Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 1

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


My journey of positive deviance

Positive deviance…the way I see it, I will do anything to help my students learn.  I don’t care whether it will make me popular or well liked among my peers.  I am driven, passionate about education, and willing to work as hard as possible to reach every student.  I want to create passionate lifelong learners.
That being said, at times I am not the most popular in the building.  I am seen as the one who is always pushing the barrier, always innovating my instructional practices.  I have been told to my face several times, “Oh, well, that works in your classroom, but it could never work in mine.”  How do you know unless you try?  I understand that no two teacher’s classrooms will or should look exactly the same.  But to keep with old methods just because that is the way it has always been done or because it is the way you were taught is a ridiculous notion.  Times change, people evolve, research continues, learning happens, and we cannot in good faith sit idle and expect our profession to stagnate.  If we stagnate, our kids stagnate.  If we don’t work to improve and learn ourselves, what kind of example are we setting for our kids?  We must be the lead learners in our environments.  We must model what we expect and lead our students to seek knowledge.
Standards based learning and grading were an easy fit for me.  I needed to be learner focused.  I wanted a system that clearly communicated proficiency and mastery levels to my students and parents.  I desired to be criterion referenced rather than norm referenced.  As good of a fit as standards based learning and grading are for me, they are still finding their way into my school and district.  It is a tough road to be one of only a few charting this course, but it is well worth it to see the positive change in my students.  The culture of learning that is present in my classroom is a testament to the value of standards based learning, assessment, and grading.  My students are performing at higher levels and are more engaged in the learning process than ever before.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I was a traditional grader.  I had been taught in my undergraduate work and throughout student teaching how to assign points to assignments and assessments, grade behaviors like participation, and was encouraged to have a ‘no tolerance’ approach to late work.  I followed these practices and maintained the status quo in the educational world.  My students learned information, but did they excel?  No, they maintained the status quo as well in an system based on one size fits all standardized instruction and assessment.  Every student was supposed to be treated exactly the same in order to be fair.
After 10 years of teaching, I needed a paradigm shift.  I had finally recognized that my students were individuals and had very different needs in the classroom.  Being fair to my students meant that I not only needed to understand them as learners and people, but also that they required a variety of instructional methods, assessments, and practice.  I reflected, studied, read, and evaluated my methods.  I began to differentiate my instruction and felt like my students were changing along with me.  Relationships were formed, trust was established, and a learning environment conducive to growth was created. 

Once I had successfully implemented differentiated instruction, I still felt like I was missing something.  I started to reflect on my assessment and grading practices.  Why was I still demanding points, due dates, and compliant behaviors in my grading policies?  Back to researching, planning, and implementing new strategies all over again.  Now standards based learning, assessment, and grading drives my classroom experience and my students excel.  Students go above and beyond my expectations on a daily basis.  They are learners first and foremost.  They seek knowledge, understanding, and new skills over points, scores, and grades.

Assess for the sake of learning

After several engaging discussions with my PLN on the roles of formative and summative assessment, I felt the need to get some ideas down on pap…well, get some ideas down.

Practice FOR learning

The nature of formative assessment is that it is FOR learning.  I prefer the term formative practice, because to me that is the heart of formative assessment.  I use a sports analogy to explain to students how our classroom works.  Formative practice is just like training for any athlete.  Formative work is low stakes when taking a risk to learn something new.  Failure at first is expected, but equally expected is a rise from it to find success.  If an athlete doesn’t do the work to improve and get better, they are not going to perform when it is game time. The same is true of the learners in my classroom.  If they have not practiced their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in Spanish, the summative assessments will not show proficiency or growth.  Feedback is the key to learning during formative practice.  Scores, numbers, and letters are not necessary and can be in fact detrimental during the practice phase.

Show me the learning!

Summative assessments ‘sum up’ the learning and put it all together.  In the sports reference, the summative assessment is the game, meet, or competition.  Time to show what you can do and what you have been working toward.  There are those that argue that if you have been collecting evidence with the formative work that a summative is not necessary.  I disagree with this for several reasons.  I feel that the summative assessment is the time to synthesize concepts, ideas, and understandings and apply them.  A summative assessment also gives additional evidence of what the final score, rating, or grade should be.  Evidence tells the story of a student’s growth and achievement and eventually drives grades.  The more evidence, the better in my opinion.

Chatting about standards based learning and grading ignites my passion as an educator.  I want to create the best learning environment possible for my students and I love the way my PLN challenges me to ‘bring it’ each day.  October is Connected Educator’s Month, and I would not be the teacher I am today without so many of the inspiring people I have met on Twitter.

How do you use formative and summative assessment in your classroom?  Leave a comment and keep the discussion going!

Kids and success

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge accepted

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge accepted.

In pursuit of knowledge – be bold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Let’s go outside!

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

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

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

Here they are outside!

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

Be relentless

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

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

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

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

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!

Meet the parents

I had my yearly curriculum night this week, an evening that some teachers dread.  Even though it makes for a long day (and night), I enjoy the experience of meeting the parents, letting them see a bit into their child’s world, and hopefully getting them on board with what I do in my classroom.

My biggest challenge with this night – I only get 10 minutes with each class to explain my grading system, how to get extra help, my curriculum, my expectations, contact information, etc.  Any of these could take up all 10 of those minutes, but I must carefully divide my time, try not to overwhelm my parents, and maintain my enthusiasm for learning and their children.

So, here is what I did this year.  I welcomed my parents and thanked them for taking the time to come and learn about my class.  I let them know various ways to get in touch, and included my blog address and twitter handle.  I set out my expectations, which are:

  • Work hard every day.
  • Have fun.
  • Search for learning in every experience.
  • Relentless pursue success and mastery of the standards.
  • Be kind.

At this point, I could see parents nodding along with me, and looking like they were agreeing with what I had to say.  So far, so good!  After that I needed to get into my differentiated methodology and standards based grading system, but I had to tell them one more thing first.  I said, “You need to understand that your children and their learning is the most important thing to me.”  At the high school level we can get very bogged down with curriculum guides, standardized testing, and content standards.  I knew that it was imperative for me to communicate that learning is the focus of my room, relationships are key, and once those are in place the rest will follow.

I spent the rest of my time explaining how I differentiate for all learners, how standards based grading works and makes grades meaningful, how redos and retakes impact student success and learning, and how we would infuse technology in the classroom.

By the end of the night, there were many thank yous and smiles as they went on to their other classes, but my favorite comment of the night from one parent was “Thank you for all your enthusiasm, my daughter loves your class.”

Bring your enthusiasm and love of learning to your class each day, and extend it to your parents!

Tapping into the genius – genius hour week 1

I enjoyed sharing the concept of genius hour so much with my students this week, that I actually had a little bit of a let down the day after.  It was like the day after Christmas, when there is a great level of satisfaction along with that little sadness that the anticipation is over.

We watched Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech at the 2013 teen choice awards, and talked about the fact that they were all geniuses.  There were a few chuckles, but by the end of the period I had changed some opinions.  Then I put up a slide with the following question:

What if…I let you learn about whatever you wanted?

There was a hush in the room, and then I started to hear responses such as:

  • Cool!
  • I would be interested.
  • Awesome!
  • I would like it.
  • It might be chaos.
  • Yes.

Then I let them know that I would.  Genius hour would be every Monday and they would get to pursue a topic that they cared about, that they were passionate about, that was important to them.  I told them that they mattered, and they mattered now.  Too many times we tell adolescents that they will matter one day – when they are adults, or when they have made something of themselves.  I disagree with that sentiment, these kids can matter now, they do matter now, and we are going to do something about it.

We moved into brainstorming next, and the topics that came up were wonderfully varied.  The lists included sports, music, dance, theater, bullying, the environment, famine, the media, technology, people who are treated unfairly, and on and on.  Some poured out their ideas and others sat very contemplatively.  I could tell they had some ideas stirring, but were not ready to share them yet.

Many of my kids told me that it was hard to think of what they would like to learn more about or investigate because they had never been asked before.  They are used to coming to school, being told what they need to know and going back home.  What we were starting was so different, so huge, it was difficult for them to wrap their brains around.

We finished the day with some discussion surrounding potential topics.  They talked to each other to see about collaborative groups, share some of their passion, and see how they might be able to move forward together.  I told them to let their ideas simmer for the week, not to make any decisions right away.  A pep talk from Kid President left us reminded to be awesome and that we are all on the same team.

Next week, we move into the computer lab to start researching potential topics and see what is out there.  This is one reason I didn’t want them to make many decisions on day 1.  They need to see how they can learn about their topic in Spanish, and then transition to work on pitching their project.

Until next week, recognize your inner genius!