Category Archives: #colchat

The power of the zero

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.-Abraham Lincoln


As human beings, we will fail before we succeed, and sometimes we fail many, many times before we find success. If this is human nature, then I wonder…why isn’t this behavior encouraged, or sometimes even allowed inside our schools? Why do we cut off student learning in order to teach them some lesson of responsibility? Wouldn’t a better decision be to demand that they learn? We must insist that our schools become places of learning rather than houses of compliance.

The “zero” unfortunately carries a lot of power in education. Some teachers not only use it, but at times seem to enjoy doling zeroes out as the ultimate punishment. Should we allow the concept of zero to have this much power in our classrooms and schools? My answer is no. There is no room for ‘zero learning’ in a school. This is an oxymoron at best and a disservice to students at its worst.


There is no allowance for discontent with failure if we use zeroes. Students are permitted to move on to new concepts with little or no proficiency. Or worse yet…a student gets a zero but is actually quite proficient with a standard and the instructor never took the time to find out. Or the worst of all…a student is proficient, the instructor knows it, but the student did not turn in an assignment, so the zero is given.


Students need the time and space to fail, persevere, possibly fail again, and eventually find success. With curriculum guides and inventories, high stakes testing, and the factory model instructional methods we are given as teachers, no wonder some of the behaviors I previously mentioned have developed over the years. I am challenging us as an educational community to stop the madness. ‘Covering’ material and allowing students to move on without truly learning simply must cease.

I challenge you to quit using the zero. Don’t allow it any power in your learning environment. All a zero indicates is a lack of evidence, so treat it as such. Seek evidence of proficiency and when it there is room for improvement, work together with students to achieve mastery. We determine what we allow to be powerful and have control in our classrooms and schools. Let’s teach our kids to never be content with failure, but to treat it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Learning is the most powerful force in education.




Maintain or move forward…you decide

There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept responsibility for changing them.
-Denis Waitley

I love the simplicity of this quote – either accept how things are or decide to make a change. Accept the status quo, or move beyond. Sit back and take life as it comes, or grab it by the horns and make positive change.

I have spent the past few years of my teaching career not only deciding to make change, but also transforming my classroom into a learning environment conducive to growth and collaboration. This has been no simple task however. It is difficult to make the choice each day to think outside of the box and challenge my learning so I can do the same for my students. Beyond making the decision, it is even more difficult to follow through and take action. But this is where we hit the sweet spot in learning and growth. It is that uncomfortable place when we try something new, extend our minds just a little further, and move beyond fear to take action where learning goes to the next level.

The quote also speaks to accepting responsibility. It implies a moral imperative to change things for the better. This is a value that I want to instill in all my students. I want them to continually seek knowledge, grow throughout their lives, and leave a positive impact on the world in their own special way. I want them to accept responsibility for the world in which they dwell, and choose to make it great.

As I said above, this is no easy undertaking. Some days, it takes every ounce of my energy to accept responsibility for making my classroom all it can be. And there are days…you know the days. Those days when you leave school and know your best was maintaining that status quo. On those days you feel badly, but I want to ask you to stop. I have those days too, we all do. The fact that you recognize when you have them and commit to making a change the next day is so powerful and commendable. The fact that we can accept responsibility for all our days, both the good and the bad, is also part of what this quote encompasses.

So go out without fear. Take the good days along with the bad, but make the commitment to transform this world for the better. Don’t accept things as they are, make the choice to grow, learn, and improve even when it is scary, difficult, or seems impossible. Grab life (and learning) by the horns and make the change!


You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Trailblazing Standards Based Learning

It is a ‘real’ winter this year where I live…there has been snow pack on the ground for awhile now and we have had many record breaking cold temperatures.  The wind has had its way with the snow, moving it back over what has been shoveled and snow blown, only to have us head back out bundled up from head to toe to move it once again.

This is what it feels like at times in my standards based learning environment. Just like the shoveler who keeps plugging away, but the snow and wind keep redefining his task. I keep working, doing whatever necessary to facilitate quality learning experiences for my kids no matter how many times I have to revise, rework, or start over.  Working to create respectful practice and appropriate assessments is a constant battle because of our changing standards, changing environment, and most importantly, our changing students.  Sometimes it feels like we are trailblazing a new path for each class we teach, and for every student.

Trailblazing is hard work, but worth every moment. It is worth all the struggle, all the hardship, and all the toil. Trailblazing reminds me how important it is to consider not only each class as unique, but also each and every one of my students as an individual.


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson


We have to create our own trails and paths with our students in order to help them learn. I also love the idea from this quote about leaving our trail behind. This is our impact on the world, what we leave it with. I hope to help as many people in this world value learning. Just like the shoveler creating his path through all the snow and wind, I will trail blaze as long as necessary to ensure my students learn. This is the true reward – watching our students leave the classroom changed for the better, successful, and motivated to grow.

We have had to persevere this winter against the snow and wind, but I know that warmer weather will soon prevail. And much in the same way, summer will come for us as educators as well. A time to prepare for the next trailblazing session, readying ourselves for the diverse new population that will walk through the door.

Genius and courage

This school year has brought so many great things forward in my teaching career. Being standards based and differentiated, I can create a student centered, learning focused environment. My students are figuring out what is truly important – learning over points, scores, and grades. 


One additional concept that is of great significance with my students is the idea of passion. I feel it is so important to bring not only our passions to the classroom as educators, but to honor our students’ passions and encourage pursuit of them. Because of this, I have incorporated genius hour in my classes this year. It has been not only a learning experience for all involved (including me!), but very rewarding as well.

First semester my students focused on learning about a topic of their choice in Spanish. We shared our learning in December with the promise that we would go further second semester. As promised – we raised the bar in January.

This semester my students would need to produce something for an authentic audience. They would have to take their learning outside the classroom and make an impact. As nervous as I was to roll out the next phase of their projects, I soon realized I had nothing to fear.

I have students that are going to use their Spanish at homeless shelters to serve food and visit with the residents. I have students who are going to teach their younger peers dance in Spanish. I have students doing food drives, collecting money for charities, and making video games in Spanish. The list could go on…

My students are amazing people…Courageous geniuses in fact. They want to change the world and leave an impact. I cannot wait to see how these projects continue to progress throughout the semester. I am humbled and awestruck to be helping and guiding them along the way.

Motivation in a Standards Based Culture

“The primary reward for learning should be intrinsic – the positive feelings that result from success.  Actual success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” Ken O’Connor from A Repair kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades


Student apathy…I have heard teachers complain about this countless times.


‘They just don’t want to do anything!’
‘I plead with them…why don’t they want to try?’
‘I make it so easy, I basically give them the answers and they still don’t do anything.’


And the list goes on and on…


The answer to these problems seems simple – motivation.  What are we doing (or not doing) in our classrooms that is creating this culture of apathy and lack of motivation to learn? It is not that our students don’t have motivation to learn in other areas of their lives…take a look at how they play sports, learn musical instruments, or become proficient with new technologies in the blink of an eye. I have several thoughts why this is happening…


School is being done to our students


The action of learning needs to be done by the learner. Our students cannot sit and stagnate in the classroom ‘absorbing’ material and be expected to learn. They must experience, think, problem solve, analyze, and so much more. They must fail, problem solve again, and repeat until solutions are found. They must create, innovate, and make learning their own. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this learning, give feedback for growth, encourage risk taking, and provide guidance along the journey. Instructors and students alike must be engaged and fully involved in the learning process.


Tasks are not respectful


One size fits all education has no place in today’s schools. Our diverse learners deserve so much more from their education and need a place to make their best contributions and show their passion for learning. We need to devise tasks for our students that are respectful to their individual readiness and relevant to their world. I am always reminding myself that my students are adolescents, not mini-adults. They have varied needs, and desire to be understood.


Rewards and grades aren’t helping


“Rewards can deliver a short-term boost – just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off – and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.” From Daniel Pink’s book Drive


Grades when treated as reward or repercussion hinder the motivation of our students. They become the focus rather than a simple reporting mechanism. Intrinsically motivated learners understand that when learning happens, the grades will follow. Once students experience true success in learning – not just a good grade on something, or full points – it breeds more of the same. To unleash the potential of our students, we need to frame the grading conversation differently. Learning, growth, and knowledge are what we seek. Grades take a back seat and are one of many communication tools. Grades don’t have lasting power, they come and go quickly. Learning is for a lifetime.


And to remind you of what Mr. O’Connor says in his book… “Success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” So the more we can challenge our students, allow them to take risks, guide them when they fail, and lead them to find success, the more motivated they will be.

Use your professional judgement

I had the wonderful opportunity today to see Dr. Thomas Guskey (@tguskey) speak on the topics of Standards Based Grading and Reporting. I have read a good deal of his work, and really enjoy his viewpoints, opinions, and advice.  His writings are a crucial part of my standards based learning and grading journey.


One of the topics he touched on that resonated with me is professional judgement. Dr. Guskey assured us that our professional judgement in regard to student achievement and grading is not only more accurate than relying on percentages, numbers and computation, but less subjective, and more consistent.


This always feels like an oxymoron to educators.  How could someone’s JUDGEMENT be less subjective than numbers, computations, and math?  We first have to establish that we are criterion referenced, rather than norm referenced. This is standards based culture, where a student’s proficiency is measured against a set of learning targets. We are not pitting students against one another in a competitive game of school. Rather we are working to help all students succeed. Subjectivity decreases when we are transparent about where students are on the learning continuum and are clear about expectations, targets, and standards.


Many times educators get too wrapped up in a game of numbers, how many questions students got right and wrong, and percentage grades…we must remember that this is NOT the focus. Learning is the focus. Grades and scores simply communicate proficiency levels at a given moment in time. To effectively convey these, we must use a scale with 4-6 levels and established descriptors for those levels.


Why only 4-6 levels? Dr. Guskey spoke to the fact that once we move beyond 6 levels, not only do we struggle as educators to accurately differentiate them, but now we will have a difficult time helping students and parents understand the level of proficiency. If grades and scores are supposed to be communication, we have a problem. Less is more with proficiency levels when we want them to be meaningful.


It is time for the judgement piece of the grading puzzle. Once we have built a scale with informative, purposeful descriptors we can be much more consistent with grading. Educators looking at an assessment are much more likely to be consistent with four levels rather than 100. Students are going to be much more adept at self-assessment and making some of the judgement themselves when appropriate. Accuracy improves when we spend less time worrying about defining so many levels and more time gathering evidence and providing quality feedback to our students. When done properly, standards based grading is far more defensible than any percentage or average.


Trusting your professional judgement is challenging in a grading world full of computerized grade books, automated scoring programs devised to make grading easy, and students and parents who only know a traditional system. But we must trust. We must always do what is right for our students presently. We cannot succumb to the fear that surrounds change in grading practice. My one word for 2014 is Courage. It takes daily courage to work toward reforming traditional grading practice, but I pledge to do just that. My professional judgement tells me that this is essential to move learning to the forefront in education.

Moving beyond compliance to develop citizens

The word compliance is tossed around frequently in educational discussions and conversations. I have used it in a few blog posts myself, and it can have quite a negative connotation. Compliance can imply that students are not making choices about their own behaviors and acting on them. Rather, they are taking what they are told to do and following directions without making their own decision.  

This is where I feel the word compliance has no place in our schools. I want my students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. My students should not leave my classroom without having made some tough decisions and experiencing the results – whether good, bad, or somewhere in between. I want students to conduct themselves with respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and caring because they have seen the value in those behaviors and have decided to demonstrate them. However, I don’t live in a dream world. I realize some of my students are too immature or inexperienced to make the right decision all the time or choose what an adult would do.  Adolescents will make mistakes, falter, and act inappropriately. This is not to say that I want my students to become dysfunctional members of society, or that I want them to impolitely challenge authority at every moment of their lives. But as these students grow into adults, they need to make their own choices, learn from mistakes, and recover from failure.

It is at these moments when the role of the educator is essential. Educators must model the behaviors they seek, and this is not always easy. It means we have to open ourselves up and recognize that we are imperfect. We have to model the great decisions we make as well as acknowledge the poor ones. We must show how to positively respond for growth and change when we make mistakes. We must admit to being human. Relationships have to be developed, and inappropriate behaviors addressed. Students deserve the whole learning experience, not just content delivery, scripted curriculum, and a culture that demands compliant behavior with no explanation or reasoning. Above all, we teach more than just content, skills, or understandings – we teach kids.

Survey says…

I asked my 9th grade students for narrative feedback on their first semester experiences in my classroom through a survey about our standards based learning environment.  We always have room to improve and grow, but we also have so much to be proud of.  My kids create the learning environment with me, and the responsibility for maintaining it is shared as well.


Several major themes seemed to develop from their responses – they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and choose their work, they do not feel stressed out regarding learning in my classroom, they feel safe to try new things and revisit their learning when proficiency levels are below the learning target, and they preferred a standards based grading system to emphasize learning over points, scores, and grades.  Here are a few examples of their responses:


On Freedom:
“I have the freedom to learn how I choose.”
“I like being able to have the freedom to do the things you need during class, without scripted backwork.”


On Stress Levels:
“I enjoy how unstressful the learning environment is.”
“I do not feel pressured to know everything right away – there is time to become proficient.”


On Safety of Learning:
“The learning environment is welcoming and makes you feel safe.”
“We can redo our assessments, so we can get better and better at it.”


On Standards Based Grading:
“I enjoy the learning atmosphere because of the grading system.”
“I like that we don’t have traditional grades, because it makes more sense.”



There is one more comment that I would like to highlight. It humbled me as it also reminded me what a huge impact we as educators have on kids.


“What I enjoy most about Spanish class is how I learn not only the language, but how to be something in the world.”

Expectation

As we opened second semester in my classroom, we did a variety of reflective activities that will help us make the next 18 weeks as productive as possible. We spent a day reestablishing the norms for our classes, and one of the things I asked my students was what they expected from me each day. Each class came up with a variety of things, and I was impressed. Here is the list of adjectives from my 5 classes:

  • supportive
  • kind
  • different
  • challenging
  • creative
  • fun
  • happy
  • kind
  • impactful
  • empathetic
  • trustworthy
  • honest
  • reliable
  • patient
  • confident
  • respectful
  • understanding
  • appreciative
  • outgoing
  • helpful
Quite an extensive list of expectations that I will do my best to fulfill! I was inspired by their thinking – most of these adjectives also came up on the expectations for themselves and their peers. My students realized that we all need to bring our best each day. Each person plays an integral part in the learning environment. We spoke about continuing to create a culture of learning in the classroom and how to do it. We decided together how important risk taking is to learning and determined methods to support each other through the process.
I am keeping the list of adjectives very visible by my desk as a reminder. My students have set the bar high for not only me, but for themselves. Time to support each other for the good of learning!

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 5

This is the fifth post in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.



It’s all about learning…standards based learning



Standards set? Ready to jump in? Awesome…bring on the learning!

Once learning standards have been established, they must be unpacked for all stakeholders. This involves breaking them down into manageable pieces that relate to instruction, knowledge, skills, and understandings. For me, know, understand, and do statements create meaning out of standards that can seem a little overwhelming to students. These statements are easily adaptable for entire units of study or particular standards. I use them to guide instruction and learning experiences in my classroom. My students use them to inform decisions regarding formative practice and pacing. The know, understand, and do statements serve as checkpoints along the journey to mastery.

Once these statements are derived and communicated, standards based learning can become the primary focus. Standards frame the learning experience, but formative practice is crucial to growth and improvement. Students and teachers work together to accomplish the common mission – mastery. Learning is a messy experience with forward progress moving at different rates for all students. Standards based classrooms allow for risk taking, embrace failure as an opportunity for learning, and model recovery from that failure. Success is not a venture of if, but rather when.

Differentiation is made easier and more seamless by opening the lines of communication regarding expectations for learning. Students can manage their own formative practice once standards are clearly unpacked. The ownership of learning and responsibility for it can be placed where it most certainly belongs – with our learners. The role of the instructor changes to a facilitator and supporter of learning rather than someone who dictates every moment of the experience.

Growth is a natural part of standards based culture. It is inherent in what students do each day with formative work and feedback loops. By removing the grades from formative practice and replacing them with meaningful feedback, learning never stops, and continual improvement is the norm. Another essential component in a standards based learning environment is the respectful task. Students become apathetic, bored, and fearful when formative work is not at the appropriate level. Open communication allows for students and teachers to create and choose the tasks best suited for learning.

The standards based classroom climate is collaborative and positive. The ‘gotcha’ mentality is removed and the door is swung open to learning. Proficiency, mastery, and success are pursued by everyone. Collaborative learners are a powerful force in an environment where they help, guide, and support each other throughout the process. Student leaders emerge and are unleashed to assist others and hone their leadership skills. Too many students come into our schools with a fixed mindset. They are either smart or not, successful at school or failures. Standards based culture shows students that growth is not only available but accessible and attainable for everyone.  

Bottom line in a standards based learning environment…Students are empowered to learn.