Archive for teaching

Jan
01

Ya never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and cement a belief, or make you forever look at it differently.

So, one weekend in October, a long time ago when I was teaching Kindergarten, my teaching assistant  (TA) called me at my campground to let me know she thought one of our kids had been involved in a very serious accident–where a car had hit some pedestrians, and she thought a girl in our class was one of them. I went home thinking it wasn’t her, but the next day I found out it was–she and her mother, brother and grandmother were out walking down a country road after dinner and a car had come along and struck all of them. Grandmother died at the scene, brother had a broken kneecap, mother was in serious condition, in a coma, and Annie had severe head trauma and also was in a coma. My 5 year olds wanted to know what was going on and so my TA, Debbie, and I decided to go see her right after school and find out.

When we got to the hospital, we found out she was in intensive care, in a coma. No one was in the room with her–Dad was sitting with Mom in her intensive care room at the moment, and the family was, needless to say, in a state of shock, losing grandma and trying to care for brother and deal with their own losses. When we walked into the room, I was blown away–there was a HUGE bandage around her head, she was hooked up to multiple machines and she looked incredibly vulnerable lying there. The nurse stayed in the room for a few minutes, checking Debbie and me out, I am sure, to make sure we were okay to be with Annie.

Unresponsive and asleep, neither Debbie or I were quite sure what to do, so we began telling her about our day at school, citing what kids had told us to tell her, and who had missed her and what we read for read aloud (one of her favorite times of the day), and how much we hoped she’d get well soon and be back. The nurse observed us and then stepped out until we were about ready to go. She met us at the door and we asked how Annie was doing. She told us she’d been very critical, but that while we were talking to her, the pressure in her brain had come down to normal limits for the first time since the accident. (This was Monday, the accident happened Saturday.) I rode home thinking about the implications of that–that a teacher and teaching assistant could have that effect on a child’s brain in pain. I was hooked.

For the next 4 months, I went every night to the hospital to sit with Annie for a while. Sometimes I ran into Dad and the brother, but more often I didn’t–they had been with her or Mom much of the day, or right after school for the brother, and I generally visited after dinner. I read her books, played tapes we made at school of the kids talking to her (and left them with the nurses so they could replay them during the day) and just talked to her about what we had done. I kept her alive to her classmates by sharing with them the progress she was making as she moved from intensive care to a room, to the rehab center, relearning to talk and walk as she re-entered the world of the living. I rejoiced with her the day she got to see her Mom who was also coming out of her coma, and then cried with her when her mother died. No one was more nervous than me the day she returned to school in March, almost 5 months after her accident. I had lived with her the shakiness of her limbs as she tried to regain use of them, had seen the helmet she would be bringing to school with her to protect her head as she simply walked around, in case she fell, and I knew how much she had come to rely on me for support in the months we had spent together in the evenings.

I knew her strength and determination, but also the fear this little five year old girl felt coming back where she wasn’t sure she would remember everyone, or where she didn’t remember the routine and knew it would be far different from her rehab routine. I met her in the office and the grip she had on my hand as we walked the length of the hall to our room was so tight. Debbie had the kids at the door to see her as soon as they could, and she also was controlling their excitement, as Annie was really sensitive to loud noises (and we were somewhat afraid they would give a huge cheer and scare her.)

Annie came back to our class, and our lives–none of us–were untouched by the miracle of that child fighting the battle to re-enter her life. We watched as she got stronger and settled right back in our community. She wasn’t without differences, without struggles, without changes in what she could do and learn–but she was still Annie and the kids were amazing as they tenderly and kindly helped her relearn things. They supported her and she grew with us because we were a community–a group of people who had lived and learned and loved together since we had been thrown together by fate in August as we began that year of Kindergarten.

I tell this story because I know how I handled this situation was different from how a lot of teachers would have–I had support to take care of my own kids in the evenings. I had a teaching assistant who knew how powerful our support was, and who took extra time to help kids make Annie’s tapes or drawings or who took dictation each and every time a kid said, “I want to write Annie.”  I had support, but I also had an amazing experience that let me see how powerful an impact we can have on someone without knowing it much of the time. When Debbie and I first went to see Annie, we had worked with her only about 8 weeks–but our voices calmed her and she obviously recognized them, even in a coma. Think how critical that was to her, since it wasn’t possible for her to hear her grandmother’s or her Mother’s voice.

Our brains are amazing. Kids’ brains are amazing. It is up to us–as adults, as teachers, as admins, as keepers of the human future–to make sure all kids have a chance to stretch their brains and grow as much as they can, and to believe in the growth mindset that Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset. Annie’s recovery was truly a miracle, one that my class of students lived through and saw for themselves. I believe each of those children learned something about themselves that year as they supported Annie, and I know my belief in the  ability of the brain to grow beyond what  was expected was cemented forever.  As the song goes, I do believe that children are our future and that if we teach them well, they will lead the way.

Ya never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and cement a belief, or make you forever look at it differently.

 

 

This is cross posted at the Cooperative Catalyst.

I do think words matter. (See a previous post here.) I think how we define words matter and it’s important to have common definitions, language and belief systems when working together and sharing kids.

Joe Bower ended his post today with a quote from Socrates about the beginning of wisdom and defined, “…assessment as a process where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning…” That made me wonder…Is that how I would define assessment?  Is that how YOU would define assessment?

I KNOW it’s not how many teachers would define assessment. This summer, I’m going to participate in a professional development opportunity in my county, one we call the CAI (Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction) Institute and the topic is assessment.    Two of the outcomes are supposed to be:

  • A shared model for a process of assessment among stakeholders
  • Develop knowledge and skills for participants in assessment:
    • process
    • task and item creation
    • leadership

So, clearly the leaders of this work see assessment as a process.  But, is it a process “where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning” as Joe says?  Is it a process to find out what is known and unknown?  Is it a process to define future steps for learning and evaluate past actions? Is it all of those and more–or less?

Will teachers leave after three days with new skills in assessing? Will we have an opportunity to define assessment and come to a common understanding of the purpose of assessment? Or will we simply go back to our schools and continue to do weekly multiple choice tests to see what kids have learned in math, or drill kids with online programs like Spelling City and Accelerated Reader to define what they know and don’t know?

In looking at this year’s purpose of the CAI Institute, will we change our practice and how will we know whether it has made a difference? Will the representative teachers chosen to go then return to their schools and share what they learned to make changes in more teaching practices? Will we see language shifts in talking about student learning?  Will “item” mean a multiple choice question and “task” mean a real world one? Will we spend time on developing common language and exploring beliefs and building on current understandings to deepen knowledge and experience? Will there be opportunities to really delve into the work of creating high quality assessments that will make a difference in classrooms and in students’ lives? Will students see a difference in how they are asked to show their learning, or will worksheets still abound?  Will principals allow that to occur or will they be the leaders who set guidelines that drive a change to deeper ways of assessing?

HOW will the Institute be set up to forge common beliefs, to change the language we use in describing student learning and to refine assessment literacy to move beyond traditional methods to ones that make sense to the learner?  How would you set up a workshop like that?

What advice would you give the people who are setting up this opportunity, and how would YOU structure my day to have the biggest impact on students when we return to our schools to share what we’ve done?  How would you ensure that this three day institute would actually change what teachers and students do in school?

Jan
16
Filed Under (teaching) by on January 16, 2011 and tagged ,

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Last night I went to a post wedding party of one of my former students. Her wedding was held in December and I couldn’t attend because it was also the weekend of my family Christmas celebration.

I was disappointed not to attend, but this post wedding party was for all of us who were too involved in the holiday rush to do so, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to spend some time with her.

IMG_1913 This family is really special to me, because we HAVE stayed in touch, and  they laughingly call me their “family teacher.” I taught Liz in Kindergarten and second grade and her brother, Mason, in first and third grades. I have stayed connected to these folks since they moved from my school (after Mason was in third), and have even had the kids stay overnight with me camping and on a beach vacation for a couple of days.We’ve shared birthday parties, graduations, ball games and other various events where we’ve had a lot of fun over the years.

Cool kids, cool family, and last night I knew hardly ANY of the people who were attending this spaghetti supper celebration. Each and EVERY single time Liz introduced me as her Kindergarten teacher, though, the response was, “OH, so you’re the one responsible for this wonderful girl.” Or, “YOU’RE the reason why she turned out to be such a wonderful person,” or “You’re who we have to thank for her turning out to be such a fabulous human being.”

Liz and I would make eye contact and laugh as she would agree with whomever was giving me kudos, and my response became, “Well, maybe I can take a tiny bit of the credit.”

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She–and her family–really are amazing people and I am blessed to have been involved with all of them. Last night was really special, not only because of the bond I have with them, and how much fun it was, but also because of the kindness shown to me as a teacher by complete strangers.

As I drove away, however, I couldn’t help but think of the difference between that experience and what teachers usually face daily–questions, concerns, challenges, etc. My friend, though, hit the nail on the head when she summed the night up like this: “Well, that was a room FULL of people who appreciate what teachers do!”

WOW!  I left, feeling like a celebrity.

Today, I feel humbled and honored by those remarks.  We DO make a difference–good or bad–and we all need that kind of feedback.

So, when your child asks what to get the teacher for a gift-giving holiday or the end of the year, when she or he comes home with a cool story of the great day s/he had at school, make it special to the teacher too, by picking up the phone and telling them that, or having your child write them a thank you note–and add a small one of your own at the bottom.  THOSE are the REAL Teacher Appreciation Days–when it happens unexpectedly!

Because of reading fiction with 5th graders, I had a student write this after reading Grandpa’s Mountain:grandpadrop

The Park did something wrong to do something right. It wasn’t black or white, right or wrong. It was shades of gray. ThinkQuest has made me think for myself. Now I don’t think what other people want me to think, I sort it out myself.

(from “Our Stories” on What Price This Mountain?)

About a dozen years ago I was teaching 4th grade and had to teach about the Civil War. The kids had to know some specific battles and the basic issues for the state test, but that wasn’t what worried me about teaching it–it was how to teach it to 9 and 10 year olds without the blood, guts and gore of teaching about war. I think about that a lot because I’m a softie who cries at anything, and I also have nightmares easily when I hear about cruelty–and I didn’t want to cause my students either nightmares or tears!

When studying the Civil War, I decided to teach the idea of conflict through the book, Across the Lines , which is a point/counterpoint between two young boys.  One is a slave who chooses to escape in the craziness of the master’s plantation being overrun by the “Yanks” and the other is the master’s son, who has always considered the slave his friend, without realizing the condescending attitude he held toward his “friend.”

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Because of reading the  fictional Across the Lines with students, I had a young Jewish student state in class that he, too, was nervous about learning about the Civil War and all the blood and horror it might include, but he really liked the way we had studied it, through books.  He went on to say something like, “When we began, I thought I knew what the Civil War was about–it was about slavery and I knew that was wrong.  But now that we’ve studied it, I know it was about more than that–it was about state’s rights and the federal government’s right to tell states what to do, and it was about more than slavery. I understand now that slavery was complicated, and it wasn’t just black or white. It really is shades of grey.”  (He is currently in college studying politics, fully intending to go to Washington and make a difference.)

(Both classes had been reading historical fiction novels by Carolyn Reeder, and one of her books is called Shades of Grey.) These are NOT isolated responses–read the other students’ thoughts on “Our Stories.”

The other day my Superintendent, Pam Moran, tweeted : “U of Mich study shows today’s college students: 40% less empathy than 20-30 yrs ago.”

Would you say my students had no empathy?  These groups are currently in college or freshly out.

Come on, Grant Wiggins–admit there’s a place for both fiction and non-fiction, and realize great teachers can do great things with a great piece of fiction.  We teach WAY beyond the fiction in the book.

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, I remember my first year in Albemarle County.  I remember it for a lot of reasons, but as our tenth day of school approaches, I remember back to when I was a newbie and I got a job AFTER school started–so the 2 established classes of 30 got to each lose 10 kids to my new class. The teachers were what I call Crozetians–which means they had been here, they knew the community and families and school volunteers and all that other stuff that good teachers know about the culture of their school. So when I was hired, the principal gave me a few days to set up my room while school was going on and I got to learn my way around a little.

I was excited to begin with the kids.  (There’s a skunk story in there, but I’ll save it for another time.) I was getting 20 4th graders and had done student teaching in 4th grade, so I felt like I knew a bit about what I was doing. Plus, I was young, confident, enthusiastic and idealistic (none of which I’ve lost, except the young part!)

I have a good memory, but as any of you who teach know, when you’ve done it for a while, the years somewhat blur together. I remember which grade I taught someone in, but probably not the exact year. However, I bet I could pretty much name almost every, if not every, kid in that class, it made such an impression on me. You see, the two teachers had total control over which kids they put in my class.  I got ten from each of them. Yep, those of you who are veterans can suspect which ten I got from each classroom.

It took me until about January to have enough experience with the other two classes through sharing math and reading groups to realize my homeroom class make up was quite different from the others. I had no gifted kids–had some bright ones, but NONE of the top kids in the grade level. I knew the resource teacher well, as she worked with quite a few of my kids. I had a disproportionately high group of free and reduced lunch kids. I had no PTO officer parents or regular school volunteers in that class. I had two kids who were stepbrothers–one’s father had married the other’s mother and the families were NOT friendly to each other. (Did these two veterans TALK to each other about the kids they gave me????) I had the kids who everyone in the school knew because of their behavior. (I still have a vivid memory and picture in my mind of one boy in line jumping up to touch the clock on the hall wall and it falling and shattering all over the floor. THAT was fun to go report to the principal as a first year teacher.) I quit sending home book orders–I never even got the minimum order, while the others classes collected hundreds of points each month with their orders. When we went on field trips, I had to scrounge for parents to join us–the other classes always took some of my allocated parent seats, as I couldn’t fill them.

But you know, if you looked at those kids on paper–reading groups, past scores, etc.,–the classes looked relatively even.  It was the cultural knowledge–the things we teachers think about as we get a new class each year to label it in our minds as “easy” or “good” –or not–that made mine different.  It’s the community things–parents who volunteer, families who are known to support their kids at home or not, parents who buy from the book orders, kids who work hard or who have a work ethic or not, talkers/chatterers, socially adept kids (or not), behavioral issues, combos of kids to put together or not, kids who eat heathily –or who are overweight and prone to teasing–and on and on.  The two veterans had to have known what they were doing when they gave me the combo of kids they did.

I had a great year with those kids anyway.  I loved them–they were my first class in this school system and they laughed with me as I learned how to run a classroom, and they cried with me–especially as I read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” (I’ve NEVER read that book aloud again–I’m too quick to tears reading sad things!)  They let me teach them and they taught me. My principal let me individualize my math program and they worked through the book at their own pace, so I had plenty of time to work with kids who needed it.  These kids reacted to my enthusiasm, my forward thinking and my love to become a really cool group of kids. That’s one of my favorite groups ever, and I love hearing about what they are doing now. In fact, I get to have kids of those kids in my current school sometimes–and two years ago, I had the kid of that boy who broke that clock. . . we laughed about that incident because he remembered it too!  He remembered me NOT yelling at him, but just saying something like, “Oh, Johnny.  Please go get the custodian before someone gets cut.” Previously one of his favorite ways to get attention, he said he never tried to jump up again. He just hadn’t thought before of the potential consequences of his actions.

I’d like to believe that teachers don’t think either about what giving a newbie teacher a hard class does. I’d like to believe it isn’t deliberate. But every year, when the tenth day approaches and I know schools in our district will be hiring some teachers to take overloads off of some grade levels, I worry about those teachers coming in and what kind of class they’ll get. I hope they’ll get a fair shake, but I worry they won’t. Why do we do this to our own?  Why do we do this to teachers new to our school or our grade, or our community??

We teachers are our own worst enemies sometimes.

I have two weeks off this summer and this is the second day of the first week. Yesterday I stayed plugged in all day to Edubloggercon East, listening, learning and interacting and today I plan to produce. I want to blog, I want to move and I want to do something other than look at a computer.

It’s a busy week for me to have off–the Discovery Education Network Leadership Council is meeting near Boston. The Building Learning Communities Conference is happening in Boston. Both are gatherings where  many people I know will be sharing, tweeting, streaming and I can be learning much of the time. There are many other conferences going on as well that people in my PLN are sharing and tweeting about daily. It’s a GREAT week for me to have few personal obligations.

So this morning, Steve Dembo, @teach42, quoted Chris Dede as saying: The biggest challenge for educators is to reinvent the educational system of the 21st century. – Dede #denlc10

Then, Mary Beth Hertz, @mbteach, responded with: not sure we need to reinvent anything. Some things ARE working! We just need an upgrade.

Yesterday in an Edubloggercon East (#ebce10) session, there was a conversation about Rethinking/Renaming 21st Century Education.

I’ve been reading and blogging on the Cooperative Catalyst blog for months, and recently, I’ve read Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology and Seth Godin’s Linchpin. I’ve watched people at ISTE10 and on #edchat call for action, not words, any more.  People are saying it’s time to act and stop talking about acting. However, agreement about what specific actions to take seems to be lacking–or seems, at least, NOT to be pervasive.

Well, let me suggest some specific actions we should all take in all of our schools.

1. I don’t think changing schooling is about an upgrade, or about what IS already working, or even about reinventing, reforming or transforming. The big thing everyone seems to agree about right now is that schooling does not equal learning and what we’re doing in most schools today does not meet the needs of today’s learners or today’s world.

We have to agree on what kind of learning is important for our students and for us and act on that! Learning for life is not rote, but about deep understanding and questioning through inquiry, analysis and reflection. It’s about building habits of mind that allow and support learners to transfer learning across disciplines and situations to be adaptive and creative in complex situations. Deep learning occurs NOT in a vacuum, but socially, with others, so teamwork, collaboration, leadership and people skills are crucial to develop.

So, if what we want is learning that builds skills that transfer to new situations, we simply have to examine HOW we support learning for our students.  Doesn’t matter where that support happens, or when that support happens, but HOW it happens.

2. Seth Godin talks about two kinds of schooling:

Type 1. You can take a class where you learn technique, facts and procedures.

Type 2. You can take a class where you learn to see, learn to lead and learn to solve interesting problems.

The fact of the matter is that we’re always going to need some type of school and school building for young students. Early childhood is crucial for setting the stage for later learning, since it’s generally  in grades k-3 that students learn the basics–reading, writing, mathematical thinking and socialization skills. Once they have developed some building blocks of those how-tos, and a questioning frame of mind, then

We need to figure out how to provide our learners the second kind of schooling as much as we can, and act on that, strategically providing our students multiple opportunities in a group to figure out a problem, struggle to solve the problem and mess around with complex issues and make sense of  and offer solutions or changes to them.

Here’s where it gets tricky in my mind, as allowing students to do that does not look orderly, and often looks like chaos. It’s messy, it’s riddled with failures (cause that’s what we learn most from) and it does NOT look like a teacher standing lecturing in front of a room full of students.Thus, administrators have to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to help us get better at it through THEIR supporting OUR learning. Again, inquiry, analysis and reflection is important to any learning–including all of the adults!

3. The daily work students do must be engaging, involving the 8 engaging qualities of work described here: Teachers as Taskmasters

Like the title of that blog post, I say teachers must be MASTERS of task-making. I do not mean in the traditional sense of the word, as in making sure the work gets done, but as in MASTERFULLY crafting tasks. These tasks should be ones that engage, teach, allow for diversity of thought, stimulate creative juices flowing, and evoke a proud sense of accomplishment. They may even take on a life of their own, resulting in students taking the task to places the teacher may never have envisioned. Through rich tasks that demand rigor in thought and performance, that elicit cooperation and teamwork, students may also discover a passion for the subject or the discipline as well.

We need to observe carefully what students do in multifaceted and difficult situations and have deep understanding of their work and act on that to help them develop strategies for knowing what to do when they don’t have an immediate solution.

This ties in with the “struggle to solve the problem” in suggestion #2. David Berliner, who has done tons of research on “experts” talks about expert learners “knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do.” So, as we teach and support our students learning to find and solve problems, we also need to carefully observe what they do to help them make connections to multiple modes of strategic thinking, critical friends, and knowledgeable others who can help them get beyond a temporary stalemate. We also need to understand our content, knowing how to scaffold students for deeper understanding and next steps in specific processes.

4. It’s not just about OUR analysis of the quality of the work, but the students’ command of their depth of understanding as well. THEY are the ones who need to be able to explain their understanding, comprehend how much they know and don’t know, and be able to describe next steps for their own path.  It’s about students understanding that the questions many times are much more important than the answer and that the process we follow to get to where we do is usually much more informative than the answer.

We need to act to do rich, sophisticated assessment that clearly matches our  objectives, gives specific, timely and regular feedback on both student work and student learning, and provides rich descriptions and analyses of that work and learning that others (admins, parents, other students, etc.) understand.

When we report to parents, we simply have to practice 3-P reporting, where we share, and students self-report on

*Performance (based on criteria and performance standards)
*Progress (progress/improvement)
*Process (work habits, effort, attitude)

(See Grade Fog? Or Effective Grading?)

You know what?  The four specific actions (green sentences) I suggest aren’t new ideas. I’d bet Aristotle, or Plato, or even Thomas Jefferson, would all agree they are simply good education–or good “schooling.” I’d bet many of you learned them in your preservice classes, or in the freefall of your first few years of teaching.  What’s different is the hamstringing NCLB has done to us, what the state multiple choice tests have done to us, and the fear to which we have succumbed to NOT do what we know is best, and what’s been in many of our hearts all along. What’s different is the tools we have to do these things, and the ways we can manage them. So my challenge to you is simply this–let’s all go act on these four things and use all of the sophisticated tools we have at our disposal to do so. Let’s teach our students, interacting with them and all of our peers with all of our heart and soul and with every ounce of knowledge, art and craft we have to provide rich, incredibly engaging, and amazing learning opportunities for them. Let’s share what we do, (any ideas how or where?) and show the world we really don’t need those multiple choice tests to document our students’ learning and provide them the experiences they need to save our world from the mess we’ve made for them.

And, for a related post I wrote in May, go here.

Been thinking a lot lately about my years as a Kindergarten teacher.

Saw a tweet the other day that said something like, “We could learn a lot from watching a great Kindergarten teacher.”

Used to have this poem on my classroom door:

All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

- by Robert Fulghum

Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in Kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.

These are the things I learned:

    • Share everything.
    • Play fair.
    • Don’t hit people.
    • Put things back where you found them.
    • Clean up your own mess.
    • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
    • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
    • Wash your hands before you eat.
    • Flush.
    • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
    • Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.
    • Take a nap every afternoon.
    • When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
    • Be aware of wonder.
    • Remember the little seed in the plastic cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
    • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK . Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation, ecology and politics and sane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and clean up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

I just keep thinking we’ve lost sight of the goal of school–and that, for me, is to support students becoming self-reliant, independent learners who care about themselves, others, and the world and who will “always put things back where we found them and clean up our own messes.”

“Wisdom was not on the top of the graduate school mountain.” Is it in our schools today?

“Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.” Is this Google’s 80/20 philosophy? Is it Gardner’s multiple intelligences?  Is it learning styles? Does it matter what we call it as long as we provide out students opportunities to “draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day“?

“Be aware of wonder.” Do we even provide time for this in our classrooms? I remember little ones bringing me four leaf clovers.  I remember painting ice in the winter with food colored water and seeing the delight in the faces around me as they squirted the bottles I had so meticulously saved. Do kids have time to even look for clovers in the 10 minutes of recess the state defines? Do they have time in their day for wonder?

I wonder: Why do I teach?  Why am I still in this job after 35 years?  Why do kids like my classroom better than some others?  Why do they find it a “safe haven” in a relatively benign school building? What do I do–what do I teach–how do I talk to kid that makes them want to be in my room? What are my goals for them while they are in there?

For me, the curriculum of factoids comes last–because the big ideas in our core content areas are more important for students to understand than who rode a horse shouting “The British are coming, the British are coming!” WHY was someone shouting that?  What difference did it make? Who cared and why did they care?

For me, it’s not about totally unfettered learning, or completely student- directed learning, but tying student’s prior understandings and experiences to some common springboards. And I believe those springboards should help our next generation tie history and math and science to their world in meaningful ways that help them make sense of their lives and build ideas for the future–for their next generation.

And while it’s not about preparing them for their future world of work, for me, it is sort of, in really important ways.  We should teach our children to live their lives today so that they can make informed choices in the future–so that they have understandings of MANY areas of study and can find-or share-the things that ignite their love of learning and fire for exploration. We should teach our children about the choices they have and give them practice making choices in our classrooms so they can learn how to evaluate their choices to get better at making wise decisions.

For me, it’s about supporting our students to become wise–to think before they act, to look at issues from many perspectives and always listen to learn before responding. It’s about helping students understand themselves and how they learn best; helping them understand social code switching and developing the social skills necessary to get along with all others.

It’s about understanding differences and similarities–and honoring both.  It’s about supporting each other and sharing and celebrating and creating rituals that mean something to the group.  It’s about building relationships of trust and caring that transcend the factoids and instead move to deep understanding and thoughts and questions and challenges that help us all grow and change as we work together and support each other’s independence and interdependence.

And, for me, it IS still true:  ”no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

This morning, @MattGuthrie and I were talking about how fast and furious #edchat goes and how we wish we could preprime the pump with some thoughts to get people thinking more deeply ahead of time. We decided to take it on–he wrote about question # 1 (With an overloaded curriculum, what should be emphasized and what should be eliminated?) and here are some thoughts on question # 3-Should the current system of grading be outlawed and replaced with something more “21st Century?

A caveat:  The following post is created from notes I took in a talk given by Carol A Tomlinson, a brilliant educator and differentiation guru that I am lucky and blessed enough to call my friend and colleague. The stories are mine, the brilliance is hers!

There are some pieces of and questions about the grading puzzle that I believe teachers may not even consider.

  1. The power of grades to impact students’ lives creates a responsibility in giving grades.
  2. In what ways do our current grading systems motivate struggling readers to persist in the face of difficulty?
  3. Is there an opportunity for struggling learners to encounter excellence in grading?
  4. Do grades teach our brightest students to struggle in the face of difficulty?

So, what keeps us going as learners? If we experience success as a learner, then it may be something we want to keep doing.  If we need to put forth too much effort, then perhaps we quit.  (I can’t imagine trying to light a bulb 1000 times, as the poster says Edison did before he succeeded!)  The success to effort ratio needs to be in balance for learners to WANT to keep going.  If success is heavier, then learners learn to be lazy.  If the effort is heavier, learners tend to give up.

Here’s my personal story on that one: I know a kid who, in 4th grade, bright, but LD as one can be, started becoming a reader that December–took books EVERYWHERE, read all the time, discovered authors–and was reading on grade level. Family pulled him OUT of SPED for literacy, and the teacher was supposed to transition him into the regular classroom. However, he didn’t do his Accelerated Reader tests, so got an F on his report card in January. When Mom went to see the teacher, she literally said to Mom–”What grade do you think he should get?  I’ll change it to whatever you want.”  The kid has struggled through school and at the F, quit reading–his words were “why should I try?  I can’t do anything right.”  He STILL has not regained that attitude of wanting to read. . . and this is several years later.

There is truth in the saying success breeds success.  When one invests in learning and finds success, then one is more likely to repeat that risk. BUT, for other students, year upon year of “not good enough” results in lack of effort, and a seemingly uncaring attitude. I’ll say again, though, as I did in my last post, that I simply don’t believe students come to school saying to themselves, “I want to be a failure today.”

So, the big questions become:

What role should grades play in regards to the success to effort ratio?

and

Can we do anything to moderate the negative effects of grading?

Let’s think about some people in real life who get judged on their performances every day they work—like sports players or musical performers, and look at how they learn as we think about some key principles of effective grading:.

1. It’s unwise to overgrade student work.  Coaches don’t grade practices—the judgement comes in at the game—or at the recital!

2.  Why would anyone think grading a pre-assessment is wise?  That’s what‘s supposed to give us information as to what to teach and how to group.  Why grade someone on something they are ABOUT TO LEARN?

3. I’ll say it again—Coaches don’t grade practices, so why over-grade ongoing assessments?  Students need opportunities to practice, analyze work, and learn from errors in a safe context.   The formative assessments given should be just that—formative—not final grades.

4. Use summative assessments as primary data for grading. Grades should be reliable over time, meaning that the results of any given test on the standard would be relatively the same for the same kid.

5. Grades should be based on clearly specified learning goals.  Is the learning target clear?  Do students clearly understand what they need to know, understand and do?

6. Grades should be criterion-based, NOT norm-based.

In norm based grading systems, the human factor suffers:

a.) There will necessarily be winners and losers competing for scarce rewards.
b.) The implications for learning environments are predictably negative.
c.) The outcomes for both struggling and advanced learners carry high negatives as well.

Students should be striving to reach the standards that have been set for them to learn, not competing against classmates for the top part of the bell curve.

In norm based grading systems, clarity of communication suffers:

a.)  A could be the “best worst”

b.)  C could be “knows the stuff but doesn’t look so great compared to others”

In norm-based grading systems, confusion and lack of clarity reign as no one really knows what that A or C really mean.

So what do those key principles look like in practice?

1. Data used for grading MUST be valid and measure what we intend to measure –mastery of the material.

Grades we give MUST be free of grade fog.  In a standards-driven classroom, how can we take points off for talking in class, or students not putting their name on the paper, or not finishing several homework assignments??  Those types of requirements can be dealt with separately, but must not be confused with the student’s understanding and mastery of the content.

2. Grades should be given later in the learning cycle rather than sooner.

If we are doing our job, the students SHOULD know more as the semester goes on—so earlier misunderstandings should not be part of a grade that shows (or doesn’t show) final mastery. IF, in the end, the students show mastery, why grade them down for earlier mistakes?  Isn’t our goal for the student to master the material?

Again, crucial to remember is: The power of grades to impact students’  lives creates a responsibility in giving grades.

3. When it’s time for report cards practice 3-P grading
Students, parents and others deserve to know the extent to which the learner has learned agreed upon goals. Using SINGLE letter grades with no clear meaning is an issue. We should perhaps be giving three grades—or three ways of reporting:

*Performance (based on criteria and performance standards)
*Progress  (progress/improvement)
*Process (work habits, effort, attitude)

Shouldn’t all learners know the material, show progress and growth, and know what to do when they don’t know what to do (have strategies)? If those are our goals, then, why are we not reporting—and students self-reporting– on each and every part of the three Ps??

I believe these grading practices ARE contemporary. . and yes, the system many teachers use SHOULD be outlawed, but it’s not about outlawing grading–it’s about grading–or reporting–or assessing–or giving feedback– responsibly and effectively!

Post Script (and post-edchat):  I ‘m not sure anyone is saying we should keep grades.  I  am saying it is a reality of most of us and IF we have to do it, until the system changes, we should do it responsibly and not pull in all those foggy facts of talking in class, doing (or not) homework, neatness, names on paper, etc. as part of the summative grade. Those go in another area–process or maybe even progress, depending on the prior conversations.

It absolutely IS, as Will says below, all about what you can do with what you know, NOT the grade. We need to be moving towards that faster in schools.

It IS , as Chad says below, about leveraging inquiry to help students design and participate in authentic, personally meaningful learning opportunities.

It IS, as Karen says, about coming to common understandings about grades (while we have to use them.)

It IS, as Michael says below, about students owning their own competency and learning.

It IS, as Matt reminds us, about “big paradigm shifts.”

But mostly, for me, right now, it’s about getting all of us as educators to talk about grading practices, to wrestle with it, to challenge each other’s thinking, to share great ideas, to work together to figure out how to give feedback and assess well and SHIFT those paradigms so children don’t go through experiences like the kid cited above.

You guys sure have made ME think, and for that, I thank you mightily!

Matt Guthrie (@mattguthrie) and I started this topic and his blog on overloaded curriculum to pre-load the conversation at #edchat and make it deeper, not just occurring in 140 characters.  I think we succeeded. We hope you’ll continue it at the Educator’s PLN ning–or somewhere.

I joke with my kids (honestly) about not knowing everything. but sometimes I think they believe I really do.  They see me as smart, and they like learning with me. I am a human being to them because I frequently say. “I don’t know, figure it out.” or “I don’t know, let’s see if we can find out.”

I believe kids want to relate to their teachers as a human being–there’s certainly enough research out there to show that the relationships between teachers and students are key to successful learning. There are so darn many ways we distance ourselves from that, though, as we work in the classroom. First, when we say to a child, who may have been misbehaving, “And what is Ms White’s rule about that?” (when it’s Ms. White doing the talking), how corny is that?  WHO in real life refers to themselves in the third person?

Then there’s the “I like” people.  ”I like how Johnny is showing me he’s ready.”  ”I like it when Susie raises her hand.”  I like it when. . . blah, blah, blah. . . What do kids learn from those types of “reinforcing statements”?  That school is all about what the teacher likes and if you don’t do it, you’ll get in trouble.  Best to play along and do what Teacher likes.  (If you don’t believe that kind of thinking is pervasive, please go read ONE Junie B Jones book. Her teacher’s name is “Mrs.”) If I could outlaw ONE practice in school, it would be that one–because that simple statement makes it ALL about the teacher, and does NOTHING to help the child understand why the BEHAVIORS matter.  (And I believe half the time they really don’t.)

Suppose, instead of “I like,” the teacher said, “Johnny is showing he’s ready by having his book out and waiting quietly.”  or “Susie’s hand up shows me she has something to say.” or “Wow, when you all sit quietly, it’s so easy to hear the speaker .” or “When you sit quietly and listen when someone is speaking, your behavior shows you are a kind person ”  (or courteous, or care about what they have to say…) Suppose the feedback had everything to do with the kid and ALSO everything to do with how the behavior impacts the rest of the group, constantly reinforcing that one does NOT go to school by him/herself, that we are part of a group and that we need to co-exist in that group to be successful in school. Because, I also believe that no child (initially) comes to school, saying “Today I want to be unsuccessful here.” Part of our job is to ensure success–after mistakes, maybe, because they are part of the learning cycle, but we need to ensure success MORE than failure.

Teaching IS learning–about ourselves, about our students, and yes, about our content as it changes and grows through the diligent work of geographers, and mathematicians, and scientists, and educators, and everyone else all over the world.  And learning IS a hub. . of feelings, thoughts, ideas, caring, sharing, growing, thinking, reflecting, mistaking, trying again, designing, talking, working together, redesigning, hypothesizing, working alone, generalizing, creating, etc., etc., etc.

When a child brings a test to me and I glance over it to make sure they didn’t skip any questions, and I see that they worked a problem correctly in the work space, but circled the wrong answer on the multiple choice part, I am REMISS if I don’t ask them to recheck their answers. The test is not about me playing “GOTCHA” but instead helping them to develop habits that will reduce those kinds of careless mistakes. The test is a place for them to show what they know–and if it is standards -based, it’s not about playing around in the grade fog of catching them in mis-marking something they clearly showed they know.

When Pam Moran, my Superintendent, asked,  ”How do we use tech to shift from district hierarchies to leadership nodes and hubs connecting people in the learning web?” I paid no attention to the “how do we use tech to” piece–I read and began to think about the “shift from” part.

When I read @dennisar asking, “How do I co-create with my students?
” and answer his own question by saying, “I ask them to create personal meaning from class activities by using their own choice of digital tools for learning logs.” and saw Melissa Techman’s response:

@mtechman love your question re co-creating – I’m going to start with posting goal or topic and then stepping off-stage to join them in exploring/making/presenting

I realized I often do that with my kids–I often pose a problem that I KNOW is rich–but that I may not know the answer to initially.  What I do know is that I can figure it out, I can (probably) beat them timewise doing it, and I will both hear and figure out some great questions along the way as we struggle together with a challenge I have set forth. So I shift from, as Pam says, a hierarchy of me posing the problem to a learning hub where other leadership hubs emerge as people begin to work together to figure out the problem.

As I looked at the twitpoll for this week’s edchat,  I realized that, for me, # 1 and 3 were closed questions–a yes or no or simple list, unless we get to the HOW.  In #1, WHAT we teach is dictated. . . can we talk HOW we would emphasize what should be emphasized instead?  I want to figure out the HOW of school reform. . .

  1. With an overloaded curriculum, what should be emphasized and what should be eliminated?
  2. What are the advantages and drawbacks to single gender classrooms?
  3. Should the current system of grading be outlawed an replaced with something more “21st Century?”
  4. How do schools and districts help retain quality educators?
  5. How do educators deal with the question of “Friending” students on social media sites and applications?

And I realized, I want to learn the HOW from other people.  I want to struggle with others to verbalize how schools should change to meet the changing needs of the world and our students.

And then I read  this post by @JerriDKrusse and this ending:

To summarize, I think the reason so many reform efforts have had problems is because they do not address the fundamental issues at hand in education. Most importantly is the role of and decisions made by the teacher. Instead of giving teachers shiny new stuff (whether that be superficial strategies, or technology), we must address teachers’ fundamental views on learning and how to build student knowledge so that it is deep and transferable. (something that can be done with or without the use of modern electronic technologies).  Until we try to modify fundamental teacher beliefs about teaching & learning, our reform efforts will be wasted.

And I realized he has it–a fundamental point–until we begin talking basic VALUES of teaching and learning with one another and get down to the nitty gritty of  why we speak to kids in the third person or say “I like” or “don’t smile til Christmas” or any of those other things we do that negate setting up a true learning hub or web, schools won’t change.  We need to discuss what IS a learning hub–do all teachers WANT them in their classrooms, what are the teaching and learning behaviors we value and where DOES grade fog play in all of it?  How do we assess our students for real learning, and where REALLY are the opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking, interdisciplinary thought and transfer of knowledge? When do students engage and how can we leverage those instances and those behaviors for more sustainable learning?

Boy, when I asked what people would like to read about, I got lots of suggestions. So I began my book chapter.

I began my book chapter.

And I began my book chapter.

(Yeah, I was having a hard time focusing on one idea.)

So, I wrote 6 pages,, called it “Transformation,” and sent them to Darah.

(I did title my email subject line as “I know this is long, but. . . ” and give him permission to cut as needed.)

But I still felt bad I didn’t/couldn’t focus, and I also knew that everyone else’s had been 2-3 pages, so I felt like I was being Miss Piggy, taking up so much reading real estate.  So, continuing to ponder all the ideas my Twitterfolk had shared,  I slept on my guilt and lack of focus.

And I slept on my guilt and lack of focus.

And I slept on my guilt and lack of focus.

Until I came up with another idea and wrote 3 pages this time, called “The Creation Generation.”  It begins like this:

Many words have been written about Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and now Web 3.0, delineating the use in each era as consumers, producers and now collaborators. What our current students have gotten out of their use of technology, though, is that it is easy for them to create—a wiki, blog, a photo mosaic on Flickr, an online presence through sites such as Club Penguin and Webkinz for younger students and Twitter and Facebook for older ones. Heck, we even have students as young as 10 building applications for technologies such as the iPods. Students not only see the web as interactive, and their world as connected (through their phones, texting, chatting, Skypeing and even their DS and PS2 game devices), but they also see it as directed by them—they control how they use it to a great degree.

In this chapter-to-be, I cite  Ira Socol, David Cushman, and Larry Cuban, but I won’t steal any thunder from Darah’s book by posting that writing here. I will tell you, though, that both Ira and David have blogs worth reading, and the influence of me reading their thinking WILL show up in my blog thinking.

But, for those of you who made suggestions–many of which I attempted to incorporate into ONE writing–THAT, I will post here. . . but in bits and pieces, so you don’t have almost THREE THOUSAND words to read in one go.  AND, I offer my sincerest thanks for the ideas.

To begin, this paragraph is for @maryjanewaite who said, ”I’d like to read how kids view schoolwork, teachers, technology and use that valuable kid info to change how I do my job” and sort of for @jasondeluca who ”would want to read… where are we now? and… where should we be going with use of technology?” (More to come later, Jason!)

A 2001 contest for children to describe “The School We’d Like” clearly showed that “teachers and pupils all over the country (UK) realise that the system is outdated, that it does not allow decent expression of the values of creativity and independent thought that are needed in the new post-industrial world,” said John Clifford. Furthermore, “It proves yet again that young people are not a problem that needs to be corralled and curfewed, but an incredible rich resource of wisdom and creative thinking that we should learn to listen to.” See below for a children’s manifesto of what the schoolchildren of Britain would like to see in their school. The most poignant quote for me was a HS student’s: “Education should not close children’s eyes to the wonder of learning as it presently does, but should give children the opportunity to feed their mind and never get tired of life before theirs has even begun.”

We, the schoolchildren of Britain, have been given a voice. This is what we say:

The school we’d like is:

A beautiful school with glass dome roofs to let in the light, uncluttered classrooms and brightly coloured walls.

A comfortable school with sofas and beanbags, cushions on the floors, tables that don’t scrape our knees, blinds that keep out the sun, and quiet rooms where we can chill out.

A safe school with swipe cards for the school gate, anti-bully alarms, first aid classes, and someone to talk to about our problems.

A listening school with children on the governing body, class representatives and the chance to vote for the teachers.

A flexible school without rigid timetables or exams, without compulsory homework, without a one-size-fits-all curriculum, so we can follow our own interests and spend more time on what we enjoy.

A relevant school where we learn through experience, experiments and exploration, with trips to historic sites and teachers who have practical experience of what they teach.

A respectful school where we are not treated as empty vessels to be filled with information, where teachers treat us as individuals, where children and adults can talk freely to each other, and our opinion matters.

A school without walls so we can go outside to learn, with animals to look after and wild gardens to explore.

A school for everybody with boys and girls from all backgrounds and abilities, with no grading, so we don’t compete against each other, but just do our best.

At the school we’d like, we’d have:

Enough pencils and books for each child.

Laptops so we could continue our work outside and at home.

Drinking water in every classroom, and fountains of soft drinks in the playground.

School uniforms of trainers, baseball caps and fleece tracksuits for boys and girls.

Clean toilets that lock, with paper and soap, and flushes not chains.

Fast-food school dinners and no dinner ladies.

Large lockers to store our things.

A swimming pool.

This is what we’d like. It is not an impossible dream.

‘I know money doesn’t grow on trees and if every school had all these things it would cost thousands of thousands of pounds. But even if one of my ideas was just thought about being made a reality I’d be happy.’ Nicole Rennick, 11.

‘But most important of all was not the fact that the headmaster had ordered the equipment, but that he had listened.’ Holly Mackenzie, 11.

Remember this was written in 2001. I think today, students would STILL ask for a beautiful, comfortable, safe, respectful, flexible, relevant school for everybody, where everybody listened and everybody’s voice was heard.