31 July 2008

Hungry for Answers

My standards-based grading and student motivation extravaganza was yesterday afternoon. So many people showed up that the event organizers had to close the session a good 15 minutes before it was even scheduled to start. While this is certainly no testament to me (I only knew 2 people out of the 60 or so who came), it does say something about interest in grading practices. People came in to save spaces at tables more than an hour before the workshop was set to kick off. I find that heartening in a lot of ways because not all of these people were "the choir" for me to preach to. Sure, there were teachers and administrators there who had given standards-based grading a whirl, but others were there to gawk. I'm sure I gave them an eyeful. LOL

I had a middle school PE teacher chat with me for awhile when all was said and done. She said that during the break, she'd seen her supe out in the hallway. The supe asked her how the workshop was going. The teacher replied, "My brain is really fighting with itself. One half completely agrees with everything she says and the other half thinks she's crazy." (Little does she know, eh?) I had a couple of other participants make similar comments. In other words, it is so clear to them that these practices are the right thing to do, but to let go of including behaviors in grading (e.g. not giving zeros for plagiarism and making kids do the work instead) feels just beyond reach. They see the path to walk but aren't sure they have the strength to make the journey.

I spent about 30 minutes talking about motivation---and in particular, achievement goal theory. We as educators often tell students that we value their learning more than their grades---but do we really mean it? I showed them the graphic below and we talked about the idea that while we ostensibly want a "mastery approach" to classroom learning, which of these other orientations did students demonstrate?

Beyond that, we talked about the mixed messages we may be sending through our feedback to students and the posters and bulletin boards on our walls. I had one teacher afterwards say what a chord I struck with that. She realized that she tells kids all the time that she wants them to focus on learning, but when she hands back tests, she makes a big deal about how one class outperformed another. She had never thought about how those two things are really in opposition. There were lots of head nods when I mentioned things like kids throwing away their work the moment you handed it back or the "point whoring" that comes along with kids fighting for every little inch they can get. People started to reflect on that and what messages they may have unintentionally been giving kids about what they (as teachers) value.

I was truly excited to see so many people there. However, the drawback was that I didn't get to have the kind of interactive session I really wanted. Sixty people crammed into a room is not conducive for a Four Corners activity or other movement. Think-Pair-Share gets redundant in a hurry. Poll Everywhere was very well received, but as I'd anticipated, not all adults are comfortable with text messaging (although all thought this would be awesome for the classroom---and parent nights). I quickly ran out of handouts (sponsors had told me to plan for no more than 50---and I thought that even that was darned ambitious), but was so glad that I had my wiki set up so that people knew where they could get everything later. People were darned hungry for information on grading. Who knew?

30 July 2008

Wednesday Distractions

While I'm away giving my workshop and tending to other interesting business today, have a look at this week's Carnival of Education. It's hosted by The Chancellor's New Clothes and, as usual, contains a round-up of great posts from around the edusphere.

Too heavy for you on a summery Wednesday? Why not try some of these instead? After all, one cannot live by education feeds alone.
  • It's Lovely! I'll Take It! has quite the collection of real estate listings, bringing a whole new level of understanding to the term "fixer upper."
  • On a diet? No? Well, either way, you won't be hungry for dessert after looking at these Cake Wrecks. This is what happens when good baking goes bad.
  • If bad grammar and punctuation make you twitchy, then don't visit Apostrophe Abuse, Apostrophism, the English Fail Blog, or the Grammar Blog. However, if you are stout of heart, then I highly recommend you have a look at all of them. I tell my students that if they can't be good examples, then they'll just have to be terrible warnings. These blogs are full of warnings...often hilarious ones.
Here's hoping your Wednesday is full of laughter and learning!

29 July 2008

Time to Rawk

Tomorrow afternoon, it's finally time for me to give my 3-hour workshop on standards-based grading and student motivation. I've worked a large number of hours over the last six weeks to pull together what I think is a kick-ass professional learning experience. Yes, I'm biased...but I also know what typically gets offered at conferences like this. Usually a dry Powerpoint and very little interaction. ("Absolute power corrupts. Powerpoint corrupts absolutely.")

I constructed a wiki as a companion for the workshop. I did this for two reasons. One was simply to have a simple place for people to get all of the resources, such as a digital copy of the handout and slides (which I'm not handing out), a list of books and websites I reference, and so forth. I want people to be able to focus on the thinking and learning---not the "stuff." They can go back later and easily find the title of a book or a look at a site without having to write down the URL. Also, for any "artifacts" created during the session, I can take pictures with my digital camera and place them on the site. Again, I hope that this will allow people not to have to stress out trying to capture all of the information at once. The other main reason for the wiki is just to allow the participants to contribute to the learning beyond the scope of our time together. I'll bet several people tomorrow will have resources that they want to share. What a great way for them to connect. Their knowledge is valuable and I want them to be able to show that off.

Yes, I do have a PowerPoint presentation, but it is not a series of slides for me to read off of. Some have Poll Everywhere questions with prompts for people to text message their answers. One of my favourites is for a "Pop Quiz!" activity that plays the music from the shower scene in Psycho when it comes up. There are cartoons to provoke some laughter (and discussion) and some simple quotes from the research to guide things along.

There's time built in for participants to talk, to move around, to have quiet moments to think and reflect. I've tried really hard to respect their needs as learners and differentiate the session as much as possible. There is so much I want to say and share, however, I hope that I've designed things such that this session is really about the audience needs. Hard to do when I am so passionate about what I know and want to say.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a great session---that is, people show up and are willing to dive into some good learning. I'm ready to rawk!

28 July 2008


I have to share something deeply personal with you. I may be in need of an intervention or some sort of 12-step program. You see, I have an addiction to stationery supplies. I can't go into an Office Depot or a Staples without having to get something. And at this time of year? When Target and Wal-Mart are all decked out with their Back-to-School supplies? My eyes glaze over and my bank account shivers in fear.

I've tried to be good this year...but it's so hard. See, first there were these typewriter key binder clips:

Then, I saw these paper clips with paper tabs. You can write on the tabs and more easily organize the stacks of papers that accumulate on your desk.

There was more, too, like composition notebooks with pretty covers for 50 cents and spiral notebooks for a nickel; but, I'm sure you get the idea. Is anyone else having the same issues at this time of year? Should we form a support group...or just give in to our raging compulsions? :)

26 July 2008

Advancing the Gradebook

One of the things ed research has told us is that when teachers have a way to graphically represent the grades they collect (and then reflect on the what they see), student achievement can rise by 26%. In terms of the type of "feedback" teachers are involved in, only one other form increases achievement more (when a teacher has formed a pre-existing rule about when to apply interventions based on data...and then uses it). Considering this, shouldn't we think about gradebooks differently? (For more on types of feedback and their effectiveness, have a look at Chapter One of Marzano's Classroom Assessment and Grading That Works.)

The problem with most gradebook programs is that they don't offer a way to graph the data. I used Excel this year and was happy with it. I liked the flexibility of being able to apply different formulas, hide different data sets, have different worksheets for different pieces of information about kids, and more---including the ability to have the program draw graphs for me. I admit, however, that I used the graphs to look at general classroom trends rather than keeping tabs on individual kids.

But some new options for Excel have me thinking that there could be some very exciting new ways for teachers to think about grades.

First up are Microcharts. This is not a Microsoft product, but is compatible with Excel. The idea here is that you can create a chart within a single cell in your spreadsheet. Here are some examples of the kinds of microcharts that can be made:

As with any data set, different graphs are better than others for communicating information. I think the bullet graphs and bar charts would be most useful. You could even colour code things as red, yellow, green to show the RTI levels of "Intensive, Strategic, Benchmark" to help get a quick glance at where to place your interventions in a classroom, depending upon the standard being measured.

The only drawback (for me) for Microcharts is the price. I might try the free download for a month and see if it really is the answer to classroom needs before I pony up for the full meal deal. Even then, the cost is a bit steep. (Wonder if I could get an educator's discount?)

There are other ways, however, to achieve the same look. Pointy Haired Dilbert recently posted on how to create Bullet Graphs in Excel. One result is shown below. You'll have to imagine student names in the lefthand column and various scores in the middle with the graph on the right; but I think you'll get the idea.

The XLCubed blog showed another way to create In-Cell Variance Charts using a formula. The result is a simple bar chart (as shown below), but could certainly have value for communication. Imagine using these for a progress report or end of term report card. I like this one as a way to actually show growth over time---where a student started at the beginning of the term and what growth has occurred. The bullet chart above is better for showing overall progress toward a goal.

The more I think about all of this, the more I'm getting geeked out about building a better gradebook in Excel. I'd like to think that someone in the software industry is looking at these same things and seeing the same potential for educators that I am---perhaps even writing code for something new. A 26% increase in student achievement is nothing to sneeze at---and if we can get there by having access to pictures of grades, isn't that worth exploring?

If anyone has seen a gradebook program with microcharting features already built in, please do chime in in the comments.

P.S. If I were an administrator or someone in charge of programs, I would definitely look into building a dashboard to integrate the massive amounts of information that regularly flood in. As a principal, what a great way to keep your pulse on what's happening with student learning across a school. The sample below is another business one---but it's not hard to imagine the applications for education.

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on Excel for Educators for the most recent versions of gradebooks and reporting tools.

Blissless Ignorance

Late last night, Chris Lehmann posed the following idea on Twitter: Question on my mind: How can you demand that people to improve if you don't improve the circumstances of their life / work / etc?

My response:
Perhaps "demand" isn't the right road? Perhaps we inspire or support or model?

I agree completely. So why do we see so little of that in today's educational landscape? Especially in urban settings?

I think we do model another "reality," but may be unwilling to accept that many are happy as they are.

Regardless of the late hour, I couldn't quite let the idea alone. (I really liked Chris' original question and hope that he makes a post of his own about this---it's good stuff to think about.) Do we (educators) assume that because parents and children are living on wages made at McDonald's and Wal-Mart (and/or on government assistance) they aren't happy with their lives? Is it because we don't think we would be?

I like to think that standards-based reform is about equity of opportunity. Not everyone needs or wants to go to college, but perhaps not everyone wants to spend the rest of their days restocking items at K-Mart, either. In working to ensure that every child has mastered the "basic" educational background, we are trying to keep as many pathways as possible open to children. It is not that after years of working a minimum wage job that someone can't earn a college degree, but I think that it becomes more difficult with time.

I am wondering if we forget the time involved with generational change. I have had a few students over the years who have said that they were to be the first ones in their families to graduate from high school. An awesome thing, to be sure, but also a bit sad---how can it be the 21st century and some families can't claim to have a high school diploma among the lot of them? For how many of us did it take a generation (or more) beyond that to find the first college graduate? Master's degree candidate? We now expect that all of our kids will be "college ready," but is this how cultural change happens? Can we "demand," as Chris originally posed, our ideas of improvements be taken on by families?

And how does the staggering dropout rate play into this?

I was thinking about a primary aged student this year who was so excited because he had just taken his first ride in a mini-van. Mind you, he had gotten this ride from CPS because mom had died a year ago and now dad had broken some laws and was going to in jail for a good long while. This is not a story about the resiliency of children so much as it is a point of interest about perspective. The child had something wonderful happen (from his perspective) and my initial reaction wasn't one of support, but one of pity because the standard of happiness was so "low" in my opinion. Who am I to judge, however? If riding in a mini-van is the most awesome thing ever, why not help the kid celebrate? Later, perhaps I could share a story of my own. And still later, provide other "firsts" for the student to experience---first chapter book read, first science project awarded, first trip to visit a college campus.

All that can happen for now is to provide opportunities and to help students be aware of what choices they can have. It should be up to them what they ultimately do and how much happiness they find---not whether or not they fit our conventions of what an enlightened life contains.

25 July 2008

Meme for a Summer Friday

Clix has a meme that she believes is too good to keep to herself. As for me, since my Well of Inspiration has had to be raided for other pursuits recently, I'm glad to have a germ of an idea for a post. You're welcome to use it, too.

When you go to the beach, lake, or pool, are you more likely to lower yourself gradually into cold water or to take a determined plunge and get it over with? I'm more of a "one part at a time" gal, myself, especially when I don't know how deep the water is. Nothing spoils a swim like a broken neck.

How is this like (or unlike) your approach to other tasks or ordeals? Dude, if I'm at the beach or the pool, then it is likely not a task or ordeal. As for those kinds of things, if it's a familiar task (e.g. housework, paying bills), then jumping in is the order of the day. New problems require more caution.

When someone gives you flowers, are you more likely to let them turn completely brown and gross before throwing them out, or to discard them the moment they take on that sick-flower look? I absolutely love having fresh cut flowers. They are both a luxury and a rarity---but there's nothing better to perk me up than to have them in the room. Usually, I keep them until the bitter, gooey end. However, I will toss out individual stems along the way, if they're too yukky.

How is this like (or unlike) your approach to other gifts, purchases, or relationships? Depends. I am rarely sentimental about "stuff" and have routinely regifted items that I didn't like or thrown away small Christmas gifts with the wrapping paper if I know I'll never want something cluttering my space. This is not to say that I don't have some things I absolutely treasure and will always want to have with me.

Think of your favourite movie (or a movie you really like, if you can't think of a favourite). Some people say that the reasons you love your favourite movie are related to what you value in romantic relationships. How is this true or untrue in your case? I'm a real movie hound, so picking a single favourite is not an option. Some movies I like because of the way they're shot, others the story, and still others the acting. I tend to be rather eclectic in my choices. I can find things to appreciate in nearly anyone, but the confluence of just the right factors is a rare thing, indeed.

And now, it's time to open a nice bottle of wine for this Friday evening and see how much inspiration I can find at the bottom of a glass. :) Merry weekend to one and all!

24 July 2008

Isn't That Special?

Guess what I got in the mail?

Yes, I passed my elementary cert test for Washington...but not only do I get a score report, I get a handy-dandy certificate which states that my "exceptional performance earned a score that ranks within the top 15% of all test takes who took this assessment in previous years. This achievement indicates a high level of proficiency in an area critical for professional educators." (Yes, the real one does have my name on it.)

It's kind of amusing. I don't think I've gotten a certificate for darned near anything in the last 20 years. I'm not sure what to do with it. It isn't as if anyone is going to care about the Top 15%. (Do you think the Top 5% gets a little gold sticker on theirs?) I think I'll put it in the file with the other certification stuff...and when I need a giggle, I'll pick at it and think, "Well, isn't that special?"

22 July 2008

The Merit of Pay

Another edublogger once pointed out that actors and athletes have unions---and are considered professional. My thinking, however, is that unions are not a mark of professionalism. Doctors and lawyers don't have unions. In fact, other than actors and athletes, I have a hard time thinking of any other professional pursuit which uses unions. Even then, I think that there are some significant differences in operation and benefits.

I never hear that any variety of players' union is concerned with setting an uppermost salary limit. You could say that there is a minimum established---a baseline for pay, but players of the stage, screen, or field can have differing salaries based upon the quality of their performance, value to the organization, size of role, or other factors. No one would dare tell Julia Roberts or Will Smith that no matter how well they do their job (or how long they work), they can only earn the same as everyone else who acts. Does Tom Brady deserve the same amount of pay as a benchwarmer for the New England Patriots?

If their unions operated along the same principles as teachers, all of that talent would be limited to being paid the same as the least able member. Is this really what collective bargaining should be about---to establish the bare minimum and ensure that no one dare go further than that?

So, what if teacher contracts were negotiated the same as for sports or film? The state already sets the salary schedule. There's no need for The Union to set the minimum, only to deal with basic benefits and process. If you're a superstar teacher who gets results in student learning and achievement (however defined by the organization), why not have the ability to contract for a commensurate salary? Why should you be stuck at the same wage as a teacher who does little more than surf the net while kids fill out worksheets every day? Shouldn't school districts compete for the best talent they can get?

Teachers' contracts are negotiated under the premise that all teachers are created equal...but the simple truth is that we're not. While it is highly unlikely that any of us will ever achieve celebrity status, what's the harm in being allowed to be pursue something better for ourselves?

20 July 2008

Collective Wisdom

There is a very long article by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point) in the May issue of the New Yorker about how we might think that Big Ideas are rare, but that they might be fairly common. It is well worth the investment of reading time as it is a celebration of ideas and the sheer joy of thinking. Thinking about what? Anything and everything. The kind of rambling thinking that happens when you get people together and just let the conversation flow. Real and true brainstorming---the very sort that fills you with energy and makes you believe you can change the world.

I've been thinking about what this might mean to the educational arena. All of the examples in the article are more science or business related: what happens when you bring together smart people with diverse backgrounds and give them an idea to play with. Can we do this with schools, too? We're so regimented in our ways. We depend on tried and true (with good reason). If we have students we aren't reaching, why don't we get together and brainstorm instead? Why do we constantly seek to eliminate possibilities and deduce a solution rather than go out with our colleagues for a pitcher of beer and a conversation?

My hunch is that most people would say that we don't have the time to do so. Does this mean that we are too busy to think? Or, even sadder, that we don't value the creativity that comes in engaging our brains?

19 July 2008

Making Peace with Cell Phones

Cell phones and teens seem to go together like PB & J these days. It's hard to imagine one without the other...and yet cell phone technology is banned in most classrooms. Is it possible, however, that we might make peace with these tools---even use them for our benefit?

Liz Kolb thinks so. Her blog, From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Learning, has me thinking about all sorts of new things. I admit that I don't use my cell phone for much more than a few calls and some text messaging. I have used the camera option a few times to document some information, but I truly haven't thought about the range of this tool.

One of my favourite new discoveries is Poll Everywhere. How cool is this for teachers? You know those fancy-dancy clicker systems? You don't need them now. Just set up your questions ahead of time and then have students use cell phones to respond. What a great way to do formative assessment during lessons. Imagine the power of using this in staff development. People can text questions into you, participate in formative assessment polls, and more. I SO want to give this a test drive at my OSPI presentation at the end of the month.

Did you know that Google has all sorts of cell phone apps? Need directions? Just text the location (if your phone has GPS, you don't even have to supply it with the starting point). You can do searches for information and Google with text your answer to you. Can you see kids finding information to questions while you work with them or they do another activity?

What about broadcasting reminder messages via text (or audio) to students? What about them recording information and sending it to you? Imagine them using their camera phones to document changes in an experimental setup over time and then using those to create a product (either digital or on paper).

I can see that you would need to work with kids to make it clear when and why the phones could be out being used during class time. There would need to be some procedural training, but then that would be true for other classroom routines. This is just a new aspect.

If all of this is piquing your interest, too, here are a couple more useful sites developed by Liz:
Maybe cell phones aren't the enemy of our classrooms. Perhaps it's time to make our peace with them and put them to work.

18 July 2008

New Links for Learning

Teachers are packrats. The saving grace of the digital age is that most resources don't have to take up real space, just occupy spots on a server. Thank goodness for that, because with new tools and ideas generated daily, there would never be room for them all. My del.icio.us account keeps growing (if you want to add me to your network, e me for details as I have things there under my real name). I really do like this service. I'm rarely check my network for new ideas, but I also like that I can bookmark all sorts of things, label them, and then access them from anywhere.

Here are a few highlights which were either suggested to me or that I stumbled upon as I was rollin' around the web:
  • Two new and interesting mind-mapping tools. One is Text 2 Mind Map and the other Mindomo. (Screen shots for each are below. Click to embiggen.) I think that Mindomo has many more great features and classroom applications. I like that you can link the map to other areas on the web, notations, etc. And you can download maps onto your classroom website. Text 2 Mind Map, however, is really simple to use and has an easy interface for moving between an outline and graphic form. Speaking of graphic organizers, check out this great page with 100 Helpful Web Tools for Every Kind of Learner. There are amazing ideas for differentiation using technology here.

  • Privnote is truly just for fun. In Mission Impossible form, you can send e-mail that will self-destruct after it is read. I can imagine what a kick it would be to send students reminders about deadlines or tests or other events using this tool. It would be great for communicating with peers about meetings, too.
  • In terms of meeting up, have you ever struggled to find a time and date which works for everyone? Next time you're trying to set up something, why not give When Is Good? a try? You click the times on a grid which work best for you and then send the link to others so that they can do the same. This saves a ton of e-mail time and hassle with coordination. Let this site save you from an aching head.
  • Have a look at all of these game templates. While I can easily imagine using some of these with student and teacher groups, I can also see where it would be great to have students build their own representations of learning. Kids can also develop their own study aids over at the Flash Card Maker.
  • iRubric will help you build and integrate scoring guides for your classroom while PageOnce can act as your personal assistant on the web to "remember" all kinds of information for you while you cruise.
I seem to add to my list daily. Am I using all of these consistently? No, not yet---but that's okay. There are different tools for different jobs. It's good to have the variety at hand for when I need it. Is there anything else you'd recommend I have a look at?

17 July 2008

Musings for a Summer's Day

Some small thoughts generated from my wanderings through digital environs as of late...

  • Hugh wrote about his decision to blog under his own name and how that may have influenced some self-censorship on his part. I applaud his decision, but it made me wonder about why so many men in the edusphere are "out" and why so many women use pseudonyms. Of the education related blogs on my sidebar, only five (out of 20) are women who use their own names. For men, 10 out of 12 put themselves out there. If I broadened my look to all of my RSS feeds, the relative percentages play out, too. Does this difference say something about edublogging? About education? About our culture? I think it might, but I'm not entirely sure what that message is. Is this gender bias something that women perceive from the real world---or is there something hidden in the on-line world which makes us feel safer to mask our voices? Why is there a greater need to separate the real self from the digital one? What message is that sending to young teachers reading here and there?
  • I check my school e-mail about once a week during the summer. I know I should completely disconnect, but one never knows what sorts of offers will show up. The admin in the building recently sent out an e-mail to all staff suggesting that they pray for a student who was injured while hiking. Can state funded e-mail be used to promote a religious goal? It was not comfortable to have this in the inbox, knowing that there will be several offended people on the staff.
  • Does anyone know what's become of the Education Wonks or Mike from Education in Texas? They've been MIA for some time. And while it's not unusual for bloggers to hang up their keyboards, there is usually some indication about imminent retirement.
Speaking of MIA, I'll be away from the blog for a couple of days while I try to focus on some other work. Not to worry, I have posts in the queue; but, your comments might not appear for a day or two. I hope you're getting out to enjoy your summer, too!

16 July 2008

Hardcore Wednesday

If you've ever hosted a Carnival of Education---and done it well---then you know it is a lot of work. It is good "community service" for the edusphere, to be sure; but, one must plan on several hours of reading, organizing, and writing. In spite of all of that (and having a life), Mamacita is hosting her second Carnival in a row! This week she has posted it over at Steve Spangler's blog. Go have a read and give her some love, will ya'? She's hardcore when it comes to the Carnival of Education.

14 July 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I took a class once on Great Books. The premise of the course was really about who decides what makes a book "Great," how we know whether it belongs in the Canon of Literature, and what the inherent messages are that we as a culture are being fed through the selection of these books. I was reminded of this class because of a comment left here not too long ago. Roger said (in response to my post about a Thought Experiment):
Perhaps "standards-based grading" can get them to say "I have to learn to get that diploma" so they will actually learn. But I have my doubts.

Partly because of the elephant in the room. Any time we assess a student's learning, we are partly assessing what the student has actually learned. But we are also assessing what the student has managed to memorize or absorb without thinking, and which will be out of his or her head in a few weeks or months.

My hypothesis, which I keep being unable to reject, is that most of what we assess falls into the second category. And I keep coming back to the same questions, "Why is what a student has memorized at that time especially good? What makes that more important than other things that students do?"
It's a fascinating elephant, isn't it? I've been pondering it a lot for the last week or so. At times, I find myself thinking really broadly about this. Does it revolve around the concept of what is education and the purpose of school? Or, perhaps it's simpler to think about things at the classroom level.

For example, do I care whether or not students remember for the rest of their lives that amylase is a kind of enzyme in saliva that can break down carbohydrates? No. Then why do I teach it? It's a means to an end. What I really want to know is whether or not students understand systems thinking---that there are inputs and outputs...that matter can be transformed and energy changed. Amylase is one example...one peg to hang ideas on. There are a myriad of others throughout the year, with every example meaning something different to each student's understanding of the whole. Maybe a kid struggles with cycles and systems when we talk about photosynthesis, but they "get it" when we work on digestion. For me, taking a more gestalt view of learning and grading in the classroom has freed both students and me. A student who didn't master systems thinking with one piece of content, but did with others is still credited.

As a teacher, I want most to know that every kid has a set of thinking tools and can learn on their own. It's okay if they forget much of the content from their high school biology class as they move through life. It's more important that they have the skill set to find and use the information again, if needed. I haven't retained much of what I've learned over a lifetime. That doesn't mean the information wasn't useful or good to know---it just didn't turn out to be something I regularly need access to. But other people in those classes? Perhaps they are doing jobs where they depend upon that information. It would be nice to think that we could know or anticipate all of the careers and life experiences students would have in the future so that we could tailor their schoolwork for that. Instead, we try to give the best general background set of skills that we can.

The state tells me that there is a Canonical Curriculum in the form of the standards. Like the Great Books, these weren't selected by me and I have to think carefully about whatever underlying message is there. The vast majority of these are skill-based and I tend to view the content ones as the vehicles for getting students to develop and practice the skills.

I also find myself being unable to reject Roger's hypothesis, but I'm hoping that within my own classroom, I'm moving more steadily toward doing so. I do want to do more to assess thinking over memorization. I often tell my students that knowledge isn't theirs until they do something with it. They can't just depend on filling in a worksheet---they need to apply, synthesize, and create. Even then, I'm okay with knowing that they will forget some content over time. The memorization aspect is the basis for the learning, but the real goal is for them to learn how to use it. I think that if I was more UbD'ish in my planning, I could give even more strength to this approach. Maybe that should be my goal for next year. Perhaps that will help finally shoo the elephant from my room.

13 July 2008

My Space

My house would be considered "old" by some. It was built in 1941 and is more or less what you'd expect for a space from that time. It's small (living space <1000 sq. ft + unfinished basement) with short board hardwood floors, coved ceilings, eat-in kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and two very small closets. It sits at the bottom of about a half-acre hill. Out of the nine houses I remember living in over the years, this one is my absolute favourite. It fits me just right.

But as I do things to maintain or improve the property---both inside and out---I can't help but think of the other people who must have loved the house, too.

Someone was really into trees. I have a California Redwood in the back yard. It is a giant of a tree, as you might expect, and must have been planted around the same time as the house was built. My reading about such trees indicates that this one has been mature for some time. It may be the only Redwood in the yard, but it is not the only unusual tree on the property. All the way along the property line are different types of trees: various firs, maples, and more. Who planted them? Why?

Inside the house, there is evidence of changes over time, too. Who built the staircase and created the loft out of the attic space? Materials suggest something within the last two decades. What happened to the old octopus furnace in the basement? Its location on the concrete in the basement is still present. One of the doors to the outside appears to have been the main door at one point---but how did that work with the rest of the house? The configuration now doesn't make sense.

I want HGTV to do a show where they reunite all the owners of a property. What a great opportunity to find out whose grand idea it was to have pink bathroom fixtures (as I had in one place) or to put outlets in the middle of a wall (as I have here). But also, I'd like to see pictures of this place in its various incarnations. There must have been birthday parties, Christmases with small happy children, tears of sorrow, and all manner of memories created here. Someone must have documented all kinds of small moments over the last 67 years. There should be family photo albums or scrapbooks with these pieces of history. Several people out there remember this house differently than I will. Perhaps they came here to have Sunday dinners with grandparents. Maybe they remember walking across the street to the beach. They might even remember who planted what. If I were independently wealthy, I could see writing a book about this---the search for former owners and connecting to the history of a house.

I'm the custodian of this space for now. I am doing some small things to the interior---like paint, updating the bathroom, and (eventually) new carpet for the loft. Outside, I am trying to maintain what was here---including beds of blueberries, strawberries, and hydrangeas---and add a few touches of my own. At some point, I will likely move on and someone else will have their chance to make this home their space.

12 July 2008

Hide Your Young 'Uns

I got my first set of scores back from my elementary endorsement tests that I took last month. Oddly enough, I received the one for my Texas test---which I took later than the one for Washington. The score report is "unofficial," but is good enough for me. I missed 8 out of 100 questions---half of them in the area of literacy, which I fully expected. My knowledge and experience with teaching small children how to actually read is negligible. I missed a science question (perhaps the Pluto one I mentioned?) and three social studies questions. Believe it or not, I didn't miss anything in the realm of math, PE, music, or art. I was scoring ~80% on all the practice tests I took, so I'm pleased with how well I did. This is especially in light of finishing my duties for the school year at 9:30 a.m...rushing to Sea-Tac to fly out at 1 p.m...getting to my final destination at 1 a.m...and testing about 12 hours later. There was more pressure on this test as it would be more difficult for me to retake: cost of plane ticket, time, scheduling, etc. It was also the one upon which everything else would hinge---the first in a series of dominoes to knock down in order to add my endorsement here.

I'm still a ways away from having all the paperwork finished. Now, I have to wait 2 weeks before I apply for the endorsement to be officially added to my Texas certification. Once I receive that documentation, I send it and some paperwork from Washington to the university in Texas where I was originally certified in order to verify that I, indeed, meet the criteria for that state. Once that is in hand, I send that paperwork, plus the Washington paperwork, plus a big check to our certification office...and then wait 4 - 6 weeks for my new certificate to show up. But hey, I'm on my way.

Hide your children. :)

11 July 2008


You know the old joke about being given The Mushroom Treatment, right: kept in the dark and fed a steady diet of shit? I sometimes wonder if kids aren't subjected to that more than we realize. While I understand that there are some topics that might not be considered age-appropriate or school-appropriate, there is also a regular assumption that kids can't be burdened (enlightened?) with things which do affect them.

For example, plenty of my students are frustrated by the internet filters at school, but no one has ever talked to them about the ins and outs of these decisions.

I asked them to tell me the kinds of sites/programs to which they didn't have access at school. I wrote them on the board, grouping them into two categories (which I didn't label until later): those things that would be required under the Childhood Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and those which were just a district choice.

The things that fell into the CIPA category included pornography, gambling, illegal drug use, making oneself an easy target for child predators. All of these are pretty fuzzy, mind you. In fact, we talked some about "pornography." Now, before you start getting all nervous, I didn't ask for any details. What we did talk a bit about was that "porn" is hard to label. There are diagrams of naked people, sex organs, etc. in their biology book---does that qualify? Why is that any different from a photograph of a nude person? They hadn't thought about this much before; however, because gambling, porn, and other things are not available to them (or shouldn't be) until they are 18, they don't mind the blocked access at school. I'm sure some of them figure that they can just look at those things at home. Kids do have their own range of what they think is and isn't "school appropriate." We also talked a bit about the magic age of 18. Most of my students were turning 16: the magical age for getting a driver's license. I promised them that no one was going to sprinkle them with some sort of fairy dust at the moment between their last day of being 17 and their first day of being 18...dust which would confer all manner of wisdom. There's no special part of the brain which unlocks when Poof! You're 18! But as a society, we have to draw lines somewhere and this is the spot we've agreed to. Other countries or cultures do different things based on their own interpretations of the word "adult." Anyway, this part is okay with them.

In the other category were listed things such as MySpace, Facebook, wikipedia (and all other wikis), e-mail, GoogleApps, Flickr, blogs, twitter/plurk, etc. I asked them what all of these had in common. Ah---social networking possibilities. Now, one could make the argument that Flickr, Photobucket, and other such sites could be blocked due to CIPA. After all, the district has to restrict access to pictures, not written content. However, as long as one can do image searches using Google or Yahoo! or other engines, I'm not so sure what good it does. Meanwhile, most of us have likely had the experience of using a perfectly plain search term and getting back some not appropriate for school suggestions. This happened to me at the end of the year when I was using Flickr to find something for the word "Pride." Most of what I got were pictures from gay pride parades---many of the photos containing painted nudes, having a wonderful time. The pix were great, my search term as innocuous as they come, and the lion's share of the results weren't what I needed for school. Anyway, the fact is that with new social networking tools coming out daily, it seems foolish for any school district to think that they will be able to ban them all. It's going to be like pushing back the ocean with a broom.

We also talked about kids' ideas of what "public" and "private" is. Most of them have a "public" MySpace page. Is it their intention that anyone with internet access read it? Are they truly putting content there for everybody? They were a bit taken aback with this idea. Of course they aren't. "Public" for them means their friends or others who know them and might have an interest in what they post. They feel the information should be considered "private" for all others. This is, of course, part of the issue The District worries about. What they post is public from our perspective...but not theirs. However, instead of talking with kids about this and how to be safe with information, we just tell them to do it at home where we don't have to see or think about what they're doing.

I told them that The District is choosing to block these sites for a couple of reasons. One is the concern that they might read something "obscene." In other words, we can't use wikis because someone somewhere might edit the wiki to include a bad word or lewd comment. The district doesn't operate from a standpoint that if given a choice, people tend to do the right thing. But more importantly, as described in Here Comes Everybody, the reason why wikipedia and similar sites have been so successful is because of the sheer volume of people out there who want them to succeed. Sure, you can go in and create something stupid---but all of your efforts can be erased in seconds...and there are far more people interested in doing that than in damaging things.

The other reason The District wants to eliminate access is a very Big Brother one: they can't control the content. If a student uses MS Word to write a paper and saves it on the school's server, the school can read, delete, or do whatever it likes with the work. They can't do this with GoogleDocs. There, a student's work belongs to the student.

My little mushrooms enjoyed the conversation. I brought them into the light a bit and fed them a nicer diet. The question, of course, is where do they go from here. They can't fight the CIPA stuff---and really, they don't seem to want to. What they do need to do is use the social networking tools to take some action...and I think we'll have to get their parents into the mix. (Is their Right to Freedom of Assembly being impinged? An interesting thought, to be sure.) For now, I'll do what I can to make sure that they aren't being treated as mushrooms. Our kids deserve more respect than that.

10 July 2008

It's All in Your Head

I was reading an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called How Lies Live in Your Head and it reminded me of one of my favourite demos to do with my students. This exercise comes from Marilee Sprenger's book How to Teach So Students Remember.
  • Tell the group that you are going to say a list of terms. They should just listen to the words, not write them down.
  • Slowly read the following list: nap, dream, bed, moon, rest, night, snooze, blanket, slumber, drowsy, lie down, pillow, snore, evening, quiet.
  • After the list has been read, chat with the group for a moment about memory. (Perhaps some will have played "hidden objects" games before.) The goal is to have most of the list you read moved out of working memory.
  • Tell the group that you are now going to "test" them on how well they remember the terms. Ask them to raise their hands if they remember you saying the word dream. What about sleep? Most, if not all, will raise their hands for both. Remind the group that you did not say the word sleep. Why does your brain think it heard the word?
Fortunately or unfortunately, it is surprisingly simple to plant false memories into our brains. The example above deals with associations. The piece in the Times is focused more on presidential campaign "lies" and why both candidates and voters come to believe certain things.
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true...

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

One quote that I keep in my workspace at all times is the Thomas Cardinal Wolsey admonition to "Be very very careful what you put into that head, because you will never ever get it back out." This statement was made ~500 years ago, which gives a certain amount of credence to the idea that things happening in Henry VIII's court were likely not all that much less political than our own climate. In the classroom, I am amazed at the number and variety of misconceptions students hold about various science concepts...and the resistance to let those go. Maybe for teachers, it isn't as much about replacing "bad" memories as it is about infusing "good" ones. Can we do more to exploit the brain's abilities to help our students?

08 July 2008

Shall I Compare Thee to a Carnival's Day?

Mamacita has done a glorious job with this week's Carnival of Education. Get on over to Scheiss Weekly (Just As It Says) and take a midsummer's day stroll along the midway.

07 July 2008

Size Isn't Everything

I'm still poking along on my grading workshop that I'm facilitating in three weeks. My problem is that now that I'm down to the nitty gritty of what to actually say and do with the group, the whole project keeps growing. I keep remembering little anecdotes to share...pieces of articles that are good for provoking thought...and quotes from the research that make powerful statements. So what I originally think might be a 15-minute segment grows into something twice as long.

Meanwhile, this is supposed to be a workshop. To me, that means that the participants talk and do things---I should just be facilitating the learning. People aren't giving up their summer holiday and paying good money to see me on a soapbox. And yet there is so much I could share. I feel the tug of becoming a bad teacher---the kind who feels they have to show all of their learning while the captive audience yawns. I am trying very hard to resist that pull.

I "only" have three hours. I keep reminding myself that some things are just going to have to be left off the program. I need to pick my very best stuff---the things I feel I absolutely must say (presentation mode) and then include lots of opportunities for people to "play" with the ideas for themselves. I have to remember that the size of my knowledge base isn't everything that needs to be shared at that time. But if I build things just right, they'll come back for more.

06 July 2008

Thought Experiment

So, let's say that Congress agreed to rescind NCLB on one condition: Every teacher in every public school classroom has to use standards-based grading and reporting practices. What would schools say? That they prefer annual testing...or that they're willing to make a k-12 change in how we evaluate students at the classroom level?

Keep in mind that colleges had a similar choice over a century ago. Unhappy with the uneven quality of incoming classes, colleges knew that they had two ways to determine whether or not students were actually prepared by their high schools. In the first scenario, they could insist that transcripts be more meaningful. An "A" at one school in math did not mean the same as an "A" in math from another school. If universities insisted on changes in grading and reporting to reflect what students actually knew and could do, they would be more knowledgeable about applicants. We all know that institutions of higher learning didn't go this route. Instead, they picked option B: develop a standardized test which all applicants would take. The scores from the tests would allow easy comparison among candidates. The SAT was born...as well as the standardized testing movement.

Do we really have no one to blame but ourselves for all of these exit tests and other standardized fair? If I could tell a college (or employer) exactly what skills a student did and didn't master, would they need to know what the SAT score was?

A commentary in Education Week asked if our traditional grading practices be counterproductive? The answer, I believe, is "Yes." It's the basis for my dissertation. Now, I'm not willing to throw out grades and grading---but I believe that our approach has to change. To read the full article requires registration, but here are some highlights:
What is shocking is how rare the following question is asked: Does this grade reflect whether or not the student has actually learned anything?

The problem with our grade-dominated system is that emphasizing grades and grading can distract us from a concentration on what really matters: whether or not students are comprehending and learning the material. A ridiculous, even tragic, amount of time is devoted by too many teachers to disputing grades with parents and students. That time could be better used discussing what the child is learning, or having other productive conversations.

Another problem with a heavy reliance on grading is the underlying assumption that grades are a necessary motivator for students. There are several problems with this contention. Psychological research has shown that students, and people in general, are more likely to lose interest in what they’re doing if they are promised carrots or threatened with sticks. Using grades as a threat or reward for completing or not completing schoolwork is extrinsic, or external, motivation. This type of motivation often results in a decreased focus on the learning objective.

I cringe when I hear students ask, “Is this for a grade?” We should try to eliminate that question in our schools. Don’t we, after all, want students to be motivated by the prospect of learning itself? In classroom environments where grades are pushed, the sad fact is that students will often choose the easiest path to high grades, rather than challenge themselves in meaningful and creative ways. In classrooms where students are intrinsically, or internally, motivated, excellence is more likely to occur.

Most students will want to learn if they are presented with engaging and exciting learning environments and experiences. At the least, I’ve found that more students are motivated to learn when presented with authentic, stimulating learning climates than by the threat-reward bargain of grades. Research shows us that the human brain is wired to enjoy discovery and novel ideas, experiences, and situations. If we focused more on creating ideal learning climates, grades could slowly be pushed aside, and we could concentrate more on the kind of constructive feedback that spurs more student growth. Unfortunately, the pressure of grade competition and comparison is ingrained in our system.

I work in a public school where grading is seen as an important motivational facet and feedback tool. But this is no reason for me to despair, despite the problems I have with the practice. We are changing, little by little. Members of the school’s math department, for example, are actively making strides by recording fewer grades, focusing instead on formative assessments and interacting with students to constantly gauge what they know. As a language arts teacher, one of the most productive paths I’ve found is to de-emphasize grades. Traditional grading is insufficient as I attempt to assess student learning, growth, and development.

Like every other student, I enjoyed receiving good grades in school. But I honestly didn’t care much about the grades in courses I was most interested in. There, what we were doing was for the sake of learning itself. That kind of intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to the creation of students who display the greatest tribute to public education, a desire to keep on learning, long after they have left the classroom.
I hope that in coming years that we are prepared to turn the tide on testing by showing that our grades are meaningful. I'd like to think that public schools are brave enough to take this thought experiment to its logical conclusion

05 July 2008

Something New Under the Sun

Good teachers want their students to be more than sponges, absorbing information. They want students to think and use that information: remix things into something new. Great teachers find ways to facilitate that process and make kids bloom with creativity.

But how should we support these behaviours in one another?

Teaching---if done well---is an inherently creative process. A one-size-fits-all lesson plan used year after year is not enough to reach every child who walks through the classroom door. Technology affords us new ways to engage students and elicit high-quality evidence of learning. Educational research clues us in on ways to refine our craft.

I like to think that those educators who blog are taking things a step further. In choosing to share your inside views of the profession, you're setting an example for others about meaningful reflection. But even more importantly, you show that you're willing to take a creative risk...to go beyond the four walls of the school and connect with others. You have great things to share and say and I appreciate all that I get to learn from you.

I've recently been wondering about the importance of sharing our learning in more traditional formats. Until this year, I hadn't made a formal presentation at a conference since 1996. That's a long stretch of time where I attended workshops, conferences, and conventions...and gave nothing back. I do a lot of writing here (this is post #1163), but could I have more of an impact on classroom grading practices if I expanded the media I use? Blog posts are "quick writes" for me---not much more than drafts. But should I clean up a few and offer them for publication through ASCD, Education Week, or other journals open for teacher submissions? I think about writing a book---one which focuses on how to increase the intrinsic motivation of students through cues in the classroom environment.

So, I'm challenging myself this summer to send out three articles/commentaries for publication. I fully expect to receive three rejection letters for my attempts, but that is all right. I have all the opportunity I could want for self-publishing right here in this space. In an odd way, my goal is not seeing my name in a magazine, but rather to stretch my personal boundaries a bit and put myself out there for a different kind of feedback. I can show myself that I do have more to share---and that can happen beyond this space (if only in workshops and presentations I give).

What should teachers be doing, if anything, to show that they have developed something new under the sun?

04 July 2008


I want to spend my $.02 today talking about choice. It's Independence Day in the states, with an emphasis of freedom, but an underlying message that this gives one the ability to choose. It does not, however, provide the motivation to do so. And today, I specifically want to respond to Scott McLeod's call for leadership in technology because what I see all too often is a lack of leadership in this area. There is no choice to be professional.

Shall we talk about what it means to be a professional educator/role model in the 21st century?

Does this include reflection on one’s practice? Does it include collaboration with other educators? Would the description entail something to do with continual professional development and intellectual curiosity? Staying current with best practices? Might it involve the integration of technology into lessons? Does being “professional” mean that you do whatever it takes to help students reach the standards---putting student learning at the heart of every decision you make, from the posters on your walls to the words you use in talking with students about their work?

I am fortunate to have developed an extensive personal learning network over the last few years. I’ll have tens of thousands of visitors to my site this year who will help me shape my personal reflections on my professional life. I have regular daily contact with superintendents, principals, technology leaders, teachers, and others not only in Washington state, but around the world. These contacts supply me with a constant stream of updated information for the classroom---whether they are new technologies or new applications for the classroom. In this ongoing collaborative network, kids come first. There are continual questions about how best to meet the needs of all learners and a supportive attitude of making things happen.

The real world of my school district is not so “professional” in this sense. If reflection is important, then where are the blogs of administrators? Why is it okay for one of our building principals to refer to those who use social networking as "freaky." To our district technology "leaders"---I don’t see you on Twitter or a Ning. Do you not believe in the technology you represent? Where is your role modeling for others? When will there be trainings available for teachers on social networking tools as opposed to just Microsoft wares?

Where is your leadership? How do you justify to parents the inequity of access to 21st century skills you are developing in their children? No wikis, no blogs, no nings, no cell phones, no GoogleDocs, no streaming media, no right-click options on computer mice. The big list of "No!" goes on and on. When will you realize that technology is not just "stuff" like document cameras and projectors used as no more than glorified overhead projectors? When will you step up to the plate and be leaders?

I know how easy it must be to dismiss these tools. You think you have the very convenient excuse that you're too busy...that there's no time. And yet I see evidence of other administrators in the US and Canada making time to blog, participate on Twitter or a Ning, or use a wiki to support professional development. I applaud their interest in choosing to be professional...in choosing to model intellectual curiosity...to do what's best for kids. I know our "leadership" attends various conferences and meetings, but so far, there are no district leaders here who create content and present to others. How do you expect those who work for you to believe that you are learning when you only absorb what you can from others and do nothing to show your thinking and application? We don't accept this level of effort from kids in our classrooms---why do you think that it's okay for you to model that it is?

Has anyone else noticed the lack of district level information services people in Classroom 2.0 discussions? I see blogs by school board members, teachers, building principals, state leaders, students, and district personnel. I see none by school IT people. There are one or two of these gatekeepers in most districts who ensure 21st century tools stay out of the hands of teachers and students, yet they do not seem to participate in any sort of way with the rest of us who are on-line. I find it odd that there is no apparent interest on their part. Is this what leadership in technology should look like?

The graphic for the post today comes from Married to the Sea. They published it earlier this week and it seemed fitting to use it today. And while this post has become a rant of sorts, I can't emphasize enough that those who are in leadership roles have made the choice to be there, with all of the associated responsibilities and privileges. Maybe it's time you stepped up and showed that you should earn the right to be called professional.

03 July 2008

The Kindergarchy

One of the things I like best about the internet is the diversity of readily available source material. I look at lots of information everyday from blogs to news items to Flickr pools. And while there is an author behind each piece who is trying to make some sense of a particular idea, from my "user" state, I get the fun part of seeing connections between the disparate pieces. And this week, it was an article in Newsweek (US) and the London Times (UK) that had the nice jive. In this case, both are about children and how adults (at least in western cultures) are reacting to them.

Newsweek poses the question Does Having Children Make You Happy? And the answer, which is likely not a surprise to anyone, is No. In fact, one study found that "no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
Is it possible that American parents have always been this disillusioned? Anecdotal evidence says no. In pre-industrial America, parents certainly loved their children, but their offspring also served a purpose—to work the farm, contribute to the household. Children were a necessity. Today, we have kids more for emotional reasons, but an increasingly complicated work and social environment has made finding satisfaction far more difficult. A key study by University of Wisconsin-Madison's Sara McLanahan and Julia Adams, conducted some 20 years ago, found that parenthood was perceived as significantly more stressful in the 1970s than in the 1950s; the researchers attribute part of that change to major shifts in employment patterns. The majority of American parents now work outside the home, have less support from extended family and face a deteriorating education and health-care system, so raising children has not only become more complicated—it has become more expensive.
It is not a far stretch to assume that parenting itself has changed, as well as how we view children. We don't look at toddlers now and wonder how soon we can get them out doing chores. But the London Times thinks that we are treating our children too much like Little Emperors. Perhaps children are too much seen and heard these days. Now, there is a "backlash against the all-must-have-prizes culture that has produced children used to getting their own way. As parents, we are encouraged to nurture our children’s sense of 'self,' but are we unwittingly doing them more harm than good?"
It’s a wonder more teachers aren’t driven out of the profession by parents bombarding them with e-mails, phone calls and requests for meetings. “Students told me what they ‘felt’ about a novel,” he recalled. “I tried, ever so gently, to tell them no one cared what they felt. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to – but did not – write, ‘Too much love in the home’.”
Both articles are focused on home and family, but I wonder what the lessons are for schools. There are some examples of schools going overboard on self-esteem concerns (certificates for toddlers who sit still, school plays where everyone gets to be Snow White and no one has to be the witch, nursing schools which offer counseling in case it is stressful for students to come in contact with sick patients), but I have to think that these are few and far between. One hears or reads the odd story in the edusphere which supports this. Those are mostly limited to the rare helicopter parent or the awards assembly where everyone gets something. Kindergarchy tactics do not seem to have deeply infiltrated public schools. At least not yet. I'm not sure that in a standards-based environment that they will. No matter how much praise you give a child, if they can't read or do math, they're not going to graduate from high school...even if it hurts their feelings. Still, I have to think that educators---especially at the elementary level where most examples seem to be---need to be vigilant about what is reasonable for developing children.

02 July 2008

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Numbers

Last year, I worked with a school that was in the midst of re-centering itself. It's all too easy in the midst of the Death by 1000 Mandates governing us to remember why it is that we choose to be in the classroom---much less think about the future and what we want our schools to be.

I asked the staff to consider three questions: What happens? What matters? What matters most?

They wrote their answers into three concentric rings like this:

The outer ring contained all sorts of ideas about the school day (what happens). The middle ring was meant to focus ideas a bit---our of all the things that happen in a given day, which of those matter? Finally, the center ring was to capture what mattered the most out of everything. People from all walks of school participated and, as you might imagine, a range of answers were generated.

With their permission, I organized the information for them. I chose to use tag clouds. I could have used a graph instead---we could have counted how many people mentioned "parents" or "data." But I don't think it would have had the same impact as the clouds. I used TagCrowd for generating the visuals because it allowed me to put in my own text (most cloud services use URL or other on-line data).

Here is What Happens:

Here is What Matters:

Here is What Matters Most:

You can click on any of the graphics to make them bigger (and more readable). If you're unfamiliar with this sort of graphic representation, all you need to know is that the bigger and bolder the font, the more times the idea was mentioned by the staff.

I have to say that "What happens?" is my favourite. It's this delightful snapshot of a school day---everything from the pledge of allegiance in the morning to kids tipping over chairs to the after school safety patrol groups. There is a certain sense of cacophony to visual. You get a real sense that life in the school is "noisy" and that you are pulled a hundred different directions. It's also interesting to me to see how not only does that noise get dialed back as you progress through the visuals, but the things which garnered the most attention for "What happens?" are not the same things that matter the most. This served as a great jumping off point for talking about why there was this disparity and what we could do about it.

I have to say that it was one of my most favourite staff development activities that I've ever done. I think the visual was powerful in allowing everyone on staff to have a voice in the process and to see it reflected in the work they did together. I am hoping to have an opportunity to use a similar process in the future. There are so many new ways to visualize data, from microcharts to infoporn (safe to click---it's just about where the calories are in grocery stores) to motion graphs. We need to find ways to bring these to the classroom and staff room. They make the stories of our schools come alive and are more than worth 1000 numbers in what they communicate.

01 July 2008

An Open and Shut Case

I have a friend who was courted to become part of the Dark Side and be paid to work part-time in a supporting role for secondary science. He is a fantastic and passionate teacher who cares greatly about standards and good instruction. You'd be hard pressed to find a better role model for other science teachers. But he is also smart enough to realize that he can do more for kids by being in the classroom. That until district administration is willing to have guts enough to insist that science teachers teach to the standards in a high-quality way, there's no point in him talking to anyone. People will do as they please (which is what happens now) until someone holds them to their obligations.

When I read Teaching on the Titanic over at Elbows, Knees, and Dreams, I was reminded of the situation here. Over the last few years, I've seen plenty of good teachers who opened their doors and minds to greater collaboration and collegiality only to discover that it was not as rewarding professionally as just doing the best they can within their own classrooms. The level that they are willing to give to others was not returned in kind. They thought they were reaching out to support more students by working more closely with peers...only to discover that differing levels of commitment doomed it all. They opened their doors. Now they're closing them. As a teacher, you only have so much energy. You can only "save" so many kids. You make the classroom your lifeboat and hang the rest because it's too frustrating to have uninvolved peers and uncaring administration. If you have to make a choice between kids you can make a difference with and peers that you can't, it's easy to see why they've picked students.