Tag Archives: lifelong learning

Oh the places I’ve been

I had the fortunate experience of traveling some this summer and meeting educators from across the United States and beyond. To witness the passion for education that lives throughout our world was awe-inspiring. It was very interesting to talk with others and learn about diverse learning environments and school systems. The more I discover, the more I realize how much I have left to learn and I am intrigued. We sometimes get sheltered in our own school cultures and fail to realize how distinctly different other districts can be. My eyes have opened more fully and I feel more well-rounded heading back to school this fall.

There are of course similarities no matter what school you walk into or which teacher you meet. Student learning and how to ensure it happens in our schools resides in all of our hearts. We have a common ground that links us and guides discussion no matter what context and background we bring to the table. There are times when we disagree about methodology and assessment, culture and grading to name a few. I find these conversations are so important to my learning and growth. I love the challenge of rethinking what I do at school and defending my beliefs. It forces me to arrive at that slightly uncomfortable place where change and risk taking reside. It makes me reflect on my practice and consider new possibilities.

I have been faced with many difficult questions and discussions about what I do in my learning environment over the years. I have gotten the long pauses in my doorway with the begrudging looks. I have been avoided because it is much easier to ignore me than engage in discourse with someone who is so passionate about learning. Then I am faced with a decision. Do I walk away as well, or do I start the conversation?

I have grown more comfortable with this over time (and am still working to improve!). Walking away could leave behind a potential learning opportunity. I try to listen and encourage teachers to divulge problems or issues they are facing before I say anything. I strive to validate their opinions and find common ground before sharing my perspective about the topic or situation. So much is gained through these conversations and I become a better educator after each one.

No matter how you connect with other educators, whether it be via social media, travel, or simple conversations in the hallway, it is an opportunity to expand your horizons and learn. Don’t be afraid to share your story with others and listen to theirs. It will expand your educational world and enlighten you to the vastness that exists within it. Gather the varied viewpoints that create our amazing profession while finding the interwoven thread of student learning that ties us together.

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!                                                                                                      -Dr. Seuss

Crafting Standards Based Learning Experiences

You’ve made the paradigm shift, and you know that grading and assessment need to support learning in our schools and classrooms. But how do you transform your classroom? How do you design learning experiences that are aligned with your standards, engaging for our students, and challenging for all who walk through your door?

Standards based culture is just what it says. All learning activities point right back to your standards and students can see the relevance of them. If a student asks you “Why are we doing this?” You need to be able to answer with much more than “Because I said so.” Students want meaningful work and practice. As educators we need to take a discerning look at our assignments, assessments and classroom activities to make sure that everything has a foundation in our standards.

In order to maximize student engagement we need to involve their passions and interests. Students should have a say in what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate their learning. I have incorporated genius hour into my classes this year, and it has been amazing to watch my students express their passions. I have students running food drives, volunteering in the community, and raising awareness about animals on the verge of extinction to name a few. I also involve student voice by allowing them to choose various classroom activities. Right now, they are planning and executing review sessions for their classmates incorporating some of their favorite experiences from this school year. They have taken over our learning environment in such a positive way!

Challenge is essential to the learning process. Differentiation allows us to meet the needs of the varying readiness levels our students bring. Our gifted students need something very different from our students who struggle. We must put the proper supports for learning in place so that everyone has the chance to thrive. One size fits all assembly line instruction has to go! Students do not fit into the mold that we or textbook companies create. Instruction should instead be designed for them. We must be fair to our students and give them what they need each day, not what the curriculum guide demands that we cover.

Assessment takes diverse forms in the standards based classroom. It is intertwined into the learning experiences that we create. We are constantly checking for understanding and demonstration of skills, pushing our students forward and watching them grow. Assessment must cycle back and spiral, always moving our students forward while making sure that previous knowledge are skills are maintained. Assessment provides the opportunity to determine when extra practice is necessary, and when students need to delve further into the subject at hand.

Standards based learning is chaotic at times. We need to get used to a learning process that is student centered and hands on. Students need the time and space to collaborate and take risks. We must teach responsively, which means we should be prepared to throw out the lesson plan when our students’ needs require it. Students must know that they matter and are a key piece to the learning process. Learning is not done to our students, it is a process with their full involvement.

As Daniel Pink suggests in his book Drive, create standards based experiences that provide autonomy, purpose, and mastery for your students. They will flourish in your classroom.

My war on apathy

It is that time of year…apathy is rearing its ugly head and trying to settle in. The weather is finally improving, and kids (and teachers for that matter) can be wearing down as the school year approaches its close. Minds are drifting toward summer and time off. It is this time of the year that we need to dig deep as educators.

A few weeks ago I was looking through my students’ proficiency levels and summative scores for the semester and knew I had to do something. I allow and encourage my students to complete additional practice and reassess on any standard that is below proficient or that they simply want to improve. But this semester (and especially in the past few weeks) I had many less students taking advantage of this opportunity. I started to reflect and try to figure out why. For many of them, one standard below proficient was not something they were worried about. Overall, their progress report was positive and they were happy with that. Others may have started to feel like they were digging an insurmountable hole with no way out. No matter how often I reminded them and gave them support over the last few weeks, I was not seeing the growth and improvement that I wanted. The growth and improvement that they needed. How could I get them back? What could I do to inspire?

Funny that I was thinking about all this when Danny Hill (@hilldw61) contacted me. He is the author of Power of ICU and had completed a new book Brick House. He offered to send me a copy and I was eager to see what his new book had to offer. Little did I know how timely this book read would be. I believe things happen for a reason, and this is one of those occasions when it became very plain to see!

After reading Brick House, I knew the answers to my questions were clear. I had to declare war on apathy and let my students know we are battling together. It is not me against them, it is us against apathy for the sake of their learning. I had to let them know that apathetic behavior was unacceptable and we weren’t going to allow it in my room anymore.

In the book, Mr. Hill talks about bill collectors and how they are masters of defeating apathy. I used this analogy to explain to my class that I was now the bill collector of their learning. They owed me learning. More importantly, they owed themselves learning. They also owed it to themselves to feel completely prepared for the next level of Spanish the following school year. We were going to build a Brick House culture where every student is consistently working towards proficiency and mastery of standards. We would not leave holes in our houses of learning that would lead to failure in the years to come. We were going to support each other along this journey and work together until summer vacation calls us away from school.

As Mr. Hill states in his book, the way to defeat student apathy is to “NEVER LEAVE THEM ALONE.” I vowed to my students that they would never be alone in their learning. I was going to demand, not just suggest, that they practice and reassess on standards that are below proficient. I would be relentless with them until every standard was proficient or we ran out of time. I informed them that there was no other alternative.

I made my list, what Mr. Hill refers to as an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) list. I told my students that some of their learning needed intensive care. The list includes every student who has at least one standard below proficient. I let my students in each class know if they were on the list and if so, exactly which standards needed improvement. I charged them to make a plan to get off the ICU list and then to share that plan with me. I wanted to know what they were going to do about their learning in relation to these standards and when they thought would feel ready for reassessment.

The response was overwhelming. In our first week of the ICU list, I have had over 50 students come in during their homerooms or before school to work on Spanish. Some of my students reassessed or completed missing assessments, so I have had 34 standards move to up the level of proficient or distinguished. I have had 9 students remove themselves from the ICU list. My students are supporting each other and finding the time for their learning. I have redefined the relentless pursuit of knowledge and skills in my classroom.

What an immense turn around in such a short period of time. I am excited to see what the rest of the school year holds for my students and their learning. Who knows, maybe we can get the list down to zero!

Astounding ourselves

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.                                                                                  – Thomas A. Edison

What gets in the way of our working to capacity?

Fear. We are scared we might fail. We are scared our students might fail. We fear the unknown. We fear what is new, unexplored, and beyond the realm of tradition. We fear student backlash. We fear parent push-back. We fear we will be misunderstood or ostracized by our colleagues.

I have vowed to be courageous this year, and I feel like I am fulfilling that promise. I have faced every fear above and done my best not to succumb to them. I can’t stop now, though. I must continue to push ahead and beyond the fear. I know I don’t work to my ultimate capacity every day, but as long as I am progressing, learning, and growing, I am content. I get stuck sometimes, but in turn find support and inspiration with my colleagues and ever-growing PLN. There is always help and reinforcement for those who seek it. I have learned to appreciate times of struggle as well as those when ideas flow easily. My greatest growth happens at the moments when I feel stuck but continue and persevere. These are the moments when we astound ourselves. We are capable of amazing things.

It is at this point during the school year that so many of us feel like we are dragging. The weight of the school year and all our other obligations loom heavily. We are tempted to go on auto-pilot and coast into the summer. We become scared that our students have given up and are ‘done.’ We can easily allow fear to creep in and take over, but our students need more. They have grown tired as well and need us to be fully present more than ever. This is the time to show our students how learning happens everywhere in their lives. Learning continues no matter whether school is in session or not. Learning is what carries us forward and keeps our minds active.

Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great.                                                                                                            – Fernando Flores

Shed your fear and be courageous. Shatter the walls that hold you back and cause stagnation. Charge forward and literally astound yourself!

Standards based reporting

In the standards based classroom, learning is the focus, but at the end of the marking period come the ‘all important’ grades. In many districts, there are semester and quarter systems, so grades are officially reported twice or four times per year. Each class or subject area gets a letter grade and frequently there is a bank of canned comments from which to choose ‘narrative’ feedback for our students.

In my humble opinion, this is not enough information. We should be reporting so much more than a letter and a comment code. What does that letter even signify? Has the teacher or school defined the purpose and meaning of that grade? What if a student doesn’t fit into the mold of the predetermined comments?

Of course we can always call our parents and talk with our students to give more information and feedback, but I feel that our report cards are lacking. They can do a much better job communicating academic achievement, process (behaviors), as well as growth. In my standards based classroom, I send out an additional report to parents and students each semester. It separates out these three important areas for communication and really puts some meaning behind the word report.

For academic achievement, I separate my letter grade into four skill based strands. I teach Spanish, so these strands are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I use a four point scale in my classroom, and each of these strands is reported using that scale. I also give the overall letter grade (although I wish I didn’t have to), using a conversion chart. This letter grade is given in regard to academic achievement only. You may be wondering, ‘Where are the standards?’ The standards are in my computerized grade book. Each standard gets scored on the four point scale and is available for parents and students at any time.

We have to walk a fine line with these reports – we don’t want to give too little information (just a letter grade), or too much information (reporting on each standard). Parents want information, but if they are inundated with too much, they will be turned off to the report. I choose not to report on each individual standard for this reason. I group them into strands, and the individual scores are always available online.

In the same fashion, I group process (behavior) reporting by strand. I find that reporting behaviors separately from achievement and growth is much more powerful than lumping them in along with the academic grade. When parents and students get meaningful feedback on specific behavior it is immensely more productive than not knowing how much of a letter grade is behaviors and work habits vs. achievement.

Growth is my final area of reporting. I report growth using narrative feedback. This is a personal choice, and there are definitely other effective ways of reporting growth. If I reported growth numerically, I would be back to putting every single standard on the report and again I don’t want to the reports to get cumbersome. I track growth throughout the semester and can give parents and students any specific information when requested.

These reports take some work on my part to put together each semester and send home, but I know it is worth the effort. My parents and students are much better informed about their current levels of achievement, process, and growth in my class. They can identify areas of mastery and opportunities for improvement. They know what their academic grade means and get valuable feedback. And they may not take as much time as you think because all the time spent combining these three areas, figuring out points, and calculating weights can be put into reporting them separately!

Although we work to be in touch frequently with all of our parents, the reality is that for some the report card is the ultimate communication tool. If this is the case, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to make it informative and productive?

Starting those tough conversations…

I had the wonderful opportunity to listen to Mr. Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli) yesterday via a webinar on Standards Based Assessment and Grading. I found myself agreeing with everything he was saying, and it was a great reminder of why I am standards based in my classroom. I then realized my next step…

My take-away from today was that I need to start having tough conversations with some of my colleagues and administrators regarding grading. I don’t want to be overbearing or pushy, but this reform needs to happen. We need to refocus our classrooms and schools on learning rather than grades. I feel the ‘moral imperative’ as Mr. Wormeli puts it to facilitate change and progress in this regard. It begins with discussions of purpose surrounding grading as well as beliefs behind grading practices.

Mr. Wormeli said that 80 percent of the switch is a shift in mindset, while the other 20 percent is the nuts and bolts of implementing Standards Based Grading. This is huge. The paradigm shift to standards based learning and grading is of utmost importance. Helping others understand why our grading system could improve in accuracy and integrity is something I hope to do.  We cannot let implementation stand in the way of grading and assessment reform. There are so many ways to manipulate or support grade book programs, inform stakeholders, and even report things like letter grades when we are mandated to do so.

Paradigm shifts take time – this may be part of why I feel so strongly about starting conversations. I do not expect anyone to just change their thinking and be ready for standards based culture instantaneously. But if we don’t start talking about it, nothing will happen.

I am so glad I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Wormeli speak. Grades get falsified in so many ways, and this needs to stop. We must begin some of these difficult conversations now in order to move forward together. The purpose of grading and beliefs behind practice need to be worked out and decided upon together so we can make the shift to healthier grading for our students.

Standards based grading in a traditional world

It is the elephant in the room at times… I really want to change to Standards Based Grading, I understand the thinking behind it, I know it will be better for my students and the culture of my classroom, but…

How do I accomplish this when the rest of my school is traditional?

This is a question I get asked often, as I am one of very few in my school district that are standards based. I work in a large district, so many times my students are only standards based for my class, and then spend the rest of their day in a more traditional setting.

I feel that the first step in this transitional feat is to genuinely make the paradigm shift to Standards Based Learning and Grading. Make the commitment to change the culture of your classroom. Once you have made the shift, it seems impossible to go back. I cannot imagine returning to a traditional grading system. I am driven to provide my students the best learning experience possible and I refuse to let a traditional system get in the way. Once you believe learning is paramount over assigning points, scores, and letters – you are probably past the point of no return. You will not sacrifice student learning because of the system in place.

After you make the paradigm shift, it is time for some creativity. I have had to create my own system within a system. I am required to give letter grades at progress report time and semester. I made my computerized grade book work for me, not against my beliefs. I designed learning experiences and aligned assessments to my standards and values as an educator.

Another concern I hear frequently is regarding pushback. Won’t my parents, students, colleagues, even administration push back against something so different? The short answer is yes. You will get feedback both positive and negative about making the change. The key is to take all of it and grow and learn yourself. Communicate with all your stakeholders as much as possible about why you chose to transition. Explain that you made the shift in the interest of student learning, growth, and improvement. Help them make progress along with you.

If this still feels daunting, know you are not alone. I implore you to stay the Standards Based journey no matter how difficult. We stand together for our students. We need to create cultures that support our students, not ones that encourage compliance and fear. Reach out for support when you need it, there are plenty of people who believe in this structure and are willing to help you, myself included.