Category Archives: #sbgchat

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.




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.

Motivation in a Standards Based Culture

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


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


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


And the list goes on and on…


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


School is being done to our students


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


Tasks are not respectful


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


Rewards and grades aren’t helping


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


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


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

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.

Use your professional judgement

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Moving beyond compliance to develop citizens

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

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

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

Survey says…

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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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

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