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.

 

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.

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.

The game of school…for teachers?

Much is said about students who excel at the ‘game of school’. This game is played when students collect points to earn grades without concentrating on what is truly important – learning. Educators don’t want students associating learning with point collection and compliant behavior. This game skews the focus for kids and evokes fear along with a competitive environment where there are winners and losers. How does one exactly win at school? Straight As? More than 100 percent? And losing…is it an F? Learning is not a game, it is life.

But are teachers playing a game as well? Are they waiting to be told what to do by administration, because of fear with evaluation and job security? Do they seek the one set of best practices that will work for every class period, every day so that all kids are treated equally and district initiatives are met? The focus on learning gets warped for teachers as well – especially when they feel overwhelmed and backed into a corner with demands from ‘higher up’.  Sometimes I wonder how many classrooms have both sides not only playing their roles in the game but playing them really well. I also wonder what knowledge, understandings, and skills these students are carrying forward once the directions for the game have been read and everyone is following the rules.

I am positive that I played the game of teaching at certain points in my classroom experience. I was guilty of doing what I felt I needed to do for the people outside my environment rather than making sure I was working to meet the needs of those within it. I always cared about my kids, but didn’t realize what the ‘game of school’ was with regard to my students or my teaching. Here is the tricky part – when the game is being played well on both sides…boy, does it look good. Kids are compliant, the teacher is in control, everything is in order. Or is it? Is student learning in order? Probably not.

boardgame

How do we reduce the ‘game of school’ on both sides? How can we help both students and teachers see the game for what it is and move beyond?

I love it when the light bulb turns on!

When I was in the classroom, there was nothing like it. It’s the moment you can physically see a student ‘get it’. The light bulb goes on, the eyes shine brightly, and the child sits up straighter. A look of pride sweeps over their face. I love this.

It is one of the things I miss most about being in the classroom. I didn’t really take the time this fall to realize how much those moments meant or how much I missed them. I guess I didn’t have a lot of time as I was learning my new role and district. I didn’t realize it until I got to experience it again. This experience was a little different, though. I got to see it from a teacher.

At my school we are doing the monumental work of shifting to standards based grading. We are analyzing practice, creating new reporting procedures, and re-evaluating assessment. I have been able to talk to all different content area teachers, listen to their concerns, and celebrate their learning and growth. I have gotten to see the lightbulb go on a few times and witness the moment they ‘get it’ whether on a small or large-scale.

The most powerful light bulb experience came with one of our math teachers. His practice was already standards based, but after some conversation he realized revising his grading policies could make a huge impact. He reflected and commented that it felt like a ton of bricks hitting him. Why would non-academic factors be included in a grade? Why not open up assessment opportunities and give kids a voice? Why not relinquish some of the control to the learners themselves? Not only is he finding success with the shifts, he can better spend his time. He can create tools the students use to learn instead of making sure all the homework grades are entered. He can consider all the divergent learners in his environment instead of deciding how much their binder organization grade will count. The lightbulb has turned on and it is shining brighter each day.

Ready for the next level? I walked into his room the other day and he was talking with a student about assessment. She was asking about a concept with which she lacked confidence. This teacher simply said that she needed to practice until she felt prepared and explained that he was willing to provide any support necessary. The student was concerned about a quiz on Friday and that she may not be ready. The teacher commented that the assessment date was set, but why would she assess on that day if she didn’t feel proficient?

Whoa. Not only had the light bulb turned on for this teacher, but it turned on for the student as well. Learning was communicated as the most important feature of the class, not compliance to a particular timeline.

Empowerment is empowerment no matter whether with teachers or students. Once they can take something and make it their own, the light bulb goes on. And I love the light bulb.

Zeal

In preparing to welcome 2015, I am driven to choose my ‘one word’ for the new year. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, and thought I had decided two or three times over before landing on the word zeal. By definition zeal is great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective. Energy….enthusiasm….pursuit….This was definitely my word. I am challenging myself to bring zeal to the journey of 2015. I certainly consider myself a passionate educator, but there is always room to improve and bring it to a new level. Zeal is so fitting because the enthusiasm and energy will flow into the various roles that I have. However, no matter the role, the cause is always the same – improving student learning.

This school year has brought wonderful new opportunities for my career. I am working in a new school, a new district and with new grade levels. My environment is filled with progressive educators who are challenging the status quo of education. As an instructional coach, I will ensure that my zeal is employed to improve student learning on every facet. Change brings fear and uncertainty, and part of my role includes calming the unavoidable apprehension while reinforcing the reasoning for the change. I must continue to bring zeal to my colleagues as we collectively seek what is best for our students.

Throughout 2014, I presented and consulted with schools from across the country. Bringing the focused enthusiasm and energy of zeal into various school environments has been a tremendous privilege. As I forge ahead into 2015, I will carry zeal with me wherever I go. Enthusiasm and excitement are contagious, and I will share it as far and wide as possible.

I will pour my zeal into worthy causes that will positively impact student learning. I will be relentless in the pursuit of ideas that transform education and allow kids to maximize their potential to learn. Zeal will bolster my confidence to overcome obstacles and fear that could negatively impact my ability to lead. Peering over the edge into a new year, I am excitedly anticipating all the new ideas and learning.

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Bring it on 2015, I am coming with zeal!

Some final thoughts on Courage 2014

On January 1st last year, I chose one word to guide me through 2014. The word I chose was courage. Looking back, I couldn’t have made a better choice. There were six different areas where I challenged myself to show courage…let’s see how I did!

The courage to be autonomous

Going against the grain for the sake of my students was something I became more comfortable with this past year. I gained confidence that I was the professional in the room who could make decisions and revise those whenever necessary. I understood that not only was my autonomy essential, but also the autonomy of my students – theirs maybe even more imperative than mine. I was able to let go more than ever before and allow my kids to own their learning. The students left the school year knowing they could make a difference no matter how large or small.

The courage to treat all kids fairly

Working tirelessly to give students what they need when they need it will never be an easy or perfect venture. But I felt as long as I was working to the best of my ability to get to know them as learners and people, I could support them fairly. My students appreciated this and knew that I was always looking out for them. They also knew their opinions mattered and they had a say in their learning. The mutual respect that developed from treating kids fairly rather than equally had a profound impact.

The courage to try new things

Wow, where to begin on this one…2014 brought a plethora of new experiences for me. I was able to present, work with teachers from around the country, and grow my practice. I took the plunge and did my first webinar – a very intimidating undertaking when you are very used to having a live, interactive audience! When all was said and done, I found a lot of success and look forward to expanding this part of my career in 2015. I also left the classroom this year. What a bittersweet move from classroom teacher to instructional coach that is in the sweet stage now! More on this as I continue…

The courage to help my colleagues

This one took on an entirely different look as I took my new position. I am able to help my colleagues with a variety of different things, from technology to reading strategies, grading practices to differentiation. I am grateful to support while watching as they take ownership of changes to make them work for their kids. It is so rewarding, very similar to how working with my students was for so many years.

The courage to write

Just a quick note on this piece of courage. I have continued to blog for my own reflection and growth. No plans to stop this one as the new year begins!

Finally – the courage to leave an impact

The courage to leave an impact will continue throughout my life. As I quoted John Dewey almost a year ago, I want to continue passing along this thought: “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.”

What to choose for my one word in 2015? That post is next on the agenda. I can only hope it will guide and serve me as well as Courage has in the last 12 months.

A little better than yesterday

The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.                   -Unknown

Being of a growth mindset, I am always looking for new ways to improve myself and my practice. I scour social media, blog posts, and scholarly articles among other things not only to fuel my fire as a learner but also to make sure I don’t fall into the abyss of stagnation. The drive to grow and better myself is very strong. I am lucky to be surrounded with people of a similar mindset that push and challenge my thinking.

This being said, it is easy to fall into a trap. The trap that makes you feel not quite good enough. The trap that makes you second guess yourself and sometimes question whether you are doing the very best for the kids you see everyday. As I have mentioned before, I am a recovering perfectionist. I have a hard time remembering that as long as I am moving forward and continuously learning, it is enough. As long as I model the behavior I seek from students and colleagues, it is enough. As long as I am willing to move out of my comfort zone and take a risk, it is enough. Because at the end of the day I need maintain my composure. I need to be a wife and mom. I need to drive to soccer practice and read a book for pleasure (How long has it been?). I need to be content with the hard work I put in and the learning students are demonstrating.

This struggle to be happy with what we are doing as educators compounded with the desire to keep moving forward is a difficult balance for me. I manage it the best that I can, but there are moments when I feel inadequate. Deep down I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. When I look at those around me, I want to use every wonderful idea that crosses my path.

The quote that appears above has helped me when I have felt I could be giving more. As long as I am working to be better than yesterday, how could I expect anything else? When put so simply, the answer is plain. But we all know that it is not black and white, not so easy to quiet the brain for a bit and feel satisfied. Being realistic yet growth minded about accomplishments and future goals is a skill we teach to our students, but do we practice it ourselves? Or do we set the bar so high that ‘good enough’ is unattainable?

I know my growth mindset is essential to my career, but I can’t allow it to get out of hand because…

The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.                   -Unknown

And it’s good enough.

 

Searching for camaraderie

It is better to walk alone, than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.  – Diane Grant

I wanted to share a story in this post about a journey with grading reform. Too many educators feel like they are on an island in this push and look anywhere possible for support and guidance. If that’s you, hopefully this will support your mission!

Jason’s story begins several years ago. As a mid-career educator he was fed up with traditional grading practices that took his students’ focus away from the learning that was going on in his classroom. He was sick and tired of the time lost discussing points, grades, and weighting of assignments and assessments. There had to be another answer…

Here arrives standards based learning and grading. After researching the practice throughout a school year, the following summer was spent talking about standards, behavioral grading, motivation and in turn making decisions about implementation – implementation in a traditional setting with limited support. Implementation with one other colleague on board, with the remainder of the 200 staff members maintaining traditional grading practices. It was not necessarily that the majority of co-workers disagreed with the shift (although some continue that mindset to this day), rather most had never reflected on their approach to grading in this manner and didn’t know anything different. To them, the change seemed too daunting to undertake.

This was and continues to be a tough journey. Going it alone takes courage, perseverance, and grit. Jason has transformed his environment into a culture of learning where all students know they can succeed, understand that learning is a messy process, and aren’t afraid to fail along their journey to proficiency. It was an honor to work with him and together we continue to envision how reforming grading practices positively impacts student learning. As he continues to refine his methods, students will benefit for years to come.

Jason is currently a high school social studies teacher. You can connect with him via Twitter, @j_ozbolt.