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.

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.

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.”

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.

Courage

As 2014 opens, I am accepting a challenge from members of my PLN to choose one word to focus on and lead me throughout the new year. My word is courage.

Courage to be autonomous

First and foremost, I will need to find the courage to be autonomous in my classroom. Autonomy is at times difficult with all the mandates, rules, and requirements that are handed to us as educators. My charge is to provide the best learning experience possible, and I have to rely on my research and professional judgement to make decisions while staying within the parameters of my district’s expectations. This can be a fine line to walk, but essential to my students’ success.

Courage to treat all kids fairly

Once I find the courage to be autonomous, I will be able to help my students in the best ways possible. Differentiating for their needs is not always easy or orderly. It will take courage to continue to learn about them, further relationships, and challenge them to improve more than they thought they could. To be treated fairly, I must address my students’ needs on a daily basis. I will pass my courage on to my students as they take learning to new levels. Many of them have been in overly cautious learning environments for too long and still struggle to see their potential.

Courage to try new things

I’ll admit it…I am a recovering perfectionist. It continually takes courage for me to try new things and innovate. I am always reminding myself that just because something worked very well for one group of students, it doesn’t mean that it is the right choice for my current kids. When I try new things, there is always this little voice reminding me that it probably won’t go as planned, and of all the little things that could go wrong. Over the years, I have gotten much better at pushing forward and ignoring that voice, but to be honest – it still takes work.

Courage to help my colleagues

This year more than ever, I want to help other teachers. I got a taste of working and learning with my colleagues this fall by introducing twitter to the staff and working with small groups to demonstrate new digital tools. It has taken a different type of courage to open up and share my practices with my peers. Starting this semester I will embark on a new endeavor with them. We will be forming peer observation groups – voluntary, collaborative groups of teachers committed to learning and growing together. We will observe each other and have reflective discussions on how to improve our practice. I am so excited to bring this new opportunity to our staff.

Courage to write

In June of 2013, I started my blog. I had been encouraged by various members of my PLN to start one, and I am very glad that I found the courage to start writing. It has been a powerful tool to share my thoughts and reflect on my teaching. This year, I want to continue with that same courage to write. I was never a “writer” in school. It takes bravery for me to push the publish button every time I blog.

Courage to leave an impact

Finally, I want to be courageous enough to leave an impact with my students.  I love that students are happy when they arrive to my classroom, and sad to leave.  I am constantly talking about learning and growth rather than points or grades, and they are slowly changing their mindset.  If I could leave them with only one sentiment, it would be the quote from John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

The change within

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”-Viktor Frankl


One of the most difficult, yet very important lessons we can teach our students is how to handle adversity. All too often kids learn to quit when they are down and when something doesn’t work the first time, that it won’t in the future. Is this the message we want to send? That one try at something is enough? That when you feel like quitting it is acceptable to do so?

No.

I believe that sometimes we miss the message that the quote speaks to above. That when we cannot change the situation, we must adapt ourselves and find the path to success no matter the obstacle. I am not arguing that we lose ourselves, morals, values or judgement along the way. But our students need to know that they can manage varied situations.  We do not always have control over our situation, but we control our response. We can find success in a variety of ways, and sometimes it takes quite a few tries to realize our goals. We can take a time when things are not ideal, and persevere to achieve rather than make excuses for why things did not go as planned.

This quote also speaks to the fact that it is a challenge to change ourselves…to adapt. This is no easy feat, and students need support to figure out what changes need to be made. We as lead learners must model how to handle adversity to guide and inspire our students to try it for themselves.

Challenging adversity and adapting ourselves to find success pushes our boundaries as people.  It is an exhausting experience, but builds strength and confidence. I believe that once our students rise to a challenge presented and triumph, they realize that the only person standing in the way of their success is the one that looks back at them in the mirror.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”-George Bernard Shaw

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 2

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


Culture Shock


So, you are thinking about changing the way you grade?  Traditional systems do not work for you?  Get ready for a culture shock.  Most grading systems are antiquated and are used to rank and sort students.  They create cultures of compliance, competition, and fear.  Yet, many in our profession cling to them like glue.  They are afraid to analyze why they grade, how they grade, and what they are communicating to their students and parents.  They hide behind percentages and letters.  This culture must shift.  Compliance must be replaced with citizenship, competition with collaboration, and fear with risk taking and confidence in the learning process.  


Grades and scores are communication.  They represent a student’s proficiency level in relation to standards at a given moment in time, nothing more, nothing less.  But are grades this simple in today’s schools? No, they are not.  Grades are a haphazard mix of achievement, growth, and behaviors.  They are used by some as motivation and repercussion, when in reality they can elicit the opposite result that is sought.  Grades are not punishment, nor are they a means to encourage positive behavior in the classroom.


The premise of moving to a standards based system is a simple idea.  Learning is the most important feature in a classroom.  Everything that we do should be learning centered – including grading and assessment.  Learning is messy and chaotic.  Learning does not involve a teacher handing out information and the students regurgitating it.  Learning is taking a risk, trying something new, persevering and relentlessly seeking new and further understandings.  We must take this idea and make it apparent in everything we do as educators.  No time can be wasted in a student’s mind worrying about how many points they need to earn a grade, when they should be considering how to grow their proficiency and improve their mastery.


Just because the premise is straightforward doesn’t mean that converting to a standards based system is easy. Grading is a very personal part of what we do as educators.  Deciding to analyze your grading procedures and practices is a reflective experience that takes bravery and honesty.  Changing to a standards based system is a complete paradigm shift from what most of us were taught and practiced during our teacher preparatory programs.  It is a shift from the way we ‘did’ school, from the way it has been done for generations.  It is a shock to our system, but a wonderful way to model learning, growth, and change for our students.


Creating and nurturing a standards based culture for learning is no easy task. Diligence and grit are required to evoke and maintain change.  All must make a commitment to learning – students and teachers alike.  A community of learners struggling, growing, improving, failing, recovering, and succeeding together.


The fear of awesome

Mediocrity…the very word makes me cringe.  Yet it is rampant in the educational world.  Everyone, students and educators alike get caught up striving to be just good enough.  So many times I hear things like…

  • Is this ok?
  • Am I done?
  • Tell me exactly what I have to do and I will do it.
  • How long does this have to be?
  • I am not going to do it that way, it will take too long.
Why do we want to be just good enough?  Why don’t we want to be awesome?
Fear.
People fear the unknown.  People fear change and risk.  People fear that if they are too good, they will be called on for extra responsibility.  People fear that there is not enough time.  People fear they will be questioned and that they will have to defend their choices.
The result of all this fear is mediocrity.  Students and staff alike get comfortable in the middle.  They can do their respective jobs, stay safe, and fly under the radar.  The status quo is maintained, and everything is in equilibrium.
But as role models and lead learners in our schools, how can we not strive for awesome?  We must embrace change, take risks, and learn.  We must do what is right for our students and each and every day.  We must manage our time and prioritize what truly matters in education – learning.  Defending our choices should not be a stumbling block, but an opportunity for collaboration and growth.
Push the envelope. Strive for awesome.  Demand that your students join you on the journey and show them how powerful it is.  Replace fear with the passion and drive to improve.