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Who is stopping you?

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me. – Ayn Rand

I am a positive deviant and proud of it. I have spent the past few years of my teaching career pushing the envelope, moving outside the box (and throwing the box away for that matter!), and most importantly learning. I learn every day not only to grow as a person and an educator, but also so that I don’t forget what it is like for the students in my classroom. I research and implement new things – sometimes they work beautifully, and others not so much. But the important thing is that I keep moving.

Many times I don’t ask for permission to try new things in my learning environment. Sometimes I wonder if I did, how many new and innovative ideas that have worked would have never come to fruition. People fear the unknown and like to stay in their safe zone. I say we blow the walls off that zone and strive for something better. Sometimes we let ourselves get in the way of greatness. We think that someone has to grant us permission to take a risk and try something new. I would like to challenge that. We are professionals and it is so essential that we model learning for our students. We must model the messy chaos that can end in something amazing, or something that we learn from. That’s the risk you take with learning, and our kids face it everyday.

So who is stopping you from trying something new? Is it the culture of your school? Is it someone who thinks that teaching should be a perfect and scripted entity? Is it yourself?

Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from being great.


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.

Much ado about homework

Homework. It is such a contentious topic in education, and a very personal one for so many teachers. I frequently get asked about the homework policy in my standards based classroom. The truth is, I don’t even use that word in my classes. So technically, I don’t have a homework policy. I do however have practice policies.

But before we tackle what practice looks like for my students, I think the bigger question is – What is the purpose of homework? Isn’t it to practice? Isn’t it to inform future instruction and further formative work? If so, does it matter where and when it is done as long as the students are progressing? I don’t think it does. Obviously, we need to practice skills, understandings, and concepts on the journey to mastery, but how much does each student need? In my humble opinion, the answer to this question varies for each student. There is no way for me to assign the same practice each day to everyone and get the same results. Students need differentiated practice no matter whether it is done at home or in the classroom. Building appropriate student choice into the practice routine increases engagement and ownership of learning for our students.

So, what does this look like? In my learning environment, practice is happening all the time. Practice can be orderly or chaotic. Sometimes we do whole group practice; there are occasions when we all need to practice a certain skill or concept. Whole group practice also builds community, and this is an essential component in developing a culture of learning. Other times, we practice in small groups. Small groups provide for more student voice and space to build collaborative skills. Individualized practice is a great opportunity to see where each student is in relation to the standards. I can give valuable descriptive feedback for growth and help them increase their proficiency levels. Varying practice modes ensures that we are reaching all of our students in the manners they learn best.

So let’s get back to policy. How much practice do I assign? The students and I determine how much is appropriate. I don’t mandate that the practice be done at home or at school – that is for my students to decide. You may be wondering at this point if any of my students would practice at home then? The answer is yes. They practice at home when it is necessary. Do all my students choose the right amount of practice? Of course not – this is when I step in as the professional in the room. I have a 1 on 1 conversation with the student to see where their practice is lacking. But then it is up to them. They have to decide that the practice is valuable and will contribute to their growth, and I can’t do it for them. They are in high school and need to be provided opportunities to make their own decisions. We need to trust our students.

What about when they fail? The student made a decision about practice that didn’t work out and now what? Well, it is time for another conversation and more practice. Maybe the answer is something the student couldn’t fathom, but now they are more open to different ideas. The standards we have in place in our classrooms are worth the work and struggle our students put in to achieve them. It is valuable to have the few that made poor decisions go back and complete additional practice. Once additional practice is finished, the student and teacher can reassess proficiency levels. This teaches them responsibility. Students must accept their decisions and learn how to recover from failure.

Do I live in a perfect world where eventually I get all my students to complete enough practice to achieve mastery on all their standards? I wish, but no. My goal is to get as many of them there as possible by working with them to achieve their goals. Our students want us to work collaboratively with them and yet need ownership of their learning. It is a tricky balance to maintain, yet this is how we best prepare them to be lifelong learners. It is a sloppy journey with many setbacks and stumbles along the way, but  so important for our students. We make such a significant impact on the learners our students become.

So, does it matter what we call it, homework, practice, formative assessment? The title doesn’t matter so much as what we do with it. Practice must be differentiated, respectful, student owned, relevant and needs to inform future instruction and practice. Let’s make sure it is meaningful and valuable for our students.

What are your views on the H word? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!


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.