Monthly Archives: April 2014

Humbled and thankful

I am humbled and honored to be nominated for a Bammy Award this year. I was nominated by a peer of mine Matt Miller (@jmattmiller). He is an outstanding Spanish teacher, blogger, and presenter from Indiana, and I was taken aback that he would think of me for this award.

As I learned more about the Bammy Awards, I know that the ideal of we are better together is at the heart of the awards. As a nominee, I truly believe this. I have grown exponentially as an educator in the past couple of years as I have developed my PLN, started writing, and shared as often as I could. The collaboration I have found through Twitter, edcamps, Google Hangouts, among other avenues has been nothing less than amazing. I am proud to play a part in the world-wide learning community.

This nomination is not just for me. It is for my students who put in the hard work and show dedication to learning day in and day out. They make me who I am as a teacher, and challenge me to bring my best at every moment throughout the day. My kids never cease to inspire me and make each day enjoyable.

This nomination is also for all the members of my PLN who help me learn and hone my skills daily. I grow and improve from their blogs, tweets, and stellar ideas that they openly share. When I feel fear begin to creep in, my PLN gives me the confidence to try something new, push forward, and conquer the fear of failure. When I am stuck, a quick tweet or message is all it takes to feel reinvigorated and create new learning experiences for my students. We are without a doubt, better together.

Finally, this nomination is for my family. I couldn’t do what I do without them. I am supported unconditionally whether I need some extra time to write, an encouraging word, or just a hug and some reassurance.

A huge thank you to everyone who makes me who I am. It may be my name on the nomination, but you are all there with me. I am grateful for all those who touch my life and look forward to whatever learning opportunites lie ahead.

My war on apathy

It is that time of year…apathy is rearing its ugly head and trying to settle in. The weather is finally improving, and kids (and teachers for that matter) can be wearing down as the school year approaches its close. Minds are drifting toward summer and time off. It is this time of the year that we need to dig deep as educators.

A few weeks ago I was looking through my students’ proficiency levels and summative scores for the semester and knew I had to do something. I allow and encourage my students to complete additional practice and reassess on any standard that is below proficient or that they simply want to improve. But this semester (and especially in the past few weeks) I had many less students taking advantage of this opportunity. I started to reflect and try to figure out why. For many of them, one standard below proficient was not something they were worried about. Overall, their progress report was positive and they were happy with that. Others may have started to feel like they were digging an insurmountable hole with no way out. No matter how often I reminded them and gave them support over the last few weeks, I was not seeing the growth and improvement that I wanted. The growth and improvement that they needed. How could I get them back? What could I do to inspire?

Funny that I was thinking about all this when Danny Hill (@hilldw61) contacted me. He is the author of Power of ICU and had completed a new book Brick House. He offered to send me a copy and I was eager to see what his new book had to offer. Little did I know how timely this book read would be. I believe things happen for a reason, and this is one of those occasions when it became very plain to see!

After reading Brick House, I knew the answers to my questions were clear. I had to declare war on apathy and let my students know we are battling together. It is not me against them, it is us against apathy for the sake of their learning. I had to let them know that apathetic behavior was unacceptable and we weren’t going to allow it in my room anymore.

In the book, Mr. Hill talks about bill collectors and how they are masters of defeating apathy. I used this analogy to explain to my class that I was now the bill collector of their learning. They owed me learning. More importantly, they owed themselves learning. They also owed it to themselves to feel completely prepared for the next level of Spanish the following school year. We were going to build a Brick House culture where every student is consistently working towards proficiency and mastery of standards. We would not leave holes in our houses of learning that would lead to failure in the years to come. We were going to support each other along this journey and work together until summer vacation calls us away from school.

As Mr. Hill states in his book, the way to defeat student apathy is to “NEVER LEAVE THEM ALONE.” I vowed to my students that they would never be alone in their learning. I was going to demand, not just suggest, that they practice and reassess on standards that are below proficient. I would be relentless with them until every standard was proficient or we ran out of time. I informed them that there was no other alternative.

I made my list, what Mr. Hill refers to as an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) list. I told my students that some of their learning needed intensive care. The list includes every student who has at least one standard below proficient. I let my students in each class know if they were on the list and if so, exactly which standards needed improvement. I charged them to make a plan to get off the ICU list and then to share that plan with me. I wanted to know what they were going to do about their learning in relation to these standards and when they thought would feel ready for reassessment.

The response was overwhelming. In our first week of the ICU list, I have had over 50 students come in during their homerooms or before school to work on Spanish. Some of my students reassessed or completed missing assessments, so I have had 34 standards move to up the level of proficient or distinguished. I have had 9 students remove themselves from the ICU list. My students are supporting each other and finding the time for their learning. I have redefined the relentless pursuit of knowledge and skills in my classroom.

What an immense turn around in such a short period of time. I am excited to see what the rest of the school year holds for my students and their learning. Who knows, maybe we can get the list down to zero!

Much ado about homework

Homework. It is such a contentious topic in education, and a very personal one for so many teachers. I frequently get asked about the homework policy in my standards based classroom. The truth is, I don’t even use that word in my classes. So technically, I don’t have a homework policy. I do however have practice policies.

But before we tackle what practice looks like for my students, I think the bigger question is – What is the purpose of homework? Isn’t it to practice? Isn’t it to inform future instruction and further formative work? If so, does it matter where and when it is done as long as the students are progressing? I don’t think it does. Obviously, we need to practice skills, understandings, and concepts on the journey to mastery, but how much does each student need? In my humble opinion, the answer to this question varies for each student. There is no way for me to assign the same practice each day to everyone and get the same results. Students need differentiated practice no matter whether it is done at home or in the classroom. Building appropriate student choice into the practice routine increases engagement and ownership of learning for our students.

So, what does this look like? In my learning environment, practice is happening all the time. Practice can be orderly or chaotic. Sometimes we do whole group practice; there are occasions when we all need to practice a certain skill or concept. Whole group practice also builds community, and this is an essential component in developing a culture of learning. Other times, we practice in small groups. Small groups provide for more student voice and space to build collaborative skills. Individualized practice is a great opportunity to see where each student is in relation to the standards. I can give valuable descriptive feedback for growth and help them increase their proficiency levels. Varying practice modes ensures that we are reaching all of our students in the manners they learn best.

So let’s get back to policy. How much practice do I assign? The students and I determine how much is appropriate. I don’t mandate that the practice be done at home or at school – that is for my students to decide. You may be wondering at this point if any of my students would practice at home then? The answer is yes. They practice at home when it is necessary. Do all my students choose the right amount of practice? Of course not – this is when I step in as the professional in the room. I have a 1 on 1 conversation with the student to see where their practice is lacking. But then it is up to them. They have to decide that the practice is valuable and will contribute to their growth, and I can’t do it for them. They are in high school and need to be provided opportunities to make their own decisions. We need to trust our students.

What about when they fail? The student made a decision about practice that didn’t work out and now what? Well, it is time for another conversation and more practice. Maybe the answer is something the student couldn’t fathom, but now they are more open to different ideas. The standards we have in place in our classrooms are worth the work and struggle our students put in to achieve them. It is valuable to have the few that made poor decisions go back and complete additional practice. Once additional practice is finished, the student and teacher can reassess proficiency levels. This teaches them responsibility. Students must accept their decisions and learn how to recover from failure.

Do I live in a perfect world where eventually I get all my students to complete enough practice to achieve mastery on all their standards? I wish, but no. My goal is to get as many of them there as possible by working with them to achieve their goals. Our students want us to work collaboratively with them and yet need ownership of their learning. It is a tricky balance to maintain, yet this is how we best prepare them to be lifelong learners. It is a sloppy journey with many setbacks and stumbles along the way, but  so important for our students. We make such a significant impact on the learners our students become.

So, does it matter what we call it, homework, practice, formative assessment? The title doesn’t matter so much as what we do with it. Practice must be differentiated, respectful, student owned, relevant and needs to inform future instruction and practice. Let’s make sure it is meaningful and valuable for our students.

What are your views on the H word? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!


Astounding ourselves

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.                                                                                  – Thomas A. Edison

What gets in the way of our working to capacity?

Fear. We are scared we might fail. We are scared our students might fail. We fear the unknown. We fear what is new, unexplored, and beyond the realm of tradition. We fear student backlash. We fear parent push-back. We fear we will be misunderstood or ostracized by our colleagues.

I have vowed to be courageous this year, and I feel like I am fulfilling that promise. I have faced every fear above and done my best not to succumb to them. I can’t stop now, though. I must continue to push ahead and beyond the fear. I know I don’t work to my ultimate capacity every day, but as long as I am progressing, learning, and growing, I am content. I get stuck sometimes, but in turn find support and inspiration with my colleagues and ever-growing PLN. There is always help and reinforcement for those who seek it. I have learned to appreciate times of struggle as well as those when ideas flow easily. My greatest growth happens at the moments when I feel stuck but continue and persevere. These are the moments when we astound ourselves. We are capable of amazing things.

It is at this point during the school year that so many of us feel like we are dragging. The weight of the school year and all our other obligations loom heavily. We are tempted to go on auto-pilot and coast into the summer. We become scared that our students have given up and are ‘done.’ We can easily allow fear to creep in and take over, but our students need more. They have grown tired as well and need us to be fully present more than ever. This is the time to show our students how learning happens everywhere in their lives. Learning continues no matter whether school is in session or not. Learning is what carries us forward and keeps our minds active.

Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great.                                                                                                            – Fernando Flores

Shed your fear and be courageous. Shatter the walls that hold you back and cause stagnation. Charge forward and literally astound yourself!

Standards based reporting

In the standards based classroom, learning is the focus, but at the end of the marking period come the ‘all important’ grades. In many districts, there are semester and quarter systems, so grades are officially reported twice or four times per year. Each class or subject area gets a letter grade and frequently there is a bank of canned comments from which to choose ‘narrative’ feedback for our students.

In my humble opinion, this is not enough information. We should be reporting so much more than a letter and a comment code. What does that letter even signify? Has the teacher or school defined the purpose and meaning of that grade? What if a student doesn’t fit into the mold of the predetermined comments?

Of course we can always call our parents and talk with our students to give more information and feedback, but I feel that our report cards are lacking. They can do a much better job communicating academic achievement, process (behaviors), as well as growth. In my standards based classroom, I send out an additional report to parents and students each semester. It separates out these three important areas for communication and really puts some meaning behind the word report.

For academic achievement, I separate my letter grade into four skill based strands. I teach Spanish, so these strands are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I use a four point scale in my classroom, and each of these strands is reported using that scale. I also give the overall letter grade (although I wish I didn’t have to), using a conversion chart. This letter grade is given in regard to academic achievement only. You may be wondering, ‘Where are the standards?’ The standards are in my computerized grade book. Each standard gets scored on the four point scale and is available for parents and students at any time.

We have to walk a fine line with these reports – we don’t want to give too little information (just a letter grade), or too much information (reporting on each standard). Parents want information, but if they are inundated with too much, they will be turned off to the report. I choose not to report on each individual standard for this reason. I group them into strands, and the individual scores are always available online.

In the same fashion, I group process (behavior) reporting by strand. I find that reporting behaviors separately from achievement and growth is much more powerful than lumping them in along with the academic grade. When parents and students get meaningful feedback on specific behavior it is immensely more productive than not knowing how much of a letter grade is behaviors and work habits vs. achievement.

Growth is my final area of reporting. I report growth using narrative feedback. This is a personal choice, and there are definitely other effective ways of reporting growth. If I reported growth numerically, I would be back to putting every single standard on the report and again I don’t want to the reports to get cumbersome. I track growth throughout the semester and can give parents and students any specific information when requested.

These reports take some work on my part to put together each semester and send home, but I know it is worth the effort. My parents and students are much better informed about their current levels of achievement, process, and growth in my class. They can identify areas of mastery and opportunities for improvement. They know what their academic grade means and get valuable feedback. And they may not take as much time as you think because all the time spent combining these three areas, figuring out points, and calculating weights can be put into reporting them separately!

Although we work to be in touch frequently with all of our parents, the reality is that for some the report card is the ultimate communication tool. If this is the case, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to make it informative and productive?

Making a difference

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does” – William James

Sometimes we forget what a profound impact we have on students as educators. Every action, even a small one, matters. A smile and a quick hello can mean everything to our students. Too many times they have not been spoken to until they reach our school buildings each day. Noticing when they are in an ‘off’ mood can be the key to engaging them during class. Showing we care and forming those essential relationships are the foundation to learning.

A quick anecdote from my own experiences…

I have students this year that are like families. They work so well together and notice whenever someone is missing. They are sad when class ends each day and remark about how quickly the period goes by. From day one I modeled what it is to be a caring compassionate educator and person. They have completely followed suit and demonstrate these behaviors toward me and one another. They are the kind of classes that you know will run themselves if you have to be absent.

What has made this year so great are not only the relationships I have formed, but also what they have formed with each other. They look forward to spending time together learning and growing. They know when the going gets tough they will be there for one other to offer help. We laugh together, struggle together, and learn together. They make a difference to me and each other every day.

These students let me know all the time that I make a difference and what I want them to understand is the impact they are having on the world. One student in particular told me she didn’t think she would be famous. I told her that she just didn’t know how and to whom she would be famous yet. She has time to figure it out!

If we all follow this quote and act like we are making a difference (no matter how small) – we will change the world for the better each day. My students constantly remind me of this and I am grateful to them.