Category Archives: learning

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.

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 6

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

Assessing to learn


Assessment was a fearful term when I was in school. It was and still can be associated with standardized testing, high stakes learning, and a competitive environment. Assessment can create fear of failure and bad grades. It can signify an endpoint to learning, a time to move on and start something new regardless of what has been learned or mastered previously. Assessment is something that many times is done to students, as a rite of passage to the next topic to be covered.

For assessment to be meaningful, it must have purpose in the learning process. If it is treated as above, it has no link to growth, improvement or increased proficiency. Assessment must take on a completely different role to add to and become an integral piece in student learning. The role of assessment is one FOR learning. Assessment guides the learning process, facilitates decisions about instruction for teachers, informs students about practice and levels of proficiency, and ultimately shows us when learners have demonstrated mastery and are ready to move on to new standards.

Feedback and assessment go hand in hand. If an assessment is not paired with feedback for growth, an opportunity for learning is missed. Formative and summative assessments should be learning experiences for our students. In my classroom, formative work is practice, never scored, and given feedback for further study and assessment. Summative assessments are larger, more in depth and focused on my standards. Summative assessments are performance based, applying the knowledge, understandings, and skills my students have practiced and honed throughout the unit of study. I score summative assessments, but students are able to continue to show improved proficiency of standards through reassessment.

“When it comes to deciding whether to allow a student to redo an assignment or assessment, consider the alternative—to let the student settle for work done poorly, ensuring that he or she doesn’t learn the content. Is this really the life lesson we want to teach? Is it really academically better for the student to remain ignorant?”
-Rick Wormeli

It doesn’t matter whether all students achieve mastery at the same moment, in fact, it shouldn’t happen that way. I respect the fact that my students are individuals. It is exceptionally difficult to accurately predict when a student will have completed enough practice to demonstrate mastery on a summative assessment. We may have a good idea of about how long it will take for our students, particularly if we have delved into the unit of study in previous years. But to determine when a summative assessment is appropriate for each of our students – formative practice, feedback, and open communication among all the learners in the classroom is necessary.

It is time to change the face of assessment for our students. We must support them to be courageous and show us their proficiency at frequent checkpoints. If we can accomplish this, we will move beyond fear of assessment to maximize learning.

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.

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.”

Here’s to all the learners

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” ― Steve Jobs

As the year comes to a close I want to take a moment and reflect.  The quote above is one of my absolute favorites.  Too many of our students have been given one of these labels during their school careers and show up to my high school impacted from it in a negative way.  We have misfits, rebels, troublemakers, round pegs, square pegs, and rule breakers…and we need them all.  I love having this wide variety cross the threshold into my classroom.  But these labels can be dropped at the door for one that suits all of us in different ways every day.  We are learners.

All of our students need relationships and connection.  They require a sense of belonging at our schools and in our classrooms.  We need to appreciate the varying lenses with which they view the world.  Although we may never fully understand every situation, simply trying to learn more will create a meaningful bond and show our students they are valued.  It is modeling this caring, compassionate behavior that will guide our diverse learners to form positive relationships themselves rather than negative ones.  Care and compassion are lacking in our world, and it’s time to change this.

As I have said before, I don’t want to recreate the status quo with my students.  I want them to push the envelope and go beyond barriers set before them.  This generation will lead us forward into uncharted territory, and they have the genius, creativity, and intellect to make this world amazing.  We need people to create positive change in our world, and to do that the next generation must know how to take a risk.  They must understand that they may fail.  They must recognize that at the moment of failure, it is their reaction that determines their future.  At the moment of failure, it is time to learn, grow, and be relentless in the pursuit of success.

So this is my salute to ALL the learners that I encounter.  Here’s to each of you, as we move to the new year.  The world demands divergent thinkers and personalities.  Show compassion and accept each other for who we are in order to move forward together.  Consider the wide-ranging ideas, even ones that may seem crazy, and let’s push forward to change the world.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 4

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


Setting the standards


Writing standards is a daunting task.  And while many organizations have already created standards, it may not be best to take pre-made standards at face value.  Standards have to be respectful and appropriate for your students.  They must be comprehensible and meaningful for students, colleagues, and parents alike.  Jargon and technical language must be minimized to ensure that all stakeholders understand what is expected of our students.  


Standards must communicate the key performance indicators for your students.  They must go beyond content knowledge and demand application, synthesis, or creation of material and new knowledge.  Standards must be fluid and updated from year to year.  As we further our research about the most relevant knowledge, understandings, and skills our standards must follow suit and represent that research.


Standards must also have an open endedness to them.  When we create a ceiling for our students, they will only work to reach that point in their learning.  This is not what we want for the learners in our classrooms.  Students deserve every opportunity to maximize their growth.  Each must fulfill their own potential, not some artificial target.  Learning must be limitless; when we try to place too much control, our students cannot reach their ultimate potential for success.


Mastery of standards can be presented in a variety of ways.  In my classroom, I will give opportunities to demonstrate mastery in the form of summative assessments, but if a student has an idea of how to show me their learning, it is welcomed.  Student developed assessment is many times better and more effective than what I have developed.  And of course, the more evidence a teacher has of consistent mastery, the better.  


I have written the standards for my classes and rewritten them.  I know that next year my ideas will improve, and my standards will be revised again.  This is yet another way to model learning for our students and remember that it is a lifelong process.  My students need to be able to take the standards that I write and own them.  The learning objectives must be not only understood by my students, but taken and personalized by them to achieve individual mastery.  As educators, we set the stage for learning, and then must let our students take the lead.



Pushing learning ‘out of the box’

Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes.  As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment.  Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure.  Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity.  Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways.  But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms?  How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect?  We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation.  We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.


It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve.  True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect.  Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs.  The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth.  Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work.  The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled.  Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking.  Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work.  This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.


What does this look like in my classroom?


When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways.  Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students.  Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience.  Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve.  Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.


Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids.  Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile.  Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time.  Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice.  At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance.  When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn.  Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly.  I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement.  Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.


How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?
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Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 3

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


Removing the Behavior

Ready to start making a change?  One of the easiest ways to start reforming grading practices is to remove the behaviors or process.  Encouraging positive behavior is a very important component of what we do as educators, but process has no place averaged in with proficiency or mastery of learning targets or standards.  When we muddy the grading waters with behaviors, we render the grade meaningless.  Our goal should be to accurately and clearly report the proficiency level of our students regarding standards at that moment in time on a report card, along with a separate process report explaining classroom behaviors.


Once you remove the behaviors and compliance from the grade, what to do in order to teach important life skills like responsibility, caring, and respect? Helping students become good citizens is high on my priority list.  We work together to develop good study habits and collaborative skills.  We discuss work ethic, timeliness, goal setting, and meeting expectations; these items are simply not included in their academic grade.  Forming relationships with kids and creating class culture will contribute much more to positive behavior than a grading system that is punitive.  When kids are acting irresponsibly or inappropriately, it is time to step in and guide them, not give a participation grade.  We have to assist our students to become the adults we know they can be.  We must model the behaviors we want to see, demand the same behaviors from our students, and lead them to make good decisions.  Our students bring us their best each day, we have to meet them where they are in order to move forward.


We work to facilitate learners, not to build compliant robots.  The professions and jobs that our students will fulfill do not require factory model, inside the box learners.  They will need innovative creators who will move this world forward into the next era.  If our students are encouraged to be compliant, maintain the status quo, and keep learning safe, how will we progress?  We must demand more, drive learning, and challenge our thinking.  As lead learners, we must continually grow ourselves and model the behaviors we want to see in our students.  Model learning.  Take risks.  Demonstrate timeliness.  Demand critical thinking and problem solving.  And above all…form relationships.  Show students that you care about their growth and development.

I have this sign hanging in the front of my classroom to always keep our focus on what is most important…

image from venspired.com


Many times, our world seems to lack caring, thoughtful relationships, and promotes irresponsible, disrespectful behavior.  I would like to model something different for our next generation.  I would like to show them how their behaviors are always their choice, and that these choices impact their future.  Grading has no place in these discussions and lessons. Life is not something that is done to you…make sure your impact is a positive one.

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.