Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Are we asking the right questions?

This week, #ILEdChat had a discussion on rethinking our grading practices. (You can see the archive of the chat here). Grading has always been, and I think will always be, a touchy subject. It has to do with the concept of a grade and what a grade means. Ideally, I think a grade should be a reflection of the level of mastery for the content or skill. One of my #ILEdChat partners, Linsy, pushed my thinking further with the reminder that it should be a reflection of mastery based on a predefined learning standard, outcome, skill, or target. This is an essential piece of the learning process for the students. We, as educators, need to make sure that the students know and understand expectations of their growth and development and we should NOT make them try to hit a moving target.

Grades seem terminal. They are final. Once that letter or number is inscribe in red ink on the top of the page, there is nothing that can be done to change it. This is why feedback should be the term that we are using with students. Feedback provides the students ideas on their attainment of mastery, areas where they can improve, and most importantly, a chance to activate those ideas and help their own thinking grow, develop, and change. This concept of feedback can be analogized to the use of a doctor. We go to the doctor to provide us with feedback on our current state of health. Recommendations are provided for improvement. Sometimes, something stronger, like medicine, is provided to help us move back towards the goal is we are off course. A grade seems more like the coroner performing an autopsy and saying "this poor guy should have changed X, Y, and Z a long time ago". There is a much longer blog post about formative and summative assessment in here, but we will get to that later.

Unfortunately, too many times grades end up representing either an attempt on completing an assignment, an arbitrary conversion of a look at that completion to a number out of ten, or the ability to hand in a piece of paper at a given time and date. I will admit, my thoughts have changed an evolved on this topic as my experiences have helped me learn throughout my years. I am not proud to admit it, but I have committed the above acts before. One of the most important things I have learned is that grades should not be a punishment.

In a different chat, educators were continuing the conversation about grading and one of the questions that came up was what policies about what type of grading practices motivate students to work harder and want to improve and learn more? It was the idea of altering a grading policy to improve student motivation instantly provoked to ideas:

  1. Tougher punishments will prevent crime -- While I think this may hold true for those afraid of the punishment, it clearly does not work for all. Education needs to be for all...not just those who "play school well".
  2. This was the other idea...

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After I chuckled and winced at my ability to amuse myself, I had the thought: Are we asking the right question? Why are we trying to find more stringent ways of reviewing work to improve student motivation to want to do better? Let's alter our own thinking and try something different...

Let's change our question to what kind of assessments/learning opportunities will provide students a method they choose to demonstrate their level of mastery? What if we provided more authentic learning opportunities than the summative/final multiple choice exam, with little or no opportunity for improvement?

I would think that if students have a voice in their learning and in how they demonstrate that learning, the motivation takes care of itself. The examples abound in standards based learning, genius hour, passion projects, choose-your-own-adventure learning. The variety of potential products from students might seem overwhelming, but this is where we go back to the initial idea of the purpose of a grade: "a measurement of student attainment at a predetermined point of predetermined skills" (quoted from Linsy Stumpenhorst on Twitter, 8/29/16).

The variety can be as wide as the day is long, but the expectations for the work can be clearly define in rubrics that provide support to the students in how to demonstrate their learning. There should be check-ups (doctor analogy again) with the students to monitor their progress, provide support, and, in more severe cases, some medication (intervention, resources, additional structure).

Let's see if we can change our question to achieve the desired outcomes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

I had a good couple of days

I have been in my new position with my new school for about 6 weeks now. Each day has reinforced that I made the right decision and reminded me of how fortunate I am that the district felt that I would be a good fit with their organization. There were some things that happened this week that reminded me why I love what I do.

Monday: This was the first #ILEdChat for the 2016-2017 school year. We have new team members to the chat team and they are a great addition. We have really started to gel as a group and working collaboratively to make the chat the best possible for this school year. We had a great opening to the chat with the timely topic of forming meaningful relationships with students. It was great to see new faces participation in the chat and seeing our regular participants back for another year. It is great exchange of ideas and really invigorates me for the week. You can look at the archive of the chat here.

Thursday: I jumped into a few random chats that caught my eye on Twitter. I was able to learn and share in #3rdChat and #GlobalEdChat . With all of my experience in high schools, the #3rdchat really opened my eyes to the wonderful and mysterious world that is elementary school. I found it important to take a look at this because I have 2 boys who are in the primary grades and the more I can learn about the pedagogy and instruction for the younger grades, the better.

With the #GlobalEdChat, I am amazed at the connectivity that I have through Twitter and yet how limited, globally, I am in my connections. The idea that technology can connect people across oceans, cultures, and languages is an idea that needs to be pushed into the mainstream. As a step towards action, I decided to create a quick form that would collect the contact information of educators who would like to connect. While the number of responses was not YET at a large level, in the first few minutes we had people from across the US, and even had educators from Canada and Australia sign up. If you are interested, please sign up here and I will share the spreadsheet with you after sign up.

Friday: Most of my new position, at lease at this time of year, involves working with students schedules and making sure that things work within the school system. Today was different, I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with actual students who had some concerns about the classes they were in. I had a great time helping the students realize that they had the ability to solve the problems in front of them. The students, both of them, came into my office at a level (1(low) - 10 (high)) of wanting to stay in the class and try at 0. When each left, they made positive movement and realized that success in the class was within their influence and they had to power to make it into a reality. I even got to teach a little chemistry, so that made it even better. :)

I also had to opportunity to introduce High 5 Friday to the students here. The concept is simple: See someone in the hallway, offer them a high 5 and watch them smile. It has a 98%+ success rate and hopefully, I will start to get some "regulars" who look forward to getting the high 5 and offering it to other students.

As an added bonus, this is the first football game of the season for my new school and it is a home game! I am excited to see the team participate in the new division and hopefully, bring home the "W".

Overall, another great week. How was yours? Share your great moments from this week and inspire someone to try something new!

Friday, August 05, 2016

If the leader sneezes...

I have been at my new job for exactly a month, as of today. What was a long and arduous journey of looking for a new school district as landed me in the right place at the right time. I am thrilled beyond words as to how things have turned out in my new position with my new district.

My journey began a little before I officially started when I was invited to attend the 2 day administrative retreat. While the term retreat might get some people excited, those of us who have attended administrative retreats in education before know the truth. Putting the day long meetings aside, the message, culture, and vision of the district and the leadership was evident from the first moments walking in the door. As I was the only really new person to the district (other people we familiar faces in new places), I kinda stood out as a fresh face in the crowd. Because of this, nearly everyone in the room came over to introduce him/herself, welcome me, and tell me that I will love it here. It was genuine. You could see it on peoples' faces how much they enjoyed the people, the schools, their colleagues, the district and the community. Many people expressed how they are alumni of the district, returning to give back to a place they hold so dear.

Then the meetings began and the superintendent started the day. She started with a simple, but powerful message: If the leader sneezes, the organization gets a cold. She went on to expand the idea we, as the learning leaders, must make sure that we are putting the correct message out to our stakeholders and colleagues, and must always try to remember where the other person is on their journey when they come into your path. She described how if a leaders is dealing with a real crisis or emergency, and we quickly dismiss a student, staff member, or parent who might be asking something "trivial" (at least in immediate comparison to the crisis), real damage has been done. Regardless of the amount of time afterward is spent trying to repair the damage, the scar has been created. This is evidence of the cold that the organization might receive.

When someone comes to you, as a leader, with a question, they are looking for validation, input, an opinion, or knowledge that they are being listened to and respected. Leaders maximize every opportunity to help their colleagues realize these events for if we ignore a teacher complaint, that complaint will become their truth.

Does this mean that every emergency must stop when asked a question? No, reality must prevail, but the question becomes who's reality? Perception of the other person is their reality. In these situations, even in the "need-to-know" situations, a leader can take the time to say "I do want to listen and hear what is going on. Unfortunately, I have an emergency I must attend to right now, but I will seek you out to provide whatever support and assistance I can." The key step is living up to seeking that person out in the end.

I want to thank my principal and superintendent for providing me this opportunity to be a part of this great organization. I will do my best to live up to the examples set before me in my first month. I look forward to continuing to grow and learn in this great organization that has a real vision and direction for the future.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Confessions and getting moving

I have a confession to make...this is 16 year in the making. When I was 24 and teaching down in Bloomington, Illinois, I had a bout of food poisoning. It was 4 days of agony and I was stuck and home and missing work. One morning at 6 a.m., after I dropped off my lesson plans, I wandered into a store quickly and was looking for a small diversion from my gastronomical torture. I saw the blue Pokemon game for Gameboy. I knew that I still had my Gameboy and it was in working order. After getting over my initial embarrassment of being 24 years old, I figured no one else was around, either in the store or my apartment, and I purchased a child's game.

It only took a few ticks of the clock and I was hooked playing it. I enjoyed the questing nature of the game and being able to wander around digitally and encounter all kinds of new beasts and watching them grow, battle, and evolve. At the time, I was wondering if I could use Pokemon as method of helping students understand evolution in my biology class. (I subsequently decided against that instructional strategy because it was a poor illustration at best as an attempt to get students to let go of their preconceived notions of evolution already).

Well, I feel better getting that off my chest. Why, now, do I choose to confess my embarrassment from 16 years ago? You guessed it, because of the week long buzz on the newest app to go viral, Pokemon Go.

I have recently changed schools and districts. In my previous district, I had a great cohort of people and we would walk on the track together to get moving and to get healthier. We were able to do this for about 5 weeks, between the time the students were let out of school and when I moved to my new district. Now that I am in my new position, it is a little harder to find time and a group to walk and get moving again. Plus, I am learning a new staff, schedule, and working on a ton of things at once. It is a great opportunity, but I did want to keep up my moving and not being in a seated position so much.

So, I did what 10 million other people did and downloaded the app. My wife ridiculed me and said, you are going to let the kids play that, right? I replied, sure...sure I would. Here is what I have noticed in my short time with the game:
  • I have actually had a desire to get up, even when tired, to walk around the neighborhood. Granted, it is with my phone in my hand, but it would be anyway to listen to music or look at other things if I am walking alone.
  • I have noticed groups of children, young adults, and full grown adults, walking around in groups, outside. And yes, there are times when faces are buried in phones, but most of the people written in groups are running/walking together, talking, sharing their experiences, smiling, and laughing.
  • I can understand how people might get hurt playing this game, because I walked into a low hanging branch, so watch out... :)
  • Kids have their faces glued to their screens and we, as educators, should help use this fact to engage students in all forms of learning.
Based on the above observations, schools need to find a way to incorporate this crazed idea into the physical education programs. I had this thought when I downloaded the app and started playing, and then I looked for other people who had the same idea. In the past 4 days, there  have been almost 20 tweets using #physed and #PokemonGo in the tweet. (See them for yourself) This is a growing idea and we should be capitalizing on it.

Some thoughts I have on this and how to use it:
  • If there is a PokeStop close to your school, have PE teachers purchase a lure and activate it and tell the kids to catch as many Pokemon as they can. Students need to run to the stop and then run back after catching a Pokemon. Make it like s shuttle run. Students can collect data on their run and earn "points" for Pokemon caught and bonus points for new Pokemon caught. Students would need to record their data and try to improve their results day-to-day.
  • Have students run/walk around the track/football or soccer field/campus to search for Pokemon. Based on the Pokemon they catch, they must do the following:
      • Grass-type = 10 jumping jacks
      • Water-type = 10 sit-ups
      • Electric-type = 10 push-ups
      • Bug-type = 10 squats
      • Flying-type = 30 second high knee run in place
      • Fire-type = 5 burpees
      • Any other = 10 leg lifts
  • While I have not looked at it yet, there is even someone who wrote something else to engage the students in their physical activity. 
We have a nation of children who are dangerously sedentary. We need to engage students in life-long physical activities. Ones that will help students, and even adults like me, find enjoyment in just getting out and going for a walk. To quote Rob Goodman, "Any game that gets people off their bums and into the real world for physical activity is a success in my eyes." (Posted by @rob_goodman on Twitter, 7/14/2016)

Do you have other ideas? Share them in the comments!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A needed change of perspective

I was digging through the piles on my desk (aka my filing system) and came across resources that I received when I went to a training with the PBIS network on working out a Functional Behavior Analysis. The basis of the FBA is founded in understanding the ABC of the student behavior that we would like to see corrected.
  • A = Antecedent. This is what happens before the behavior occurs.
  • B = Behavior. This is the "problem" behavior that we would like to eventually see changed.
  • C = Consequence. This is what happens as a result of the behavior.
One more important piece is the Function, which is the "why" the student might exhibit this behavior. Most likely the function is avoidance/escape of something in the class. For more information on an FBA you can look here.

One of the things I remember most vividly from the training is that while we will have a desired behavior in mind, it will be a long time before we can get the student to modify their problem behavior to the desired behavior. The fact is that we need to help the student modify the problem behavior to an alternate behavior that still accomplishes their function. Over time, and a lot of patience, we can work with the classroom settings and the student to attempt to change the antecedent to make the problem behavior irrelevant and make the consequences change to make the problem behavior ineffective. Throughout this entire process, we work with the student to come to their own realization that the desired behavior is more favorable than the problem behavior.

As I stumbled across this resource again, it got me thinking. Throughout the FBA process, we are attempting to modify behavior, but supporting the student throughout the entire process. When we make attempts to change behavior, we might tend to focus on increasing the consequences and making them increasingly dire in an attempt to "threaten" the student into compliance. A traditional approach does not take into account the function or why the student is performing this behavior. The traditional approach tends to focus on trying to move a student to a desired behavior by focusing on the student's deficit.

What struck me with this newer (at least to me) approach to helping student arrive at a desired behavior is that this approach actually focuses on potential student strengths. If we want students to be successful, we need to help them see how they are growing and changing in positive ways. We need to have these check-in conversations with students to help them recognize that they are making progress on their long journey in education. It is often difficult to for students to see the finish line, but teachers and students might be ignoring the distance from the starting line that students have traveled.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Encouraging the struggle

After I saw a BreakoutEdu at an edcamp, I knew that I wanted to share this with my teachers and get them using it with their students as a new way to engage, collaborate, and problem solve. I knew that some Amazon gift cards would be coming my way so I have all of the items in my shopping cart, ready for purchase. When I began to describe with one of my teachers, she thought that it seems interesting, but wanted to see it in person before she made a monetary commitment.

Then, when she attended the ICE conference, she wandered by the room that was doing a breakout and the facilitator asked if she wanted to come in. She was hooked! She immediately went out and purchased the materials and started to peruse the posted breakouts for her classroom. She immediately took it to the next level by designing her own. She created the theme, the puzzles to solve, and the method to which she was going to have her students participate. She reviewed the puzzles and before she ran with it, she took a very important step. She wanted to test her prototype.

She asked me to come in, as someone familiar with a breakout, and look at the puzzles to see if the clues where clear enough, the instructions were precise, and to discuss the flow of the instruction. We had a great discussion what the puzzles were aiming at, what schema was needed to approach the problems, and what additional resources should be made available. After our discussion, she went back to her lab to make some changes to her puzzles and clues.

After this last iteration, she brought in some other colleagues to run through the breakout as novices. By sharing this with others, excitement was generated and one of the colleagues asked if they could borrow her materials. She was ready to have the students breakout, but the learning was not done.

This teacher ran the breakout with her senior level class first and watched them enjoy and work collaboratively to achieve the solutions. She was surprised at some of the teams that formed because they were not students who typically interacted with one another and some students who usually took a more passive role in the class because active in sharing their knowledge and experiences to reach the solution. She was excited to see the new learning groups that formed organically and collaborative processes that came into play.

In her own reflection of the breakout, she realized that she was very quick to jump in and help the students when they reached a road block. She said that based on this experience, she might need to look at how much struggle she allows for her students before providing a hint and a next step in a solution. She said the look of excitement on students faces was invigorating because they were excited to look up information about the clues and to arrive at conclusions based on their observations.

How often, as teachers, do we need to take a step back and let the students struggle and persevere in their problem solving before stepping in to help? As an administrator, I know that it is valuable in the post conference to let the teacher work their way through a reflection of their lesson before I provide a commentary.

I am proud that this teacher took a risk in developing her own breakout for her first go at it with kids. I am proud of her reflection and growth in the process of its development. Way to go Jackie! (@mathedjax)

Monday, March 28, 2016

The senior that almost got away

My office is connected to the guidance counselors' offices. I have the pleasure of seeing students enter and exit the office all day. It gives me an additional connection to the students and the school, where students are more themselves, open to discussing their current and future plans, their likes and dislikes, and their personal interests, in a way that is challenging to connect with when in classrooms. Students will poke their heads into my office just to say hello, ask me questions about something in school, or even to dote over pictures of my kids (sometimes as a class avoidance technique). I really enjoy talking to the students and getting to know them as people, as opposed to knowing them as their most recent ACT score.

When a counselor sends a student over to my office, it is usually to have the student attempt to explain to me why they do not need to be in one of their current classes. Students also learn quickly, that they are well counseled into these classes and it is a rare occasion where a student places a quality argument in front of me where the dropping of a course for a study hall might be considered. Through the course of this discourse, I end of having a conversation with the students about their plans in a few short months, after they have graduated. Most recently, I learned a valuable lesson from one of these students.

As the conversation with this student was winding down, I asked the traditional question that I ask: "So, what are your plans for next year?". The student responded, with some trepidation, "Oh, I am going to college". Something about her response caught my ear and I waited a few moments before saying anything. These moments were the tipping point. In those short moments of silence and waiting, I noticed a tear had begun to run down her cheek. I picked up the box of Kleenex and handed it to her and asked "What is the matter"?

She told me that she wasn't sure of what she was going to do next year. She had been rejected from a few schools, accepted to a few others, but not sure how to pay for any of it. She had just gotten a job and thought that she could work and go to school, but if she did that, she was going to need to attend a local community college, instead of going away to school.

I told her that is not a reason to be upset, you have a plan in place to complete early requirements at a cheaper cost and then transfer into a school to complete the degree. I told her that this is sometimes better than just going away to school without any idea of what you would like to do or study. This is when she told me that she was embarrassed to say this option to her friends and teachers. She said it made her feel like a failure that she could not afford to go away to school right away. She said that she was afraid that she might never be able to get away from her home town if she went to the community college and worked. She said that she was losing sleep over this potential option and was having some thoughts that scared her.

I was able to calm her down as we continued to talk. I asked if she had told anyone about these thoughts she was having or the fear she was experiencing and she said no. I got her counselor into the office and I asked the student if I could share her story with her counselor, and she agreed. The counselor was surprised to hear this information from one of the higher ranked students in the class. This student had given no indication of any of these feelings or thoughts to anyone, at home or at school.

I thanked the student for sharing this information with me. I asked her if she thought some of her friends might be feeling the same and she replied, "I don't know". I asked her counselor to sit with her and develop a plan of attack to get some scholarships applied for, to know which classes she should focus on at the community college, and develop a timeline of work and school and how and when she could transfer. The counselor and the student exited my office and worked together for a while. They contacted the student's mother to make sure that the burden of this fear could be shouldered by more than just the student and it also let the student know that she was not alone in this.

After a while, the student poked her head back in my office to thank me. I told her that I needed to thank her for being strong enough to share this information with me. She looked confused and I told her that, sometimes, the hardest thing to do, is to let someone know we are not perfect and that we need help. I asked her, what made her decide to share her story with me and she told me that it was the silence. She said that she noticed that I was there to listen and not fill a vacancy of sound.

When I look at my seniors walking the halls, I now look at them and wonder, are they just sharing an answer that they think we want to hear or are they really telling us what their plans are for next year? Unfortunately, I think it is the former more frequently than that latter. This was one student that almost got away. Thankfully, we with the support of multiple people at school, she was able to develop a more tangible plan to address her concerns. Thankfully, she was strong enough to let someone know that she needed some assistance.

Before she left my office to go back to class, I asked her to do one thing: share her story. I told her that she, most likely, has many friends who are experiencing the same things that she was. Her story could let them know that they are not alone and that there are people here to help them sort out these issues and others. Other students will become stronger because of her sharing.

We cannot let other students become ones that got away.