Category Archives: student centered learning

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 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?

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 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.

Taking a moment to breathe

This week in my classes we took a moment… moment to relax a bit, a moment to catch our breath, a moment to build community, a moment to move outside our normal classroom activity.

Day of the dead is a Mexican holiday devoted to honoring those that have come before us and left this world.  It is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, very close to Halloween.  We took this week to learn about the holiday (and how it is different than Halloween), work on cultural projects, and do a little bit of celebrating.

The project my students completed is based on the work of Mexican print maker José Guadalupe Posada.  He depicted skeletons going about their daily lives as if they were living.  Death is not something to be feared in Mexican culture, and this is one way to show the inevitable link between life and death.  My students were charged to make a skeleton themselves, depicting it as a living person, or a character we see as alive.  They chose who they wanted and let their creativity shine.  They captured the idea that Day of the dead teaches us all…life and death are hand in hand…each a part of the other.

Here are a few examples of their work:

Belle

Jack Frost

Sulley

The other side to this week was the fact that we did something different than the norm.  My students loved the opportunity to relax a bit, think creatively, and produce.  Many times we get so busy with the day to day work of Spanish class that creative thinking can get pushed to the back burner.  The quality of their work abounded when given the time and space to work autonomously.

At the end of the week as we were finishing up projects and final products were arriving to class, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment in my students.  They were excited about their own work and the work of their peers.  They asked to see other projects and celebrated a job well done.

Building a sense of community is of paramount importance in the classroom, and last week played an enormous role in the continuous construction that goes on in my environment.  We can never stop building culture.  Everyone benefits from a moment to breathe.  I have a feeling that the intrinsic motivation levels for my students got recharged this past week, and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the coming days.

Let them own it

I got a glimpse into the true greatness of my students yesterday.

In my level 1 classes, we started with a meeting.  I had my students pull their chairs into a circle and let them know we had equity of voice.  I explained that overall things in class were going well, but we needed to make a few adjustments.  I could have easily just handed them the new way we were going to do things, but I decided to go a different route.  I decided to involve them in the decision making process.  No, I decided to give them the decision making process.  It is their learning – not mine, right?

I started by sharing a couple of observations…I had noticed that my students could improve at finding resources for practice.  I have many different ways for them to practice, but there are only a few that are being well utilized.  I also noticed that when independent work time is given that focus can be a problem.  We needed to change that.  We only spend 45 minutes together each day and time must be maximized.  My students agreed with me and shared some of their own observations, concerns, and comments.

Then I turned the floor over to the kids to figure out how to make it better.  I cannot tell you how proud I was of my kids.  They came up with a new, better model of independent work days.  Some of them asked for my opinion or suggestions, and I gave them.  They expressed that they would like more small group instruction rather than whole group and figured out how to make it happen.  They decided that each skill (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) would have its own place to practice.  There would also be a places to practice the skills together (integrated), to use technology, and to assess.

All I can say is that kids need to be in charge of their learning.  They are so capable and ready to take the reigns.  Their decisions may not be perfect, but I would love to find the teacher that makes perfect decisions.  I am sure we will have more tweaking to do as the year progresses, but you had better believe that when I see missteps, my students will be the ones to figure out how to get back on track.  It is their learning, it is their experience, it is their time.  It is not about me.