08 September 2016

When School Shootings Hit Home

In the states, we are a bit inured to school shootings. Yes, they're horrifying every time...but there are so many and they won't stop. To protect your sense of self, you must think of them as things that don't happen to you.

But this time, it happened to me. At least from a distance.

I haven't lived in Alpine for 25 years, but I return every year to visit friends and family. And in the high school I attended...just outside of the band hall where I practiced for four years...in the restroom I used every day...a fourteen-year old girl shot another one, and then turned the gun on herself. We do not yet know why, and even if we ever find out, I'm not sure it will ever make sense.

This pin hangs on my bulletin board at work. I've had it since high school and it is one of my secret smiles in my office---something that I know the origin of but doesn't make sense to anyone else.

I also have this picture...the only photograph I have hanging up at work or at home...on my board.

This is Juan and me. And while most people keep photographs of their family or major events, I keep Juan in front to remember the joy of graduation and why I work in education. I want every student to feel like Juan on the day he graduated from Alpine High School.

It is surreal to read articles about this shooting, because so many of the people quoted throughout the coverage are people I know, in spite of all the time and distance. Ah yes, the guy I made out with (on a dare) while I was dating his roommate. And the county official was someone who asked most of my friends to "take your pants off" when he took them out. The principal lived three doors down from me when she was in school. I remember being in girl scouts with her, swapping stories with her step-sister, and how several of my friends chased after her step-brother. (Don't get me started on the time in fifth grade where he tried to convince our art teacher that he was making an elephant out of clay and not a penis.) There were 59 people in my graduating class. We knew each other well...maybe too well...along with those who graduated just before and after us. We are of an age now where we have civic responsibilities and are stewards for the next generation. History and secrets run deep, but all we have right now is each other. The names I read and the faces I see are not abstract contexts. They are connections that span from my childhood to the present, and will no doubt be part of my future.

I suspect that most of the public sees pictures of the school or town without context. The most oft-shared pic I've seen in the last 24 hours---with students crossing the street from the school to a church---shows the view toward my best friend's house. My mother lives two houses from the elementary school, with its well-armed guards.  I have walked in and around all of the buildings referenced, laughed and shared with others, and now I grieve. I am not there in body, but part of me is so deeply rooted there in spirit that I feel crushed physically whenever I have seen a picture or reference today. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be there in person.

There is sure to be anger in time. Anger over a lack of gun control that provides a 14-year old with access to a handgun. Anger over the waste of life. Anger over the distrust and disillusionment sowed in a community that needs interdependence for success. For now, I am just sad and hurt and wishing there was something I could do to ease the burden. I am grateful for my friends, who have called or reached out. I need them to tell me it will be all right, even if that's a lie.

Even if it's true, it feels cliche to ask you to hug your loved ones a little tighter tonight. Instead, educators, I ask you to connect with your students a little more closely tomorrow. Remind them that you care about them as people, that they have value, and that you will help them. It hurts to realize that the next news cycle will move on to the next shooting, well before any healing from this event has happened. Do what you can to ensure that your school is not the next one that is hit too close to home.

03 July 2016

Make or Break Time

I have reached the end of Year Two in my still-new-but-no-longer-shiny district job. This spring was a killer, as at one point, I was attempting not only my own job, but covering for two other people. One of those jobs remained open for three months, so I have done little else this spring other than something work-related.

As I prepared for a week off on Friday, it was incredibly difficult to not bring home work. There were several times during the day where I had to stop myself from making a list or moving some files to a thumb drive. I kept reminding myself that the work would still be there when I got back. And after three months of putting my personal life on hold, it's okay to take a whole week just for me. Maybe I can remember what I like to do and be.

There is never a year in education where things are the same as the previous one. There are always staff changes, new kids, curriculum, or responsibilities. And the coming year will be no different for me. I have supported the district CTE program over the last two years, but no more. I love the intent of CTE--there are great pathways, passionate teachers, and amazing students. From a district-level role, however, it is nothing but tedious meetings and paperwork. The largest waste of time is trying to deal with the state-level program officers, who seem to love to play all sorts of games. When I think about never having to deal with those people again, it feels like an enormous weight is lifted. I realize that is a very sad comment on what should be a very exciting opportunity for our kids.

So, I will "just" focus on data and assessment this year. Here is one look at why the change in job assignment is needed:

Visit the state assessment site for an explanation of the alphabet soup represented above.

Over the last 20 years, state assessment has changed a lot. During the 2015 - 16 school year represented above, the upper timeline is for general education students...and the bottom one for special education students. Other than the last four days of school, there was not a single day this year that didn't include at least one assessment window. This does not mean that there are children sitting down with bubble sheets every day or that every child takes every assessment. That isn't the case at all. But purely from a district responsibility perspective, there is a lot to track. Oh, and none of the district assessments (DIBELS, CogAT...) are represented on this timeline. Not to mention all the data generated here, plus other data tasks related to programs. I won't be bored.

I suppose that makes it all the more important to just be me this week. Frankly, it's been so long since I had that opportunity that I have forgotten who I am if I am not working. If nothing else, I can take some deep breaths before submerging into another year.

How are you spending your summer holiday?

13 June 2016

Because I Love You

I attended the Eyeo Festival last week. "Eyeo assembles an incredible set of creative coders, data designers, artists, and attendees---expect enthralling talks, unique workshops and interactions with open source instigators and super fascinating practitioners." It is not an education conference---in fact, the lack of K-12 public ed in the conversation was very noticeable. But I had selected this as a learning experience knowing I would have to apply my own lens.

This is the only conference I've ever been to that resulted in my feeling inspired and creative. Every other one has had learning outcomes...and this is all right. It's not that one takeaway is better than another. When I go to an ASCD conference or an assessment workshop, I expect to learn things that have direct application to my daily work. I want that. With Eyeo, there were 45-minute talks by a presenter. No activities, turn-and-talk, or other "engagement" strategies that education conferences expect. But these simple and straightforward presentations of a creative process or project were enough in and of themselves. I really appreciated that.

My full Eyeo recap is posted on my other blog. Here, I want to focus on one session...and why I can't stop thinking about it. Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective shared their recent exhibition: The View from the White Room. (i.e., looking out from an Apple store.) The show looked at questions such as What does it mean to live in a quantified society? and What is the value of data privacy when it becomes something you can buy?

Part of the exhibit included something called Big Mama---a riff on Big Brother. It was twisted to accommodate a quote from a government official justifying surveillance. He said that what he did was necessary because "I love you all."

This concept took my breath away, because it sounds so much like what we do in schools. We love you, kiddos, so give us your data. Give us your learning...your assessments...your demographics...your attendance...your health information. We love you and need to continue collecting all of that to keep loving you.

Tuszynski also made the connection between the contribution of data and a harmonious society. Be a good citizen...a good student...and give us your data. It's not only for your own good, it's in the best interests of everyone.

I understand that this is a cynical view. I also understand that what was shared at the conference is derived from a context of living in an eastern European society. History gives them a necessarily darker view on the actions of the state. But even knowing all that, I had to take a long walk after the session and think about all the data currently percolating in the background of public education. I want to think that we have nobler reasons than Big Mama...that our smiles and talk of love are not driven by data.

Here is Marek Tuszynski's full talk--well worth your time.

Eyeo 2016 – Marek Tuszynski from Eyeo Festival  //  INSTINT on Vimeo.

15 May 2016


I have about four weeks left of "testing season." In truth, there is some sort of state testing window open every single day of the school year. We kick off the year with the assessment for kindergarten and wrap up with End of Course assessments for high school. But the majority of testing happens between mid-April and early June.

In our district, this final frenzy means that I monitor about 10,000 tests. Every student in grades 3 - 8 have assessments in English language arts and mathematics. Those in grades 5 and 8 also complete something for science. Science tests have to be done in one sitting, but the others can have as many as 45 days to finish. So, it's a matter of tracking not just who did or didn't test, but who hasn't finished. We have kids move into our district, as well as out, throughout the window, so that becomes another factor to track. As well as those few students who have taken a different state test due to their special needs. And ELL students who are spending their first year in the country are excused from English language arts assessments. And the test refusals. And...well, you get the idea. It's not quite as simple as getting everyone to sit down on the same day at the same time and do their thing, which is how we used to do it 20 years ago.

High school has even more oddities with testing due to the state phasing out some types while phasing in others. Different graduating classes have different tests they can use to meet those requirements. And then there are federal expectations to meet for student participation...which are almost impossible at the moment given that the test used to report that is given the year after most kids have met their grad requirements.

It's a challenge at all levels. It has been more of a challenge for me this year because not only did my assistant move on to another job the week we started spring testing...my student information person did, too. My job alone was already large enough that some parts are being shifted to someone else starting in July, and for a month, I got to pick up the work of two other people, too. So, in addition to 70+ hour work weeks, I've also been chained to my phone and email. There cannot be a time when a teacher or principal reaches out for help and doesn't get a reassuring voice on the other end. Their jobs are hard enough without them having to deal with gaps in service. But maintaining it all just about did me in.

But my new assistant started last Monday. She's very bright and excited about taking on the work. And while it takes a lot of time and effort to onboard someone new, I will reap the benefits soon. We'll post the other position soon, now that bargaining with that group is done and we can offer something solid to a new employee.

It's been a crazy spring. The work is getting done, and I'm still in one piece. I won't be going under after all.

30 March 2016

Kick It Up a Notch

Muriel Rukeyser says that The universe is made of stories, not atoms. As a scientist, I might disagree. But as an educator working with data and children, I am inclined to draw that same conclusion.

I tell stories with data all the time. It's my responsibility to look for connections and identify patterns. For the most part, however, it's focused on those tales that I am asked to tell. What are the characteristics of students who are never able to meet the standards? Does better attendance lead to better achievement outcomes? Which schools or programs best support closing the achievement gap?

We are data rich, and information poor, in my district. Perhaps you are in yours, too. So for next year, I am planning a new challenge: Ten data stories in ten months. But I don't want these to be our regular stories, such as how students performed on the spring assessments. Instead, I am looking to use some untapped sources of data.
  • For example, a month of use of the district board room. Are there connections between our stated goals and priorities and how we use this resource? How do we use time, which seems to be the most precious commodity? 
  • Or perhaps I could dive into the class of 2017 with the lens of those students who spent all 13 years in our district. 
  • What would a text analysis of a month of school newsletters reveal?

I need at least seven more ideas like these. I'd like a few "spares" because I don't know how many will be viable once I get into the actual project.

These stories will be told in two ways. First, I plan to use a bulletin board at the district office to display some offline data. I like the idea of data you can touch. Can I use different grits of sandpaper to indicate different levels? What about some 3-D paper techniques, like you'd see in a pop-up book, to illustrate change? There will be a companion web page for every data story---something that those with online access can explore to get details.

I hope to get a jump start on these over the summer. Ten is an ambitious goal...perhaps I might have to back off from that. I chose ten because we have school during ten months of the year...and we have ten schools. Perhaps December and June will be "short stories" given the number of actual school days in each.

I am excited to kick things up a notch. I have seen any number of schools with a "data wall," but none who have data stories. What stories would you want to see about your school or district? Where would you shed some light or reveal some data? What are the questions no one seems to ask about your classroom or students?

26 March 2016

Increasing Understanding with Data Displays

Commenters on the last post are looking for suggestions of better strategies for highlighting student data. As students, we often learn rules for communicating with text. We know to put a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, and end a sentence with a punctuation mark. We learn about grouping sentences of a similar topic together---and even signalling those groups/paragraphs with indentation. We have an entire grammar system when it comes to text. It's all built on enhancing the dialogue between a writer and a reader.

Visual communication is not so different. There are some basic rules, although we don't seem to teach them in the same way as we do for writing. The purpose behind these principles is the same as for text: We are trying to enhance understanding between the author and the audience.

If you were given a page of text and a highlighter, and then tasked with identifying the most important ideas, would you highlight every word on the page? Probably not. Why? Because when everything is highlighted, it is as if nothing is highlighted. Your brain cannot identify what is most worthy of attention. So why do so many educators insist on doing things like this with their data?

From strictly a visual processing standpoint, this approach has a variety of problems. The most obvious is the non-stop highlighting. If one of our goals is to identify students in need of support or identify patterns, the approach at the left is not helpful. We should be as strategic with our highlighter here as we are with text. Only those students in need of greatest support should catch our eye. This is not to say that heat maps can't be useful as data visualizations, but most education related data doesn't connect to their purpose. We need to match the right visual with the right goal, just as we might match our writing style (informative, persuasive...) to the outcome we wish to achieve.

The second problem with this example is that it has both numbers and colors. Working memory can hold about 7 items. There are 38 numbers in the Fall and Winter columns---far beyond what we could remember, let along compare in our heads. It's great to use highlighting to reduce that cognitive load, but it also means the numbers need to be hidden so we can look for patterns. When we leave the numbers there, we start devoting mental processing to things like figuring out cut scores or how far away a particular student was from the next achievement level. We're distracted from the more important conclusions about student performance.

I could put on my ranty-pants about the color choices here, but if you're interested on color perception and how it relates to your design choices, you can visit my post on my other blog (which is devoted to data viz for the classroom). Head on over there anytime for all sorts of ideas to transform your data.

Another issue with this example is that every cell has lines printed around it. This is called enclosure, and like signals such as line length, color, or position, your brain "sees" it as a way to pay attention to what's important. (To learn more, hit teh googles for pre-attentive attributes.) Enclosing everything is as confusing as highlighting everything. Let's look at enclosure another way.

Here's a typical data table. There's some students and then some item analysis for each student. How long does it take to recognize the patterns here? What if we take off some of the lines and, instead of highlighting, simply grey out the zeros?

One might argue that this type of representation isn't as sexy as the circus-like highlighting in our original example, but it sure makes things a lot easier to understand.

And that's really the bottom line with data visualization. It is intended to be a bridge between the raw data and meaning that we elicit. If the visualization gets in the way of that, then we are at risk of making the wrong conclusions or even taking the wrong actions based on those data. We can apply some principles to our numbers, much as we do with our words, to help our audience---even if it just a party of one.

13 March 2016

The Right Kind of Sticky

At one point in my post-secondary education, I took a class on working with gifted students. As college students, we took turns modeling different types of differentiated lessons with our peers. I really don't remember much about the details, except for this one example where the "teacher" asked us to think of words that "described how the soldiers at Gettysburg felt." And the first word that popped into my head was sticky. Apparently, this was not the sort of feeling that the facilitator had in mind.

I was thinking about this story earlier this week because I have been pondering sticky ideas---and, in particular, what we do with the ones that have become old and gummy, but are still hanging on long past the time we have moved to something better.

I had the privilege of attending the Tapestry Conference this week. As far as I could tell, I was the only K - 12 educator there. That's not surprising, given that it was not a conference for educators. It's goal was to bring together people who use data to tell stories. The most common question I was asked was "Are there others like you---in other districts?" This was a hard question to answer. Yes, there are people who work with assessments in every district (no matter how small), but the data part only comes into play once districts reach a certain size...and even then, I haven't run across very many who tell data stories.

Instead, I see lots of spreadsheets that are coded in shades of red, yellow, and green. This is a sticky idea---and one which might have been the best option 8 - 10 years ago, but it is certainly not considered best practice (let alone effective) now. And yet, it's so ubiquitous that I don't know how we will ever manage to shift away from it. Are we really so frightened of change that we would rather to hang onto the only thing we know than make sure we have the best option available? What does it say about us when we work in a profession devoted to learning and yet we are unwilling to learn and adapt?

I understand how comfortable it is to be in a box of your own design. Whatever passes for normal in ones' world is what gets maintained. I am certainly guilty of choosing safe over new. I'm trying to stretch more this year. Tapestry was one way to do that, and Eyeo will be next. There are all sorts of education-specific conferences I love to attend. I learn a lot of things that support my day-to-day work. But I can't pretend that there isn't more out there to explore or learn. I can go to a data conference and find things to apply to my work. I can learn to unstick myself from routines and ideas, at least for a little while. How do I help others do the same?