30 June 2008

Bottle It and Sell It

Two different blog posts caught my eye last week and got me thinking once again about the perfect storm of factors that leads to student achievement. First up is Jenny D., who---much to my delight---is blogging again now that her pesky PhD is out of the way. She points the way to some Good Research examining why some small school programs have led to better results than others. She notes from the study that "a good small high school also needs the right type of leadership and a cohesive and collaborative group of teachers interested in working to improve instruction" and wonders if the "small" part is really that important of a factor. Meanwhile, over at Joanne Jacobs, it is noted that it's the culture of a class, not its size, that makes a difference for student achievement. Her source is based on anecdotal evidence, unlike Jenny's, but they are both getting at the same idea: it's the "right" mix of people in a classroom that make magic happen.

This is all well and good to note, but my question is, "Can it be replicated?"

I've had close to 90 different groups of students over the years. And even if I think about those groups which were studying the same thing (e.g. "biology"), I can't think of any who were identical in nature. The dynamics of every class are different. I'm different every year and every class period as my energy ebbs and flows. Probably every teacher has a story of how the presence of one single child could completely change the tone of a classroom---either for better or worse.

Educational research will likely get better at describing the general classroom level factors which lead to improved student achievement, but no one is going to be able to determine the recipe for bottling and selling it. We can do all we can to implement best practices, use strong curriculum, and valid assessments...but at the heart of it all are people. And small people at that. Young people with their own home lives to make sense of and development to deal with. That doesn't excuse schools from providing the very best they can and holding high expectations for every child. It's just a recognition that at some point, we have to acknowledge the limitation in all of our research is that we're talking about human beings.

29 June 2008

Raise Your Voice

Many edubloggers are in San Antonio this week attending the NECC conference. Perhaps next year I'll make my way to the extravaganza in D.C., but this year, I'm going to content myself with watching the discussion on Twitter and participating in a fringe way. First up is Blocked Blogs Week. It begins today and runs through Saturday, July 5.

If you're reading this, count yourself lucky. In many school districts, blogs and other web 2.0 tools are blocked. It doesn't take much time looking around the edusphere to gauge the continual frustration teachers have.

The purpose of Blocked Blogs week is "To promote awareness of the need for more informed filtering of the Read/Write Web for all learners. We recognize that some material on the internet is not appropriate and in some cases is harmful to children and adolescents. However, we are opposed to blanket bans on all Read/Write Web resources such as blogs, wikis, and some social networking tools. Read/Write Web resources provide valuable and necessary experience with 21st Century communication and collaboration tools, and we believe that it is in the best interests of our learners if we take the time to TEACH them how to use these tools appropriately, safely, effectively, and efficiently rather than just block their use altogether."

Does this describe you? Do you believe that information literacy is important to our children? Do you find the ignorant use of filters in your district to be over the top---especially knowing that other schools and districts are better serving the children in their classrooms? Post your thoughts this week. I would especially encourage you to participate in the leadership call-out scheduled for July 4 and headed up by Scott McLeod.

Want a button for your blog? You can find them on the wiki for Blocked Blogs Week or you might use another graphic from Adrian Bruce like the one at the right.

In a recent comment on this blog, someone mentioned that we don't merely warn our children about the dangers of street traffic and then send them out to cross a highway. We hold their hands. We walk with them. We show them how to be safe. The same should be true for internet traffic.

You might have seen a recent study about the Educational Benefits of Social Networking Sites:
"What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today," said Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher in the university's College of Education and Human Development and principal investigator of the study. "Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout. They're also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential."
Isn't this what we should want for our classrooms? The NEA and AFT recently worked on identifying the gaps and gains in educational technology. Their findings revealed "that although all educators and students in public schools have some access to computers and the Internet, we have few assurances that they are able to use technology effectively for teaching and learning." The use of filtering software is creating serious issues of equity for students across the United States. Have a look at these examples of Classroom 2.0 in practice? Can you do these things with your students in your classrooms? I can't. Which of our kids are going to be better prepared for the working world in a few years? When will purposeful reflection by teachers be seen as professional and not scandalous?

Will a series of posts about greater access to technology cause a tear down of filtering software akin to the Berlin Wall? Not likely. However, it's time to start raising general public awareness. It's time that business owners and corporations realized that one or two people in school districts are impeding skill development of future workers. It's time that parents and families realized that a Big Brother mentality is eroding the rights of our students to share their thoughts with authentic audiences. It's time to let politicians and policy makers know that their intents for equitable education are not being realized in all places due to uneven use of filtering software. It's time to get loud.

28 June 2008

Putting Paper in Its Place

No matter how tech savvy I get, I don't believe that paper and pencil will ever be replaced. There is something about the experience of writing with those tools---the way the paper looks, the feel of the graphite sliding over it, the smell of the cedar in the pencil. Although typing allows me to convey my ideas (once formed) more quickly, I almost always need that concrete experience of writing first as a way to just brainstorm ideas. Paper captures random thoughts better than other media. I have a little Levenger notebook like the one shown at the left. It's small enough to carry in hand or slip into a purse so that it's always available. I always have so many projects going that I like the idea of being able to jot down ideas and reminders as they come. I never know when I'm going to have time to think, much less organize those thoughts.

I really liked this article on The Paper Version of the Web when I saw it earlier in the week. Twitter, Vimeo, Flickr Places, and more all started out as sketches---simpler communications as people shared and refined ideas before building them. But, we rarely see this part of the development process. On the right there is a sketch for the proposed word processing program for the one laptop per child project. There are many more interesting photos of sketches posted with the article. It is the modern version of a cabinet of curiosity: relics and whimsy all mixed together.

Most of my original notes wind up in the trash because, really, who cares what they were? But perhaps there is something metacognitive I could do with them. Might they convey how to move a process along? Below are my stages as I prepare for my grading workshop a month from now. The first is just scrawls. These were my original notes, scribbled as I thought of things. This page was intended as no more than a place to capture ideas over a few days...a holding tank of sorts. Perhaps as my students worked on an assignment and I had a thought about the presentation, I would jot the information here. (If you're interested in getting a closer look, you can click on any of the images to enlarge them.)

At the next stage, I'm a bit more serious. When I'm not in a hurry and am making a concerted effort to plan, my handwriting actually becomes legible. The next two pictures represent my attempt to take the random thoughts I'd had and make something useful. The little numbers to the left of some of the bullets represent the time I planned to allot and the circled numbers represent the final order of the agenda I chose. You'll see that there are some "Activity?" queries in the margins. This is meant to remind me that I want participants to be doing something with these ideas here---it shouldn't be me yapping at them. I have other notes in the margins. They are things I thought of later and wanted to include in the final version. You'll even see my notes about the graphs I shared yesterday. The only alterations to these pictures that I have made is to "paint" over two student names. As these were my notes, I included them as reminders to me. Now that I am sharing them with a wider audience, I need to protect my kids.

Finally, we have a further refinement of the first parts of the workshop. It contains more details for me regarding discussion questions to use. There are more pegs to hang ideas on. Even the elements on this page are likely to change in the final draft; however, once I get to this point in the process, I'm able to set the ideas aside and focus on other things. I know that if something happened and I didn't get to have one more iteration of revision, I would still be able to take this and make it work just fine.

There you have it. A bit of my own process for you. What are you using to organize your ideas?

27 June 2008

More Thoughts on Number Crunching

Six months ago, I wrote about what I see as the grail of standards-based grading: how to convert rubric scores to standard A-F grades. The best solution, natch, is not to have to convert them at all. If you have the option of reporting your standards-based scores on the report card, then you're golden. The rest of us have to operate with two different ways of grading and reporting. We must number crunch.

I am a bit torn about this search for some mystical tool for converting between the two systems. The concrete-sequential part of me would love to have some sort of simple formula---something that anyone could use and parents/students/counselors could see. I like the idea of something which maintains the integrity of the scores while communicating a single letter grade. The reality, however, is that grading is messy. No matter how many rubrics, standards, and valid assessment tools you have, we are still human beings evaluating the work of other human beings. Reliability is always going to be an issue.

Knowing all of that, I'm still looking for a way to tilt this Quixotic windmill. Here is where my thoughts have led so far.

There is a rough sort of equivalence. If you think about the continuum above, student performance can either be described along an A - F scale or a 4 - 1 scale. If we plot those, then we think about an F as the lowest possible grade and an A the highest. In Standards-based Land, the lowest possible scores are 1's and 2's while the highest are 3's and 4's. I am leaving percentages out of this for two reasons. One is simply that their only purpose is to rank students and that is not the point here. Here, we want to consider an individual's performance. Secondly, percentages don't translate well to an ordinal sort of scale (if you're the kind of teacher who uses 10-point spreads between A - D and a 60-point spread for an F).

Although I don't have the other letter grades plotted here, we might think of them as being evenly spaced along the line. This idea led me to draft the graph shown below.

Here again, things are a bit messy. I chose not to hatch the y-axis because the number of standards evaluated in any given grading period can vary. I think we could safely say that any performance which included no 3's (evidence of standard performance) would be an "F," and student performances of all 3's (or above) would be an "A," but between that, things get interesting. If you're a school which uses + and - along with letter grades, can we use the number of 1's and 2's as a way to distinguish between a C+ and B-?

I have to think some more about the possible practical applications (if any) of a graph like this. Could a teacher, perhaps, use this to develop some sort of algorithm at the end of each grading period? If four standards had been assessed during a given grading period, could you get to a point where two 3's + one 2 + one 1 = C-?

There are different "end users" for grades. I understand that a college will look at a transcript differently than a parent, student, employer, or other teachers. We all see different things in the alphabet soup at that emerges at the end of a reporting period. As a teacher, my most important goal is that students can explain why they have earned the grades that they have---that they know what their grades represent. I don't have any way to have those conversations with the other stakeholders, but I would like to think that we're all more or less on the same page. Maybe that's the real purpose behind the number-crunching.

26 June 2008

The Good Word

At the end of July, I'm doing a three-hour workshop on standards-based grading for the state. It's my first opportunity to spread the good word. I'm not quite as evangelical as Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, however I'm not so sure that wouldn't be such a bad thing. My passion is at a fairly feverish level, but I think telling people that I'm gonna get medieval on their asses in terms of their bad grading practices might put them off. Besides, I'd look terrible in a 'fro. Therefore, a kinder, gentler approach is more appropriate, I realize, especially since the session is geared toward those who have seen the light and are just looking for some shepherding toward the promised land of grading goodness. Is that enough euphemisms for one paragraph? Shall we move on?

Anyhoo, I'm working on my presentation and things are really starting to shape up. I'm applying a UbD'ish approach to the agenda. The Big Idea is Standards-based grading practices can and should be implemented in all classrooms. There are three Essential Questions to guide the afternoon: What is the role of grading within classrooms?, What does standards-based grading "look like" in practice?, and How can we effect change in grading practices?

Beyond that, the agenda breaks down as follows:
  • A problem-based formative assessment to kick things off. I plan to use a scenario based on the truant kid to see what the various "solutions" offered are. This should give me some insight into the various philosophies and roles present. I'll share my solution, which has a nice connection to supporting motivation in the classroom.
  • From there, we're headed into examining the first Essential Question via a brief discussion of student motivation and grading in general. (Yes, based heavily on my EdD work.) I think the interesting point to ponder along the way will be "Would we have the WASL if grading practices were standards-based?"
  • The second Essential Question is where we'll spend the bulk of the time that we have. This is the "Nuts and Bolts" section. We'll start by looking at Communication Tools (equal vs. fair, grading policies, working with various stakeholders...) and then Grading and Feedback (using formative and summative information, 4-3-2-1 scales, wording and delivering feedback, getting students to reflect on improvements). It's off to the land of Record-keeping and Paper Pushing after that, including gradebooks and number crunching (more on this tomorrow). This section ends with Consequences. What do you do about student behaviors now that you aren't including them within the grades for learning? For each of these sections, I am planning various activities for the participants.
  • Finally, the last Essential Question will be addressed through a discussion of why the use of best practices in grading isn't more widespread and what we can do to change that.
  • The summative assessment will be based off the issue I had with a senior this year. This is probably the stickiest thing I've faced, especially since graduation was on the line.
Can all this be done in three hours? I think so. I tend to run my professional development at a snappy pace. My goal is for people to have several concrete pieces ready to adapt/use in their own classrooms by the end of the day. The majority of professional development I've seen regarding grading has been in presentation mode ("This is what I think and/or what I did."). Very little is participant focused ("What do you need and how can we get you there?") and I want to change that. At some point, theory needs to become practice. And we shouldn't expect everyone to invent their own wheels.

With that in mind, feel free to let me know if there are aspects to my workshop plan that you think should be added/changed/deleted. I'm really looking forward to delivering this workshop and hoping that this little flock will grow.

25 June 2008

Carnival for a Travel Day

I'm just in after making my way back from Texas. While I work on unpacking my mind and luggage, please do enjoy this week's Carnival of Education over at Where's the Sun?

Back to regular posting tomorrow!

23 June 2008

Can I Get A Ruling from the Judges?

On my most recent certification test, there was a question that asked something akin to "Which planet has the longest year?" The answer choices were Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Pluto.

As I see it, the "right" answer to this question comes down to two things: (1) When was this question added to the test bank? and (2) What is the definition of "planet" being used here?

If the question is pre-2006 vintage (which is entirely possible, considering the time frame of test development), then "Pluto" is the right answer. If not, then Earth would be the best choice (considering Pluto's demotion to "dwarf planet").

For the record, I picked Pluto. I figured that what the test-makers were really after was whether or not I understood the relationship between length of orbit around the Sun and the items listed. However, I'm left wondering if this is one of those times when I should have reported this "bad question" to the testing service. Is it possible that some test-taker somewhere is going to be denied passage because s/he read the question differently? "Earth" is technically the correct answer in this day and age...but I doubt that it is the one the machine will want to see bubbled in on the score sheet.

So, should I...

a. Contact the testing service and let them know about the question
b. Assume someone has already alerted them to the issue
c. Let some schmo whose score may hinge on this question deal with the problem
d. Do nothing because I'm not the schmo.


22 June 2008

Two for Two

I spent a chunk of yesterday afternoon taking my other elementary certification test---the backdoor test. Assuming that I passed this one (and I think I did well enough for that, although I certainly won't be garnering any accolades for high scoring), then the rest of the dominos can fall and I will be a genuine elementary teacher. Truth be told, this is little more than to be a line on my resume; however, I am of a mind that whatever one can do to get Opportunity knocking is a good thing.

There were several interesting things about yesterday's version: the Texas version vs. the Washington one from a week ago. Both are developed by ETS, so the script the test proctors used was identical, as were the printed directions, and answer sheets. There was even a math question that was the same for both tests. Plenty of opportunities for deja vu. Yesterday's test was more in depth, requiring pedagogical knowledge in addition to content knowledge. I'm still not convinced that a test can really allow anyone to determine whether or not someone can teach. Take me, for example. Just because I know a bit about phonemes and decodable books does not mean I'm ready for someone to toss me in with a group of kindergartners to teach them to read.

I'm wondering if teacher certification shouldn't be a bit more like those graduated drivers' licenses some states are using with teenagers now. The number and age of people you can have in your car changes with the more actual road practice you have. Perhaps teachers need some type of "learner's permit" and would gradually work up to a full-fledged cert on down the road. Along the way, there would be opportunities for mentorship and co-teaching.

At the moment, I'm just relieved that the tests are done, that I feel like I'm "two for two" on doing well (enough), and summer is on the horizon.

20 June 2008

Time to Say Goodbye

Yesterday was bittersweet. The elementary kids were a delight to watch---their pride in their school and enthusiasm for summer gave me nothing but smiles. Turning in my keys and saying good-bye to all my new friends and colleagues? Not so much fun. School budgets being what they are, there is no room for someone in my position.

Today is the last day for my morning school and my duties will be complete at 9:30. Grades, keys, and my parking tag have been turned in. I was fortunate to have great kids this year in my classes and I wish them all the best as they move onward with their lives. As for the adults who are only interested in doing what’s best for themselves and keeping the status quo, I don’t think I will be giving them a second thought.

It is time to say “Goodbye.” to the 2007 – 2008 school year. But more importantly, I’m ready to say “Hello!” to summer.

19 June 2008

Why Are You Here?

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a kid who had made some poor choices last month and had been told by other teachers he would fail. Guess what? He passed my class. Here is the e-mail mom sent me yesterday:

I wanted to thank you for giving him a chance to redeem himself. You are the only one of his teachers who was willing to do so. I know he has it in him to do well in school; we just need to find a way to keep him motivated.

Again, thank you for everything and have a super summer.

This e-mail is bittersweet. On one hand, I'm happy that the young man got himself turned around and was able to pass my class. And on the other hand, I'm disappointed in his other teachers. What sort of people give up on kids? Why are those people in schools?

I wish I could reply to this e-mail the way I'd like. I'd tell this mother to pull her kid from this school and send him elsewhere in the district. I'd tell her that because her child is not an AP kid, he will never be seen as anything other than scum by his other teachers and he will continue to be ignored. I'd let her know that the administration of the school will never support the kinds of motivational practices her son needs. I might even warn her about the number of families I know who had children who attended this school and later had to deal with suicide attempts or continual bouts of tears every time high school was mentioned. This school will damage her son if she isn't careful.

Instead, I will keep this little jewel of an e-mail to myself and not send a reply. I'm sure that she's not expecting one. And in the future, I will remember this lesson about grades and wish that this young man holds on to some hope, too.

18 June 2008

Carnival Power-Up

Pass the Torch, a blog about empowering youth, is hosting this week's Carnival of Education. Check the link throughout the day as technical difficulties have plagued her (as they did with the Carnival over at the Education Wonks a couple of weeks ago). The interwebs are behaving badly these days, but perhaps the collection of posts will give you hope.

Today is the last full day of school for me in my morning district---then I'm done at 10 tomorrow and 9:30 on Friday. As for the afternoon district, we're done at the regular time today and tomorrow, with tomorrow being the last day. It's hard to get excited when there are still papers to push, exams to mark, and final grades to handle. But it won't be long until The End sinks in and summer holiday will Power-Up.

17 June 2008

Big and Little Things

I've long believed that "Good instruction is good instruction," meaning that regardless of the kind of classroom you're in, the qualities of an engaging lesson are the same. Sure, different age groups have different requirements in terms of what is developmentally appropriate content or classroom management (my 10th graders would laugh if I used 3-2-1 to quiet them), but learning is the same for all of us. The maxim about instruction has been cemented for me this spring as I worked in both high school and elementary school.

Elementary teachers seem startled that I still read stories to my sophomores. I use word walls for vocabulary and sentence starters to scaffold writing tasks. We still used beans as counters for some of our graphing tasks. There are dances to do (for DNA), rites of passage to address, and learning stations. I remind teachers that although the content is likely different, kids know how to use these tools and opportunities because elementary teachers did their jobs so well. I just apply them differently. The kindergarten teachers from our recent field trip noted what I'd been telling them all along---my sophs were different from their students only in that the bodies were bigger.

And what have I learned this year after being around younger students for half my working day? Like the elementary teachers viewing my high school charges, it has been reinforced for me that kids are kids. Talking to second graders is not all that different from talking to 11th graders---other than what we talk about. I can use a Venn Diagram or Frayer Model with an intermediate student just as easily as a high school student. Asking good questions---and teaching children to ask good questions---remains an important task. The ability to build a positive relationship with students...to forge personal connections...is vital for every age and grade and content area.

It has been a year of change for me, but I have been glad for the one constant along the way: Teaching is no small thing.

16 June 2008

Standards-based Grading: Walking the Talk

One of my goals this year was to implement standards-based grading practices. I won't claim that it was always simple, but I have to admit that it wasn't that big of a shift, either. The biggest changes have to occur in your philosophy. Once you've made peace with the fact that you're not going to use grades as rewards and punishments or reflections of student behavior, other things fall into place. Yes, I did have to bite my tongue several times this year. How often in the past have I taken points off a grade because students didn't clean up a lab station? Or were noisy after finishing a test (while others were still working)? How many times have I exasperatedly explained to a dejected kid that even though they got half credit for their late work, it only raised their average a couple of points? Embarrassingly enough---I've done this a lot in the past. But not this year. A few incidences near the end of the year have served as interesting cases-in-point about my changes to grading practices.

For example, I had a student who missed a lot of class not that long ago. It turned out that he was skipping school and by the time all that caught up to him, well, he had been gone a lot of days. He served a week of in-school suspension for his truancies. Five of his teachers told his parents that there was no way he could pass their classes---all those zeros in their gradebooks couldn't be made up due to unexcused absences. It is their right to have such a policy, but I didn't follow suit. The kid made some bad choices, to be sure. But he had a school applied punishment for that. Why should I kick him with a grade, too? I can't imagine having to come to school for the last month knowing that nothing you would do would matter...that because of something stupid, others were going to make a mess of your transcript and condemn you to summer school for summers to come. Now, it remains to be seen whether or not he will pass my class. He is still missing several assessments, but he has the choice to show me that he has learned the material. It is definitely one of those "lead a horse to water" sorts of deals; however, in the event that an "F" shows up on his report card for my class, it won't be because I destined him to fail. I sleep a lot better that way.

School has been out for seniors for several days, but I have one who is still coming to class. He didn't graduate, due to missing credit for my class and another one. Here again, the other teacher said that no matter what the kid did, he couldn't get credit. I told mom that if he could show me that he'd learned the material before school was out, he didn't need to do summer school (or come back for a year of super-senior work) for science. As with the first case, it is the kid's choice as to what to do...and interestingly enough, he is choosing to get out of bed and come to school for one class while most of his peers are still in bed.

I also have a young lady who plagiarized all the text for a project. She is smart enough to know better and we (as a class) had talked about my expectations for their performance and disapproval of copying the work of another. I know that in college or the workplace, she would be booted out for her poor efforts...but this is not college nor a workplace. My job is to get them ready for those environments. So, I talked to her about what she'd done and why it wasn't acceptable---either for my class or elsewhere. I didn't give her a zero or send her to the office. I did make sure that she understood what her responsibilities were and gave her an "incomplete" in the gradebook until things are properly done. I hope that I've helped her reflect on things and learn a lesson she can apply to future assignments. The result is the same as the more negative approach of giving her a zero and telling her "too bad," it's just that in my newer approach, I haven't excused her from doing the learning. She still has to do the project...and do it right.

There are still some things I need to work out with this grading system. Communication with all stakeholders is a continuing challenge because it is a different way of approaching grades. I think, however, that I finally have a system which is congruent with my beliefs as an educator: what happens in the classroom is about students and their learning.

Update: If you've reached this post from a search engine, you can access all standards-based grading information for this blog (and there's quite a bit) by clicking on the grading label. It's greatly appreciated if you would leave a comment as you look around! Also, I am available for presentations and workshops if you need more resources and information on best practices in grading. Contact me for more information.

15 June 2008

Serving It Up on Father's Day

I'm not a dad, but Father's Day makes me think of backyard grilling. And on a day like today where the sun is actually shining and the urge to be outside overrides things like writing final exams or doing the dishes, I wish that I had one of these toys to play with. Prep space, container for charcoal, places to hang the tools, and more---all with a propane starter so that you can have charcoal grilled taste without dealing with lighter fluid and butane lighters. Weber's Performer is a thing of beauty, don't you agree? The only problem is that one needs a sugar daddy in order to afford one of these grills. :)

It is almost summer holiday here. I owe one district five days and another four days of work. Final exams start Tuesday for my high schoolers and Field Day will be happening tomorrow for the elementary crowd. There are end of year parties and last minute details filling up the calendar. And there are some long lazy days stretching out from there. All I need is a grill to keep me company.

Happy Father's Day to you dads out there.

14 June 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Easy Button by Leo Reynolds CC-BY-NC-SA
I wish I'd had one of these buttons with me this morning. I took the elementary endorsement test for Washington...and "That was easy." One of the people there was taking a test for the sixth time. I'm hoping that she just suffers from poor test-taking skills, because if she doesn't know the content well enough to pass one of these tests...well, she probably shouldn't be trying to impart anything to kids.

I did the science and math questions first (natch). During the social studies part of the test, I realized that taking this test was a lot like playing Trivial Pursuit. What is the Rosetta Stone? Which
Trivial Pursuit by andyburnfield CC-BY-NC-SA
countries did the Truman Doctrine support?
All that was missing were some little plastic wedge shapes for completion of each part of the test.

I take my other test---the Texas version---next week. I should have all my results and paperwork done in a month...and then I'll be "highly qualified' to teach small people. I'm not particularly interested in having my own classroom, but the endorsement will make me more marketable for coaching jobs and other positions. It's a trivial pursuit for now, but it will be sure to play a role in much larger events later.

13 June 2008

NSTA Bound

I've been sending out some proposals in order to present at various conferences. I've been marinating in a lot of learning for the last few years. It's time to give back...time to get my name out and about. I presented at WERA this spring...OSPI is on tap for the summer...and now NSTA is letting me join in on the fun in the fall. (I am hoping for ASCD next spring.)

If you find yourself in the Portland, Oregon, area in the fall, come join me for a rollicking good hour around standards-based grading at the NSTA regional convention.

A Lesson in Survey Design

The Union recently sent out a "District Climate Survey." I might not be a member, but it showed up in my box and I filled out the bubble sheet. This was a bit of a struggle because although the responses were supposed to be scaled, they didn't follow a traditional Likert format (from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree). Instead, the answer choices went like this:

A. Strongly Agree
B. Tend to Agree
C. Tend to Disagree
D. Strongly Disagree
E. Not applicable/Don't know/Not sure

Do you see the problem? By placing the fence-rider choice at E instead of C, they have likely skewed their results. Most people are trained to use "A" as the strongest agreement and "E" for the strongest disagreement. How many people bubbled in "C" now and then by accident---thinking that they were ambivalent and instead indicated dissatisfaction? Same thing for people who might have mistakenly marked "E" when they really needed "D" for their unhappiness. Even though I read the directions (and assume others did, too), it was still a bit of a struggle to remember this very different order across four pages of questions.

Interestingly enough, The Union did not view itself as part of the climate in which we work. There were no questions whatsoever concerning teachers' views of Union activity. Even if they have much to learn about survey structure, they may already know that they shouldn't ask questions they really don't want the answers to.

12 June 2008

Intrigue on Level Four

Most teachers I know who are working to apply standards-based grading practices in the classroom have a struggle around what a "four" looks like. I have heard arguments that such a level is superfluous, and for the most part, I'm inclined to agree. If the kid can earn a three (i.e. meets standard), then isn't that the goal?

Someone recently pointed me toward a site for Highland Tech High in Anchorage, Alaska. Standards-based grading is the norm there and they have a unique way to define a level four performance. In order to earn a four (i.e. exceeds the standards), one student has to be able to teach another student to mastery. It is a variation on the old med school mantra of "See one, do one, teach one." I like this idea in the sense that it would require a student to have enough of a mastery of a concept that they would be able to apply it in a new context: another learner. I would guess that plenty of teachers have had the experience where you've tried to present/explain/explore a concept with kids...only to have one student pipe up and clear up the remaining confusion for peers. Sometimes learning takes a new way of looking at the information and as teachers, we can't always think of every possibility. My only concern with this model would be any added expectations of the "master" students. I have said over and over again that I do not believe kids should be teaching tools. However, there is a difference between requiring that a student tutor a peer and offering the option of developing their application of learning.

Would this option work for elementary students, too? It might. I think that at the secondary level, you could give more assessment responsibilities to the kids (How do you know that your classmate has met the standard?), younger children might not be ready. I have seen very young children teaching one another, so I think it's possible they might be recruited to help with letter naming or math facts---especially with a protocol. Here again, I struggle with whether or not this would look more like a requirement or an option. Is a first-grader really going to care about a four on their report card...or would a parent care more?

What do you think a four represents?

11 June 2008

Mini-Carnival Wednesday

You can visit this week's Carnival of Education over at Learn Me Good. I also have a collection of posts of note that I hope you'll enjoy:
  • Dina over at The Line has posted her personal Report Card for the school year. I usually do a post like this when I reach the end, but I might just say "Ditto." in terms of what she's written. It's a great reflective post summoning up all those things we as teachers want to be for ourselves and students.
  • Doug of The Blue Skunk Blog recently gave a commencement speech which encompassed Everything I Know in 15 Minutes. It's chock full of great stories and advice. Even if you aren't setting out on a new pathway in life, I urge you to read it and think about rejuvenating yourself for the road you are already taking.
  • John is wondering "Will 'Everybody' Come to School?" This is his first part of a short series of thoughts on Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody" and its implications for eduction. As regs here know, this book has been much on my mind, too. I am enjoying seeing what ideas it is sparking for others.
  • A Letter to My Colleagues is on Susan's mind from 21st Century Learning. It's a thoughtful post on how technology is and will continue to change education. Teachers may never be obsolete, but those who can't grow may find themselves in that position.
  • You may have seen a new term out and about: Edupunk. Visit David to read more about Anarchy in the Classroom. I can certainly identify with the need to shift our pedagogy---even if that means taking matters into our own hands.
Click away and spend a Wednesday with some worthwhile reading from around the Edusphere!

09 June 2008

Hello? OSHA?

This is the prep room at my school. Beauty, eh? This is its typical state---doors to the chemical cabinets flung wide open...drawers of supplies pulled out...and used materials just sitting around. It makes it incredibly difficult to find anything in order to put together a lab for my own students. If you're wondering why I don't do something about this mess, well, it's not mine. If no one else cares...should I?

Left Out in the Cold

News media in the area are running a story about a mother who may be charged with neglect after she locked her son out of the house for four hours. The boy had snuck out. She suspects he steals things from her and smokes pot. She called the police and asked that they take him to juvy because he wouldn't follow her rules. The police declined, but did take him into protective custody because he wasn't appropriately dressed to be outside for an extended time.

The comments people are leaving about this story are tragic. A sample is below (including misspellings or other errors):
  • Let us hope the community rallies around the mother if the facts of this story are true. It's time for parents to tell the police, the state, the ACLU to keep out of the discipling of our children so that parents can teach them a lesson. If the kids don't like it, don't disrespect nor ignore the rules in which your parents lay out for you. I hope the kid goes to juvinile detention.
  • They better leave her alone. If a 15 year old disobeys his mom, he deserves to be locked out! Let the little brat learn a lesson. Do the coppers want to coddle delinquents now? The mother needs support from the law!
  • I just tell my "kids" who are having a hard time with the rules that if they leave the house without permission I call the cops and say they are runaways. If they do not want to live in the house and follow the rules find someplace that will put up with their nonsense. Most decide to stay because they know what it is like out there. The other part to this is we have to find a way to communicate. I also will take them for a drug test if I suspect they are doing drugs. That is the real wake up call for some. It is not easy but if we don't teach our kids that we are the ones in control they walk all over us. I was once told by a social worker that it was ok to lock a kid out of my house when I was going to be gone. So what are parents to do?
  • KUDOS to you mom...and keep it up! Next step...file an At Risk Youth Petition!!! All of us mothers and fathers of these out of control kids need to take back our rights!Unfortunately the "system" here tends to side with the kids...while we as parents are financially and legally responsible for the little buggers actions! The county doesn't care that the kid may have smoked dope! We hauled our kid in while in possession of dope and what happens? Sherriffs office tells us that technically it is US who is in possession at that moment and that they should be arresting US, and to take our kid home!! BTW, you can now buy at home drug tests with immediate results at Walgreens. And when you do call them in as a runaway to 911, make sure Cencon doesn't "lose" the call! Thinking I might need to start a support group for parents of cr@ppy teens....hmm.
  • I, myself would sign a petition to get the parents' rights back! SPOILED, rotten teens and children are now taking things WAY too far these days, and are allowed to get away with FAR too much! And what is there for punishment? Take away their TV? So they run away....and then blame US for not letting them back IN!? Punish US for putting our foot down on the bad behavior!? The kid was by NO means freezing to death! Uncomfortable? I don't DOUBT it! Hypothermic? No. The little S**T decided to strut his big, bad self around town with his pals in DEFIANCE of the mother and was JUSTLY punished for it! What's left to do but lock the little brats out?! We can't SPANK any longer! God FORBID we even THINK of it! CPS would be called IMMEDIATELY, whether we did or NOT! Simply for the THREAT of it! And WHO would be in trouble with the law for even the THREAT!? The PARENT! Because little Suzy or Timmy didn't like the THOUGHT of not getting their way and the decided to cry "wolf" or lie through their teeth saying they WERE spanked! I say KUDOS to the mamma for teaching this little brat a lesson! SHAME on the state for attempting to prosecute! SHAME on you! It's you and your child-lenient laws that are allowing society go down the shi**er!
  • Have the kid emancipated & give him sui juris rights. Then the mother can move on with her life & not have to worry about the brat living in her house or being responsible for him anymore.
  • By the looks of this story, if it correct; Dad is MIA. Even IF he is in the home, he is obviously ABSENT. The lefty liberals say "It takes a village to raise a child", but this is the fallacy. The lefty liberal villagers are really a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves dressed and police officers, school teachers / couselors, child protective service workers, newspaper writers, procecutors, lawyers, and judges salivating for the opportunity to tear down, apart and to peices a single mom, struggling to raise an adopted, fatherless, outta control young man. Tear apart the very last remaining remnant of faimily, as surely and skillfully as the hands of the abortionist. Instead to helping, protecting, serving the community, repairing, and reconciling they lay in wait then viscously attack us, the hands that feeds them.
  • This woman should be made an example of. She adopted the kid and acts as though he is disposable. Cute little foster kids turn into teenagers eventually! Lock her up and let this kid go back to his real family.
  • Some liberal hack of a teacher/counselor probably filled the kid's head with all kinds of crap regarding his "rights" so he pulls this BS on his mom. Kudos to mom for putting her foot down and showing the future miscreant who lays down the law in the home. The prosecutors had better have more important things to do with their time than harass this mother, she has enough problems as it is.
  • Sounds to me the kid needs a good spank. Of course that would be child abuse.
Now, I understand that people who choose to comment on news stories do not represent the full spectrum of population any more than people who comment on blogs. That being said, the "liberal hack of a teacher" in me finds this whole situation sad. There is so much more to the story than can be covered in the news. Whatever is happening in that house isn't good for mom or kid, and I don't think a knee-jerk reaction on either part is going to make a difference. It's hard to tell based on the comments for the story, but I'm hoping that I'm not in the minority.

08 June 2008

Reimagining the Computer Lab

The title of the article is "A Computer Lab the Students Use, But Never See." This means that the lab described has something in common with the one at my school: students never see it. In a building with 1400 kids, there is one computer lab...plus another that is booked half a day every day for the computer science classes. It's fortunate that science classrooms have some computers, or else my kids would never have some semblance of access to digital resources. I know a lot of people think that kids can just use computers at home, but many families just have one machine (and some have no computer)---and there are lots with only dial-up access for the internet. Asking students to use resources that are unavailable and/or blocked at school (such as e-mail or wikipedia) to complete work is unfair. While I doubt that the high school is likely to be full of kids with laptops in the near future, I do like the idea of a Virtual Computing Lab.
Users enter it remotely, from their own computers in dormitory rooms or libraries. They get all the features they've had in the past, including access to expensive software packages, like 3-D modeling tools and advanced statistical programs, that they need for courses. But now the programs run on powerful computer servers behind the scenes, instead of on desktop PC's. And this lab never closes.

Officials here also say that the virtual lab could be the beginning in a more fundamental shift, one that could change the way technology staffs on campuses do business. The goal of the virtual-lab approach is to build Web-based tools that professors can control on their own, without having to ask permission from a staff member to add something to a university computer.

"I got tired of telling users what they couldn't do," says Samuel F. Averitt, vice provost for information technology at North Carolina State. "The central-IT guy is about control and ownership. We're trying to get out of that business, and say, Do it however you want to do it."

What a refreshing mindset that is, don't you think?

I heard this week that the U.S. government (specifically the FCC) is going to auction off a chunk of the broadband spectrum so that the winning company could build a free public wi-fi network. Should this happen, we would likely be years away from it becoming reality, but I already can't help but wonder how this might impact schools. When the district DIS doesn't control the signals used to connect to the internet, their precious filters will be useless. GoogleApps? Wikipedia? YouTube? All available for the classroom. Yes, other things---inappropriate things---will be available, too. But if students are using their own equipment with an independent source for internet access, will schools have the same responsibilities for protecting children? Or are they only accountable for their own hardware, software, and infrastructure? If a student comes to my class tomorrow with a laptop and an aircard, are they allowed to use it as they please---just as they do with their own pencils and paper?

There are new tools and platforms available daily, it seems. If we are already making a shift in how we use our hardware (from traditional computer labs to virtual ones), when will the shift in how we use the intangible pieces (e.g. software) with students come?

07 June 2008

Overscheduled, Indeed

School is still in session in this part of the world and end of year duties are keeping me hopping. There are panicked parents of seniors (who are not worried at all that they might not earn enough credits to graduate...but should be). There are crabby students, stressed with the thought of finals and that this cold and ugly weather might last all summer (It won't.). Familiarity is breeding contempt. This is also true for the elementary school. The fever pitch which comes with the end of the year is doing its best to drag us under.

An article in Teacher Magazine about the (ab)use of energy drinks by overscheduled teens caught my eye this week. I have several students in my first period class which are happy addicts. "Monster" is their drug of choice. While I don't like that they have the need to get themselves hopped up on sugar and caffeine, I also can't argue much when I see plenty of others with their lattes or Mountain Dew. I have always assumed that energy drinks are worse in terms of the amounts of caffeine provided, but perhaps those concerns are unfounded: "Some of the drinks contain less caffeine than some brands of coffee. Red Bull and Monster — two of the most popular energy drinks on the market — each have about 80 mg per 8 ounces. A 32-ounce Big Gulp of Mountain Dew contains about 146 mg — comparable to a 16-ounce can of Monster."

As you might imagine, there are still people out there who want to ban the sale of energy drinks to teens; but how does one define the difference between an energy drink and pop/coke/soda? What is it that is actually bad about these? My hunch is that the sugar may be more of an issue than the caffeine, but I'm not sure. I do know that while the sales of juice, milk, or diet soda are okay in schools here before noon, regular soda is not. However, the amounts of sugar in some juices (or fat in whole milk...or sugar in chocolate milk) could be listed as an issue. How do we determine the characteristics of a "healthy" beverage?

What I also didn't realize was that many college age students are combining energy drinks with booze so that "they can drink longer without feeling drunk and drink more without feeling drunk." A true recipe for disaster via alcohol poisoning...and perhaps more accidents on the roads.

I suppose I need to do more to educate myself about the effects of caffeine on teens. I really don't know if there are any worthwhile studies out there. And I don't feel comfortable railing at kids about putting down the coffee, energy drinks, or Mountain Dew without trying to help them see effects other than addiction.

As for me, I'm definitely overscheduled at the moment. And listless. But I'm not willing to go the energy drink route (I rarely do the caffeine thing). It would seem that the better solution is to decrease the number of responsibilities---not amp up the brain to deal with everything in a harried way.

04 June 2008

Carnivalia on the Fly

Who among us edubloggers has not had the dreaded experience of having a post eaten? Sometimes, even "Autosave" is no saviour. With this in mind, click on over to the Education Wonks and give them some love. They slaved all Tuesday evening over a hot Education Carnival, only to have the interweb elves steal it. They did manage to triumph and a delightful collection of posts from around the edusphere is just waiting for you on the flipside.

03 June 2008

We Did the Mash

I admit that it doesn't look like much, but you don't know how close we came to not making this scene happen. You see, this event has been planned since February. It is the collision of the two halves of my working life: the sophomores I teach in the morning and the kindergarten teachers and students I work with as part of my afternoon duties. As you know, we've been outlaws over the last week, developing our lesson plans for our young charges. There was a lot of enthusiasm from everyone.

Being western Washington, however, Mother Nature was in an uncooperative mood. She was originally supposed to hold off on the rain until the afternoon, but instead exercised her woman's prerogative and got the party started last night. Bitch.

But I digress.

My first period class and I watched the radar loop this morning. We saw that the worst of the storm had passed. But it just. kept. raining. I even wore my good juju earrings today. Although I don't really buy into their magic, the kids had. Several asked me this morning---Did you wear the special earrings? I showed them that I had. The teachers from my afternoon school e-mailed us to mention that perhaps I should have started warming up these pieces of jewelry yesterday, but regardless of the weather, they were still bringing a merry band of 6-year olds to the beach.

I relayed this information to the class. And while they had been thinking of calling the whole thing off by that point, once they heard the small people would be there, they said they had to go, too. After all, the kinders would be counting on them. They had responsibilities to fulfill.

The rain let up to a gentle spit during second period, but it was still precipitating. And at the start of third period, my classes met out front...I grabbed the four umbrellas hiding in my car...and off we went. Rain or no rain. Take that, Mother Nature.

We looked quite bedraggled by the time we made it to the waterfront---but we did make it. A few moments later, a big yellow dawg pulled up and out popped several dozen little learners. We managed to get everyone partnered off, and then it was down to the beach. The picture posted here was taken early on, before students of various ages started wandering hither and yon. Some of my kids mentioned later that the kinders just wouldn't pay attention and how they'd be trying to explain something to the tykes when the wee ones would just start talking about something else. "Gee," I said, "How do you think I feel every day?" :)

In spite of Nature's petulant display, we had a great time. It was a monster mash-up of a day.

02 June 2008

Fluffy Grading

The faculty at Stanford Law School voted last week to approve a grade reform proposal that would eliminate letters and replace them with four levels of achievement. The decision came after a long period of discussion among students and faculty that weighed issues such as collegiality, anxiety and fairness. The debate may be spreading to other law schools across the country.

Stanford’s new system — which will award grades of honors, pass, restricted credit and no credit — resembles that at Yale Law School and Berkeley Law School.

Those who support the change at Stanford argue that shifting from the precision of letter grades to broader categories will reduce some pressure and refocus students’ and professors’ energies on classroom learning. Others worry that de-emphasizing students’ GPAs could disadvantage them with potential employers, although that hasn’t proven to be an issue with new Yale or Berkeley lawyers.

“The new system includes a shared norm for the proportion of honors to be awarded in both exam and paper courses. No grading system is perfect, but the consensus is that the reform will have significant pedagogical benefits, including that it encourages greater flexibility and innovation in the classroom and in designing metrics for evaluating student work,” wrote Stanford Law dean Larry Kramer to students and faculty in an e-mail on Thursday.
There's a whole lot more to be found in the Inside Higher Ed article on Stanford Law dropping letter grades. Is it possible that standards-based grading is making its first forays into universities? As you might imagine, there is some trepidation expressed in the article. Maybe Stanford and Yale can get away with doing this because of who they are.
“Good for them, but this fluffy grading is the luxury of schools in like the Top 5 where grades don’t matter as much anyway,” wrote one commenter. “If you went to a 20-something school like I did, you need to be able to show you were in the top-whatever % of your class to get into BigLaw, let alone Federal clerkships.”
Fluffy grading? You mean grading based on learning? Learning which is collaborative and not competitive? Grading that's fair?

Bring on the fluff.

01 June 2008

The Edge of Your Rut Is Not the Horizon

I was reading an article asking "Can you become a creature of new habits?" from the New York Times. My answer to the title was "I'm trying...at least in some areas of life."
All of us work through problems in ways of which we’re unawares. Researchers in the late 1960s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. At puberty, however, the brain shuts down half of that capacity, preserving only those modes of thought that have seemed most valuable during the first decade or so of life...

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.
While I can't claim to be adventurous in all areas of my life, I do find that I am willing to "stretch" professionally. The William Wordsworth quote which kicks off the article seems to highlight the frustrations I have with most of my peers (and groupthink at large within the district): "Not choice, but habit, rules the unreflecting herd."

So, what do we do about that? How do we help our peers move from a comfort zone to a stretch zone...without stressing them? What are the most important areas for this? Technology? Grading? Instruction?

And for kids? If their brains are going to "pick two by puberty," which ones do we want most deeply ingrained? The article suggests that the current standards-based climate emphasizes the first two...but I'm thinking that one from the first pair and one from the second pair might be more valuable. In truth, I like the second pair (collaboration, innovation) best; but having worked with a few people who fit that description, I can say that it's frustrating. You never actually get to a point where you can make actual plans and figure out the details. Mind you, all of the ways of forming habits are available throughout a lifetime---but they are not equally relied upon. As teachers, which do we value most in our students?

You cannot have innovation, unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder. How do you help yourself make that move?