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Grounded in Culture

When working with educators, I frequently hear about difficulties that a change to standards based grading brings about. Challenges are a part of the change process, but as learners, we are always seeking ways to improve our craft and make what works best for kids a reality. With grading practices being so ingrained in the educational experience, teachers can easily struggle with some common hurdles such as:

Kids are gaming the system.
There are an infinite number of retakes.
There are no deadlines.
Kids aren’t completing formative work.

These challenges can derail a transition in grading practices, but they don’t have to. There is a an underlying issue that generates the symptoms listed above.

You can change any grading system, but without a change in culture, it makes no difference.

In order for a shift to standards based grading, the stage must be set with a standards based culture and learning environment. Many will say that they ‘are standards based’ because they know their standards and have them as the objectives in their classrooms. However, this is just one piece of the puzzle for successful change with grading. Before anything else, the culture of the classroom must be centered on learning. This can occur no matter whether the grading system is traditional or standards based, but one of these systems supports that culture and the other works against it.

Traditional culture creates a focus on grades, points, and percentages. When transitioning to a new system, changing the focus can create a difficult new reality for some. There will be continual questions about how much things are worth, why homework and practice ‘don’t count’, and why effort is not part of the academic grade. Traditional grading culture is focused on math and algorithms, with tenths and hundredths of percentages deciding between one grade or another. It supports competition, ranking, and sorting of students…is this what learning is about? There is no ill intention with traditional grading practice, but after analysis and reflection, many of the key tenets within traditional grading work against the natural learning process. A process that includes progress and regression, ease and frustration, success and failure.

Standards based grading systems do more than provide students with a clear picture of their learning targets. They shift the focus to learning by affording students multiple opportunities to demonstrate new skills and knowledge. These systems purge classrooms of the game of school students play by acquiring a certain number of points to get a particular percentage or letter. Earning points that equate to a certain grade does not ensure that the student has learned and can show it. Standards based grading systems separate behaviors from academics to provide a clear picture of where a student is with their learning as well as the processes by which they learn. Standards based systems mirror the ‘real world’ where there are multiple attempts and getting the work done is essential rather than optional.

Culture is everything. Trying to implement standards based grading without first changing the culture sets the shift in practice up for failure. Successful implementation requires a culture grounded in learning. When students enter a classroom, they need to know that the focus resides squarely on learning. Their teachers are in the classroom to make sure that they learn, not to add up points and figure percentages. There is no need to worry about grades – that is time wasted that could have been spent in a more productive way. Students need to know that when the learning happens, the grades will follow.

“You can have all the right strategy in the world; if you don’t have the right culture, you’re dead.”
– Patrick Whitesell

Square peg, Round hole

“The problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you are destroying the peg.” – Paul Collins

We’ve all heard it a thousand times – You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. I am reminded of this often when schools and teachers are transitioning to standards based grading.

The square peg: The traditional style of instruction, formative assessment, and summative assessment. It is the factory model of education where the all students do the same thing at the same time. It is one size fits all instruction based more upon a curriculum map or lesson plan than the students it serves. It is blanket assigned homework assignments that will only be completed “if they are graded”. It is the test given on one day and one day only with no opportunity to reassess. The focus is on grades and compliance with the assumption that these will lead to learning. The square represents the rigidity of the process with sharp corners and distinct ends to the lines.

The round hole: The standards based paradigm focused on clear expectations, responsive instruction, feedback loops, and proficiency. It is meeting students where they are with the standards and charting a path forward with appropriate practice. It is differentiated while being tightly aligned to the standards. It is assessment and reassessment, if necessary, to place the priority on learning. The shape of a circle communicates that learning is never done. It is a continuous cycle of targets, practice, feedback and assessment that lead to learning.

To be honest, traditional practices do not fit into a standards based learning environment. Taking what has been done in the past and try to jam the square peg into the round hole is ineffective. There are changes that must happen in the classroom environment. In standards based settings, feedback and formative assessment are the centerpiece of the environment. These are an ongoing conversation amongst students and teachers to ensure learning is taking place. Responsivity (on the part of the teacher and the student) is the name of the game. By the time the summative assessment rolls around, it is a confirmation. Proficiency is revealed through the formative process. It is verified by the summative.

I’ve been asked many times, “How does my multiple choice test fit into standards based grading?” My question back – “Which standards are you assessing?” Teachers are trying to take what they have been doing for years (possibly decades) and fit it into the standards based model. This is backward. Rather than focusing on the standards and creating assessment tools and instructional practices that elicit standards based evidence, teachers are attempting to align a standard with an old instrument that may or may not actually address the intended outcomes.

Some feel that attempting to make old practices fit in a new paradigm is an easier way to implement standards based grading. I will argue the opposite. This is not to say that shifting assessment and instructional practices is easy work. It is not, but once the changes are in place, the time spent at the outset gains more time in the aftermath. When using an old assessment, teachers spend a long time hunting down evidence for the standards they are attempting to assess. Different questions may address different standards in different places on a test and there many be questions that are not aligned to any of the standards. There may be evidence on a project that almost fits a standard, but not quite. What to do then – use the evidence or not? This becomes a scavenger hunt for evidence that aligns with the standards. The scavenger hunt takes additional time with each assessment a teacher grades. With standards aligned assessment, the evidence and corresponding standard are clear. No time is wasted searching for alignment – it is already there. These vetted assessments are less time consuming. They provide clear evidence of proficiency levels for teachers, students, and parents alike.

The square peg does not fit into the round hole. Traditional instructional, assessment, and grading practices do not fit into the standards based learning environment. When making the shift, spend time to gain time. Create an environment where the goals and expectations are clear, responsive instruction and feedback lead to proficiency, and assessment alignment is transparent.

“When we can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, we’ll usually blame the peg–when sometimes it is the rigidity of our thinking that accounts for our failure to accommodate it.” – Nate Silver

Make it your own

I have been reading the book Passionate Learners by Pernille Ripp this summer and participating in a book study with some of my colleagues. Thus far it has provided some great ideas and reminders to reflect on for the fall and has also been a great affirmation of what we do in our classrooms and schools.

A concept that has come up more than once in the book is that we cannot successfully become a copy of someone else. There are so many great ideas, methods, and practices out there – I cannot count the number of times I have thought ‘I can’t wait to try that when I get back to school!’ I would want to write down as much as possible about what I saw or heard to replicate it for my students. But I was forgetting something. We need to take all the fantastic ideas, methods, and practices that are out there and make them our own. Simply taking an idea that works for someone else and their students and implementing it in the exact same way will not necessarily elicit the results we desire

When I moved away from the traditional grading paradigm, I didn’t just read one book, follow it exactly, and expect good results. I read a bunch, relied on my background knowledge, knowledge of my students, knowledge of myself as an instructor, and put it all together. I took some ideas from Robert Marzano, others from Ken O’Connor, some from Thomas Guskey, and a few more from Rick Wormeli. I could keep going with the authors that have shaped my practice and continue to do so, but I am not sure where that list stops, so we will move on.

Looking back, it was so important for me to take the ideas I found, reflect upon what I knew, and then make some decisions about how to proceed. I don’t feel I would have been as successful with my transition if I treated standards based grading as a one size fits all type of change and simply mimicked the shift someone else made. Actually, I’ll go one step further and say I know it wouldn’t have been as successful of a change for me if I didn’t make it my own.

The more I get to talk with teachers and schools who are making this change, the more I know we need to do our research, talk things over, consider all the stakeholders, and move forward from there. There is no one right way to make the change, and we cannot take someone else’s transformation and blindly apply it to our situation. There is a new level of ownership once the idea evolves from something developed outside our walls to something created and honed from the inside.

“…when you blindly adapt someone else’s program you start to lose your professional identity.” – Pernille Ripp (Passionate Learners, p.3)

The ‘A student’

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”                                         -Martina Navratilova

Over the years I have encountered the label ‘A student’ in a variety of situations. Students identify themselves with it, parents use it, even teachers talk about students by using this label. When I was younger I thought of myself as an ‘A/B student’. But what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the multifaceted composition of an A. Does the letter indicate that the student achieves at a high academic level? Or, does it connote that the student is compliant and follows all the rules? Could it be that a student has shown so much growth over a marking period that the teacher wants to reward it? Grades get muddied so often in the educational world that many times we don’t know what has elicited an A.

Letter grade labels can become tied to students’ identities. The label is a part of who they are and it can define them both in and out of the classroom. For these students As are what should appear at the end of every marking period for every class. But what happens when an ‘A student’ gets a B? or even a C? This is a crushing blow and can feel like they have failed. How do ‘A students’ react to struggle, frustration, and failure (which to them does not necessarily mean a grade of F)? For true learning to happen, these are part of the process. Learning is uncomfortable at times. Often the process begins with making mistakes, having misunderstandings, and working over time to develop proficiency.

Parents attach an ‘A student’ label as a source of pride. They at times talk very openly about their children’s grades and put the label out as a sign of excellence. But is it a sign of excellence? And if so, what type of excellence? I go back to the idea that an A can represent so much more than academic achievement and we may not know what has contributed to it. This also creates stress for students. When they hear how proud their parents are about the As, they feel as if anything less would be unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, there is reason to be proud as a parent when kids are successful, but we need to move away from labels and focus on student learning.

Let’s consider the converse situation. If a child is labeled an ‘F student’, how do they feel? Do they believe they can move up? Letter grade labels have the impression of being fixed and in turn, hinder motivation. The ‘A student’ perceives they are doing just fine the way they are, and the ‘F student’ feels as if there is no way to move up and grow. Have you ever tried to remove a mailing label from a magazine? They don’t come off easily and it is the same for our students.

To turn this around, learning environments need to be safe places while students progress to proficiency. This journey has potholes, bumps, wrong turns as well as an achievable destination. A safe environment sans labels with one goal – to meet the learning objectives. A safe environment with a teacher who models growth mindset and sets high expectations for all students.

For me, it took a long time to break away from my label of ‘A/B student’. It defined me and I’m sure I could have gotten more out of my classes if I didn’t rely on being ‘good enough’. Let’s remember that labeling files or clothing is acceptable, but labeling people is not.  We all learn, we all strive for growth, and we are all capable of success.


Strength in letting go

Do teachers own their content? Are the information and concepts taught at each grade level and subject area exclusive to that class? The issue of content and where/when it should be taught to kids is something we hold near and dear to our hearts as teachers. It is something that feels as though it is ours and has a personal connection. But do we own it? Are there certain concepts that can only be taught in a particular grade or at a certain time of year? I don’t believe this is true. There is a natural flow of complexity as kids grow and learn, but limits on how far students can go are detrimental.  I believe we should focus instead on skills and understanding, leaving content to the contexts where it is appropriate.

This evokes nervousness in some teachers. It can derive from uncertainty about how next year’s teachers will react when some kids are further along. Another part of the fear lies in knowing students will leave at the end of the year in different places with content. But doesn’t that happen already? No matter how great a curriculum map or scope and sequence is, the student variance will exist. Let’s move past that anxiousness and focus on learning.

When working with students, I want to develop and encourage their curiosity. Over the years, I have experienced curriculum maps, state standards, benchmarks, and goals. I liked having a guiding framework, but at the same time didn’t want it to limit what I  or my students did. I preferred open-ended standards  or maps that allowed students to delve deeper with their learning. Final outcomes should be laid out without confining teachers and students to a restrictive day by day timeframe for their learning. Topics should not be limited or bound, there is no ceiling to learning unless we create one.

What happens when kids are told ‘No, we cover that topic next year.’? What happens to their motivation? Do we as teachers own certain concepts and allow others to own different ones with no space for deviation? If we believe that learning never stops kids need to believe it too. If we want their passion for learning to drive motivation we cannot get in the way. Be intentional with language and communication in the classroom. Ask more questions rather than giving answers. Learn about your kids and show them how learning is encompassed in every part of their lives. Tell students to go, not to stop.

What about when a concept comes up in the future that students worked with previously? As a language teacher, did I need to be concerned if a student learned a verb tense prior to when it was supposed to appear in the curriculum? No. When it comes back around, students can go even further with the concept. We don’t ‘own’ particular concepts…let’s be cognizant of the fact that with technology at our fingertips, students have access to limitless information. Now we return to a focus on skills and understandings. Students need practice at how to apply, analyze, and synthesize all the information available to them.

Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.                     -Hermann Hesse

Be together, not the same

Such a simple, yet powerful idea…let’s be together, not the same. Across the educational realm, this is where the sweet spot lies. Together is where learning from one another is maximized, where respect is gained by each individual as they make their contribution to the whole.

Being together brings diverse minds, perspectives, and thoughts to one place. Being together allows us to share as an educational community. Being together communicates that we work for the same goal yet acknowledge the many wonderful paths to get there. Being together shows possibilities that we ourselves could not fathom alone.

For me, being together with other educators in any capacity – whether it be face to face or via technology, allows me to engage and learn on a level that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible. Making connections with those who share my beliefs and others who challenge my convictions are invaluable to my growth and development as an educator.

I have the  honor of collaborating with educators from both close to home and distant places. We are far from the same…coming from different states and countries, different school systems and roles, different stages in our careers and lives. Together we share ideas and research. Together we talk about ideas and plans. Together we recount stories and offer insight. I am fortunate to learn and work alongside some of the best in the world and these experiences send me to school each day with a renewed passion.

If our focus were the opposite, that is, being the same, what would happen? What is the outcome of everyone working in the same way rather than toward a common goal? In my opinion, this creates stagnation. With no one to push the limits and force thinking in a new direction, we simply don’t grow. Maybe that is a little harsh, growth can definitely occur through other means such as reading and researching on our own, but without someone to bounce ideas off of does the change happen? Without the crucial discussion or debate do we move forward as fast to make a new idea work? I know personally that when I have to defend something that I believe in, I more fully understand it. When I engage in conversation about a topic, my thought process deepens.

I have heard many teachers want more time to think, talk, and process during and after professional development sessions and I agree with them. I need to talk things out with others and hear different viewpoints to grow my practice.

A quick anecdote – I could not have changed my grading practices (and if you know me, this was the most monumental change I made in my educational career thus far) on my own. I needed to be together with someone else who shared my mission but had their own ideas about how to carry it out. We worked for the same goal, challenging each other along the way. We came from two different content areas, Spanish and Social Studies, yet came out of the experience achieving our shared goal. It was a better experience because we weren’t the same…

…but we were together.

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities. – Stephen Covey

Change the lens, change the language, change the practice

When taking a look at standards based practices and grading reform, many times people get stuck on logistics, letter grades, and conversion charts. I would to argue that none of that really matters unless the standards based learning piece is in place. This is the ‘why’ for the shift and if we simply jump to the ‘what’ the change can go by the wayside and be tossed in the virtual trash heap of educational initiatives that ‘don’t work’. There are many ways to go about the implementation of a standards based system depending on the needs of your school or district. I believe the lens with which we look at grading and learning as well as the language we use is what impacts student achievement and learning.

We can’t just change the reporting system, or change letters to numbers (or to symbols for that matter) and expect proficiency levels to automatically improve for our students. So what can we do to make those key changes to create a standards based, learning focused environment?

Change the lens, change the language, change the practice.

The lens with which we have traditionally looked at grades is flawed. Grades are used for multiple purposes, with very few having to do with communication of learning. How can grades shift to something meaningful for everyone involved? Looking at grades through the lens of communication rather than other lenses such as motivation or compensation provides a clear purpose for the process.

Language and how we speak with kids is an absolute game changer. It can transform the learning environment to a place where grades are not part of daily conversations. In my classroom I had a couple of students waiting to talk with me during class. I overheard their dialogue as they waited.

Student 1: “I’ve got to figure out what my grade is on this (pointing to an assignment).”

Student 2: “Dude, she is not going to talk with you about grades. You’d better figure out how to talk about the learning.”

When you change your language, so do the kids. Disclaimer: this is not an easy task. Throughout my transition, students would catch me using more traditional language and point it out. We held each other accountable for making the change in how we talked about learning. It was a group effort, and we were all better for it in the end.

Once the lens and language have progressed, the practices follow suit. As I mentioned, changing the practice without the shift in lens and language will not elicit the change in anything else for our students. Practices morph and transform. We separate behaviors from academic achievement and growth for clear communication. We set learning standards and targets that are transparent and join students on their journey to proficiency. We eliminate punitive grading practices that work against motivation and the drive to learn.

Change the lens. Change the language. Change the practice.

Note taking…for fun?

Today I had the opportunity to visit one of the 6th grade science rooms (shout out to @KatieBudrow) at my school and introduce Sketchnoting. The kids and I spent some time talking about traditional note taking and some of the difficulties they encounter during the process. They talked about how many times they frantically write and don’t process any of the information they are putting on paper or in a digital document. I asked if any of them doodle during class, and the overwhelming answer was Yes! So, this was the question…

What if your doodles could become part of your notes and help you learn WHILE you take them?

As expected, this garnered quite the positive response. So, we dove in. I didn’t give many instructions to the kids, simply that we could include drawings and words to capture the main ideas and key points of what was being presented. We looked at a couple of examples and got started. At the beginning of the period, the students had journaled about ‘What is the scariest or spookiest, or creepiest species on the planet? (Today is the day before Halloween just for a point of reference!). To begin I had the kids think about how they could turn their journal entry into a sketchnote.

sketchnoting 3sketchnoting 6

We then moved on to a more difficult task of sketchnoting with a video segment – the football scene from It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The segment was short – just over a minute, but below are examples of what they came up with. They needed to know that it didn’t have to make sense to others, but it had to make sense to them.

sketchnoting 1sketchnoting 2

Finally, we shifted the conversation to science and some quick drawings/icons we could use with their current unit on ecosystems. We didn’t have a lot of time, but it was neat to see what they came up with for some of the key ideas – a sun for energy, arrows for cycle, pizza for food, grass, trees, and flowers for a habitat…

sketchnoting 4

The best part? The students made comments such  as – Can I do this during class? This is fun! I like this better than writing everything down. Can I add to the notes afterward? The kids then realized that adding to the notes later on would actually be doing what their teachers ask them to do daily with notes…review them.


Here’s to our newest members of the sketchnoting community!

sketchnoting 7

Break the yo-yo

We’ve all been there…the fantastic moment after a workshop, training or some variety of professional learning and you are inspired. You can’t wait to take it back to your school or classroom. You are intrigued and want to learn more. The new ideas swim in your head and the passion for learning is sparked.

But then life happens, and the excitement fades. You return to your busy schedule. When new ideas are brought to colleagues peer pressure can develop to maintain the status quo and not ‘rock the boat’. Time and energy are always at a premium so a change can feel overwhelming, especially without support from others. The new idea goes by the wayside for a variety of reasons and the learning is for naught. Sigh…I wish I could say this hasn’t happened to me, but I shall not tell a lie.

The other night my husband picked up a yo-yo that belongs to our boys. He started to use it without realizing it was broken. He sent the yo-yo down and once it reached the bottom – it fell apart. Rather than swallowing up the string on the return trip and recoiling into his hand, the sides and string from the yo-yo came falling to the ground.

broken yoyo

At that moment I made a connection. We need to be cautious that our professional learning does not become a yo-yo. I was very guilty of this – getting excited about learning something new but retreating into old habits once back in my classroom. The yo-yo goes out, the growth happens, and then we pull back into the comfort zone without applying the new learning. The movement forward is stopped and we regress.

Let’s break the yo-yo.

Break it so we can move forward as educators. Break it so learning doesn’t stagnate. Break it so that our kids experience new things and new ideas. Break it so the growth mindset we need to model is loud and clear. Break it so our passion as teachers becomes their passion as students.

…and I’m keeping the broken yo-yo as a reminder.

Margin of error – Know your story, tell your story

This is the third installment of a series of posts on storytelling – Know your story, tell your story. My hope is to share a few anecdotes that have shaped me as a person and as an educator in order to connect and grow.

Growing up, I was a gymnast. I was one of those kids (aren’t we all?) that bounced off the walls and had so much energy I didn’t know what to do with it, nor did my parents. I treated every space as a new challenge – is there room for a handstand? I saw grocery aisles as hallways for cartwheels, parking curbs as balance beams…you get the picture. The sport grew from something that kept me from breaking everything in our house to a serious endeavor that by high school consumed most of my time outside of school.

Over the years I fell, crashed, struggled, cried, and wanted to give up so many times I can’t even count. At times I was injured and had to figure out how to overcome. By the end of my career (always funny to say it that way with gymnasts, I was 17) I was 5’4″. For anyone who is not familiar with the sport, I was very tall for a gymnast. I had to work harder than my teammates who were much shorter to achieve the same results. The work was demanding, but it was worth it. I found success. I enjoyed the challenge, and loved to express myself through the artistry of the sport. My favorite event was balance beam, the event that most female gymnasts dread. I liked the mental toughness required to stick a beam routine in competition.

Here’s the catch – I never thought of gymnastics as a learning experience, I only associated learning with school. I knew I was going to have to work though a lot of struggle and failure to acquire new skills to improve my gymnastics, but didn’t make the connection that this was just as important to experience in school. In school I felt I had to be perfect. Perfect from the beginning of the year until the end. Perfect on every assessment, assignment, and piece of homework. There was no room for failure in that building, however when I stepped in the gym everything changed. Why? Everything I did in school ‘counted’. My classmates and I were under a microscope being assigned grades for everything we did no matter whether it was academic or behavioral. Failure and setbacks were not framed in a positive light – there was no time for those.

Reflecting now, it’s no surprise that these two worlds didn’t make a better connection for me until I was older. It’s funny that the margin of error seems very small when thinking of gymnastics, yet I felt the margin was narrower in the classroom. As an educator, I make it a point to use sports analogies frequently when talking about the learning experience. Kids and adults connect with the comparison, and it becomes easier to see how classrooms and schools can best support learning. When students see that learning is not confined to the walls of the school, they come to a couple of understandings I wish I would have realized earlier. Learning happens everywhere. Learning is full of setbacks, discovery, failure, and success. Learning is just what we do.