and put forth their best effort without focusing on grades.  Is it possible?  In a world driven by grades, money, and success, the way we have organized our class to not focus on these big ideas seems as though we are creating a counterculture within the classroom.  Is that okay?  Should we be trying to break free from the constraints society places on people or fall in line like every other school or classroom around the world?  As I have always strived to be a bit different from the mainstream, I’m completely okay going against the norm if it means I can help my students grow and develop into free-thinking adults who see life as a journey.

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.

Thoughts About Summer Reading Part 5

As I delve deeper into the novel Made to Stick, I realize how useful this text is to teachers.  Not only do the authors provide examples of how teachers can incorporate the concepts covered in the book in the classroom, but the overall equation to making important messages resonate and stay with people just makes sense.  Cut out the clutter from ideas and get to the core of the message.  Instead of using the same language the Next generation Science Standards use when introducing an assessment and skill to the students, I need to reduce the verbosity and get to the heart of the standard or objective.  An example of this is a standard I’m looking to utilize in my STEM curriculum next year: Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclical patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.  That’s a mouth full.  The students can’t possibly wrap their brains around that standard.  So, I need to unpack it.  What do the students need to be able to do?  Make a correctly proportionate model of the sun and Earth and it’s moon.  That’s the first part.  Then, the second objective is, Using the model, make a video explaining the phases of the moon, how eclipses work, and how seasons are created.  By breaking the standard up into two objectives, the students will know exactly what to do.  They need to make a model and then create a video using that model.  Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.  Keep it simple.

The second idea the book mentions about making ideas sticky is finding an unexpected way to deliver the message.  Start with mystery or catch your audience off guard.  For my astronomy unit, I might tell a fictional story that could have happened thousands or millions of year ago about a boy who looked up at the night sky and saw an object the size of our planet.  It was huge.  What was it?  The moon.  Why was it so big?  Is it that big now?  What happened?  By creating what the authors call knowledge gaps, I can hook the students into wanting to know more about astronomy and space.  Public service commercials approach their messages similarly.  In the 1980s, a big anti-drug commercial showed an egg frying in a pan and said, “This is your brain on drugs.  Any questions?”  The power comes from the fact that we don’t often think of our brain as an egg.  It was unexpected.

The third chapter that I just finished reading explains the importance of keeping an idea concrete and understandable.  Reduce abstraction from the message you want to convey.  That makes sense.  Rather than talk about space and astronomy, I could show views of space from a telescope or find some space rocks to show the students.  Make the learning tangible or real for them.  One very interesting factoid I learned from this chapter was about how teachers from Asian countries approach the teaching of mathematics.  The authors referenced a study done a few years back in which teachers were obsereved as they taught about subtraction.  Instead of writing subtraction problems on the board with numbers and symbols, the teachers explained the conept in terms of the students.  One teacher used a word problem: If you have 100 yen and then buy a notebook that cost 70 yen, how much money do you have left to spend at the candy store?  The kids can easily understand subtraction in this context because it is how they live their lives.  It makes sense.  Make the learning real.  now, this goes against how most Americans think about how Asian students are taught math skills.  We’ve often wondered how students from Asian countries scored far better on math assessments than students from America.  I’ve always thought that it had to do with the rote memorization of drills and skills.  It turns out that it’s just the opposite.  Students from Asian countries learn math skills in a tangible and concrete manner.  Now, being the critical thinker that I am, I cross-checked the information in the book with other, reputable online sources.  It turns out that the study was accurate.  It’s not just about rote memorization.  Teachers in Asian countries use concrete examples and have a strong understanding of the content that the students will see in future math classes.  So, everything I thought I knew was inaccurate.  American media sure does like to skew results and information when it shows our country in a negative light.  

I’m excited to learn more from this book as I dig even deeper in the coming days.  Thinking about how I can make information and content stick for my students is very crucial.  I want to figure out how I can help my students remember the information they’re learning and also inspire them to want to learn even more.  My goal is to merely whet their appetite for knowledge.  I want to foster a love of learning within my students.  So far, I’ve learned a few simple tricks.  Let’s see what’s next.