24 April 2013

Elysian Fields

I'm out in the boony-toolys this week. I don't mind---I wanted to come out and spend a couple of days with schools out here. (I also spent a few days in a different rural region a couple of weeks ago.) I grew up in the sticks and remember quite well what it is to have a 3-hour drive to the nearest McDonalds (or to use today's terms: Starbucks). But there are teachers and kids here, just as there are in more populous environs. And they have Common Core, online testing, new teacher evaluation models, and a host of other initiatives heading straight at them. I know, everyone does, but not quite like these schools. I don't know of any teachers in "larger" (i.e. more than 200 students) districts that do not have any contractual planning time and who drive the school bus (in addition to teaching in a multi-age, multi-prep environment). Other than these situations, I don't see para-educators who have to double as the lunch lady and cook food for all the kids. I don't meet superintendents who have to also serve as curriculum director, SPED director, assessment coordinator, business manager, and crossing guard. And so far, everyone I've met in these roles does all these things with a smile on their face and cannot imagine having a better job.

Many of the staff---including administrators and teachers---grew up in the area and came back to the school. It is their school. And while most educators may feel that way about their building, it's different in these little districts. There is a heightened level of passion for and pride in a place that you attended as a child, and now teach your classmates' children...knowing you will be there when their grandchildren come through.

One of the buildings I toured this afternoon is one of the oldest continuously operated school buildings in the state. It opened in 1908, and you have to wonder if the community realized at the time just how long the school would last and how many generations would pass through the doors. Not all of the buildings are so old. I would say that the majority of what I've seen in these districts was built between 1955 and 1965---baby boomer years. After the war, it appears that there was quite the emphasis on new schools for the children born of the Greatest Generation. I have to say that these buildings are in marvelous condition for their age---far better than any school in a larger place that is from the same era. Sure, the architecture is a bit dated, but the structures are aging well, mainly because small class sizes cause such little wear and tear.

The social contract between families and community takes on a very 1950's tone out here, too. There is a strong expectation that "kids get to be kids." This is helped along by growing up in a place where cell phones don't work, there's no such thing as cable tv, and home Internet still runs on dial-up. Being 15 years old in a place like this is a lot like when your parents were 15 and growing up here.  Being 5 is focused on playing with your friends outside. The community offers what it can to the school, and as one superintendent said today, it's important to listen to that offer and make it work. If a retiree with a tractor wants to level some ground for a ball field, and the dairy will donate top soil, then you find the rest of the money to make the project happen. If three women want to put a library in your 5-teacher school, find a place for them and give it your blessing. In these towns, children are "our" kids, not just in terms of school, but how everyone sees them.

There is an idyllic, pastoral gestalt that comes with being here...like some sort of ecological habitat for schooling. And here come the developers, ready to pave paradise and put up a CCSS parking lot. I continue to struggle with the idea that these students deserve access to an education that will make them "career and college ready." How does that balance against the backdrop of the culture that they live in (and likely their children, too)? Can any entity claim it knows what's best for these kids, other than the community itself?

I am not here to push CCSS. Or assessment of any flavour. Or teacher evaluation. I am here to help them connect with one another and provide an opportunity for them to have some professional conversation about what happens in their classrooms---whatever is important to them. I am here to listen to whatever they choose to share and learn whatever I can. I wish others would do that, too.

15 April 2013

Don't Be Such a Tool

I am traveling to Hither, Thither, and Yon this month---a lot of time on the road and not enough time to blog as I'd like. But here are a few things that have caught my eye that I'm thinking about.



You might also want to have a look at Dirty Sexy EdTech, while we're at it. I think people are finally starting to wake up when it comes to edtech. I'm liking where this is going. Maybe we can have a discussion about student learning instead of "iPad! iPad! iPad!"

A girl's gotta dream, especially with all the windshield time ahead.

04 April 2013

A Brief History of the Edublogosphere

If you're viewing this post via RSS, you won't know that I've made few changes at my place. I've refreshed the template a bit and added some pages to collect some of the bigger ideas of Ye Olde Blog. I still have a few bits of code to work out, but things are shaping up.

I've been overdue in giving this space a refresh. I was reminded of that recently after reading Tim's post, What's in Your Backlist? For me, that means 1626 posts (including this one). It's not the biggest backlist in the blogosphere, but it's hefty enough for me to manage on my own. One of the things that I didn't realize when I started this whole thing is just what a job basic maintenance and curation of content would be. Let that be a warning to you kids.

Even though it is easy enough to see the template changes here, what you probably won't notice is that within the last week, I went back through all of the posts and did some clean up work. The coding changes Google has made in the background have not been kind to the oldest pieces in the collection. And, I wanted to swap out images for Creative Commons licensed ones, and assign credit (where possible) to others. I know, it's kind of a George Lucas dick move to go back and rewrite the past in that way, but I didn't change the substance of the post. I've just made them compliant with current expectations.

I didn't read all of the posts word-for-word. But as I scanned them, I couldn't help but think about how edublogging has changed over the years. So, in case you're (relatively) new to this arena, here is a brief history of the edusphere---at least as I know it.

When I started blogging in 2004, there was just beginning to be a small critical mass of teachers who were blogging, too. Maybe there was a critical mass forming in other arenas as well---politics and science, for example---because the lines blurred more easily. Starting in early 2005, there was a weekly Education Carnival hosted at a different blog. The "Carnival" was a collection of posts submitted by people. Sometimes, it ended up on blogs with only tenuous links to education, but again, there were some blurry lines as we all figured out what we could do with this space. The Carnival was a good way for us to find one another and build community. But it started dying off as soon as Twitter started gearing up. It's last incarnation was about a year ago over at Bellringers.

Speaking of Twitter, when I look at my backlist, I see what an impact that tool has had on the way I use this space. Before microblogging, everything went here. I was much more likely to share an article, a fun link, or resource than I am now. My archive has many posts that aren't much longer than 140 characters. There are just a few sentences to point readers to something. Those are now the sorts of things I toss into Twitter, while this space has evolved into more sporadic, but intensive, reflection. I don't know that that's true for other "old-timers," but it would be interesting to find out. Many people who had blogs I followed have quit blogging---but they're going strong on Twitter. Nothing is more delightful (for me) than rediscovering them in that space.

Way back when, nearly everyone had a pseudonym. Originally, anonymity was of value because of all the unknowns about how this whole blogging thing would play out. For the most part, the edusphere was comprised of teachers---it was rare to spot an administrator or someone in another stakeholder role. It wasn't until several years later that principals and superintendents started finding their voice online.

Lighter 1 by Alan Klim CC-BY
Now, no one is ever really anonymous on the Internet, but I wish I knew where so many of the early bloggers have gone. Maybe I am following them on Twitter...or have found them elsewhere and just don't know it's the same people. But Graycie, Mr. Lawrence, Ms. Smlph, Athena, and the rest---I haven't forgotten you. I really wish you hadn't deleted your blogs. Your stories are still important. It makes me sad to see so many of my old posts full of conversations with ghosts. Fifteen of us were interviewed by USA Today in the fall of 2006. Four of us are still regularly blogging.

I started noticing the rise of edtech bloggers in 2007. Some of them were no doubt blogging all along, but they were never part of the Carnival or conversations of any of the blogs I engaged with. It's a lot like now---they're still off in their own little self-important world of toys while the rest of us wrestle with the meatier ideas in education. 

The purpose of blogging has changed a bit, too. There are still those teachers who use their space for sharing what happens in their classroom and then engaging in some reflective practice. I have to admit, those are my favourite blogs. In the old days, nearly every teacher blog was like this. I also think that these blogs are the ones with the most stamina. The whiny blogs---the ones used to piss and moan about administrators/kids/colleagues---tend to lose steam in a short time. Meanwhile, I see an increasing number of blogs that are blogs in name only. By that, I mean that the people who write them are "big names" and can say they have a blog, but they post there only a few times a year. Blogging has stretched from a place to put the stuff in your head to a label you can add to your Twitter bio.

In this era of instant gratification, I'm not sure how many people care about the historical aspects of this space---and I can only present my view from here. No doubt other longterm bloggers have a slightly different take on things. I hope they'll post their memories, too. As for me, I just re-upped my domain registration for another nine (!) years. This space may change, and I may end my contribution to it at some point, but I plan to let it live on as long as I can.

If you'd like to see some of the old blogs, you can use the Wayback Machine to see cached copies.
I think I will start a "memorial" page on this blog for extinct and zombie (live, but no longer updated) edublogs. Let me know if you have one (or more) to nominate.

01 April 2013

Proficiency Scales: The End Is Near

In previous posts, we looked at the basic structure of a proficiency scale and a way to communicate it to students. Now, we’ll take a look at how these scales intermingle with assessment and grading.

I am starting to see districts build leveled assessments. This means that the questions are ordered to reflect the proficiency scale. Questions that address the descriptors associated with Approaching Standard are placed first, then those for At Standard, and finally, Above Standard. Sometimes, the step from the proficiency scale is included on the assessment—but I have seen districts that don’t include it. Personally, I like it on there. If we’ve been using the language from the proficiency scale with students and have been making intentional connections about how performance does or does not match the items, then it seems like a logical choice to include it at the end, too.

I mocked up a test to show this. Keep in mind that assessment is much broader than tests and quizzes—there’s no reason why you couldn’t apply the same format to labs, projects, and so forth. Also, I won’t claim that these questions are the best. Just take things at face value here for our model.

Score the assessment and total the points. Ideally, this would be a common assessment, with agreed upon “look fors” for each of the short answer items—as well as where to make the cut between the various levels of performance.

I do know a district where they choose to make the cut using the minimum points necessary for that level. For example, this assessment has 22 points, 9 of which are assigned to the Approaching Standard questions. So, earning 9 points would be the minimum needed to get an overall score for the test at Approaching Standard/Level Two. There are ten more points assigned to At Standard questions, so 19 would be the next cut…and 22 the final cut (to earn an “Above Standard” evaluation). In other words, you have to get a perfect score to get a “4” on the test.

The scale I chose is a bit of a mix on this. I kept the first cut, scaled back the final cut to getting any of the three possible points for the Above Standard item, and then split the rest. I do not have a psychometric reason for any of this…so feel free to set the cuts at whatever makes sense for your own work in the classroom. And if you want to throw some half-points in there, that’s your choice, too.

The nice thing about developing these leveled assessments is that they dovetail with standards-based grading so nicely. Once you’ve determined the score, it slides right into your gradebook. It also makes providing feedback to students very clear. You could even have them track how many items were scored correctly in each category.

You can download my version of the assessment here, if you want to play around with things yourself. (Note: I was too lazy to write the individual guidelines for the short answer items.)

Are you using leveled assessments, proficiency scales, or related ephemera in your classroom? How’s it working for you?

Getting back to a question from the last post—Is there a difference between a proficiency scale and rubric? I still think there is, even though they have several things in common. In fact, Jennifer asked this question of the Marzano Research Labs and got this answer:


In my mind, however, a proficiency scale has a more universal application in the way we structure the information we provide to students, how we score their work, and how we evaluate their overall performance. It is more than just a measurement device...bigger than just evaluating student progress toward a standard. I may be drawing a very thin line in making that distinction, but I think it's enough of a different tool to do so.