Matters of proficiency

Proficient or not proficient…that is the question.  In learning, that’s all that matters, right? If you are proficient at something, move on.  If not, continue to practice and improve until proficiency is achieved.

In my standards based classroom, I use a 4 point / level scale for summative assessments.  Formative work is never graded or scored, I just give feedback for growth.  But should there be just two levels instead of four? Proficient on my current scale is a three.  A four is distinguished, while two is approaching proficiency and one is emerging.  But why do I need all these descriptors when all that really matters is whether they can do what I am asking them do to in the language?

I have thought about this long and hard the past few weeks and here is my answer.  Because I have to give letter grades at the end of the grading period, I need these different levels.  I must use the standard A, B, C, D, and F to communicate proficiency no matter how I would share it in a perfect world.  Now, my scale does not perfectly correlate to these levels, but I do need a way to determine whether the student is performing above, at, or below the expected level of mastery of the standards.  The part I am unsure of is whether I like it or not.

Is proficient not enough? What does proficient mean to you? I define it for my students as the level of language production / interpretation I expect from a Spanish 1 or 2 student.  To achieve the level of distinguished (4) you would have to go above and beyond what I expect.  Is this right? If distinguished is where we would ideally like all kids to be, should that be the level of proficient?  If so, does the standard need to be rewritten to elicit the optimal responses?  I realize I will always have some students that go above and beyond my expectations, so is this additional level necessary to show their achievement?  Furthermore, do I need the lower tiers to show when they are approaching the proficient level rather than just emerging?

My mind will continue to ponder these questions as I make standards based grading work within a traditional system.  What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let the discussion continue!

Kids and success

In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. -Bill Cosby

Inherently kids want to be successful.  They don’t show up to school thinking about how wonderful it will be to fail at school.  No matter how tough they are on the outside, they all show up wanting to be themselves, grow, and achieve.

This has been very apparent at school in the past few days.  My students are getting to a milestone in Spanish class – the first round of summative assessments.  This week, they will show me what they can do in the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  They have been working for weeks, and it is show time.  There are nerves, excitement, and a lot of apprehension.  For many of my students, this is their first time taking an summative assessment in Spanish, and for all of my kids this is their first time taking one from me.  Little do they know just how prepared they are.  We have been working very diligently.  The students have been practicing all four skills, and they have been given tools to practice additionally at home.  Yet any time you take a risk and try something new, there is a possibility of failure.

I must be realistic.  Even though I feel that these kids are well prepared to assess, some will fail.  Some will fall below the line of proficiency.  Some will do it out of nerves (the wonderful test brain freeze, anyone?), some will not have done enough practice.  But standards based learning and grading will save the day.  It will swoop in to help these students find their way to proficiency.  More practice will take place, formative feedback will be given, and they will reassess.  Why? Because it is important that they learn it, not when they learn it.

Some of my students are arriving at the point of retakes and are finding success.  The smiles that light up their faces when they know they improved is one of my favorite parts of teaching.  They appreciate a second chance, and are ready to move on and learn more language.  Success breeds more success, and that is what I want to spread in my classroom.

Be a champion for your students.  Demand that they learn, show them how to get up after they fall down, and lead them to success.  We will create a class of students who are excited about learning, and who know how to seek and find knowledge.

Best self, best work

It is the mantra at my school this year – Best self, best work.  Our administrators started the year at our kick off assembly talking to the kids about this phrase and what it would mean for their school year.  Each day since, the morning announcements end with “Best self, best work.”  The kids have actually started to say it along with my principal each morning.  So, I began to reflect…

What does it mean for me?

My favorite thing about this mantra is the idea of best.  Best doesn’t mean perfect or flawless.  Best isn’t the same thing every day for every person.  Best challenges without insisting on the superhuman.  Best is never ending, there is always room for improvement.  I would hope that our best shows growth throughout the school year.  Our best will give us a redo the next day, and the day after that.

The next piece to the mantra is self.  We each bring our own individuality to our learning community.  We need a variety of passions and strengths to give our students what they need each day.  Each member of the community needs autonomy to learn in their own way, students, teachers, and administrators alike.  Learning is a personal, individual activity and schools provide a place where we all share the experience.  We form relationships that in the end better ourselves at least as much as the academic studies, if not more.

And finally, not to be left out is the concept of work.  Learning is full of vigor and hard work.  If we don’t bring our best self, the work may seem impossible and more difficult than it actually is.  Learning is a demanding process, not to be taken lightly.  Work is a key part of the mantra, it is the promise that it won’t always be easy, but if you bring your best self and persevere, you will succeed.

The expectation is clear – bring your excellence, bring your individuality, and bring an inquisitive persistence to seek knowledge.  I can’t help but smile when I imagine the greatness that will abound if everyone just subscribed to this simple request each day.

Best self, best work.

Challenge accepted

Don’t get me wrong, I have had the best start to a school year since the beginning of my teaching career 14 years ago.  I have been forming relationships and building trust with my students.  They are developing their skills and making me very proud to be their teacher.  I am taking risks, finding successes, and learning from failures.

But there is that little nagging voice in the back of my head as I go home each day…Have I done the best I could for them?  Is there something I could have done differently? Is my environment the most conducive for learning?  Am I giving them enough feedback?  Are my assessments truly measuring my students’ achievement?

I know deep down that I work very diligently to provide my students the best learning experiences possible.  I am always reading, learning, and practicing to grow and improve my craft of teaching.  At times, the nagging voice can eat away at my confidence a bit, and discourage risk taking.  I try to ignore this, and I am getting better at it.  There are other things that feed the nagging voice – colleagues, old systems, politicians, lack of time…the list goes on.  It is difficult to push the envelope when most everything around you is pushing back to maintain the status quo.  We cannot sacrifice what is best for our students because it makes our lives easier.  We cannot lose confidence because we forge new paths.

There are positives to this voice.  It keeps me centered and grounded in the fact that I cannot stagnate.  I cannot stop.  I must keep changing, innovating, and creating.  If I slow down, my students stop.  I need to make sure that I listen to the voice to a certain extent – always challenging myself to be better, learn something new, create a better experience.  It keeps me on a journey rather than at a destination.

Here’s to being a positive deviant for change.  Break away from the mold to do what is right for kids.  Learn from your experiences, colleagues, and environment.  Grow and take risks.  Dare to be the teacher you never had in school.  That is what my nagging voice has challenged me to do this year.

Challenge accepted.

In pursuit of knowledge – be bold!

I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearing every authority which stood in their way.-Thomas Jefferson

I am a knowledge seeker.  I love learning new things, pursuing new ideas, trying them out, reflecting, and improving.  This is something I must tenaciously show my students to ensure that I am modeling the behaviors I want to see from them.  I read, collaborate, write, listen, take risks, handle adversity (the best I can, no perfection here), and grow from mistakes.

This persistent pursuit of knowledge is what keeps me going as an educator, and fuels my fire.  I like to think I am the lead learner in the room, and I had better back that up!  But of course, it is no easy path being this stubborn about learning and innovating in the classroom.

There are the looks and stares, the discussions that stop mid-sentence, the people who just don’t talk to you as much as they used to.  Others still, that make a point to let you know that everything you do in your classroom simply wouldn’t be possible in theirs.  Innovating can be isolating at times.  You can wonder if it is worth the struggle.

Then I think about my students.  Our modern world requires nothing less than innovators.  We need people to fill jobs that have not been created yet.  We need solutions to very difficult problems.  We need learners.  We need creators.

So, I am committed to pressing ahead, learning and innovating no matter what the cost.  For the time being, I will bear any authority that stands in the way of my students and I pursuing knowledge.  But eventually, my students will have to go out and bear that authority, and I hope to have shown them the right way to do it.  I hope to live up to the quote I began this post with, to boldly follow truth and reason no matter what.

 

Let’s go outside!

I said the magic words today in class…the ones that make students’ faces light up and cause smiles to emerge.  “Let’s go outside!”

It was a beautiful day today, temperatures in the 70s and partly cloudy.  Why keep these kids inside all day wishing they could just get a moment or two outside?  It is not that the activity we were doing couldn’t be done inside – of course it could.  But the beauty lies within this question…could we go outside for that?  Could we take advantage of the nice weather before yet another harsh Chicago winter bears down on us?  One of my goals for this year is to move my kids outside the walls of our classroom more often.  We can not only go outside, but use the other spaces within the school to provide a change of pace and setting.

Too many of our students go through the monotonous motions of their day – every day.  A simple act like moving our class to a different locale will make today memorable.  It takes an activity that might be easily forgotten and turns it into a shared experience of something different and fun.

Here they are outside!

Here’s to making every day as unforgettable as possible! 

Be relentless

As I was looking for inspiration for my next blog post, I reflected on several conversations I have had with colleagues at work as well as with members of my PLN on twitter.  I realized I had been asked the same question several times in the past week – What do you do when students won’t do their work?

With a standards based, differentiated classroom, my students don’t always do the same work.  All I care about is that my students an interpret and produce language at the end of the day.  It doesn’t matter how they get there, just that they are always growing, learning, and improving.

Ok, so back to the question…what do I do in my classroom when students won’t do their work?  There are so many things to consider, but here are a few…

  • is the work too easy?
  • is the work too hard?
  • have I considered learning profiles?
  • is the work interesting and engaging?
  • is there something going on in this student’s life (safety threatened, basic physical needs, etc.) that must be addressed before they can focus on school?
  • have I effectively communicated the importance of the skill we are working on?
I believe there is one more way to answer to this question, and maybe it is the best one.  This has been the best solution for me, the answer that made a difference when I was frustrated, backed into a corner, and didn’t know what else to do.
Be relentless.  
Some of our students simply want to be left alone to fail.  This is completely unacceptable.  Form relationships with them.  Talk with them – every day.  Know that there will be good days and some that feel unproductive. These kids are persistent, but you must prevail.  When they see that they have someone on their side, fighting for their education, their future, their growth – they still may not respond.  These students may not feel the impact of your shared struggle until much later on, but it is still worth it.  Don’t give up.
Be relentless.  
Be positive, assure them that they can find success in your class, and show them how.  Seek evidence of achievement and explore areas for growth.  Don’t let their negativity impact other students.  Celebrate the positive and address any negatives in a firm but caring manner.  
Be relentless.
Allow everyone in your classroom (yourself included) to make mistakes and learn from them.  Showcase the learning that happens in response to a failure.  Admit the failures you make and model the behaviors you want to see in the aftermath.  Model perseverance in pursuit of learning goals.
Be relentless.
Show your students that learning happens everywhere, not just inside the walls of a school.  Often learning gets a bad reputation as being boring and something you just have to get through in childhood and adolescence.  Change this and show them how they learn all the time in every part of their lives.  Learning is a constant for us in a world where many things are inconsistent.
Be relentless.
Be prepared to change what you thought was appropriate work.  Keep trying different types of work until the student latches on to something and engages.  Ask the student what type of work they want to do, letting them know that doing nothing is not an option.  Don’t get angry when they don’t want to do what you suggest, work with them to find the best answer.  Let them see you are on the same team, not in opposition.
Be relentless.