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

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.

Always ready to learn

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”       – Winston Churchill

As humans, we are always ready to learn. Whether it be a new game, how to get results from a garden, ways to best get along with others, or more about a sport we love, we’re ready. Learning is everywhere in everything, but do we recognize it? Do we only associate learning when something is being taught to us?

I feel many students only think learning happens within the walls of schools and classrooms. They believe learning only happens when there is a teacher in the front of the room giving direct instruction. I wanted to check on this from a reliable source, so naturally I asked my son who just finished 5th grade – “Do you think some of your friends feel learning only happens at school? Do you think some of your friends believe learning only happens when the teacher is in front of the class?” To both of these questions he immediately answered “Yes.” At least from his lens, this is true. I fully realize this may be a biased opinion, but it’s compelling none the less. Finally, I asked him “Do you believe that to be true? Where does learning happen? His response – “Learning happens everywhere.” What a proud mama moment.

In my humble opinion, a much greater amount of learning happens when we experience it for ourselves. Natural curiosity is powerful and ignites engagement with new learning. Natural curiosity isn’t fueled by constant instruction. If the amount of learning in life that happens with a teacher leading us is weighed against the amount without one…well, lopsided could be an understatement.

The bottom line – we are always ready to learn.

To me, ‘being taught’ implies that there is a classroom with a teacher leading. It suggests the instructor is in control…hmm…I’m not sure this is the sweet spot in learning. Teaching has its role; however, it should be used intentionally when skills are to be modeled, or probing questions are to be posed. Kids should know that they own their learning no matter where it happens. Outside of school teachers can take the form of parents, other family members, neighbors, etc. But no matter who the teacher is, there is a time to step in and a time to step back.

In the school setting, I watch students in hallways and classrooms. I observe ownership in their learning and investment in the process. They are ready to learn and no one should stand in their way. Consider whether standing at the front of the room and being in control would be a better option than giving the kids the tools they need and watching them take off.

I truly believe that kids (and adults for that matter) want this ownership. We are naturally prepared to learn, but don’t always like being taught. Students come ready to make decisions and mistakes. They are primed to find success and rise to the occasion when challenged. They need their teachers to guide and support them and don’t always need someone else to be in control and take the lead.

Let’s be intentional about when we choose to teach and when we choose to put students in the driver’s seat. Honor the fact that they are always ready to learn, although don’t always like being taught.

 

The fear of getting it wrong

There once was a man who had no fear, he said, “Bring on change – my mission is clear!” Then one day this changed, doubt reared its ugly head, uncertainty reigned and stagnation was fed.

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dalí

With a change in practice there is always fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the repercussions, fear of getting something wrong. I get it, educators want to do what is best for their students and they want to do it well. Yet this desire for perfection creates apprehension when exploring new procedures and practices. Don’t get me wrong, change can’t just be for the sake of changing. It does need to be well thought out and planned. But even when this happens, the follow through is daunting.

I was (and still am to a degree, although I try to fight it) guilty of this. I want everything I do to be planned perfectly so it will go smoothly and beautifully the first time through. I never want it to seem like I am unsure or uneasy. I think that somehow the process is devalued unless the outcome is exactly as I have predicted it would be.

But the question is, do we give in to this fear? Do we allow worry to get in the way of trying something new? Anxiety about a change is bound to pop-up with a shift in practice no matter how large or small. Yet we ask students every day to jump into new learning, try something different, and not to worry if something doesn’t go as planned. As difficult as it is, this is what we have to do as well.

Each time the fear of doing something wrong creeps in, I would challenge you to remember…Whatever you do, you’ll be better than you were before. Whether the thoughtful change in practice is something that has staying power, or if it will fall by the wayside, it is worth it to go through the learning process. It is worth it to experience the success or failure. It is worth it to share that with your students. It is worth it to show you’re human and admit that things don’t always go as planned.

If we allow the fear of getting something wrong stop us, how will we know if it could be something right?

Just one more thing to consider…

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” – Suzy Kaseem

 

Musings and reflections on one of the greats

This week we lost a legend in the educational world, Grant Wiggins. I want to take a moment and pay tribute to the impact he has had on my educational career thus far.

As a teacher, Understanding by Design was critical, I just didn’t know it in the beginning. I learned about it a few years in to my career, but it caused a monumental shift in my thinking and practice. It was one of those things that just made sense, but I was never introduced to it in my undergraduate work. Why wouldn’t we want to begin with the end in mind, plan our units and lessons from there, and clearly communicate the end targets with our students? This never occurred to me as I fought through my first years of teaching. I did as I was instructed to in college – plan units in chronological order and create the final assessment just before administration.

Once I made the change in my mindset, planning, and instruction, things were different for my students and myself. We began each thematic unit with a specific purpose and the kids were focused from day one. There were no surprises with assessment, and the link between what we were doing day-to-day with the end goal was transparent.

As I have now moved into a coaching role, Understanding by Design has come up again in an entirely new way. I have been able to introduce teachers to the framework and watch it take hold. Once they began to look at unit planning in a different light, they realized on their own the influence and potential of UbD. They were empowered to own the process and found that it made their lives much easier.

It has been enjoyable to pause for a moment and reflect. Things are funny this way – it can take an event such as this to remind us of the importance of reflection. With busy lives both inside and out of school, reflection can get pushed to the back burner. This week I stopped for a moment to do some important thinking, and I’m so glad I did.

You will be greatly missed, Mr. Wiggins, yet your profound impact on teaching and learning will be felt for decades to come.

I’ve got the standards based philosophy, now what?

When making a shift in grading practices from traditional to a standards based system, step one must be a change in thinking. Reflection upon current practice to see how it aligns to learning is critical. In most cases, traditional grading systems rely on compliance and high stakes assessment to determine the all important letter grade. But what does the letter actually mean? In a nutshell, not much. In a standards based world, grades are communication of academic achievement in relation to the standards. The focus is always on learning. But now what? What if I understand all of this, want to make a change, but don’t know what to do?

1. Separate behaviors from academic achievement. These two elements must be kept independent of one another for grading and reporting to give students and parents accurate information as well as to maintain the integrity of grades. When these two are mashed together, it is unclear how much either one contributes to the grade. Decide what behaviors you will hold your students accountable for throughout a marking period, but don’t combine them with achievement.

2. Identify the standards. Are your standards pre-determined by Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, or the C3 Framework? Are they set by your state? Do you determine them yourself? Once you know your standards, you have clear targets for your stakeholders, assessment, and instruction. Another consideration with standards – you may want to consider rewording them into student friendly language if they are difficult to understand. Clarity is the goal here!

3. Develop ideas and plans for summative assessment. This is simple backward design – begin with the end in mind, and so important for a standards based classroom. From here, you can develop formative practice and instruction for the students. Everything you and your students do must be tied to the standards, so keep that in the forefront of your mind each time you plan.

4. Determine what will be graded vs. given feedback (this goes back to the decision-making process for formative versus summative). In standards based culture, feedback is given much more often than a grade, so be purposeful in this decision. Feedback guides student learning; grades communicate a judgement about proficiency. When you give kids feedback, make sure it is timely, meaningful and actionable – our goal is student learning!

5. (If applicable) Decide upon a method for determining final grades. If you don’t have to do this, consider yourself lucky. If you do have to combine standards and scores for reporting, keep in mind that standards based grades are much more accurate and meaningful by being criterion referenced and evidence based.

6. Revisit the ‘why?’ and prepare for questions. Whenever a change this significant is on the table, there will be questions and/or pushback. If you are going to effectively explain this shift to students and parents, you’ll need to be well versed in the ‘why?’ of standards based grading. I found over the years that it was very helpful to revisit the key ideas. Every time I reviewed the reasons for making the change to standards based grading, it strengthened my convictions and deepened my understanding. I was able to better defend my practices to anyone who questioned me.

There are many more items on the to do list when converting to a standards based system, what else would be on yours?

 

Sowing the seeds of success

“The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”                                         – Paramahansa Yogananda

As spring is beginning all around me (and I am very thankful for that after a harsh winter), I notice a distinct change in myself as well as in students and colleagues. The weather changes, and moods improve. The volume level of students also increases in the hallways, but there is a renewed energy all around. I enjoy this change in season so much.

spring1

This is also a time when students can grow tired and stagnant in their learning at school. They see the prospect of a summer vacation, and time can’t seem to go by fast enough.  Engagement can lull, and setbacks happen both with academics and behavior. What can we do about it? The frustration level of staff increases, and we wonder…what happened to these students? Why have things suddenly changed?

Let’s remind both ourselves and our students that failure before success is natural. By this time in the school year, students can feel that they should be past the point of failure. They have been in your classroom for months now and are used to the routine. They may grow weary with anything that is difficult or challenging. This is the moment we need to rise to the occasion. It is a tough time for all, but when we re-energize and bring it to our classrooms and schools, students are rejuvenated as well.

I love the essence of the quote above. Sowing the seeds of success after failure is a skill we want students to develop and take forward into adulthood. But this is a skill we need to help students cultivate. Let’s face it – fighting for success is hard! Giving up is much easier, and some kids are conditioned to do just that. Be candid with your students and tell them failing is not what matters. What matters is that we recover and are better for the experience. Remind students that this process happens time and time again and show them how to turn it into a positive experience. Call to their attention how messy recovery can be and assure them this is normal. Modeling how failure and recovery manifest in our own lives demonstrates that we all need resilience to move forward.

So as we move into a very welcomed spring season, keep your enthusiasm for learning and expectations for success high. The kids need it…and so do you!

Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts devoted to sharing my experiences in a Standards Based Grading classroom. Each is focused on one ‘fix’ for broken grades From Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading – 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. (O’Connor, 2011)

Fix 6: Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence.

As you read this series, you may notice that we have fast forwarded from Fix 3 to Fix 6. As I provide some perspective through these posts, this is the next natural progression for me. Feel free to go back in the book to read about and reflect on fix 4 (academic dishonesty – something I have previously addressed in this post), and fix 5 (attendance).

Collaborative work is clearly important for students to experience and practice throughout their formative years. There are very few careers for adults that are completely solitary. The need to work together with others effectively is a skill to be developed and taken forward. To accomplish this, teachers must provide opportunities for kids to work as teams in a variety of situations. They must work with a variety of personalities and be given guidance on how to handle disagreement when it inevitably occurs.

But should these experiences count as a grade? No. We cannot accurately determine how much each person contributed to the process and product created by the group. Often I get the comment ‘Standards Based Grading means we can’t do group work.’ Obviously I feel this is false, it should simply not be used in an academic grade. Individual evidence from students is necessary to precisely determine proficiency levels in a meaningful way.

The other effect of grading group work is that it changes the dynamic of the team immensely. The collaborative environment is transformed into a competitive one. Some students take over the process because they don’t want anyone else playing a part in the grade that is assigned. Some hide because their proficiency levels may be lower, figuring that others will give them a better chance at a good grade. Some don’t contribute as much because they don’t have a dominate personality and are scared that their ideas will get shot down when the experience is high stakes.

In my career as a student, group work felt much like this:

group work meme

 (thanks to weknowmemes.com)

Personally, I was the one who did 99% of the work because if my name was going on it, I was not leaving the quality of the work to anyone else. So, how do we fix it? Remove group marks from the grading process and use them as a formative activity. Give feedback to  students about their work and explain how active participation in teams will advance their individual learning journey.

What’s the right way?

As I travel and work with educators across the country to improve grading practices, I have noticed a common theme. Teachers seem to be searching for the one right way to implement standards based grading. They don’t want to do something ‘wrong’ when making the transition.

The truth? There isn’t one right way. From my perspective and experience (and humble opinion), there are several non-negotiables when switching to standards based grading, but implementation is owned by the district, school, administration, and teachers. This is a process, full of baby steps. There will be successes and failures. It is a learning process that requires a paradigm shift – a shift that is easier for some than others. My consistent advice to teachers and schools is to take it slowly, talk about the non-negotiables often, and develop an implementation plan that works for your schools, students, and teachers.

Here are items that would go on my non-negotiable list:

  • Criterion referencing – Kids must be measured against standards, not against each other.
  • Staying away from averages – No penalizing kids for where they start with a standard, only report where they finish.
  • Grading less and giving more feedback – Formative assessment should include feedback only, no grades…clearly puts the focus is on learning.
  • Separating academic achievement from process (behaviors) and growth – Accurate meaningful grading practices are the goal. If these are not separated, the grading waters are muddied.
  • Shortening the scale – Reducing the number of levels of proficiency has positive effects. Inter-rater reliability increases, students are better able to self-assess, and grading becomes less subjective. (But remember…subjectivity in grading can never be completely eliminated).

Once these key components are established, teachers and districts can move on to other decisions. Standards can be developed or chosen for assessment. Teachers can discuss what evidence elicits proficiency levels for each standard. Teachers can collaborate to design formative and summative assessment strategies and tools. Reporting features can be explored to best communicate with students and parents.

What’s the silver bullet of standards based grading? It really comes down to developing practices and a mentality about grading that support learning. Utilize practices that honor the natural learning process and allow kids to demonstrate their learning in a safe environment. Beyond this, the ball is in the court of the stakeholders within the school district. When students own their learning, they engage on an entirely new level, right? Ownership of learning isn’t just for students, it is for all learners. Let’s not search for the holy grail of standards based grading; let’s find what works for us and move forward.