Friday, July 18, 2014

Whose Failure Is It?

I’m guilty.  Guilty of failing students.

Oh yeah, I’ve said it many times in my teaching career, “You earned those grades.  I didn’t give them to you.”  At the time, I thought I was right.  Students did the work, I checked the work, and assigned the grade accordingly, but I didn’t give the student a grade. In my mind, they earned the grade.  Whether it was a good grade or a bad grade, the student earned it by the quality and timeliness of the work s/he turned in.

In recent years as I have reconsidered teaching and grading practices, I have come to realize how flawed my position I was.

I chose my grading scale.  For the most part, I used the 100% scale, which is how most of my own school work was graded and how most of my colleagues graded.  At some point, I began to use a point system, assigning points to each assignment according to the value or weight I believed it to be worth.  Each class and each term differed in the number of assignments and points available.  I controlled this; my students did not.  Their job was “to do the work.”  In terms when there were many grades available, a low grade affected a student’s average less than when there were fewer assignments. 

Like many teachers, I believed in the worth of my assignments and in the veracity of the grades entered into my gradebook.  Some earned high marks; others posted low scores.  All were an accurate picture of a student’s performance in my class each quarter. 

Hmmm.  Really?  What a terribly supremacist view of teaching and grading practices!  Arrogance, no less.

Thankfully, I’ve evolved from that flawed perception to realize that teaching and grading is not a one-size-fits-all operation. 

Perhaps my grading practices were satisfactory for those who earned passing grades, though I recognize that there is significant room for improvement with every aspect of my grading. But looking at some student data this week has drawn my focus to the failures.

Failing a student is relatively easy and far more common than I once realized.  Just give assignments, take up and score the ones students turn in, and assign zeroes for those whose papers aren’t in the stack.  When the work is of poor quality, assign poor grades. You can even ask the student multiple times to turn in the missing assignment.  Then teach the next lesson and repeat the assignment cycle.

I have failed many of my students. 
I failed to recognize their individual needs.
I failed to differentiate my teaching so each one could learn the material most effectively. 
I failed to offer an alternative assessment method to allow each one to demonstrate the depth and breadth of his/her learning.

Instead, I grouped them all together, taught them the same lesson at the same time in the same way, assigned them the same assessment at the same time, and expected that each individual would achieve his maximum potential. After all, there’s only one way to teach and to assess, and that is my way, the teacher’s way.  I trust you hear the sarcasm in my voice in that last statement.  Yikes!

Therein lies the problem – we trust our own selves too much!  So much so that we assign zeroes to those who don’t turn in the work and we assign low grades to poor work.  And then blame the students for not studying the notes we gave them, or for being unmotivated to do schoolwork, or for ….

Sadly, failure becomes a cycle, a downward spiral, often unrecoverable. 
Failure damages a child’s reputation with other teachers & administrators.
Failure damages a child’s relationship with his/her family.
Failure damages a child’s social status with classmates and friends. 
Failure damages a child’s self-concept.

Yet, we teachers don’t just allow failure, we sometimes cause it and perpetuate it.

OUCH!  That’s a strong statement and one that is difficult for a teacher to swallow.

I, along with many teachers, deeply care about students and try repeatedly, often unsuccessfully, sometimes successfully, to change the course of a students’ performance.  I also know that sometimes we give up the fight, for our efforts seem fruitless or the year comes to an end and the student moves on.

I generally believe that students who come to my class desire to succeed.  They may not express that desire in the same ways as some of their high-achieving classmates do, but deep inside they want to please their teachers and to succeed in school.

Some students fear failure.  A common mindset these students adopt is that it is easier to look lazy by not doing the work than it is to look dumb by doing the work incorrectly.

Some students lack relationships.  Connecting with students individually opens the door to better understand their behaviors.  What makes this student tick?  What interests does s/he have that I can link to our coursework to stimulate his motivation to learn? How does this student react to feedback?

Of course, there are many things we can to do build better relationships with our students, to get inside their hearts and minds to better understand their motivation (or lack of), to increase their academic skills, to teach better and to assess better.

For now, we need to take a critical look at how we assess our students.  Are we using a one-size-fits-all, my way or the highway, assessment protocol?  How valid and reliable are our assessments? Are our gradebooks truly reflective of students’ performance and mastery of the content in our courses?  What are we doing when students fail?  Have we answered the question of WHY is this student failing with a response deeper than “he doesn’t care” or “he won’t do the work”?

If the answer doesn’t involve working individually with the student to determine the root cause of failure, establishing a plan of action to remedy the failure, following through, or reassessing & revising the plan until the student has learned, we have failed the student.  If we do not design instruction and assessment in multiple ways to meet the varying needs of each student in our class, we will fail our students.  That’s our failure.  Not the student’s. 

As we approach a new school year, let’s endeavor to fail no more.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rejuvenation & Reunion: A Girls' Getaway

After years of building our careers and rearing our children in separate states, we realized we had gone too long without quality “girl” time.  A spa retreat was just the reunion we needed!

Climbing the stairs to Unit 32, I was clueless to the charm that awaited me on the other side of the door.  A lodge setting exceeding all my expectations.  Three bedrooms, three baths, a fully stocked kitchen and living area.  Well-appointed furnishings all in upscale lodge style.  Honey stained paneling. Shingled rooftops on the outcroppings.  Calm, cozy, comfortably serene.

 A bottle of wine, a fruit tray overflowing with grapes, cheese, and chocolate covered strawberries, and a selection of breakfast treats from Mercier Orchards including fruit tarts, apple donuts, and an apple cinnamon loaf whispered “Welcome to Blue Ridge. We’re glad you’re here.”

Mmmm.  I couldn’t resist just one chocolate covered strawberry.  And then another. And another.  Gosh, that tray was so full we feasted on giant-sized chocolate covered strawberries the entire weekend!

The next morning our greeter whisked us away to the locker room where we doffed our clothes and donned spa robes and flip flops.  A plush leather rocker in the Relaxation Room made the brief wait pleasurable, while the sounds of birds chirping and wind rustling through the trees soothed our ears. 

With the mood set for ultimate relaxation, the classical massage relieved the built-up tension in my neck and shoulders and revived every muscle from head to toe.  A tingling tea tree & peppermint conditioner ensured my scalp got some much need massage attention, also.

Returning to the Relaxation Room, I sipped a flute of sparking peach cider. The deep cleansing facial that followed was the best ever!  Several rounds of cleansing and masks, plus a Vitamin C serum treatment, and my face both looked and felt better.  At home two days later my daughter noticed:  “You must have had a facial.  Your face looks better!”  What a compliment!

A pedicure & manicure rounded out our treatment.  Next time – yes, there will be a next time -- I’ll pass on these in favor of one of the other treatments the Spa offers. (I can’t wait to try a Body Wrap and the Dry Float.)

We capped off our Spa Day with a tasty lunch served in an equally relaxing dining area.  And, there again, were those scrumptious chocolate covered strawberries.  Couldn’t resist.

Checking out, I booked a return visit.  I will be back.  Soon.

Serenity in the Mountains provided both an emotionally and physically therapeutic experience.  Just what this teacher-mother-wife-volunteer needed.

Yes, teacher friends, I booked a suite large enough to accommodate you, too!  Who's in?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Participatory Learning Activities: They're Not Just for Elementary Students

I love when I come across a new resource that squares with my thinking.  It backs up what I already believe.

In a conversation this week with my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Winfree, she shared a text she had read recently, Himmele & Himmele’s (2011) Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner.

The question we were discussing centered on the need for, and absence of, frequent participatory learning activities in high school and post-secondary educational settings.  So much of the instruction students receive can best be described, as Himmele & Himmele term it, stand-and-deliver instruction.  Too much lecture.  Too much teacher talking.

We teachers need to rethink our instructional practices to reduce the teacher talk and to increase students’ active engagement, both physically & cognitively, in the classroom. 

I particularly appreciate a Himmele & Himmele assertion that supports my instructional decisions; they write, “Good teaching results in student learning.  And if glue sticks and scissors are a way to get students to learn more effectively, then you are never too old to use them” (p. 30).  They offer Cut-and Pastes as one of their Total Participation Techniques for all ages, writing, “With adults, for example, we use Cut-and Pastes to better understand things like Bloom’s taxonomy, assessment concepts, and linguistic concepts” (p. 74).

Confirmation.  I’m not alone in my thinking.  

Make every learning opportunity a memorable experience.  Involve learners in hands-on, minds-on activities.

What participatory learning activities have you found to be most successful with your students?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Summer Reading Titles for Personalized Professional Development

The school year has ended.  A few weeks of rest are ahead.  Summer projects loom large.  Somewhere in the midst of all that I always make time for some professional summer reading.

Some of the best professional development I’ve had has come in the form of dynamic reads that ignite my passion for becoming a better educator.

It's no secret:  I have to read with a highlighter, an ink pen, and a few sticky notes handy.  Not only do I want what I read to sink in at the moment, but also I like to return to my books later to reread the highlights and marginalia to refresh my memory and to check off the changes I’ve incorporated into my teaching practice as a result of having read.  That’s just one way I measure my professional growth over time. 

As I thumbed back through several favorites, I thought I’d share some with you.  After all, if they’ve made a difference for me, perhaps they may also speak to you.

What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker (2004).  I first read this book in 2009, and I return to it frequently.  Whitaker says what I feel:  “No matter how good we are, we still want to be better.”  Self-reflection drives our need to improve.  Throughout the book, I noted descriptions that sounded as if he were describing me and some of my fellow teachers at some point in the past (those of us who needed to make vast improvements) or in the present (as evolving teachers), as well as painting a picture of the ideal, effective teacher  I and my colleagues want to become.  Whitaker provides example after example of behaviors that characterize both ineffective and effective teachers, examples so familiar they must be all too common. For example, he writes, “Ineffective teachers want students to be upset when they leave the office.  Effective teachers want students to be better when they leave.” You know that ineffective teacher, don’t you? Whitaker consistently describes both ends of the spectrum, allowing us to benefit from his wisdom and providing us with an alternative mindset that leads to effectiveness.  This book is a must-read and a regular must-review.

Differentiation:From Planning to Practice Grades 6-12 by Rick Wormeli (2007).  The argument that every student must do the same work and be assessed the same way no longer holds true.  One-size-fits-all is out the door.  This book will help you shift your mindset and provide you with tools to better implement differentiation in your classroom.  Wormeli asserts, “It’s in the undifferentiated classes that students can coast along, rarely challenged, rationalizing that teachers don’t care or that struggling in school implies stupidity.  In the undifferentiated classes, teachers present material, then test and document students’ deficiencies. In the differentiated classes … they make learning so compelling that students have no choice but to become engaged.” If you are ready to teach each student, to meet them where they are and to move them forward in learning, this book will provide a guide for you.

If you need to be convinced of the necessity for differentiation, read Sousa & Tomlinson’s Differentiation & the Brain (2011). Brimming with practical information and rationales, I think I’ve underlined or highlighted on nearly every page!  And the sticky notes are quite numerous. In a section on managing the differentiated classroom, the authors describe a classroom in which the focus is on meaning and understanding.  They write: “Learners have to grapple with ideas, try them out, make mistakes, and dispel misunderstandings if they are to really grasp and own what we ask them to learn.” To that, I added in the margin:  “We must move to focus on meaning & understanding school wide for CCGPS.”   Differentiating instruction and assessment can put us on the right track for creating meaning & understanding with our students.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess (2012).  This is a newly acquired title for me, but, WOW!  A quick read with a powerful message.  I’d love to be a student in Burgess’s classroom.  Energy, enthusiasm, passion … ideas abound for hooking and holding students throughout a lesson, to make every lesson a memorable learning experience.  As for self-reflection, try this on for size:  Burgess writes, “An enthusiastic teacher can learn technique, method, and strategy, but it is almost impossible to light a fire inside the charred heart of a burned-out teacher.” Applying the principles in this book will reinvigorate your teaching.

And here are some of the yet-to-be-read titles stacked beside my chair awaiting their turn:

Here's to Happy Summer Reading and Personalized Professional Learning!

What are you reading this summer?  Share your favorite titles.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Overcoming Giants

In one of my Amazon addiction frenzies in recent months, I ordered Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.  Although I skimmed several chapters upon its arrival, I just got around to reading it cover to cover.  I grabbed it on my way out the door for a cross-country plane trip, thinking I could read it without a highlighter and ink pen in my hand.  Good thought, but I just don’t seem to be able to read without utensils at the ready.

After all, good writing resonates with the reader.  And because I read through the lens of an educator, I relate most of a writer’s points to teaching and learning. Thoughts must be captured.

So now, a week after this good read, I’ve returned to the highlights and added sticky note tags to some of the ideas that triggered my thinking.  Habits of a non-fiction bibliomaniac. 

Citing numerous examples, Gladwell posits that underdogs often overcome giants through unheralded means.  Such was the case when our fledgling charter school launched in the fall of 2000.  Few people believed the doors would ever open to students, and skeptics doubted it would last.  Despite many hurdles that threatened its very existence, and including being such a new phenomenon that an employee in the state’s Department of Education insisted that charters were private schools (yes, that really happened!), the school is completing its 14th year of operation and will be sending its ninth graduating class off to college in the fall.  No small accomplishment. The underdog has survived, meeting challenge after challenge. 

As Gladwell writes, “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”  He goes further to say, “the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

In shaping and building this charter school from vision to reality to durable fixture in the educational landscape I have experienced what Gladwell describes as compensation learning: “what is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.”

Perhaps that is one reason that I continue to be perplexed when someone suggests that my background as a charter school employee is underappreciated by traditional school leaders. (“Charters are just an experiment.  You don’t have the same kind of students we have.”) Hmmm. 

Are we that shallow in education that we cannot accept that one-size-fits-all is an inappropriate educational model?  Every child deserves a quality education in an environment conducive to his/her learning style and needs; different children thrive in different environments.  For some, independent schools are the right match; for others, charter schools, traditional public schools, parochial, Montessori, or home schools are the right match.  Regrettably, many have limited family resources, as well as limited options available in their communities.

By opening our hearts and minds to other models of schooling and encouraging leaders to cross from one model to another, we can bring together the best aspects and strategies of a variety of models.  And what better way to meet the needs of all children? 

We continue to have to overcome giants.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Leadership: Enlarging My Territory

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.     1 Chronicles 4:10

Spring is a time for reflection in education, and I typically begin to look forward to the opportunities of next school year.  This morning I am reminded of something that profoundly affected my life and my career.

It is Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez and the sequel Beyond Jabez.  Many of you may have these books at some time in the past.  I read the Prayer in 2001 or 2002 and began to pray the Prayer of Jabez.  That happened at a time when I was transitioning into a leadership role and it made a significant difference in my life and in my work.  Then in 2007 I was drawn to Beyond Jabez during a Leadership class at Liberty University and it caused me to revisit the ideas contained in that prayer. It’s been a while since I’ve read that book or even prayed that prayer, but today as I ponder the possibilities of again enlarging my territory, I feel compelled to reconnect with this scripture.

Though I joined our school the very first year it opened, I didn’t plan to become any type of school leader or administrator.  I was just a classroom teacher doing my best to shape the lives of 20 third graders.  Those first two years were difficult in that we were involved in lawsuits and legal battles with the county school board just to maintain our existence. 

Sometime during the second or third year, I read the Prayer of Jabez and I began to pray for the Lord to enlarge my territory.  I knew that I was touching 20 lives each day, but somehow that didn’t seem to be all I was called to do.  As I prayed that prayer for weeks, and months, I began to realize the changes that would need to be made in our school as we continued to expand each year.

We were growing by leaps and bounds.  We started with 140 students in PreK through 5th grade, added sixth and seventh grades the next year, and eighth and ninth the following year, increasing to 225, 350, 400, and now that we are through twelfth grade, we have over 750 students. 

Not only did I take on more responsibilities, such as mentoring and coaching other teachers, but I also returned to school to earn a master’s in school counseling and become our school’s only counselor.   As these things began to take place, my territory was enlarging, I became responsible for many more than my 20 students.  My task load increased and my sphere of influence multiplied.   

I continued my education, eventually earning an Educational Leadership degree, and I have continued to enlarge my sphere of influence, using my skills to build capacity with our faculty. As I begin to plan for next year, I am reminded once again of why I prayed it in the first place, and why I should still be asking for God’s blessings each day.

Sometimes, we get so busy, so unbalanced, in our day to day operations that we lose sight of what we’re really here for.  I knew from the moment that God laid his hand on me back in the spring of 2000 telling me to go to work at the charter school that this school was a mission field for me.  A home mission field.  But I get busy and I forget to treat it like it is a ministry and I treat it like a job.  But it’s so much more.  Our kids need the role models that we’ve gathered on our campus. 

The four phrases of this prayer are distinct requests to God, and each of them has an impact on what God can do in our lives.  But the one that continues to stand out so much for me is that of enlarging my territory.  My territory has been enlarged – from one elementary classroom, to that of our staff, to our entire school of 700 plus students, and their parents, to even teachers in other schools whom I’ve had the opportunity to train.  The territory is there.  It’s what we do with it that sets us apart.

Some notes I took while reading the chapter on enlarging my territory in Beyond Jabez remind me of the important implications of this prayer:
  •          “to abundantly increase” -- a huge expansion
  •          sphere of influence/expanding ministry (service)
  •          Whose territory?  God’s!
  •          Prayer for territory involves change, risks; not comfort
  •          “remember that God will never expand your territory beyond where He knows the two of you can achieve his goals.”
  •          “When you realize and embrace your share of the responsibility for increasing  fruitfulness in your life, you will discover new motivation to pray the prayer of     Jabez!”
  •          “He will provide all the supernatural resources necessary to enlarge your territory, but you are the one who must decide to break out of your comfort zone.”
  •          “Taking new territory involves all of God and all of you. And if you leave out either part of this equation, your efforts will be ineffectual.”

How does He do it?
1.       “by increasing its size, enabling you to do something different or new.”
2.       “by extending its scope, enabling you to do something new.”
3.       “by sharpening your skills, enabling you to do what you do, better.”
4.       “by improving your strategy, enabling you to do something more effectively.”
5.       “by deepening its significance, enabling you to do something more influential.”

Wilkinson encourages us, and I am re-energized and recommitted to “rekindle the habit of praying the prayer of Jabez” and to “catch the vision for what God wants to do in your life, that you will experience incredible fulfillment and produce results of eternal value.”  

As I rekindle this habit, I am seeking all parts of this scriptural verse: Blessing, Territory, the Hand of God and His Protection:
  • The Prayer for Blessing:  “spiritual or material or both
  • The Prayer for Territory: “not primarily for yourself, but for Him and His purpose
  • The Hand of God: “to enable you to steward the responsibility well”
  • The Prayer for Protection:  “so that you might pursue His best for your life without hindrance”

I believe He has a great expansion in store for me, a departure from my comfort zone.  My skills have been sharpening, my strategies evolving.  Significance is on the horizon.  Use me to influence others.

What is your prayer?

Friday, April 11, 2014


On a recent blog post, @JohnWink90 declared April 11 as #LoveMySchoolDay and challenged others to share through social media what they love about their school.  I passed along the challenge to our faculty and students to speak about all the good going on at our school.

Some of my colleagues have shared:
“Here is what I love:  smiling math teachers coming in feeling good about the test!!!!”
“I love that we are a family at BCCS.  Our school environment is positive, safe and nurturing.  It’s a great place to come each day.”

Here’s a sampling of what some of our students shared:
“Our teachers have taught us well this year.”
 “If we need help, we can ask any teacher here.”
“We get to wear uniforms instead of whatever.” 
“I love that we got new buildings for middle and high school.”
“I love that the teachers will take time out of the day to make sure you know what you need to know.”
“My study skills class!”
 “I love Mrs. Jennifer and all that she has helped me with during the years.”
“I love how close-knit our school is and how everyone is always so supportive when something happens to one of our Blazer families.”
“The freedom that students have to show their own personality.”
“Mrs. Rackley is just a great teacher with a wonderful personality.”
“The teachers’ attitudes towards the students; they actually care about the students.”
“I love how small it is.”
“The dedicated teachers and faculty at our school. Specifically, Mrs. Luke.  I don’t know of many teachers who would return after officially retiring to teach again.”
“How small the school is, and that everyone is like your family, especially the teachers.”
“I love Mrs. Luke because she truly cares about her students.  She helps us with any problems in life.”
“Having a small enough school that everyone knows everyone else.”
“Because the school is small, anyone who wants to participate on a team is able to (isn't eliminated by try-outs).”
“The personal interaction between faculty and students, and the relaxed atmosphere.”

Here are some things I love about our school:
*We are small enough to feel like a family, and large enough to serve our students’ needs.
*We encourage parent volunteerism in every aspect of our school.
*Our people love kids, and our students know every person here cares about them.
*Our students are regular and generous charitable contributors, collecting money for a classmate whose home burned, for faculty members experiencing extreme medical costs, for kids whose families cannot buy Christmas gifts…
*Our kids have learned how to lose and how to win. Winning is so much more fun, especially state championships, like Academic Team and Girls Tennis.
*My commute, when I’m on time or early, is less than 2 minutes; when I’m running late and getting stuck in morning traffic, it’s only 8 minutes. I love the small town location.
*I love how quickly our students will volunteer to do a chore when asked.
*Everyone multi-tasks to enhance the school experience for students – teaching, coaching, sponsoring clubs, fundraising …
*My colleagues
*& that at least one colleague has joined Twitter today! 

 It is genuinely wonderful to work in a place where you look forward to going every morning, and where working overtime is even enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Have They Read the Standards?

The anti-Common Core sentiment is rampant.  I just wonder if these people have read the standards.  What do they think Common Core is? 

Common Core does not tell teachers what to teach.  
It offers some exemplar texts that demonstrate the expected complexity of text, but it does not require these texts.   

Common Core does not tell teachers how to teach.
 Teachers are free to select strategies and materials to meet the performance demands of the standards.  

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts specify the performances that students must be capable of performing at the end of each grade level.

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “determine a theme or central idea of a text”?  It doesn’t matter which text you select … the point is that students develop the skill of reading carefully enough to figure out what the central idea is in a text.

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text”, or “evaluate the argument and specific claims in  a text, assessing whether  the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims?”

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation”?

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used”?

Standards provide the framework for the understanding, knowledge, and skills that students need.  When teachers use these standards as a starting point, they can design effective instruction using materials of their choosing to facilitate student learning.

Teachers also must take care not to leave out important instructional components that may be assumed by the standards.  Some basic skills may not be listed as a standard, but that does not mean that the skill is unnecessary; some skills lay a foundation on which additional skills build.  Unpacking each standard allows teachers to see where they must add these components.

There are likely some well-meaning administrators who have specified particular curriculum materials and methodologies to be used within their schools, but those choices are not specified by Common Core.  Don’t confuse a school’s choices for implementation of standards with the standards themselves.

I, for one, want students to develop skills to understand and evaluate the rhetoric they see, hear, and read.  Whether advertising, political persuasion, news media, social media, literature, or their friends, students need these skills in order to make informed decisions.

Perhaps, Common Core dissenters lack these skills.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Guidance for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

“Think harder,” I sometimes hear a teacher say, and I, too, have said it many times.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that students have already retrieved their answer, and if they’ve given me an incorrect response, they don’t know the answer, so all I’m getting at this point from them is a guess. 

In truth, the question must not have been much of a thinking question if there was a single correct answer.  That question most likely only required recall. 

We need recall; there’s a good bit of information that we need to be able to retrieve instantly so we store it in our brains to be able to recall it at just the right times to support our thinking.  There are also lots of facts that don’t have to be stored in our brains; thanks to resources like Google, we can look up information on the go. 

More importantly, we must teach students higher order thinking skills; teaching critical thinking involves more than asking a question.  Not only must we move toward asking students to do higher level thinking, but also we must teach them how to think. 

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge classifies the ability to recall facts, information, and procedures as a Level 1 skill, namely Recall & Reproduction.  Much of what we ask students to do fall into DOK1:  define vocabulary, list information given in class, match terms, answer the 5Ws & H.  We repeatedly find these exercises in workbooks, worksheets, oral discussions, and on assessments.

A common misconception is that all open ended responses require critical thinking.  Not so.  Questions requiring students to fill in the blank to define a term or to list the steps of a procedure are DOK1.  The questions may be difficult because the student has to remember the information, but the question does not require critical thinking; those questions may not even require understanding.

Avoid the trap of believing that difficult questions require critical thinking and easy questions do not.  Difficulty does not equal rigor.  Rigor comes about from the mental processing required to produce a response. Similarly, an easy question could require critical thinking. 

When we ask students to apply what they’ve learned, we move up the ladder to DOK2.  Determining cause and effect (versus listing causes & effects memorized from notes), comparing and contrasting ideas, interpreting passages, making observations in a science lab, summarizing, and using context clues to gain meaning are examples of work at this level.

With strategic thinking, DOK3, students develop logical arguments, support their positions with evidence, critique others, draw conclusions, analyze, hypothesize, and use their knowledge to solve unusual problems. 

Extended Thinking, DOK4, occurs when students investigate problems, synthesize ideas from multiple sources, make connections, evaluate claims, and compose or create original works.

In a previous blog, I wrote about the skill of analysis, and I provided an example of breaking down the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate analysis.  We cannot tell students to analyze something without giving them the instruction that teaches them how to analyze. To do so would be assigning, not teaching. 

Increasing the rigor of our courses necessitates requiring critical thinking from students.  How often do you assess the quality of your questions?  Are you asking students to think critically?  Revisit your most recent test to label each item as DOK1, DOK2, DOK3, or DOK4.  List the questions you will ask in a class discussion and label their DOK levels.

I challenge you to increase the amount of critical thinking you ask students to do in your discussion and on your next assessment. But before you do so, make sure you teach them how.

For example, if we ask students to evaluate, they will need to first establish the criteria against which they will evaluate the subject.  What evidence will be used to determine the subject’s value? How well does the subject measure up to the established criteria?  Teaching students to work through the various steps of the process is necessary if students are to perform the critical thinking skill of evaluation. 

Likewise, students need to be taught how to explain.  An explanation includes a statement of the big idea supported by details in order to make the topic clear and understandable. Provide students with an explanation of an explanation.  Show them the elements that constitute a good explanation and offer models of explanations to help them learn this skill. 

Effective teachers teach thinking skills and provide a plethora of opportunities for students to practice these skills.
 *  *  *

There are some helpful resources available to help teachers better understand thinking.  Bellanca, Fogarty & Pete’s How to Teach Thinking Skills within the Common Core offers numerous teaching ideas.  Their text provides an analysis of several essential skills to help teachers understand the necessary elements of each.  Making Thinking Visible is Reinhardt, Church & Morrison’s  contribution.  This book provides exercises to teach thinking skills. Brookhart’s How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom provides some additional fodder to deepen teachers’ understanding and expand their skill base.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

If There Were No Tests in April, What Would Instruction Look Like in March?

Testing season is here.  I loathe this annual occasion; not because I am anti-testing, but because my philosophy differs from some of the practices I see.

Teachers have been in “test review” mode for several weeks.  Intensity and anxiety abound.  Fact reviews, lengthy word list handouts, multiple choice practice questions … these are the norm in so many classrooms in the weeks leading up to the CRCT.  

While I want our students to shine on their tests, I also harbor deep concern that the weeks spent in review are detrimental to real learning.  Sure, teachers mean well; the review sessions are intended to help students remember all that they’ve learned during the year so they can perform well on the tests.  

But this is what I’d really like to know:

If there were no tests in April, what would instruction look like in March? 

I hope teachers would continue teaching. I hope they would introduce new material and delve deeper into their content.  I hope they would teach for understanding more than for recall, and they would have students write more than bubble.

Are we missing out on moving our students forward with deeper learning by drilling the facts that we’ve already taught them?  How could “review” be structured to give as good as or better results than the current practices do?

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not against testing.  I believe in accountability.  I believe that standardized tests provide a useful snapshot of students’ academic performance.  

I am bothered by the popularity that test preparation has in school.  When I began teaching third grade, test prep consisted of teaching students how to bubble their answer document.  That took a few minutes a day for a few days.  We didn’t do the kind of stop-and-review that occurs in many classrooms now.  I believe the all-encompassing test review mindset is a result of the high stakes attached to the tests, and that is the real problem of the tests – testing stops instruction.

When review replaces instruction for weeks, we’ve lost sight of the true goal of education: learning.

I wish that teachers felt confident enough in their instruction throughout the year to avoid March Madness in their quest to squelch their April Anxiety.

How can we move teachers toward confident, competent instruction that rises above the necessity of lengthy test review? 

Perhaps developing a deeper understanding of standards, focusing consistently on standards based instruction, and assessing student proficiency on each standard could pave a clearer path. Standards based assessment throughout the year would yield useful information about student mastery and provide specific content indicators against which students can improve.

Our current system of grading does not hold students fully accountable for mastering the content.  They get a pass on material when they score in the 60s or 70s, or they get high marks for turning in homework or getting a parent signature that will increase their quarterly average to the passing range.  Follow-up instruction to bring the student to mastery rarely occurs.

So that means, in March students get a dose of fact review from frantic teachers anxious to post acceptable test scores.

Are you  a March Madness – April Anxiety crammer? Or do you have another approach to testing season?

How can teachers avoid March Madness?  How can teachers better approach April Anxiety?  How much and what kind of test prep is acceptable?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seven Lessons My Son Taught Me That Made Me a Better Teacher

Dear William,

Today you turn 20.  You are no longer a teenager.

As I think about you this morning, I am filled with so many emotions.  Sadness.  Sentimentality.  Hopefulness. Optimism.  The tears that fill my eyes are tears of joy that you have reached this milestone in your life, and tears of sadness that you will no longer need me in adulthood as you have in childhood.

So many memories flood over me.  Your birth brought great joy to your daddy and me.  A boy to carry on the Sullivan family name.  A three-year-old wearing green Wellies and riding a firetruck.  A kid easily entertained with matchbox cars.  A student sneaking into my office for a few dollars or a snack.  An athlete practicing to prove himself worthy of playing time.  A willing worker bearing the heat and dirt of his grandfather’s business.  A young man of character cognizant of the value of faith.

You have paved your own path. You have done it your way, temper tantrums and all.  You have believed in yourself when others have not.  You have pushed yourself to prepare for your dreams. 

I witnessed your indecision, your struggle to decide on a college.  I prayed for you to make the best decision for you.  For you to be able to live the dreams you have.  For the door to your opportunity to swing wide open and for you to know, without a doubt, that your choice also was God’s choice for you.  You listened to Him, and followed with confidence and peace where He led.

Thinking back over the years, I realize how much you have taught me about life and about teaching.

I simultaneously giggled and cringed many times as you learned to pronounce your favorite toy, a fire truck. My reaction called attention to your problem and embarrassed you when I didn’t mean to; it took years to overcome that.
Lesson 1:  Speech therapy is life altering; it’s okay for students to miss my class for therapy.
Lesson 2:  Don’t embarrass kids; they don’t get over it.

In a standoff with my husband over which one of us would drop you off at daycare, we inadvertently left you home alone for a few hours.  Fortunately, you survived! You watched TV, ate some breakfast, put on your boots, went outside to ride your fire truck on the sidewalk, and locked yourself out of the house.  We can laugh now; we didn’t laugh then. 
Lesson 3: Even good parents mess up on occasion.  Behind the children I teach, there are good parents who sometimes mess up. Don’t judge them.
Lesson 4: Given the chance – or necessity -, kids can be self-sufficient.  Let them!

A seven hour school day, with six of them in a classroom under expectations to sit still, be quiet, listen attentively, and do the work is painful for a boy with energy.  Your body needs to move, you need to talk, you need some freedom.  At some point, you have to have it! I was tired of work after a long day; so were you.  Homework is often busy work, anyway, assigned because someone somewhere thought kids should have homework every night in every subject.
Lesson 5:  When homework disrupts the calm of a home, it is not worth the fight. Homework can wait.
Lesson 6: Rethink what I send home in my class.  Families deserve peace, free from the nightmares of finishing homework.

Who would have believed you would have had the chance to continue playing your favorite game after high school?  You showed ‘em, didn’t you?  You lived your dream.  You made it come true with extra hours of practice and perseverance in marketing yourself to college coaches.  What a fun year it was!
Lesson 7: Never underestimate a child’s resolve when it comes to his dreams. With or without you, he will go for it.  So you might as well encourage him.

Simple lessons I learned the hard way.  Lessons learned through motherhood that made me a better teacher.

Happy birthday, William! I am so proud of the man you have become. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Evidence of Understanding: Improving Assessment

Why do we give students vocabulary terms to learn?  What is the purpose of knowing these words?  How does our assessment of students’ knowledge of the terms reflect our purpose?

As I look around my school I see lots of vocabulary lists and vocabulary tests.  Vocabulary is at the heart of much of what we teach.  Words are in vocabulary workbooks. Lists come from reading stories in literature and from boldfaced terms in science and social studies texts.

Nearly every teacher will defend her position that students need to know these words to understand the content of the class.  Teachers who use workbooks for vocabulary study swear by the improved results on their end of year achievement.

I’m not opposed to the study of vocabulary.  Everyone, including me, needs to build a more robust vocabulary.

I’m just trying to dig deeper, to peel the layers of the onion, to move toward a more specific understanding of why we teach vocabulary so that we can assess our students’ vocabulary in the context of that purpose.

Many vocabulary tests consist of matching the word to the definition.  Others may use a multiple choice format, but that is still likely to be just a word and four definitions from which to choose (vs. ten or fifteen definitions in a matching column).

It’s sometimes difficult to understand the concept of understanding in the context of our own subject areas and standards. So I continually seek examples outside of “school” to illuminate complex ideas.

In our volunteer firefighter emergency medical responder class, we were given a list of 74 objectives.  I would expect these objectives to be the skills and knowledge we must acquire to successfully perform our responsibilities as volunteer EMRs.  In fact, most of the objectives are just that.

But there a few that puzzle me, at least in the way they are written.

One objective states, “Define abandonment.”  No problem; it’s easy enough to look up the definition in the text, write it down, memorize it, match it or select the right choice on a test. That level of work constitutes knowledge of the definition.

I’m more interested in knowing what is the purpose of the objective.  Is it really to have me define the term?  I seriously doubt it.  More likely, the instructor expects that I will understand the concept of abandonment as it applies to my responsibilities as an EMR so that I will not abandon a patient.

If the instructor does not assess my understanding of the concept, how will he know whether I get it?  Perhaps, as many teachers do, he thinks that testing my knowledge of the definition demonstrates my understanding of the term.  How do we assess for understanding?

At this juncture there is a disconnect in education. We teach and assess knowledge, often at the expense of teaching for and assessing understanding. 

We must rethink our assessments to ensure we are getting the information we need about student learning.  If I just need a weekly grade, matching vocabulary works.  If I want to know that my instruction is effective, that students are learning what I intend for them to learn, then my assessment must provide information about students’ understanding of what they have learned.  How do I do that? 

  1. Establish the purpose of the vocabulary.  Why must students know this word?  How do I expect them to use this word?  What understanding do I expect them have of this word?  Start with an Understanding by Design framework.
     Standard: Define abandonment.
The student will understand that once he begins treatment, a trained medical responder must not leave a patient until care is taken over by a person with the same or higher training.
Vocabulary (definition): abandonment
Avoid abandoning a patient

  1. Create assessment items that measure knowledge AND understanding in context.  Design multiple assessment items.  Then select the one(s) which best demonstrate the level of knowledge, skills, and understanding you expect.
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge
When an EMR fails to continue providing emergency medical care to a patient until another qualified person takes over is called:
a) incompetence
b) assumed consent
c) duty to act
d) abandonment
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Concept Knowledge
You arrive on the scene, gain permission to treat the patient, and begin treatment.  You bandage the patient’s bleeding leg, and he is stable. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, you receive a phone call and need to leave the scene. May you abandon the patient?
a) Yes, the patient has been treated and is stable.
b) Yes, the ambulance is only a few minutes away.
c) No, you have begun treatment, so you must wait for the ambulance.
d) No, the patient’s status may change if you leave.
Performance Task Assessing Concept Application
Establish a role-play scenario in which the EMR must decide whether to leave the patient. Have the responder verbalize his actions and defend them.

 Assessing for understanding is a challenge.  We are quite accustomed to assessing for knowledge, but assessing for understanding requires us to think beyond what we’ve always done.  It requires us to have a deep understanding of why we teach what we teach. Without this understanding, we cannot provide the level of instruction or assessment that our students deserve.

How do you assess understanding in your classroom?  What evidence of understanding do you require?  How does understanding the concept of understanding affect your assessments?  Share your ideas.  We learn from one another.