31 January 2009


This was a smashmouth kind of week. Monday through Wednesday consisted of 14-hour workdays (including travel around the state), while Thursday and Friday were full of crises to solve. There have been times with this new job this year that I have been terribly bored. This week was not like that---and for that, I am grateful.

I got to spend one day this week with an amazing group of teachers. I don't think I've met another department (and a large one at that with 15 people) who have the level of trust and collaboration that this group had. These were teachers who truly felt comfortable talking about anything related to professional practice---everything from true confessions, to feelings of despair, to thinking about loud concerning what they do in the classroom and why. What a wonderful experience. The focus of the conversation was on their grading practices. They have been working to implement standards-based grading and were experiencing some growing pains (along with their students). The day's conversation ranged quite a bit, but my hope was that we were being responsive to their needs.

One of the most interesting pieces was in talking about the feedback provided to students. Teachers aren't seeing the kinds of responses that they would like. In other words, the teacher takes time to craft feedback and communicate it...and then the student either never looks at it or does nothing with the information. We talked about the idea of teaching students to use that information---had anyone spent time with the class on this? There is an assumption that kids would just automatically know what to do. I don't think they necessarily do. Many teachers do not give meaningful feedback. Notes to students consist of "Great job!" or "See me." or something else that is non-descriptive. If the students finally encounter something narrative and supportive, that's a whole new ball game. The conversation reminded me of the one about "studying." How many of us have lectured students about the need to study more without actually explaining how to do that?

The remainder of the week was a flurry of meetings, questions about grants, response to legislative action, and Herculean efforts to stop the domino effects set forth by new leadership. Firefighting opportunities arrived in all sorts of shapes and sizes and it will be interesting to see how well I can keep up with the demand.

Next week, I am sneaking off to do some staff development at two schools. I am only "sneaking" in the sense that doing staff development is frowned upon; however, I see the direct support to teachers and schools as the most important thing I can do. Their needs should be placed above anything else we do as an agency. The fires I keep having to stamp out are more about what adults outside of education want as opposed to what the students within our schools need. I may not be able to change that view, but I can quietly travel to where I'm needed and do the very best I can for educators. As long as I take care of business back at the office, no one is likely to complain.

For now, I'm going to take off my asbestos undergarments, lounge on my sofa, and enjoy the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Monday, with all it's smoldering issues, will be here soon enough.

25 January 2009

Is It Bigger Than a Breadbox?

Depending upon how you roll in the edusphere, you may have noticed that Educon 2.1 was happening this weekend. This event, hosted by Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, is "an education conference. It is, hopefully, an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas -- from the very practical to the big dreams." (Learn more on the Educon 2.1 Wiki.)

I watched the streaming video of the Sunday morning panel, fascinated to see reps from KIPP, Teach for America, and the Constructivist Consortium weigh in on what's happening with schools. Between listening, watching the "back channel" chat happening amongst other listeners, and peeking at Twitter, there was information overload to be had.

Comments from the panel included:
  • Schools are places where kids go to watch adults work.
  • Reform means schools fitting the form the kids need as opposed to the other way around.
  • We are beating kids over their heads with rifles because we can't afford the bullets. (re: NCLB Funding)
  • We should take all the worksheet teachers and put them in one school.
  • As the richest country in the world we should provide every student with a computer and a cello.
There was much head bobbing from the audience and many "Amen"s on the backchannel. My personal takeaway from all of this was simply "What next?" We know what's wrong with the system. We know the things we've tried to do to fix it. The people involved with this conference (even me, in a very remote way) are all very passionate about making schools the best we can for kids.

But what do we do to make that happen? What are the action steps? Because talking about it is no longer enough.

I worry that the people who attend these events are not the ones who have the greatest power to enact change. That is not a diss on anyone who works for change within their classroom or circle of influence. I am also incredibly jealous of anyone who was able to attend this conference. It is simply an observation that until policymakers are watching these conversations at 6:30 on a Sunday morning along with me, there will be no scaling up.

In my position, I have far more "power" than I have ever had. I merely utter the name of the agency I work for and whoever is on the other end of the phone line will jump to find the person I need to talk to or others at a lunch table will stop conversations and listen. I don't necessarily like this, but I am learning to make my peace with it. I am beginning to see how I might use my voice for change. However, even at my level, I am running into significant roadblocks. The people who can truly make things happen are so far removed (both physically and mentally) from the realities of classroom life that they refuse to consider the damage their words and actions are doing. They are not at Educon (or similar events) to listen to educators.

And so, my friends, what do we do to change this? What is our first step beyond our circle of influence? What is the answer to this first of 20+ questions about taking action?

24 January 2009

Striking a Balance

Next week, I'm heading out to work with some teachers who have been trying to implement best practices in grading this year and are running into some issues. I'm very much looking forward to the discussion. The questions they sent ahead of time about assessment issues, power standards, and student motivation are thought-provoking in the most delightfully nerdy way. This will be an awesome day.

To prepare for this adventure, I've been doing some snooping, er, background research about the school. I've looked at their test scores, demographic breakdowns, and teacher information. I visited their website. I read the most recent edition of the school newsletter. I Googled.

What I've learned is that this is very high-performing school according to traditional measures: SAT scores, AP, Jay Mathews/Newsweek ranking, and so forth. The accolades are impressive. And yet, from the information the school directly shared with me, they have some very traditional problems with kids not doing homework or who are permitted to retake tests (but don't...or fail them on purpose first so that they can go back and retake them).

In some ways, this is not a surprise. From the external front this school is putting out, the school values performance (engaging in behaviors that result in grades/rewards). The teachers I'm going to work with, however, value mastery behaviors (learning for the sake of learning). Kids are therefore a bit confused. When the overall message from the school environment is "AP! WASL! Top School!" and within one classroom it is "Take risks! Keep trying!" there is going to be some dissonance.

It will be interesting to have a discussion about striking a balance. The fact is, success should be celebrated wherever it is found---from great AP scores to the most recent drama production to Joe/Jane student meeting standard after a long struggle with a concept. I don't know that we need to throw out our performance messages, but I think we need to emphasize other aspects more. How powerful is it when the lead story in the school newsletter reflects different learning opportunities happening at the school rather than the AP test breakdown? How do we communicate both the fact that WASL scores are well above district and state averages and also provide context for these to reflect learning? I think it can be done. We just have to be more purposeful in the making the outward messages we give to students and the community match our intentions about learning.

22 January 2009

Social Experiment

As social networking things go, a blog is fairly low on the totem pole. A writer like me chooses their own content and design. There is some interaction between readers and me, but it is only a step above a static website. I do have a couple of wikis here and there for various projects, and while they have not achieved the level of interaction and collaboration I would like, I appreciate the potential of a shared space. Ditto for Google Docs. In the past year, I've added Twitter to my tool set and have grown to love and depend on it. Even though all of these spaces are different in the purposes they serve and the connections they create, they seem to work for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I added Facebook to the mix. Hey, everybody's doing it, right?

I'm not sure that I get it. I've been telling people that it feels like remedial Twitter to me. Sure, it's nice to connect with a long lost friend or classmate...but then what? We only know one another as we existed decades ago and it is unreasonable to assume that whatever commonalities we shared then are in place now. People grow and change with time. I do have a few current friends added to my Facebook page, but for the most part, these are people I see or e-mail/text regularly. There are better ways (for me) to keep up.

When I think about this blog, the wikis, and Twitter, they lead to new learning for me. I get to meet and interact with people who share my current interests and who challenge me to think and move forward. My now and future selves are found in these networks. I struggle with understanding the need for one which has the primary purpose of dragging me back. Or perhaps I am just turning into a fuddy duddy and Facebook is too "young" for me.

So, I'll give it another week or two...see if this new social experiment starts to grow on me. There may be charms it has yet to reveal. Or maybe I'll just make my peace with the past, delete my page, and move forward in other ways.

20 January 2009

Question #2 for Elementary Educators

Many thanks to those of you who commented on the question in the previous post. In addition to posting here, I had a few answers via Twitter and a few in person conversations to add to the mix. I'm not going to claim I've had a representative sample...and I also can't claim that there is much in the way of consensus, either. Like most things that have to do with schools, "the answer" rarely exists. But I am glad that you all have helped narrow things down. That is most helpful.

So, here is part two of the assignment I need your help in completing.

Suppose you had access to a science specialist at your school---someone who would teach science lessons a couple of times a week (in the same sense with which you might access PE, library, music...). Would you welcome science specialists for delivering science instruction to students---and what obstacles do you see in implementing it?

For example, maybe it's an awesome idea, but you just don't have a spare classroom...or the schedule is packed as it is. (Secondary educators rarely believe me when I tell them how difficult elementary schedules can be to build. They think they have the market cornered.) Or perhaps you wouldn't want a specialist because there are things you learn about your kids or places you like to connect the curriculum.

Nearly every educator I know is working in a school where budgets are being cut...and the most expensive portion of a school budget is people. Perhaps adding people, in this sense, is not a feasible option, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing if the payoff for kids would be worth it. (Side note: I would SO leave my current job if I could be an elementary science specialist.) If nothing else, it might serve as a reminder that legislators need to put their money where their collective mouth is.

What do you think?

17 January 2009

Elementary Educators: Raise Your Voice

To my elementary educator peeps, I need your help.

Suppose that you were expected to teach more science during your already overloaded school day. This expectation was coupled with the promise that if you do this, another item would be removed from your responsibility (or you could have something you needed/wanted for your classroom). What would that one thing be?

This is reminiscent of the negotiations I blogged about a few weeks ago. If the state expects teachers to increase something, then it should offer that expectation in trade for something else. Tell me, teachers, what is your number one choice? Less than 120 minutes a day for reading? More planning time? Is there a professional resource that would like...or a particular assignment you have that should go away? What would make your classroom life nicer---or at least nice enough that you would be willing to take on more science instruction?

If you have an idea to share, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail. This is not a drill. Your answers may well be used as the basis for some changes in the state. I have another question to post in a couple of days about scheduling and the use of specialists. Keep your thinking caps on for me.

16 January 2009

One Teacher at a Time

How sweet is this? (identifying information removed)

Hi SG, my name is --- and I teach Jr. High English in the --- School District. I attended your seminar last week and I have to say, about once a year I hear something that changes my educational life, and your presentation [on grading] was just that. Life-changing. Honestly, I came back to school and explained what I had gathered to some other educators (and my principal) and everyone was stoked and on-board. We might even take a professional development day as a department to do some work with it.

There are days where all of my paper-pushing doesn't feel like it makes a difference. The fact is, it probably doesn't. That can be very frustrating. I'm all too aware of the needs classroom teachers have and the demands they are placed under. It seems like someone in my position could do more.

I've had several e-mails this week along the same lines. Here was another from my inbox this morning:

I wanted to let you know that your presentations are quite the buzz at our school right now. They have been mentioned in 3 school meetings. 4 of the teachers at our school went to the standards and differentiation presentations and LOVED them. They are talking about maybe a content area or two trying out standards based grading next year. Are there any resources that you recommend as guidance as teachers transition to this type of grading?

Thank you for everything.

Perhaps I can help one teacher at a time. Perhaps that equals 30 kids at a time. Maybe it means that regardless of what else I do with my life, my legacy will be that grading practices change in classrooms. These little e-mails are good for some self-affirmation the next time the more mundane aspects of the job have me down. Onward.

11 January 2009

Grade Grief

For the last few presentations I've done, I haven't spent a lot of time on the nuts and bolts sort of stuff with grading practices. In other words, I'm not talking about why using zeros, averages, and so forth isn't part of what should happen with what grades represent. I am fairly up front about things and state that one of my assumptions about attendees is that they are already familiar with those things. Even if they aren't, they are okay with me skipping this part.

There are a lot of questions, however, about dealing with various stakeholders. How do you deal with parents---especially of the helicopter variety who often value grades as opposes to what they represent? What about colleges who are dealing with transcripts? What do you do when the Athletic Director needs to check eligibility and you don't have enough information about the students?

Parents are more of a complex issue. As for colleges? Hey, by now, they know that grades are different from teacher to teacher...and school to school. They have a portfolio of information with which to look at prospective students. I'm not going to fret about the one or two letters represented on a transcript for a kid and that what they mean is going to cause the abandonment of hope. Heck, if this study noted in Education Week is any good, then academic performance in 8th grade is a better predictor for college/work readiness than a high school transcript. Eligibility? Just go with a Pass/Fail approach---that's all that's needed. Don't sweat the details.

I was pondering some of these things (again) after being at the conference this week, and also because of some of the grading-related posts and articles that turned up in my feed.
  • John Spencer wonders What If Grades Don't Matter? and instead we focused on providing meaningful feedback. I don't know that we will ever escape giving grades---and perhaps we shouldn't. But we can work on reshaping what they mean and what we use them for.
  • Pittsburgh administrators are caught up in the crossfire now that a 50 is the lowest score a student can receive. This type of thing could be handled better, to be sure. The "50" is not a percent, as is being assumed/reported---it's a score being used to make the overall A-F scale more equitable. They will have some PR cleanup for awhile.
  • Fairfax schools also continue to have woes due to their percentage/letter grade scale of choice. I've been watching this one brew for months. Oh, how I wish the parents of this district would bust chops based on what constitutes good practice instead of pimping for a couple of percentage points.
  • And, in lighter news, Ryan over at I Thought a Think directed readers to a 1990 article on The Dead Grandmother/Exam syndrome. Go read...and laugh 'til it hurts.

09 January 2009

We All Just Wanna Be Big Rock Stars

When this was a bouncing baby blog, I wrote about attending our annual state education conference. And here it is, four years later, and I've been presenting my little heart out at this same conference. It has been a very different experience, to be sure.

My session on grading practices has been the most popular. Too popular, perhaps, as I had to turn away close to 100 people who were very upset that they couldn't get in. So, I have offered to do it a third time and been placed in a room that will seat 120. I don't expect to fill it this time around, but I am glad that I can provide one more opportunity for those who want it. I had someone tell me yesterday "I was just standing in the line at Starbucks and the woman in front of me was raving about your session!" At least she wasn't ranting. :)

The presentation I did on differentiated instruction was also popular. I turned away people there, too, but perhaps not quite as many. I don't think that any of these things are really so much a matter of me and/or my reputation as much as it is the topics themselves. I'm trying to feed hungry minds after listening to what they needed. Meanwhile, my "teacher voice" is out of practice and I may be dumb (in more ways than one) by the end of the day. I have been the energizer bunny of the presentation world for this conference---but have enjoyed it immensely.

Another highlight has been getting to meet the Hedgetoad. I'm so glad that she was able to make it here---especially with all the flooding, road closures, and other weather-related issues. We've both been blogging for awhile, but never been able to get together.

Once I wrap up here this morning, I'm off to a birthday lunch at my favourite restaurant and then heading home for some much needed R & R...and "normal" status. Conference fame is fleeting, and perhaps that's just as well.

05 January 2009

Is That Your Final Answer?

Every school I've worked in has had a "finals week." Sadly, I have to admit that until now, I never stopped to consider why they do this.

What is the purpose of a course final?

If assessment informs instruction---how would a final accomplish this? The class is over. It isn't as if the teacher can use the information for remediation purposes.

If the assessment is "practice" for college (for high school kids) or high school (for junior high tots), then is that a suitable purpose? Most kids aren't going to college...and while one might argue that a test may be required here and there for vocational certifications, can we really claim that taking a final is a life skill?

If we claim that it is a rite of passage or some sort, tradition, or "that's just the way it is," are those valid reasons?

Last year, I used The Final as the last ditch attempt opportunity for kids. They identified which standards still needed mastery and then only addressed those. They could choose an in-class opportunity on the allotted day of the final...or identify an alternative assessment that was due on the appointed time. All of this could only help them.

Is there a legitimate educational purpose (even for colleges) to have a final exam for a class?

03 January 2009

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

At long last, it finally happened. I did not have to engage in anything morally ambiguous, as it turned out. Some patience and good fortune scored me a beta testing login to Zuiprezi. I stayed up well past my bedtime last night to learn and play a bit. I took a chunk of a presentation on grading and used it as source material to see how this new software might be used.

So far, I'm generally satisfied. The interface (the "paw" looking thing in the upper lefthand corner) is easy to navigate. It's just a more visual way to display the contents of a tool bar than what we typically have. I like being able to easily resize text and graphics...position things however I like...and then connect the pieces in any sequence. The only drawback I can see at this point is that any graphics which aren't of a very high resolution appear quite pixelated when the presentation is running---far moreso than in Powerpoint. I won't say that the screenshot above represents fine design, but for a first attempt, I'm feeling pretty good about the possibilities.

I really hope that the developers for this tool are able to make a go of things, considering current economic conditions. I have to say, though, that I would definitely be willing to pay for access. I think it's an excellent tool with some great potential for the classroom. My plan for first using this tool for a grant-writing workshop I'll be doing in the coming weeks. If this style of presentation is better suited for text, then perhaps this will be the perfect opportunity to give things a try.

Mind you, my job assignment is shifting a bit. In fact, I was cc'ed on an e-mail yesterday requesting the keepers of the website to add my credentials to the "Science Ass Main Page." I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'm really only half-ass(essment), according to my contract. I am grateful to have some better job security, a raise, and access to better benefits. So if that means doing some big ass science, count me in. And with a tool like Zuiprezi in my back pocket, perhaps some of the other good things I've been waiting for will appear.

01 January 2009

Advocating for Fairness

A couple of articles in the New York Times have caught my eye and had me thinking some more about the roles of equal and fair in education. The first article, All's Fair in the Middle School Scramble, describes the efforts of many parents to ensure that their children get into the "right" middle school within the public education system.

As the Bloomberg administration has created hundreds of new schools, centralized the admissions process and publicized the options, there is a wave of panic among many parents of fifth graders facing the next step. And throughout the country, middle school is increasingly seen as a kind of educational black hole where raging hormones, changes in how youngsters learn and a dearth of great teachers can collide to send test scores plummeting.

Many parents fear that picking the wrong school could dash their children’s chances for a top high school or college.

For the moment, let's set aside the whole "good teacher = good test score" aspect, as well as the one related to "middle school kids are excused from learning due to hormones." The real gist of the article is that parents and kids are working hard to be selective, but what isn't stated is that these are families who know how to navigate the system and have the luxury of being able to do so. How many working class moms can go on tours of eleven different prospective middle schools? Know who might best advise them? And so forth. Is it "fair" that some families do and others don't? Should this be a concern of the public schools?

I have known many teachers over the years who assumed that because some parents didn't show up for Open House or Parent-Teacher Conferences that the parents didn't care about their children or their education. My experiences working with families living in poverty provides a very different perspective. Those parents love their kids just as much as anyone else. But when you are dependent upon bus schedules and jobs where you only earn your minimum wage for the hours you are actually working---well, options for having time to go to the school (let alone find ways to get there and back) are limited, at best. What's more important---going to Open House...or staying on the job to earn a few more dollars to feed your children?

The second piece I looked at was the changes to College Board policy which will allow students to pick and choose which SAT scores colleges see. The article outlines a variety of perspectives and the rift this policy is creating between the College Board, schools, and colleges; but, again, it is the missing component that raises my interest. The advantage for this policy lies clearly with those who can afford to pay to take the test multiple times, get coaching/tutoring/prep classes, and so forth. I do know that students of poverty can take the SAT at a reduced rate...but I can't help but think that with the current economy, there could well be quite a large lower middle-class population that isn't poor enough to qualify for assistance, but for whom taking the SAT at all (let alone 2 or more times) would be a luxury.

The admission practices of a particular college or university may well be "equal" in their expectations, but are they encouraging unfair advantages? Are middle schools starting to be in a similar boat? I'm really okay with the whole idea that "Life isn't fair." I know that there will always be individuals who milk a system for all its worth without a thought for others. College admissions have been gamed for ages---selecting SAT scores won't change that.

What I'm worried about here is the system enabling---maybe even encouraging---that behavior. Are we just giving equal and fair lip service? Shouldn't every child have access to a determined advocate? It might not be the parent, for whatever reason, but the assumption at this point seems to be that because kids have parents (equal) that the playing field is automatically level (fair) for every child.