27 February 2012

At Death's Classroom Door

I woke up this morning thinking about all of the students who died when I was in school. When those events happened, they were sad, but somehow didn't seem out of the ordinary. Keep in mind, I had 59 people in my graduating class, so you can imagine what a small district we were. When I was in junior high, death came for the older brother of my friend across the street. He and three others had been out partying and were in a car accident. I remember that he hung on for a few days, but that was all. My friend and her family moved away after that. And then there was the little sister of another friend who was present when her boyfriend was shot at a party. Drunk teens didn't realize the shotgun being waved around was loaded. She ended up being spattered in the process. I don't think anyone went to jail. A friend of my family was in a car accident---everyone was sober, but she was an inexperienced driver on the highway and turned the car around in a not-so-safe area. She, too, hung on for a few weeks. I remember getting to be a senior and realizing no one in our class had died yet. But it happened to us, too. A new kid---I don't even know his name now or how he was killed---died a few weeks into the school year. There were others along the way, too...and I don't remember anything ever said at school by the adults. I assume they must have talked among themselves and decided to just keep moving forward for us.

It was early in my teaching career when I had to deal with the death of a colleague. I was teaching summer school...and the math teacher would go visit her parents in another town each weekend. One early Monday morning, she was ejected from her Jeep when she overcorrected after running off the road. It seemed so wrong to have to tell students that their math teacher wasn't going to be at school today...or ever again.

And there have been my own students, too. Last year alone, I lost three former students---two to illness, one to suicide (or as the obituary worded it, he "lost his battle with depression"). But I recall the few who died while in high school...getting to see the impact from a different side of the desk. As unpleasant as always.

I suppose that all of these things have been on my mind because last week, in the classroom of someone I used to work with, a little boy (appears to have accidentally) shot a young girl. They're in third grade, and their teacher used her first aid skills to save the girl's life. When you hear all the stories of violence at school---intentional or not---there is always some level of removal. It's another town...another state. Until now, it's no one I've ever known. Out of all the ways I've seen death touch a school, I've never seen it like this. I can't help but think of the scared children and this former co-worker in a situation she never thought she'd ever have to be a part of. I don't know how you find the strength to go back into that classroom the next day and be strong for your kiddos again, but I'm proud of her. I may not be able to do anything to help, but perhaps I can let her know that I'm thinking of her and wishing her strength and peace for the days and weeks ahead.

While there's no way to keep Death away from the classroom door, I'm afraid there will be a lot more times in the future where I wish I could.

25 February 2012

The Forest and the Trees

In the world of grading practices, there is standards-based...and hodgepodge. Hodgepodge grading (a term found throughout the research literature) refers to a score or final grade that represents more than learning. In other words, a teacher who assigns a grade that includes student "effort," whether or not the assignment was completed on time, neatness, or other factors in addition to what the student learned about the topic/subject/standard, is a hodgepodge grader. General consensus from the research is that this is not such a hot thing to do. Factors should be reported separately.

And then, there is this article which actually makes chicken salad out of these chicken sh..., er hodgepodge, grades. Here's the abstract:
Historically, teacher-assigned grades have been seen as unreliable subjective measures of academic knowledge, since grades and standardized tests have traditionally correlated at about the 0.5 to 0.6 level, and thus explain about 25–35% of each other. However, emerging literature indicates that grades may be a multidimensional assessment of both student academic knowledge and a student's ability to negotiate the social processes of schooling, such as behavior, participation, and effort. This study analyzed the high school transcript component of the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) using multidimensional scaling (MDS) to describe the relationships between core subject grades, non-core subject grades, and standardized test scores in mathematics and reading. The results indicate that when accounting for the academic knowledge component assessed through standardized tests, teacher-assigned grades may be a useful assessment of a student's ability at the non-cognitive aspects of school. Implications for practice, research, and policy are discussed.

What's this all mean? According to the article, "25% of the variance in grades is attributable to assessing academic knowledge...and the other 75% of teacher-assigned grades appear to assess a student's ability to negotiate the social processes of school." Hodgepodge, indeed. However, "while administrators have indicated that they privilege standardized test scores over other forms of data (Guskey, 2007), little criterion validity has been shown for test scores as they relate to overall student school or life outcomes (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005), whereas teacher-assigned grades have a long history of predicting overall student outcomes, such as graduating or dropping out (Bowers, 2010)." So, if hodgepodge grades are better predictors for whether or not a student will finish school, why not find a way to use those to identify at-risk students?

And so the author (Alex Bowers) of the article did. And this, my friends, is one of the graphics:

Hierarchical Cluster Analysis by Alex J. Bowers from http://www.pareonline.net/pdf/v15n7.pdf

I won't get into the nitty-gritty here---you can read the article for yourself, if you like. But basically, what you're looking at here is every student's grades for their K-12 experience, for an entire district. The students are sorted/clustered according to the patterns their grades make. At the top, the kids who are mostly red in the heatmap are those who scored well throughout their academic career...at the bottom, the ones who struggled. The funky brackets on the left are used to cluster students with similar performance, the width and length of the brackets showing degrees of similarity. On the right, the black boxes include data which is not grade dependent, but was considered worthy of consideration.

Now, what the researcher found out from doing this sort of analysis isn't groundbreaking: Kids who struggle in school (gradewise) are more likely to drop out. And even though I can't condone hodgepodge grading, what is important here is that this is the first attempt I've ever seen that gets away from hodgepodge analysis.

I think every piece of research I've seen (up until now) does its best to mash the data into neatly digestible bites---just like we tend to do with student grades. Educational research doesn't represent individuals as individuals, but as populations. We seek to generalize, because we feel we have to, given the amount of data we collect. But I can't help but wonder what we'd see if we looked at all of the educational data we collect at both the micro and macro levels: the trees and the forest, like the graphic above. We are slowly taking steps to move hodgepodge away from the classroom performance level. Will we---Can we---see it disappear from the research, too?

21 February 2012

Life's Little Mysteries

In science education, we talk about student misconceptions frequently. We probe, reteach, and generally obsess about them. But the science classroom doesn't have a monopoly on how students make sense of the world around them. Earlier this year, I heard interesting stories from first graders about how the process of publishing a book. And while working with a group of librarians, I heard some other interesting tales. This time, however, they were about the Internet. For example, one student asked if the library had a printed version of Google. At first blush, this seems like a preposterous question. But if the library has a printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica on its shelves...and a digital version available on the network, why not a dead tree version of Google?

But beyond that, kids struggle with selecting "good" information from the Internet. One librarian mentioned an interaction with a student who wanted to know if the web page he was looking at was good. She prompted him in the usual ways---check the domain...the sources. She ran through the litany with the student answering each one. And at the end, the kid asked, "But is this any good?"

This is not a post bemoaning the lack of information literacy in our students and how the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. Because that's very little of the story. It's what's happening behind the scenes that is far more intriguing.

Here is a graphic showing how information literacy plays out across grade levels and subject areas in Washington state. EdTech is on the left, which is where the concepts (un)officially sit...other standards on the right which have similar concepts.

The takeaway here is simply that nearly every subject area (except math, arts, and world languages) and every grade provides an opportunity for students to build and practice information literacy skills. As a state, what I see here is that we think these are very important. Perhaps more important than anything else we do, considering the formidable presence these critical thinking skills have in our standards.

But what we see in practice is a very different thing. We can blame the (over)emphasis of class time on reading and math...or RTI models...or a host of other things. Time is always the enemy in schools, but we have a choice about how we spend it. And what I hear most often, when it comes to students doing research, is that we do it for them. As teachers, we pre-load a page with web sites we think are the best options for a project. We choose which databases kids should access. We make the critical choices involved...and then wonder why kids don't know if a web page is any good when asked to decide for themselves.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone. In doing so, I've robbed students of the opportunity to struggle with research. The same struggle I had to go through, albeit before the age of the Internet. But I would never have built my base of skills had my teachers pulled books and magazines for me to specifically access...if I hadn't been given the time to practice and dig for myself.

I often remind people that we don't have to grade students on their critical thinking skills---but I do think we should assess them (even just informally) and provide feedback. If we say we value these kinds of skills, then the adults in the classroom have to put their time budgets where their mouths are. We can solve these little mysteries. And more importantly, we can help students solve their own.

18 February 2012

Authority, Expertise, Responsibility, and Position

Respect my authoritah! (source)
I looked back through my archives here at Ye Olde Blog. The first time I talked about "all of the responsibility with none of the authority" was in October 2005. A long time to be wrestling with that phrase. I've revisited the idea a few times since then, mostly out of frustration with the eunuch, er, unique nature of the work I've been asked to do.

I've learned a few things over the last few years, too. As such, my personal definitions are changing.  

Authority should have something to do with experience. There is such a thing as being an authority on teaching first grade...or computer-assisted drafting...or gymnastics. That may not be how teachers view themselves, but perhaps they should. We are used to humbly acknowledging all of the things we don't know. It's true, we may not be experts at everything that happens in the classroom, but that doesn't mean there is not wisdom in our experience. We need to embrace that...not assume that authority and expertise are equivalent.

More importantly, position and authority are not the same---and this is one of most dangerous assumptions we make in education. Does a principal have the ability to hire a teacher or suspend a student because of his/her authority? Don't those (and other) tasks come with the position? I'm not saying that an administrator can't become an authority about their work---but we shouldn't presume that those are equal. Authority should be earned. For example, I know someone who was handed her position because she was already doing the work---why not assign the title to go along with it? Apart from the obvious problem that someone is now doing a job based on her own definition of qualifications, she's under the illusion that she has authority. Nope---just position. Authority is not something you are handed from above. It is a status given to you from those your position serves. And every time I see this person in queen bee mode, all I can think of is her lack of authority. She might get respect for her position, but I have yet to meet anyone who respects her authority.

And responsibility? I think this one has changed for me only in terms of what it includes. I'm responsible for doing the best quality work I can do. Every day. That work touches a lot more people than it used to, but the model is still the same.

"All the responsibility with none of the position" seems like such an imbalance to me now. Either there's too much responsibility or too low of a position. Responsibility may be acquired with expertise, but you can never make yourself an authority. I don't want to forecast what the future of these terms will be...how my next steps in life and career will influence the way I see them at play in the world. I know they will continue to evolve as I learn.

15 February 2012

The Incredible Embeddable Deck

Did you know that you can use Microsoft Apps to embed a Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or OneNote file on a web page...or blog post? All you need is a free SkyDrive account (learn more here). These slides are a few of the ones I used in a presentation last year for ASCD.

I know that there will be lots of people who think "Who cares?"...and they may well be right. Microsoft, as always, is way late coming to the party. Unfashionably late. For several years, now, people have been uploading decks to SlideShare, SlideRocket, GoogleDocs, and other sites which will generate embed codes. But I think the advantage with Office Apps is that the files keep their native format. There are a few limitations, but basically, a slide deck like the one above, remains the same. I would say that the weirdest part of the app is that when it is in embedded in a web page, none of the animations/transitions work...but if the viewer clicks the "view full-size presentation" button in the lower righthand corner, all of the animations/transitions show up. Try it---you'll get a very different look at things. Overall, however, the viewer can see it as was originally presented. I'll take that any day.

If you want to see a sample spreadsheet, head on over to Excel for Educators, where I'm showcasing a data analysis tool. Excel doesn't make the jump quite as nicely, but it's the best effort I've seen so far. Like the PowerPoint app, the embedded file will not show up in RSS posts. The viewer/user has to visit the actual page.

So, teachers, keep your files in their "native" formats---and get them posted to your class web pages, Moodle sites, and other spots with less hassle and no file conversions.

11 February 2012

Daffy Ain't Just for Ducks

Some experiences recently have made me remember this clip from Ali Baba Bunny (1957):

The greedy exclamations have not been about material wealth, but about about power over content.

I've been watching from the sidelines as a micromanager and her minions attempt to exert control over digital content. And I'm struck by how daffy the entire approach is. First and foremost, if you're a government agency, you don't really "own" anything. Public funds create public documents and media. You can claim copyright all you want, but a Creative Commons approach is far more appropriate. (And guess what, teachers? Your lesson plans may soon fall under those same guidelines.)

However, this is the lesser sin. What these people don't understand is that in the digital age, once you're created something and posted it, you no longer get to decide how people use it. I'm not talking intellectual property here. I'm talking purpose. You can make a video showing how to score an assessment item, but that piece could be used in multiple ways. Perhaps a pre-service teacher uses it for PD. Maybe a group of teachers in a school watch it to build background knowledge before scoring their own students' work. Administrators might want to watch it in the context of interpreting annual test scores. A "creator," can advise about how an item is best suited, but the "user" trumps all. And you know what? Just because you don't post it doesn't mean people won't find similar content elsewhere. You can jump up and down on Bugs Bunny all you want, he's not going away.

But more than that, they've gone Daffy. When I look at something I develop for work, I don't think "Mine!" I look at the item as something to share...something I hope educators will adapt and use and improve upon. It's not mine: It's ours. I might be the custodian, but the content is curated on behalf of everyone. It is not up to me---and should not be up to me (or any other single person)---to choose for everyone else. I don't understand the drive to control every last drop of information. But perhaps the difference is that in a room of people, I don't assume I'm the smartest. I'm there to learn and listen. The Daffy group are convinced they know it all. They're there to talk and silence everyone else.

Beyond that, this group assumes that because someone shares something with them, it means the Daffy's now get control. Um, no. Sharing means that you're invited to participate---not be Columbus. As a guest in the process, use some manners. If all you know how to do is control, not collaborate, then don't be surprised when you aren't asked to the dance anymore.

I feel that way about my blogs, too. I put things here because I want to share them. I'm not interested in making people read them the way I intended. I share my journey as you follow yours (and many of you are kind enough to share your own). After years of blogging here and working on behalf of teachers, I can tell you that it is far more humbling to share. And there are always ideas or experiences I want to keep private. We're all allowed.

In the end, I find myself wondering how people learn to shift their thinking about sharing in the digital age. How do you help people move away from seeing their (publicly-developed) content as something which should remain a virginal daddy's-girl to a healthy and active part of a community?