Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grades: What Would Houdini Do?

I get a daily "great work provocation" email that is supposed to provide a bit of inspiration, challenge, perspective change, etc. Often, they're too obscure for me, and I shrug and delete. Here was today's:
Houdini never found a pair of handcuffs he couldn't escape from.
What are the manacles that are tangling you up?
Time to pick the lock?
This one resonated. The manacles are that are tangling me up right now are grades. And I have no idea how to pick the lock!
image credit

First of all, the lock is on the building- I knew when I took this job that I would be expected to give letter grades. It is a job requirement. 
Some reasons that grades are tangling me up like handcuffs-
•Grades don't jive well with my personal philosophy of teaching. I believe in working with students where they are (not where I wish they were). Some students are highly capable, proactive, have tons of family support, etc. They can rock an assignment and need to be challenged to go above and beyond. Those would typically be the "A" students. Other students are disorganized, immature, and struggling. They are not always capable of the same challenges as their peers. 
One way I'm trying to address this is by using what my predecessor, Stephanie, used (and taught me) about individualized AR point goals. Each student has a VERY different point goal, and the grade will be dependent upon whether or not the student meets his or her own goals. But that only addresses one small part of the grades conundrum. 
•Grades don't provide the most useful feedback. I really related to this teacher, who traded letter grades for narrative feedback and found that it increased students' improvement and motivation. Despite carefully constructed grading scales and carefully worded and shared explanations, grades do often tend to be subjective. 
When discussing the move to teacher-led evaluations, I  talked to many of my colleagues about the "checklist" part of the evaluation tool vs. the narrative feedback. What I discovered was that teachers were often focused on the checklist, wanting the highest checks (straight As), but didn't really know what it meant in terms of professional development. It was the narrative feedback that was valued and valuable. 
•Grades don't motivate the ones who most need motivating. Yes, grades do motivate some kids, kids who might be on the borderline between an A and a B. Maybe they push themselves (or are pushed by their parents) to achieve higher in order to get the A. And I do think that is positive. But what about the ones who could care less? It seems that for some kids, grades may be a de-motivator. What about the kids who, even when they try hard, never get the A? 
•Having to give grades makes it tempting to go for the lower levels of Bloom's because those tend to be the easiest to quantify.

I'm doing this with the AR tests. The kids read a book and take a 10 question, multiple-choice test which mostly tests remembering and understanding. It's fine in small quantities, but it's hardly sufficient for meeting grade-level reading standards, let alone the broader goal of preparing students for a future where they need to think critically, create, collaborate, communicate and connect globally. 
Many things that I value and know are important activities can not be easily graded. I guess I can give a pass/fail type of grade for participating. But what end does that serve? 
•Grades are not authentic. Do you want your blog posts graded? What about your lesson plans? What if you mess up a lesson? Should you get a zero? Does that motivate YOU to be a better teacher? I don't want my posts stamped with an A, B or C, but I do very much want feedback and conversation. 

I will work to do my best to quantify learning and use grades to communicate, teach and motivate. But I am highly skeptical that this is the best use of my time as a teacher.
What do you think? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Highs & Lows of Classroom Culture Change

I'm thinking the title of this post might be the title of my book.

Working to change culture in real classrooms-  with real students and all the restrictions, limitations, and downright clutter that characterizes real teaching is challenging. It's also the only thing that really, truly matters. There is so much talking, writing, asserting, theorizing, criticizing and debating. But, sometimes I wonder if, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

My last job, working to create a new school culture, was also challenging and fulfilling in it's own ways. But I always knew, in the back of my mind, that I was one step removed from the possibilities and the difficulties. I'd listen to teachers tell me I didn't understand, that it was harder than I made it seem. And I knew they were right. But I also knew that I was right about what needed to be done.
I knew there would be highs and lows. I knew, didn't I, that learning is messy.

So, now I have my own stories of messiness to celebrate, share and get over. I think today's messy story is a good one. I went from so high, best-class-ever, to failure, disappointment and a splitting headache in a span of less than 2 hours. 

It started with an email I received from the Google teacher list. Google, as part of their public launch of Google Maps Street View of the Galapagos Islands (including underwater views!) was offering a virtual field trip experience. They were looking for two classes interested in chatting via Hangout with some of the photographers and conservation scientists who worked on the project.

It happened quickly. On Tuesday afternoon, I was notified of our acceptance to participate in Thursday's Hangout. I scrambled to notify parents (as we needed permission slips for the live broadcast) and prepare students. I wrote "Galapagos Islands" on the board. No one had heard of it. I instructed students to go home and learn something about the Galapagos, from whatever source they wished.

The High
The next day students came in brimming with excitement. One of my 4th graders had created a book, using Book Creator, to share what she'd learned about the Galapagos. She was careful to make sure we knew that she had only used Creative Commons licensed images from Pics4Learning. She had even taken video of her bird in her backyard to show what she thought the Galapagos was like.

I hadn't planned to spend a lot of time having students share but in that moment, lesson plans took a back seat to learning. It was amazing, definitely the best teaching moment I've had this year.
Every student wanted to share what they did and what they learned. We watched videos, looked at Wikipedia and viewed captivating images. Curriculum connections flowed seamlessly from language arts to geography to math to digital citizenship to how-to-read a Wikipedia page. The one student who had not done the homework was obviously upset. I believe that next time that child will be much more likely to "remember" the assignment.
Looking at Wikipedia
Sharing her notes
And the low...
 Then came the time for the G+Hangout. Jobs were assigned. Students were excited. Very excited. We went to the library. It felt a bit stressful for me, trying to get everyone settled, make sure we were on time connecting to the hangout, and make sure that students with roles and responsibilities (photographing, videoing, asking questions, taking notes, etc) knew what to do.
We connected to the Hangout. We could see and hear the other classroom, the people from Google, the researchers from Ecuador and Australia. Our mic was muted, but our students were ready to step forward and ask their questions when the time was right.
We waited. And we waited.
Technical difficulties at Google were preventing the live broadcast that was, for Google, the whole point of the hangout. I typed into the chat, telling them that we only had a certain amount of time, that we were so excited....
We waited some more. While we waited I showed the students the amazing Street View tours and images. It felt a bit chaotic because the hangout was still open, and we could hear them trying to fix the issues.

We had to leave to go to lunch at 12:45. Students begged to eat in the library and keep waiting, but we decided, after 45 minutes of waiting, to call it a day. We were all extremely disappointed, and some students were angry, saying, "What a waste of time!"

I saw later, that the Hangout did finally take place and Google got the live broadcast they wanted. It was no big deal for them to say we have one classroom here with us (rather than the two that were supposed to be).

Learning from Everything
I'm not sure where to go from here. I thought maybe I would, at least, receive an apology email from Google that I could share with students. But, sadly, I have noticed over the years that many companies want to connect with students and schools mainly for their own purposes. I guess it looked cool to have a school in the Hangout.

But what about the kids?

The woman who organized the Hangout told me she used to be a teacher. Has she forgotten what it's like to quickly pull together 30 students and prepare them for something like this? It's not easy to do, and it's not easy to explain away the disappointment when it doesn't work.

We are learning about the 7 habits of highly effective people, and right now we are focusing on habit #1: Be Proactive. So, in my next-day discussion with students, we talked about being proactive in our response to disappointment. We talked about how we learn from every situation, even if what we learn is not what we hoped or planned to learn.

As students prepared to write their reflective posts about the week, I asked them to think about using proactive language instead of blaming. We talked about how it's ok to express feelings and how that is different than blaming. So, maybe that is one thing we've learned for now. Things don't always work as planned when you take risks and try things.
Evan's Blog

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I Hope You Like It!

You and I are bombarded with information on a minute-by-minute basis. Tweets, subscriptions, emails...everyone has something you "must" watch, read, share. Who has the time? Even a 5 minute video is waaaay tooooo looooong. isn't.

What makes something worth your time? 
Obviously the answer is somewhat personal. And I'm not just talking about things that "go viral"(although that is an interesting phenomenon, one I should study further ).

It's a push-pull.
Push- we need to get more students and teachers blogging. It makes the most sense as a way to promote and teach literacy in the broadest sense.
Pull- My students are blogging! My second graders made this great video! Leave us a comment!!! Please.

As more and more students and teachers are creating and connecting, we're filling the web with more stuff. And, while we learn a lot from making the stuff, we all want the validation that comes from having another person- a reader, a viewer, a fellow-learner- connect with our creation. And we only receive that validation if a person takes the time to not only watch or read but to actually let us know by leaving a thoughtful comment.

I reflected, in Where's the Authentic Audience, on the phenomenon I've noticed where kids, left to their own creative devices, often conclude a piece of work with the words "I hope you like it."
They hope YOU like their post. They are writing and creating for you, a reader.

-How do I connect my student bloggers with meaningful, quality comments?
-How does blogging represent authentic literacy if the only audience is the teacher?

I wonder about this for my students, but also for myself.  I would welcome more real (for lack of a better description) conversation. Is it the type of posts I write? They're pretty tame, I'm not trying to stir the pot or be particularly disruptive. (tempted to complain here about other bloggers who complain about teachers not connecting but actually do not model connecting by answering comments on their blogs, but I am restraining myself)
I'm simply a teacher/educator/thinker/learner/human trying to use writing as one tool for my own growth.

But I have to admit...I hope you like it.