31 August 2009

Just Practicing

With school starting up again, the subject of homework has re-emerged in a variety of venues. Some teacher-bloggers are posting about how to weight homework in their grading scale. Time Magazine has an article about how homework is Maybe Not So Onerous After All, while Teacher Magazine refers to homework as The Necessary Evil. When it comes to homework, there is no dearth of opinions to be found. Including mine, natch.

When it comes to whether or not homework should be assigned, I believe it is okay to do so...with the following parameters:
  • The task must be meaningfully connected to the learning target. This is not to say that popsicle stick projects, poems, dances, and other expressions can't be purposeful in terms of student understanding (and differentiation is a great instructional tool). The guidelines just need to be clear. (Along this vein, have a look at some hilarious student projects.)
  • Homework should be used to practice a skill or reinforce content that students have already worked with. If you teach something new and then expect kids to go home and be successful on their own, you're setting yourself up for disappointment (and probably some pissed off parents).
  • If a student already has shown you that they can meet the standard, they don't need the homework. Don't sweat the idea that some kids will have to do the assignment and some will not. You're focusing on what is equal---not is what is fair for each student.
Beyond these things, I believe that homework is a form of formative assessment and should not be scored. Should students get feedback? Absolutely. Should the task be reviewed and discussed in class so that students have the correct information? Definitely. If you assign some homework and a kid doesn't do it, should they be penalized? Yes, but not with a grade. Address the behavior and still require that they do the work.

Perhaps the term "homework" just needs to go away. I prefer to think of it simply as "practice." Just as athletes hit the gym and field before a performance (as do those who play an instrument), kids also can use various amounts of practice before they are expected to have some facility with information. This practice need not happen at home...need not involve a worksheet (or glue, glitter, craft paper, and sticks)...and doesn't have to take hours of time. We don't need a 10-minute/grade level rule. We don't need to think of homework as evil incarnate. We only have to remember that kids are just practicing.

29 August 2009

The Name Game

In a few days, I will begin a new adventure in my career. I will be a generalist, to use the education parlance---rather than a specialist of science. In fact, I will be doing very little scientific work at all. This brings up the question of my nom de internet. Can one be a "Science Goddess" without being in the scientific arena?

The internet is an intriguing beast to watch evolve. No one used to think about the digital footprints they were leaving...and now, nearly everyone has one. Whether or not it is truly representative of one's self (especially if you have a common name) or its impact on our future is hard to know. We are all kind of making this up as we go along.

I have decided to keep my moniker for now, although I may begin blogging under my real name in the near future. My reasons for holding on to the alter ego are simply because of the digital footprint being generated. To be sure, I am not the only one using the handle. However, being first gives me certain "squatting rights" in other places (like Twitter). It is how others in the edusphere have come to know me over the last five years and how many people search for and find me. There is a certain level of reputation that I would like to keep. Many of you know me by my true name, so I won't claim to keep the alias as a route to anonymity. (An interview I did re: social networking in education will "out" me in the next month or so, anyway.) One of my goals in using an alias was not so much to protect myself, but rather the people I interact with and the experiences I reflect upon here. I do change some or all of the identifying information, while the observations and interpretations are my true understanding. I like the history and reminder of how my on-line life has developed over time. One must never forget one's roots, eh?

28 August 2009

Make It Stop

Since making the decision to move into the realm of educational technology, I've had one common reaction from teachers: Make them take off the filters. By "them," they mean their districts' policy people (and IT staff)...and by "filters," they mean anything blocking the use of web tools in their classrooms.

I feel their pain. In 2005, I tried blogging with my AP students...only to have repeated junk from IT shoved in my face to kill the project. In 2008, I had to turn my class into outlaws in order to use GoogleDocs to write lesson plans for 5-year old children. I can name any number of other instances where IT caused maximum damage to the instructional process. Since then, I've had people outside the district tell me that the "neanderthals" running the filter there have one of the most restrictive set of practices in the entire state.

All this being said, I am not in a position to make any changes to the ways districts do business...much as teachers here would like. There are few things that can be done at the state level when local control governs things. However, I can certainly do a lot of modeling of tools and listen and suggest to teachers when and wherever possible.

The past few weeks have been particularly interesting for me on Twitter, as I see how many teachers are frustrated by similar restrictions. I'm sorry, IT people, but you can't blame everything on limited bandwidth and/or CIPA. Don't tell me that you're just following what the school board says, because we know better. We know that the board doesn't tell you to block specific sites---that kids are not allowed to participate in Nings or build wikis to show their learning. You interpret guidelines...and, frankly, some of you are doing it wrong.


When I saw this tweet the other day, my heart sank at first. You see, for all its flaws I really do believe in public education. But it needs to pull its head out of...the dark ages...and allow more flexibility in instruction and learning. Now, I am thinking that parents like Alec may be the ones who provide the tipping point to get the filters scaled back (at minimum) and removed (at best). Teachers are ignored where this issue is concerned...kids are in a powerless position (and usually excluded from conversations regarding instruction and tools). Here's hoping that someone can make it stop.

27 August 2009

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Numbers

Via Chart Porn (you heard me), the last in a long series of links, was this little gem (click to embiggen):


This is life as a series of months---with each blob representing a month in an average lifespan...and the colored blobs the average points for becoming a parent, etc. I like this idea. I see some interesting potential, both personal and for the classroom.

Or perhaps you've seen Personas from MIT---a place where information about you is aggregated from across the web to show you how the web sees you. Here is what it displayed for "Science Goddess." (Sadly, there was only one analysis available for my real name...but 17 for my alias.) The largest bands, as you might imagine are for "online," "education," and "social." Not sure why "sports" (in yellow) is so broad, but I am also not the only "science goddess" running around on the internet.



I've been collecting more and more examples of data visualization recently. So far, there are few fancy tools for the layperson, but I have to think it won't be long before a variety of tools are both readily available and simple to use. I can't help but think that these could be powerful for schools. Do we need people in school districts who crunch test score numbers for us...or do we need people who can show us the meaning within than numbers? We need some of both. Here's hoping we have the right tools soon.

23 August 2009

You Heard It Here First

In my previous job (the one that ended in June...not the one that ends this month), I was asked to think about what professional development might look like for Washington's new science standards. I believe in high-quality staff development...and working with educators is one of the things I do best. It's no secret that I am not a fan of the new standards; however, that does not mean that teachers shouldn't have the best support possible in trying to implement the beast. I had already seen enough poor PD offered around these standards. I knew that I could do better.

As I continued to think about creating some materials, I realized that there were quite a few challenges inherent in the task. First of all, the materials had to be appropriate K-12: there had to be places for teachers at all grade levels to connect. Secondly, any "stuff" had to be cheap and readily available---no special equipment and very little time/effort in preparation for those delivering the PD. Finally, there had to be a direct connection to the classroom. I know this last part seems obvious; but you and I both know that there is plenty of staff development floating around which does not provide time or opportunity for adult learners to apply what is relevant to their classrooms.

I struggled to come up with the perfect thing. And then...I did. An Inquiry activity involving no more than paperclips and paper...integrated with a Ray Bradbury story that framed the discussion...and tools for engaging with the standards that were flexible for every grade level. I captured my thoughts---and frankly, I think the basic plan is one of the very best I have ever created. I am sad that I will never get to present it.

I only made one mistake in this whole process: I told two people about my idea. And with me out of the picture (job-wise), these two people have decided to wholesale steal my idea and pass it off as their own. They are not ready to publish their version...but they are very close. You can be very sure that my name will not be credited anywhere in their information.

So, my friends, I am sharing my professional development experience with you. Although the references to the standards within are for WA, I'm quite sure every state has something on Inquiry and Forces/Motion. Just sub in your codes for ours.
I admit that these things are still a bit raw. There is always room for improvement. But I still think the basic concept is golden. I don't mind sharing, but I abhor outright stealing. Maybe it is a fine line these days in this digital world, but I would like to think that integrity transcends the medium. You may think this post represents sour grapes about my job, but I see this as a way to document the impending plagiarism. (And trust me, there is no way I want to work for those people again.) Just remember, you heard it here first.

Class of 2013 Mindset List

Every year, Beloit College in Wisconsin puts together a list for its faculty. The list "provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college. It is the creation of Beloit’s Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride and Emeritus Public Affairs Director Ron Nief. It is used around the world as the school year begins, as a reminder of the rapidly changing frame of reference for this new generation."

I've blogged about a couple of the lists in the past (Classes of 2009 and 2010), but this year's version is special for me. Those entering college this year were born the year I started my career: 1991. So, as I look at this list, I see a time capsule of my life in education. You can find the entire Class of 2013 version here, but a sample is below:

  • They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
  • Salsa has always outsold ketchup.
  • Earvin "Magic" Johnson has always been HIV-positive.
  • Text has always been hyper.
  • Babies have always had a Social Security Number.
  • They have never had to “shake down” an oral thermometer.
  • American students have always lived anxiously with high-stakes educational testing.
  • Except for the present incumbent, the President has never inhaled.
  • State abbreviations in addresses have never had periods.
  • The European Union has always existed.
  • McDonald's has always been serving Happy Meals in China.
  • Condoms have always been advertised on television.
  • Their folks could always reach for a Zoloft.
  • Women have always outnumbered men in college.
  • We have always watched wars, coups, and police arrests unfold on television in real time.
  • Elizabeth Taylor has always reeked of White Diamonds.
  • There has always been a Planet Hollywood.
My sense of time is different now than when I was in the classroom. There is no beginning/end to the school year for me---no winter/spring break...no summer holiday. Starting a new job on September 1 is about as close as I'll get to ringing in Year 19 of my career. In the meantime, it's fun for me to look at this list and think about not only how the world has changed since I started down this road, but how I have, too.

22 August 2009

Lumpers and Splitters

In the biology realm, there are two schools of thought when it comes to classification of living things: lumping and splitting. The Lumpers, as the name suggests, like to group organisms into larger clumps based on commonalities...unlike the Splitters, who want to separate everything based on minutiae. The field of taxonomy (classification) is a constant tug-of-war between these schools of thought.

I was thinking about this analogy the other day after having a conversation with an elementary school principal. He was talking about having to go to a workshop on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in science...and then a couple of weeks later, attending a workshop on Professional Learning Communities in reading. Guess what? It was the same stuff. Why did he need to go to two workshops? And why should he encourage different PLCs for each subject area in his building (when there are only 3 or 4 teachers per grade level as it is)? This was a man in search of some good lumping for his teachers...and I can't say that I blame him.

I'm speaking to other professional development specialists, department of ed reps, administrators, instructional coaches, and everyone else who is outside of the classroom "supporting" those who are inside (yes, I am pointing the finger at myself, too): What are we doing to schools by being Splitters? By assuming that instruction for each subject is so highly specialized that we must provide support for it separately? I admit that content knowledge greatly differs---but good instruction is good instruction. Collaboration tools for teachers are collaboration tools for teachers. It's time to get over the idea that we have some special sauce to apply for a subject area. It's way past time to walk the talk and show schools how integrated we are with our work.

I said some goodbyes this week---farewells to those in science education who are going to continue down that path while I move in a more general direction. I wish them well. I admire and understand their passions and commitments to science ed. I know that they intend good things for kids. I think that I have just reached a point in my thinking where I am struggling to see the point in being a Splitter anymore. I don't see that I can do schools any good by being one of many competing voices for attention---instead, I can provide a more unifying message by modeling integration of these things. It's time to lump.

20 August 2009

Does This Look Normal to You?

I had a variety of run-ins with grading issues this week. I couldn't help bumping up against them as I worked with a couple of different groups of teachers on their preparations for the upcoming year. (And booked a gig for working with 60(!) more of them in October.) You might not know it, but I get a consistent trickle of comments on posts here or e-mails that pose various questions from educators and parents about grading. All are good and worthwhile comments. I admit that some make me cringe a bit on the inside when I think about the possible impact on kids, but the reactions are honest and the discussions engaging.

In general, the tone of most of the grading issues put in front of me runs akin to asking a doctor "Does this look normal to you?" Teachers want to know what I think about their grading scale...their plans for reporting grades to parents...the letter they will send home to parents...the policy that will be handed to students. Is it okay to use a zero if there is only a 4-point scale? Will it be all right if I convert "incompletes" in my gradebook to F's two weeks after the semester ends? Is there any reason not to average the last two or three grades earned on any target? Should this be oozing? (Okay, I don't get asked that one.)

Changing long-held practices (classroom or other) is difficult. We all need some encouragement along the way that the angst-ridden steps we take really are the path we should be on. More than that, we need assurance that we really are doing something different...and that different will be the new normal. I had a teacher ask this week why we would bother saying we are moving to standards-based grading when the old grading scale remains in place. I couldn't disagree with him, as reporting practices also need an overhaul, but in the meantime, we came to an agreement that a first step is changing what the grading symbols represent. That is, an "A" represents progress toward learning targets (not learning + extra credit for bringing in Kleenex for the classroom - points off for late work...).

So keep your questions and comments coming. There will be no Kum-ba-yah, but I will hold your hand from time to time, if you like. And not to worry. It's all perfectly normal.

18 August 2009

What's the Difference?

State test results were released this week. They weren't quite as cringeworthy as I'd anticipated, but I can't say that they were cause for celebration, either. I do take a broader perspective on them now, especially having been so heavily involved with some of the scoring. However, I can't help but take a closer look at schools and districts I know more intimately.

Here is the overall performance of the school I taught at in 07 - 08:


The "bump" in the year I was there represents a 12-point gain in the scores (anything >5 points is significant). This year, the scores dropped 6 points (the state overall drop was only 1%).

Sadly, the more interesting tale is here:


I think about those classes I had in 07-08---the ones full of "untouchables" that other teachers deemed unworthy because the kids didn't want to take AP courses. The classes full of students of colour. Performance by black students went from 14% in '06-'07 to 44% last year...to 20% this year. Hispanic gains doubled last year and are now back to previous levels. White performance has more or less held steady over the years. That 12-point overall gain in '08 was on the backs of my kiddos.

Thinking about this very real possibility makes me both happy and sick. On one hand, it means that the mastery-based learning environment made a very real difference for all students. But looking at this year's scores means that there were an awful lot of students from diverse backgrounds who were served poorly. And knowing the environment and leadership in that school, no one is going to ask what the difference is.

14 August 2009

Mighty Oaks

Late last winter, I spent time with a few high school science teachers, talking about grading practices. I have to say that out of all of the presentations I've done in the last year, this one was the worst. I just didn't connect well with the group.

And then...

In May, a few of them invited me to spend time with them on a Saturday morning. They had been planning ahead for the upcoming year---revisiting curriculum and thinking about grading. I was delighted and impressed by the work they'd been doing.

And then...

One of them invited me to her classroom next week as she gets her record-keeping set up for the nearly here school year. Of course, I said "Yes!"

It seems odd (but delightful) that out of this not-so-hot PD experience I delivered, there are some hearty seedlings. I am learning that mighty oaks grow from all sorts of acorns.

11 August 2009

Looking Back and Forth

On Friday, it will be a year since I officially began the part of my career which exists outside of a school district. There have been a lot of changes and lessons learned during that time.
  • I've actually had my job position changed three times in the past year. Twice was due to my original assignment being reduced/eliminated. This most recent time is by choice. The newest job has a start date---and an end date, because of the funding. I have twenty-one months to figure out what my next move is. I think I know the destination, but need to figure out the path.
  • My successes this past year? Oddly enough, they were tangential to my job assignment(s). I poked people about grading practices as often as possible. The people tended to be science teachers (more often than not). If the feedback is any indication, there is going to be a lot of experimentation and rollout of standards-based grading in secondary science classrooms around the state. I may have been blocked in my position from providing a direct impact on the science part of science education, but I believe the seeds I've planted will be longer-lived and more important.
  • I have learned a lot about considering the motivations of others before accepting certain tasks and offers. I am sure that I should have learned this a long time ago, but the kind of politics I'm up against are not found in the classroom---they wouldn't have come up for any school assignment I've been in. Now I understand that I was originally hired not as an assistant (and certainly not for any expertise in education that I have), but instead to run interference for someone that nobody---including the supervisor---wants to work with. It has been a sterling example of The Peter Principle...on steroids...to observe. As for the job I was gradually moved into (and am leaving)...I don't know what to say. I've learned a lot about the sausage-making factory that is state testing: everything from how items are developed to how tests are built to how student responses are scored. I loved the work, but the job is terrible and, in my opinion, the leadership has some major problems with its priorities. (Case in point: they are so against telecommuting that they would rather pay me to do nothing at home today than work from home.) The new job will have its own issues and hair-pulling opportunities, but at least my co-workers are competent.
  • I have also learned that I am not so much a "science" person as I am an "instructional" person. I just changed offices in preparation for my new job and decided to take the science specific items I had home. It turned out to only be a box---while several carts of other items will transition with me to my new job. Having always identified myself as a science teacher, the realization that I am more about instruction than science itself is a very big thing.
  • As for my failures over the past year, they are numerous. Some of them are due to my refusal to play The Game---a necessity at the state level. I'm sorry, but I think the ego trips and vanity projects need to be set aside and the focus of the work be on students and teachers. I can't give that up...and because I won't, I won't be allowed to have much of an impact. I should have fought harder to get resources to teachers. I was stifled at every turn by a boss who was too threatened by having someone competent around and therefore directed not to provide support and ideas. I was told "Next year..." Now it is next year and no one is better off.
We'll see what Year Two brings. I have a job that exists on the edges of my comfort zone, and I think that's a good thing. It will require me to be open to new thinking and opportunities...to grow in knowledge...to be humble as I serve. It is going to be a year of many personal changes, too. But I have always looked forward to this time of year. For educators, it is our time of beginnings and renewed hopes---not for looking back.

03 August 2009

Crowdsourcing Grades

Let me just say up front that I am not feeling the love toward the idea presented in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed: Crowdsourcing Grades.

'Crowdsourcing,' the notion of using the wisdom of the crowd for sites like Wikipedia, could be making its way into academe as a grading method that holds students more accountable.

A professor at Duke University plans to test just that this fall, when she leaves the evaluation of class assignments up to her students, using crowdsourcing to make students responsible for grading each other.

Learning is more than earning an A says Cathy N. Davidson, the professor, who recently returned to teach English and interdisciplinary studies after eight years in administration. But students don't always see it that way. Vying for an A by trying to figure out what a professor wants or through the least amount of work has made the traditional grading scale superficial, she says.

"You've got this real mismatch between the kind of participatory learning that’s happening online and outside of the classroom, and the top-down, hierarchical learning and rigid assessment schemes that we’re using in the classroom from grades K through 12 and all the way up to graduate school," Ms. Davidson says. "In school systems today, we’re putting more and more emphasis on quantitative assessment in an era when, out of the classroom, students are learning through an entirely different way of collaboration, customizing, and interacting."

Ms. Davidson will pilot the grading approach to this fall in her class "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," which combines neuroscience and technology. Fifteen students, in rotating teams of two, are assigned to lead each class session, calling on a list of texts, Web sites and other materials Ms. Davidson provides to facilitate discussion and give assignments. Those students are also responsible for reading each student's "assignment," which is posted on his or her blog, and evaluating whether that work is satisfactory. If the work is deemed unsatisfactory, a student has the opportunity to redo it.
I understand what she's getting at concerning students "gaming" the system. However, I am having a hard time with this particular solution to the issue. I don't see where students can't play this field just as easily. I do my project with my partner...give everyone in the class I like an "A" on their blog post...and call it good. What do I care if anyone actually learned anything? There are no goals for learning for me to judge (assuming I have the expertise as a novice to do this for the course), so I'll still continue to make the least amount of effort to maximize my grade.

Her incoming students aren't aware of her plans for the semester -- but Sunday's post, in which she explained how she would grade and also included a copy of the syllabus, already had 1,300 hits by Monday, with comments both supporting and doubting her method.

Some came from those who had tried the method and failed, as one educator from Buffalo wrote, because groups of students blindly and consistently marked up or down other students’ work "in order to increase their own grade in the class favorably, and hurt others' grades." Others, like a professor from New York University, saw success in a crowdsource grading approach for a large, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses.

Still others defended the traditional grading system. One professor, though hesitant to call the American grading system an "absolute good," said allowing students to start at an A, or earn an A by merely completing assignments, was equating "doing fine" -- which would earn a 'C' in his own classes -- to "doing excellent," which should earn an A.

"We ought to take the idea of excellence very, very seriously," he wrote.

Still, Ms. Davidson says she's optimistic about how the grading system will affect her classes and the way her students learn.

"Education is way behind just about everything else in dealing with these [media and technology] changes," she said. It's important to teach students how to be responsible contributors to evaluations and assessment. Students are contributing and assessing each other on the Internet anyway, so why not make that a part of learning?"
I disagree about the "assessing each other on the Internet anyway." Value judgments---sure. Meaningful evaluation---not seeing it. In a class where this sort of crowdsourcing for grades is used, wouldn't it be valuable to have some sort of common ideas about what quality work is and how to know if someone can hit the learning targets? Or will grades (or "excellence") simply become a popularity contest?

01 August 2009

The Marathon

Life since early May has been a bit of a whirlwind. I was on the road for nearly six weeks from May to late June...had a week or so to catch my breath...and was present in the office for only 6 days in July. The rest of my time (3+ weeks, including two Sundays) was spent working off-site. The work was relatively local and I was home each evening---but planning and executing several events in a row with no time to plan/regroup in between has been a real marathon.

Not to mention the record heat in western Washington this week. Sure, I have a southwest US pedigree, but five days of 95 - 103 degrees temps here (where air conditioning is a rarity) is miserable, at best. I dutifully watered my plants each morning and told them "Good luck!" while I drove away. At least the tomatoes are finally starting to ripen.

These past few days have also meant seeing many of my new friends for the last time. Now that I am changing jobs, I will no longer be with those who wish to nurture me to death or our other contractors, who have their own charms. I will miss working with them, but am looking forward to being able to socialize without the work entanglements.

I was taught a new mantra recently ("Not My Problem") and have been trying to take it to heart as I move on to new adventures. I realized this week as I sat in a meeting and listened to all the politics and personalities, that I am so glad I won't have this position anymore. I really didn't care about the discussion. I do care about doing good work and giving things my best effort while I am still in that position---but all the drama, diplomacy, and things that get in the way of doing what's best for kids (and only serve to make adults feel important): I'm SO over that. I have loved the work. The job, not so much. The teachers I've met recently have said that they can tell something is wrong with the job---five different people have left it within the last year. I can make little comment about what exactly is wrong with it. Not my problem.

In the meantime, I have been daydreaming about the future. I am looking forward to having a life again. I was told this week that my proposal to present at the 2010 ASCD National Conference was accepted (come get your grading on with me in March). I'm going to have some time off in August and hopefully some headspace to think about all sorts of things other than work.

The marathon is (nearly) over.