Category Archives: lifelong learning

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

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.

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.”

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 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.



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.


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.

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.

Matters of proficiency

Proficient or not proficient…that is the question.  In learning, that’s all that matters, right? If you are proficient at something, move on.  If not, continue to practice and improve until proficiency is achieved.

In my standards based classroom, I use a 4 point / level scale for summative assessments.  Formative work is never graded or scored, I just give feedback for growth.  But should there be just two levels instead of four? Proficient on my current scale is a three.  A four is distinguished, while two is approaching proficiency and one is emerging.  But why do I need all these descriptors when all that really matters is whether they can do what I am asking them do to in the language?

I have thought about this long and hard the past few weeks and here is my answer.  Because I have to give letter grades at the end of the grading period, I need these different levels.  I must use the standard A, B, C, D, and F to communicate proficiency no matter how I would share it in a perfect world.  Now, my scale does not perfectly correlate to these levels, but I do need a way to determine whether the student is performing above, at, or below the expected level of mastery of the standards.  The part I am unsure of is whether I like it or not.

Is proficient not enough? What does proficient mean to you? I define it for my students as the level of language production / interpretation I expect from a Spanish 1 or 2 student.  To achieve the level of distinguished (4) you would have to go above and beyond what I expect.  Is this right? If distinguished is where we would ideally like all kids to be, should that be the level of proficient?  If so, does the standard need to be rewritten to elicit the optimal responses?  I realize I will always have some students that go above and beyond my expectations, so is this additional level necessary to show their achievement?  Furthermore, do I need the lower tiers to show when they are approaching the proficient level rather than just emerging?

My mind will continue to ponder these questions as I make standards based grading work within a traditional system.  What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let the discussion continue!