Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do We Need Parent-Teacher Conferences? A Better Alternative

We just wrapped up our most recent round of parent-teacher conferences. Attendance was dismal.

The poor attendance caused me to reflect, “Why was attendance so low?”
  • With student grades being updated regularly online, parents know how their children are doing.
  • Our teachers and counselors regularly communicate with families, sharing positive news, student progress, and student challenges. They’ve reached out to parents of struggling students, so phone calls and conferences with many parents have already been held prior to Parent-Teacher Conference night.
  • By high school, many parents have heard the same thing for years about their child.
The idea behind parent-teacher conferences—to support student success through engaging parents—is commendable, but if parents aren’t attending, we must look at other ways to create shared school-family responsibility to support student learning and development.

So what if, instead of parent-teacher conferences, we used the allotted and required parent-teacher conference days to plan for and conduct Student Showcases?

Many classrooms sat empty during our most recent parent-teacher conferences. Maybe it's time we look for alternatives

What’s a Student Showcase?
  • An annual event where families, community members and others are invited
  • An experiences that highlights student work, creativity, discovery, ingenuity, research, innovation, 21st-century skills, and more
  • A forum that engages students, families and community
  • A means of communicating all the wonderful work our students/children and teachers do
  • Opportunities for students to present their work, interact with the public and gain valuable experiences that extend beyond the classroom
  • A way for students to connect with members of the community, potentially leading to jobs or other opportunities
Possible Student Showcase Ideas:
  • Culinary students perform cooking demonstrations.
  • Choir, orchestra and band classes give small, intimate concerts.
  • Senior capstone students share their projects with community members.
  • Students in floral design hold workshops for families, allowing families to learn the tricks-of-the-trade. 
  • English, foreign language, and social studies classes present projects, make speeches, conduct Socratic Seminars, recite poetry, etc. with families in attendance.
  • Students in Career-Technical Education classes present and demonstrate their projects.
  • Art students display their works.
  • Science students conduct and explain labs or projects to community members.
  • Students in health and PE teach some of the unique games they play to their families or present some of their health projects to families.
  • Students in film analysis showcase their films.
  • Computer programming students share their programs and games. 
I know a school-wide event like this requires immense planning and time, things that educators don't exactly have a lot of, so it would require some tweaking to our school calendar and some other minor changes. But, I also view the Student Showcase as an opportunity to celebrate student growth and excellence, things that we can never do enough of.

As a parent, I know I’d be excited and eager to attend an event like this.

Maybe it’s time we scrap, the traditional parent-teacher conferences for something different, something better. Let me know your thoughts below.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

10 Ways Being a Connected Educator Transformed Me

Like many educators, becoming a connected educator transformed my professional life. Prior to becoming a connected educator my professional network was quite limited. Limited, in fact, to a handful of teachers with whom I ate lunch or talked to as we ran off copies. Becoming a connected educator exposed me to a network of peers and experts who are committed to improving teaching and learning, each willing to share their favorite strategies, resources, and more.

My Top 10
  1. #Edfocus One of the first twitter chats I was exposed to @MrBernia, @mccoyderek,  @BurkheadBill and others showed me the power of Twitter. My journey into becoming a Connected Educator had begun. 
  2. Reading blogs Out of fear of not including several blogs that I routinely read, I'll quote Will Richardson, "The ability to share and connect with many, many others of like minds and interests" has transformed my learning and my own professional experiences. Of course, Will's quote applies to all "things connected" from Twitter to webinars to Voxer, but the depth associated with blogs has clearly transformed me. 
  3. My own blogs This blog, my far too sporadic entries on Brilliant or Insane, and my Cougar Communication blog all require reflection and greater understanding. Through my own blogging, I've been connected to more educators, leading to increased communication and collaboration and ultimately I've become better because of it.
  4. #ptchat I'm proud to say that I've been a regular participant in #ptchat from the beginning. @Joe_Mazza is an inspirational lead learner and someone I've learned so much from. Conversations on #ptchat have ranged from Bully Prevention to Using Technology to Engage Parents to Back to School Nights.
  5. #satchat No other chat has taken off quite like #satchat. Moderators @bradmcurrie @ScottRRocco have created a platform for superintendents, central office personnel, school-based administrators, teachers and anyone else interested in improving education. I've heard Brad describe #satchat as a one-stop place for administrators to share and learn from each other. I wholeheartedly agree!
  6. #iaedchat and #edchatri The inspiration behind #vachat (see #7)
  7. #vachat Along with @philgriffins, I co-host #vachat every Monday at 8ET (Shameless plug). But seriously, inspired by the likes of all the previously mentioned twitter chats, we--along with @Dr_TravisBurns--saw the need for a twitter chat for Virginia educators. Of course, like all the aforementioned chats, our chat has become much more global. Serving as a moderator surely isn't easy (coming up with a topic and questions is much more daunting than I ever would've imagined). The topics I choose are often ones that I'm struggling with, so I'm able to take what I learn and immediately apply it.
  8. #sblchat Like #ptchat, standards-based learning chat meets every Wednesday at 9ET and I'm proud to say I've been part of it since its launching. No other chat includes so many experts (@RickWormeli2, @kenoc7, @myrondueck, and others are regular participants). Personally, before going into administration I had slowly been making the shift to standards-based grading, and I don't think anything transformed my teaching and instruction as much as my shift to SBG. I continue to learn from the #sblchat (I wish it had been around when I was still in the classroom!)
  9. Edcamps If I wasn't connected, I never would have experienced an edcamp, the best professional development conferences ever!
  10. Exposure to New Technologies As an educator, it's important that we not only teach our content, we must also teach and expose our students to technologies that they will use outside of school and that will enhance their learning. Of course, the only way to do so, is to be a connected educator. We can't simply sit on the sidelines; we must be innovative practitioners.
Being a connected educator has enabled me to take full advantage of the above opportunities. Being a connected has stimulated my development as an educator.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Instead of Seeking to Control...

Many teachers don't understand the difference between being in control and controlling. As a novice teacher, I clearly didn't know the difference resulting in poor classroom management, student-teacher conflict, and student learning suffered. Seeking to control, I became controlling.

During my first year teaching, I had one particularly challenging class, one that consisted of some of the school's best and brightest students. Yet every day represented increasing conflict, so I sought my administrator's advice. Failing to see the root of the problem--students weren't challenged and I was over-controlling--we developed a system to monitor and hopefully change their behaviors.

I created a spreadsheet with each of their names and various symbols. Every day they earned or lost points based on their effort, behavior, preparedness, etc. After all, I needed to show the class who was in charge.

An example of my ineffective classroom management tracking tool.

For a day or two it worked beautifully. Slowly though, power struggles materialized. Then total combustion.

A student, I'll call him Devin, approached me at the start of class and asked to go to his locker for his textbook. But since the bell had rung, I told him he would be marked tardy or unprepared.  The eighth-grader judiciously offered a reason for not having his textbook, but I stood firm. Rules are rules. I'm in control.

Begrudgingly, he took his seat while mumbling under his breath. I turned to him and told him that he was being disruptive and duly noted such on my spreadsheet. More points off.

I was winning, right? 

About halfway into class, I directed students to get their textbooks out and begin an assignment. A conscientious student, Devin began working with a classmate, so in no uncertain terms, I told him that partner work was not permitted.  After all I needed to control this situation and teach him responsibility.

Devin quipped, "Well how am I supposed to learn then?"

I countered, "That's not my problem. YOU need to come prepared. That's your problem."

Sensing the opportunity to escalate the situation and make his point, Devin immediately retorted sarcastically, "You're the teacher and it's not your problem that I'm not learning?!"

The power struggle was on. I felt 25 pairs of eyes on me. I picked up the clipboard and deliberately added another mark next to Devin's name to which he bluntly stated, "You've already taken away all of my points for the day, so what? I'll just sit here for the rest of the class."

He was right, but I couldn't cede control with the entire class bearing down on me. We went back-and-forth, each seeking the last word. After exchanging a couple of quips and barbs, I'd had enough--meaning I'd lost control and was backed into a corner--wrote a referral for Devin and sent him to the office. I had gotten in the last word. I was in control.

But in actuality, I had lost and I had lost control long before sending Devin to the office. Sure,  Devin demonstrated some disrespectful behaviors, but much of the escalation was caused by me. Everything from poor lesson planning to not listening to him to seeking to control Devin. Along the way,  I humiliated and degraded Devin in front of his peers. My actions placed my needs ahead of Devin's. I escalated a simple situation (Devin not having his book) and attempted to control the situation using grades, embarrassment and punishment.

So let's rewind. What should I have done? What should all teachers aim for?
  • Treat students with respect
  • Always consider the student's perspective. In the above scenario, I shut Devin off by not allowing him to get his book. We've all forgotten something, had I simply allowed him--trusted him--to go get his book, none of this would have transpired.
  • Avoid systems, like the demerit system in the above, that lead to power struggles. 
  • Give students options and allow them to make choices. The students in this class were high-achievers. They had a desire to learn and succeed, but I sought control. My lessons and their assignments--sadly, lots of worksheets--were highly scripted.
  • Allow students to work with each other. We can't expect students to sit quietly at their desks for an entire class period and if I had simply trusted Devin and his friend to work together, the situation wouldn't have escalated.
  • Instead of grading students, provide feedback and allow them to assess their own learning
  • Celebrate students for their differences and their strengths. 
  • Provide students with a challenging curriculum, but ensure each student can be successful by providing the necessary support through individualization, personalization, and differentiation.
As educators we toe a thin line between being in control and controlling; let's aim to "merely" be in control.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflating My Desire To Learn

My high school had a somewhat archaic English assignment. Freshman were required to memorize and recite a 40-line poem twice a year, sophomores memorized 50 lines, juniors 60 and seniors 70. Fortunately by the time I was a senior, they had canned this assignment.

During the fall semester of my freshman year, I bombed the assignment. I waited far too long to begin the memorization. Disappointed with myself, I made an honest effort during the second semester. I chose a poem of high interest; I planned ahead and pledged to memorize five lines each night. Most importantly, I felt confident in my abilities.

But then, as I began memorizing, I stumbled. The first five lines came relatively easily. The next five proved a little more challenging. Lines 11-15 posed significant problems; lines 20+ seemed impossible. I continued to study, but I began to doubt myself and I lowered my own expectations; instead of aiming for mastery of all forty lines, I became content to just memorize thirty. Soon, with the due date upon me, I knew thirty might be a stretch.

Sure enough, when it came time for me to recite my poem I floundered. While I was highly frustrated, I tried not to let the teacher know. I brushed it off as a stupid assignment (too this day I still believe that) that I didn't care about and didn't prepare for. That was surely easier than showing and admitting a weakness.

As my sophomore year rolled around, I dreaded the assignment--and having an additional ten lines. But I committed myself to acing it. I began preparing almost as soon as the school year began. Things didn't improve, however. For whatever the reason, I couldn't get past twenty or thirty lines. On the day of the recitation, I imploded. I did worse than ever. My well-meaning teacher, tried to boost my morale with generic statements like "you'll do better next time," "keep trying," "I'm sure you can..."

Didn't she get it? I truly had poured everything I had into this assignment. What else could I do?

I contemplated, "Why bother trying to memorize the 50 lines for the spring term?"

Seeing little value and possessing no confidence, I completely rejected the assignment. I felt helpless. My self-efficacy hit an all-time low; one that extended beyond my English classes. My own negative beliefs about my abilities presented a huge barrier to my own success. I withdrew from my classes  and became increasingly sarcastic and began to brush-off my poor grades.

After a summer of testing, I learned I had a learning disability, one that greatly influenced my ability to learn and memorize.

While I eventually regained my confidence and regained my self-efficacy, the the assignment forever turned me off of memorization and poetry.

Twenty-five years later that assignment still leaves a bitter taste, but while I never learned any tricks to memorizing poetry, it did give me a unique perspective on what it's like to struggle as a learner. Sadly, too much of what we do in school further alienates struggling students from school and learning. 

Let's never forget, it's difficult for students--for that matter anyone--to remain motivated when one is consistently unable to meet the expectations of others, especially when it's not your fault. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Ever-Expanding Use of Google Forms

Sadly we're not a Google (GAFE) school, but whenever possible I make use of Google, in particular Google Forms.

Here are some of the ways that I use Google Forms:

Student work completionThis form is used for students who consistently struggle to complete their work as part of our school's RTI process. With the edition of FormEmailer, the form is sent to me, the student's counselor, the student's family and to our school's remediation specialist. 

Teacher Evaluation of Me (Their Assistant Principal): This form  gives teachers the opportunity to evaluate me, which I've blogged about before.

Student Surveys: As a teacher I greatly appreciated feedback from my administrators and from my peers, but the most useful feedback came from my students. Several of the forms included in this database are Google Forms. 

Positive Referrals: One of my favorite parts of my job  is recognizing students for their hard work, their character and their determination. Faculty and staff members are invited to complete a Positive Referral form  . For more about Positive Referrals.

Walk Through Observation Forms: Like most systems our county has a formal observation document that I use for longer observations. For data collection and for shorter (up to 15 minute) observations, we use this form.  Combining this with FormEmailer, which automatically sends the completed observation to the observed teacher, provides teachers with timely feedback.

Google Forms have become one of the most powerful tech tools in my arsenal. I constantly look for ways to expand their use and welcome your ideas. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Accentuate the Positives, Walk the Line

Excellence in Education: Accentuate the Positives
The first week of school is by far my favorite week. Filled with energy, positivity and enthusiasm, the atmosphere rivals—and I’d argue exceeds—that of the last day of school.

Teachers are glad to that all of the mundane administrative stuff of the prior week are behind them; finally time to teach. It’s time to put a summer’s worth of planning and “next year, I’m going to try…” into action. Students are no different; each beginning the year with a fresh attitude.

The faculty parking lot filled up early on Monday (and no it wasn’t because we don’t have assigned parking anymore) and soon students poured into our halls to be greeted by friends and teachers.

As we go forward, I challenge each of us (me too) to maintain this energy throughout the entire school year. As we go forward, let’s continually support our students and each other. Undoubtedly, there will be days when we’re exhausted and emotionally spent, so let’s pledge to lift each other’s spirits with a pat on the back, a simple note, or a quick phone call or text.

Before we know it, SOLs will be here. We’ll be awaiting the 5am phone call to tell us that school is canceled, and we’ll be turning the term. Along the way, let’s maintain our enthusiasm and support each other by accentuating the positives. Let’s recognize and celebrate our efforts and our accomplishments.

Ideas for the Classroom: Walk The Line
Walk the Line is a simple classroom strategy that can be used to formatively assess students, to foster discussion, or to simply get students up and out of their seats. It allows students to practice thinking, speaking, and listening.

To begin the teacher creates a line in her classroom. The teacher indicates what the ends of the line stand for. Some possibilities: Agree/Disagree; For/Against, True/False, etc. Between the two end points are places for students who are on the fence.

Students then go to their spot on the line and the teacher randomly chooses various students to explain/argue their case. Other students are allowed to move according to the various arguments made (real feedback!)

This activity has lots of flexibility, so some other options.
1.      Have students work in pairs to determine their answer and send one student to the correct spot on the line.
2.      Instead of using a line, use the four corners of the room (Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree, for example).
3.      Have students take on different figures/persons. For example, if you’re looking at early American colonization, you could have students take on the role of a Native American, a European explorer, a European king, etc.
4.      Other possibilities for the ends of the line: Names of two people or two events (which was more important).

Administrative Notes

Due Dates for Initial Goal:
1.      Comprehensive Cycle: September 5, please remember to give pre-assessment as soon as possible. For those of you on the comprehensive cycle, if you’d like to set up a meeting before next Friday to discuss the pre-assessment data and the goal setting process, I’d be more than willing.

Additionally, I plan on trying to schedule quick (less than 15 minute) weekly meetings with those of you on cycle. This will help me provide more consistent and valuable feedback to you and ensure that we’re working together.

2.      Annual Cycle: February 6

Positive Referral Link:

Work Order Request Form:

Video of the Week:
Kid President’s Pep Talk for Teachers 

What I’m Reading

Preparing Your Students For Tomorrow’s Challenges  Definitely check out the links in number 6

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Kill Technology Integration in Your School

This blog is part of Scott McLeod's Leadership Day.

Those of you who know Scott, know him to be one of our true technology education leaders.

I'd like to consider myself a technology leader but far too often I stumble in this role. Sometimes I'm tripped up by my own stupidity, other times it's ineffective policies, and sometimes it's just dumb luck--or lack thereof.

But there are four, surefire ways to kill technology in our schools:
  1. Be sure you have the infrastructure to support your technologies. Last year, our school went to BYOD. Of course, our students were thrilled. Teachers ranged from indifferent to apprehensive to  fanatical. I, of course, fell into the latter and modeled various BYOD technologies during the first week (Padlet, Socrative, Poll EverywhereToday's Meet, Twitter, to name a few). Then 1200 students entered the building and BYOD fell flat on it's face. It wasn't because of the teachers, nor was it because the students abused the system. Instead, our infrastructure couldn't support over 1000 devices. Walking around on the first day of school, I was thrilled to see so many teachers embracing BYOD. It soon became obvious that we had major problems. Students and teachers couldn't get on the network, leaving everyone frustrated. Word quickly spread. Teachers scraped their BYOD lessons--not just for the day, but for the entire year. I honestly saw more attempts at BYOD on day one than I did for the other 179 days combined. 
  2. Don't make policies with the bad teachers in mind. Far too many school districts have restrictive policies that inhibit teachers' abilities to effectively use technology. The bad teachers will circumvent/ignore whatever policies are in place and the other 99% of teachers are handcuffed by overly restrictive policies. 
  3. Don't adopt technology unless you're truly sure that it will positively influence student learning. While the intentions are good, too many leaders have been enticed by the latest trend, by the bells and whistles, and have forked over thousands of dollars to technologies that quickly become outdated, are stored away in a closet somewhere or collect dust in classrooms. For example, while I love SmartBoards and Promotheans, I've seen far too many schools go on spending splurges only to have these serve as nothing more than glorified projectors and whiteboards.  Technology purchasing decisions require an understanding of technology and foresight, and once purchases are made, training to ensure that the technologies are used to ensure maximum impact. 
  4. Don't expect teachers to use technology if you, as an educational leader, don't use technology. Last spring I attended an edcamp and I was blessed to have a conversation with several teachers whose schools implemented Google's Apps for Education (GAFE). These teachers were fully committed to GAFE, but the same couldn't be said for their leader. One teacher lamented, "Our principal can barely open her email without help from her secretary." The teachers continued by rightfully stating, "Do as I say and not as I do just doesn't work. Especially when not everyone is on-board [to GAFE]."
As educators we must integrate technology into our curricula and as an educational leader we must lead by example. We must be willing to experiment with new technologies and model effective technology usage. Ultimately, we must create an environment that encourages teachers and students to embrace, integrate, and even develop new technologies.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

11 Things I Wish I Had Known As A First-Year Teacher

Twenty years ago I began my teaching career. As a first-year teacher I felt confident--borderline arrogant and cocky--in my abilities. I was in for a reality check and to this day I almost feel as if I need to apologize to my students for my inadequacies.

  1. Listen. Listen to your students, your peers and your administrators. Even better solicit their opinions. Seek feedback from your students and open up your classroom to other teachers and seek their feedback. Which leads me to...
  2. Have faith in yourself though. Some veteran teachers will try to convince you that your ideas are too grandiose, they won't work or that you'll bang your head against the wall when it fails. You were hired because you bring something unique to your school, and your administrators  want other teachers to learn from you. 
  3. Asking questions and sharing your struggles and issues are NOT a sign of weakness but rather a strength.
  4. It all comes down to relationships. Focus on building relationships with your students. Take the time to get to know who your students are beyond your classroom. The more you know about your students the more likely they are to learn and the more likely they're going to forgive your mistakes--and there will be plenty of them.
  5. Be creative in creating lessons. Don't rely on "that's how I was taught" or the ancillary (cookie cutter) lessons and materials provided by your textbooks. 
  6. Go one step further in lesson planning. It's always better to have too much than not enough. Some learning activities will fail and you'll be better off starting something new. Others will not take as much time as you expected. But, the learning activity is not of high-quality, you're better off not using it.
  7. Fess up when you make mistakes. Take responsibility for your actions. Again, don't be too proud to admit your errors.
  8. Don't be afraid to let your students know who you are. No, you shouldn't be sharing overly personal details, but students want to know who you are.
  9. Just say "No." As a first-year, single teacher living in Virginia for the first time, I didn't have much of a social life, but I spent far too much time at school. In addition to lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, and coaching, I was asked--and always answered, "sure"--to chaperone every dance, serve on various committees, participate in after-school IEPs, etc. While I learned a lot about teaching and my students, it's important to take time for yourself.
  10. Trust your instincts. Don't spend time second-guessing and over-worrying about student discipline. Naturally, I doubted myself far too often. Again your primary focus should be on building student relationships followed by lesson planning and providing feedback. Yes, classroom management is important, but it only happens when you've built the relationships with students and created solid lessons. 
  11.  Keep Learning. I had a pretty good first year. My students enjoyed my class, liked me and learned. But looking back at my first year as a teacher, I was maybe 1/1,000th of the teacher I became. You'll stumble plenty; that's OK. Just reflect and learn every day. For me, my 30 minute commute home provided me with the opportunity to reflect and improve, but for some a blog, a journal or talking to a colleague might better serve your needs.
Good luck!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Goals for 2014-2015

The start of each school year marks the opportunity for me to  set goals for the upcoming school year. Unlike my New Year's resolutions, I tend to do a better job of working towards these. Of course, sharing my goals with anyone who comes across my blog and those I work with definitely ups the ante and increases accountability. So here are my goals for the 2014-2015 school year. 
Every day I will help make a colleague better. 
  • I will perform at least 750 observations and provide teachers with timely feedback
  • I will schedule a weekly visit with each teacher on the comprehensive cycle to provide feedback and to discuss 
  • Each Cougar Communication will have an instructional element, and I'll make more use of visuals, images, videos, etc.
  • In person feedback will be provided whenever a negative is witnessed during an observation 
  • I will work with each teacher to develop their own professional learning plans 
I will work with struggling students to improve their academic performance 
  • Meet with parents, students, counselors and teachers on a regular basis for those students who are most at risk 
  • Require teachers to monitor students' academic progress and communicate that progress to me 
  • Expand the use of RTI procedures  
I will hand write at least 3 thank you/job well done notes each week 

I will create relationships based on respect, trust and mutual understanding. I will support and engage those with whom I work and always act with the utmost integrity. I will listen and learn. 
  • I will attend all departmental meetings 
  • I will meet weekly with department chairs 
  • I will be visible before and after school 
I will communicate and engage parents, students and the community on school issues. 
  • I will blog on Cougar Chat at least once per week 
  • Our Remind account will have at least 600 people sign-up
  • Kettle Run News (Twitter) will finish the year with at least 800 followers
  • Principal Forums will be streamed live
  • I will work with faculty to ensure that BlackBoard Learn is implemented and used as described 
  • On 75% of Friday, I will complete my Friday Five 
  • I will explore use of other social media sites to enhance our digital footprint
I will work with Professional Development/School Improvement Team to improve instruction and learning.
  • I will work with our School Improvement Team to provide relevant, meaningful, purposeful and engaging professional development opportunities for ALL faculty 
  • Our  professional development will be teacher-driven, student-centered, and choice-based.
  • Professional development opportunities will be offered online 
  • I will lead at least 3 professional development sessions including one on Standards-Based Grading and one on Restorative Justice. 
We will expand our use of Restorative Practices 

Every day I will make myself a better leader by reading, learning from my Twitter PLN, asking questions and LISTENING.  After all it's all about RELATIONSHIPS. 


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Power of Not Yet

“You haven’t taught until they have learned.”  Sage advice from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who credits his time as an English teacher with shaping his coaching philosophy.

For the first five or so years of my teaching career, students had one shot to demonstrate their mastery of subject. If a student failed to complete an assignment, the “logical” consequence was a zero. If an extremely capable student earned a C or below because of a lack of effort, then that’s the mark that went into my grade book. Or so I reasoned.

My thinking and my grading system were seriously flawed. If the students couldn’t demonstrate their learning, had I really taught them?

Assigning students zeroes or unsatisfactory grades doesn’t teach responsibility; rather it teaches students that they don’t have to do the assignment. If it’s worth assigning a grade, students—and teachers—must see the value in ensuring that each student does his/her best on that assignment. As educators we must constantly communicate that we see the potential of each and every student and hold them to high expectations.

Here’s where NOT YET comes in to play. No longer would I let students off the hook by giving them a zero or a grade below C. No longer would I accept less than a student’s best effort.

I’ve previously written about why zeroes make no sense, so here I’ll focus on the not yets for students who turn in work that doesn’t reflect their abilities.

How did Not Yets Work?
Simply, D’s and F’s were removed from my grading; instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Students would no longer be punished for not achieving mastery; rather feedback was provided and students were given an opportunity to relearn and demonstrate their knowledge and skills again.

Some students scoffed at the idea, “C’mon, just give me the D.”

I held firm, “I believe in you. I know what you’re capable of and this isn’t it.” Again a Wooden quote epitomized my new philosophy, “Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing that you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

By providing students with meaningful feedback and giving them the opportunity to improve, they seized the opportunity to learn from their errors and approached the assignment in new ways with more effort. Instead of allowing less than their best, students were provided with the opportunity to reflect and adjust so they can learn from the situation and meet the learning objective.

Yes, it meant more work for me, but was I really teaching if they hadn’t learned it? 

My Journey to Standards-Based Grading

I’ll be honest; I came upon standards-based grading totally by accident.  

I had become increasingly frustrated with my students’ attitudes toward learning and grades. Many of my “top” students were motivated more by “What do I have to do to earn an A?” than “What do I have to learn?” My less motivated students were too quick to accept less than their best. They were perfectly satisfied to earn C’s or D’s. It was the latter that spurred me to make changes to how I taught and how I assessed.

My three original reasons for adopting standards-based grading:
  1. Students avoided work because they didn't feel they'd be successful. 
  2. Too many students were not completing their work. 
  3. Many students were turning in work that was far below their potential.

high school career. But over the years far too many students were not completing their work. Many turned in work that was far below expectations and often extremely below grade level. Challenging assignments were met with trepidation; if the assignment was difficult, many students either simply didn’t do it or their efforts were minimal.

In conversations with other freshman teachers, we lamented that in middle school many students had the option to not turn in assignments, and at the end of the semester or year, they were given opportunities to raise their grades. These ranged from extra credit to fluff assignments to being allowed to turn in work that was assigned months ago. (Disclaimer: I know it’s easy for high school teachers to blame middle school teachers and for middle school teachers to blame elementary teachers. I also know many high school teachers have the same ineffective policies, but the point here is that if we’re going to prepare our students for college and life, we must do better.)

I pledged to myself and to my students and their families that I was no longer going to let students off the hook. I believed in their abilities and I was going to hold them accountable. They would leave my class with a newfound confidence in themselves. They’d be better prepared for life and along the way they were going to have fun learning about history.

On the first day of school, I explained my new learning and grading to all of my students. I explained that redos, retakes and revisions would be allowed (for more on redos and retakes: here and here). I went on to say I would never assign a grade less than a C, instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Practice assignments, including most homework, and formative assessment activities wouldn’t be graded. In addition, students would be given freedom to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

My standards-based grading goals were simple:
  1.  By attaching learning goals to each assignment and activity students were more likely to challenge themselves.
  2.  Instead of emphasizing grading, I’d be providing more feedback
  3. As author Ken O’Connor suggests, I wanted to be confident that the grades the student in my class received were accurate, meaningful and supportive of learning.
  4.  I wanted to remove subjectivity from grading.
  5.  I was no longer going to grade behaviors by punishing students for late work or work that wasn’t turned in.
  6. I'd make greater use of differentiation, flexible grouping, pre-assessments, and redos and retakes. All were intended to increase student motivation, reflection and increase intrinsic motivation

By no stretch of the imagination was the process easy or flawless. During the first year, I struggled to “compute” grades, the administration admonished me for giving incompletes on report cards, and several students and parents complained. Student grades provided a more accurate snapshot of student learning, but more importantly more students became motivated to learn and pushed themselves. Instead of avoiding challenges and withdrawing from tasks, they became risk takers; their efforts increased. They became more analytical, reflective and persistent. They established their own goals and strove to achieve them.

So while I stumbled upon standards-based grading accidentally, my journey had begun. I haven’t looked back since. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Case for The Case Against Zeros

Cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane

Ten years ago Douglas Reeves made a compelling case against zeros. Since then many districts and schools have crafted no zero policies (some admittedly miss the intended target), but these tend to be the exception. We cannot continue to use grades as punishments, to send "messages," and to "teach students a lesson."

Six Reasons for the Case Against Zeros
  1. If it's worth assigning, it's worth requiring students to do it. 
  2. Work completion is often influenced by home life, learned behaviors, economic standing, etc. It's not fair to punish students for factors beyond their control.
  3. Punishing students for failing to complete an assignment doesn't motivate them. In my experiences, low grades are more likely to discourage students from making greater efforts.
  4. Often a handful of zeros doom the student for the entire term, causing students to simply quit. 
  5. The students we most worry about losing (those who are often deemed lazy, are below grade-level, are labeled at-risk) are most harmed by zeros. 
  6. Zeros distort final grades, which should be an indicator of mastery.
Critics of No Zero Policies will claim that the penalty--a 0--is appropriate to instill proper values within students. This may be true for the highly motivated, mature student, but it's more likely that these students already possess the intrinsic motivation to be successful in school.

It's time for all educators to adopt a no-zero policy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

10 Things That Separate Good Teachers from Great Ones

Cross Posted at Brilliant or Insane 

What separates a good teacher from a great teacher?

1 -- Good teachers teach the subject matter. Their students do very well on assessments.

2 -- Good teachers have high expectations for their students.
Great teachers have high expectations for themselves.

3 -- Good teachers are acutely aware of their surroundings. Their classrooms are well-oiled machines.
Great teachers "pick-n-choose" their battles. They recognize that each student should be treated fairly, but not necessarily equally.

4 -- Good teachers have students who produce.
Great teachers recognize that they are responsible for what their students produce.

5 -- Good teachers reflect.
Great teachers look to their peers, administrators, online, and read books to improve. Most importantly, they look to themselves for answers.

6 -- Good teachers seek to improve themselves.
Great teachers push their peers to become better. 

7 -- Good teachers provide consistent feedback.
Great teachers possess a growth mindset and constantly praise efforts.

8 -- Good teachers arrive to school on time and complete all their duties and obligations.
Great teachers go above and beyond for their students and their school. They never quit and never complain about the hours.

9 -- Good teachers are respected by their students.
Great teachers are loved by their students. 

10 -- Good teachers know their students.
Great teachers know their students better than they know themselves.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cougar Communication: Graphic Organizer, 1-3-6 Protocol

Excellence in Education: Graphic Organizers
We’re all aware of the research that says students should create graphic representations to assimilate knowledge. Graphic organizers allow students to visually categorize information, their student friendly and creating them enables students to retain and remember the information. Additionally, when used as a study aid, they’re a lot easier to look at and understand than notes or text.

Over the past week, I’ve seen several graphic organizers used as
1.     a summarization activity in preparation for a quiz (Venn Diagram)
2.     part of a guided reading activity (a story strip)
3.     a means of providing structure to a class-wide conversation (viewpoints-reactions-reflections)
4.     a timeline of events
5.     a pre-writing strategy (RAFT-Role, Audience, Format, Topic)

In teaching academic coaching, I kept a binder of graphic organizers. Students were encouraged to find/create their own graphic organizers to represent information from their core classes. Through this process, I learned that it’s often best to allow students to create their own graphic organizers because this requires them to determine what graphic organizer best serves the class’s learning target. 

Ideas for the Classroom: 1-3-6 Protocol
The 1-3-6 protocol puts students in charge of their learning. Working both individually and in groups students develop ideas and opinions about an reading or topic. Most importantly, the students are responsible for their learning and are actively engaged.

1.     Students are given an article to read.  
2.     Students write their responses to the article. For example, you could ask students to write the 5 most important facts from the article.
3.     Students are placed in groups of 3 where they share their ideas. Each group classifies/group their ideas and write a list on newsprint, an overhead, etc.
4.     Merge 2 groups (6 people now) and have the students share their ideas.
5.     Again, groups of 6 write a list of their ideas and bring them together.
6.     Each group of 6 shares their list with the whole group.

Obviously, this is similar to think-pair-share, but by creating larger groups you can more easily manipulate the flexible groups to meet the diverse needs of your students. For example, in a think-pair-share setting, one student may do the majority of the hard work while the other is passively engaged.

Other points:
1.     It need not be an article. Students can be responding to an article, a topic, a video, etc.
2.     A simple graphic organizer can be created by you or by your students.
3.     To get to a higher level, it’s important that students classify their information in the group stages. Alternatively, students can evaluate/rank the ideas. In other words, take this beyond simply summarizing.
4.     In a class with tremendously, diverse students, you can assign and change roles. Some possible roles: summarizer, discussion leader, note-taker, presenter.

Administrative Notes
Please don’t forget that current employees that are covered by VRS may elect to opt-in to the hybrid plan, but this ends on April 30.

With the snow days, we’ve fallen behind in positive referrals. Please take a moment to nominate a student

Saturday, March 1, 2014

6 Simple Ways to Energize Your Lessons

Last week I wrote about the importance of greeting students as they entered your classroom. Now once they're in your class, how do you hook them?

Within the first minute or two of a TV show, we’ve made a decision: Is this show worth watching or not?

The first few minutes of class are no different; student know whether the lesson will be engaging.

To inspire and engage students in learning avoid these engagement killers 
  1. I’m going to come around and check your homework. 
  2. Read through the roster to take attendance. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, for example, only introduce the contestants after game play has started. 
  3. Give a graded quiz (students who do poorly may shut down) 
  4. Read announcements. Could you imagine a television show starting with the credits? 
When students walk into your classroom their curiosity should be piqued and their imaginations stimulated. Excite them.

Six simple ways to energize your lessons
  1. Ask students to make a guess or a prediction. We kill the love of learning by simply giving the answer. By asking the question first, students will be motivated to find the answers. I observed a science class where the teacher had posted a picture of robin's eggs on the projector. Individually students were asked to hypothesize, Why are robin eggs blue? Every student was hooked. They wanted to know the answer. 
  2. A two or three minute video clip can effectively introduce a topic or plant in their minds what they’re about to learn. The brevity of news stories lends themselves perfectly to this. 
  3. Give students a prop as they enter your classroom. These can be elaborate or simple. A math teacher gave students a golf ball and asked them to count the number of dimples (he later showed them a way to accurately figure it out using math and not simply counting). A world history teacher gave students a piece of paper with a role that the students would assume throughout the class. Students were hook
  4. In a BYOD classroom, post a QR code for students to scan. 
  5. Use art or music as a prompt. Ask students to respond to a song or artwork or have them create a drawing of their own. 
  6. Have students respond to a controversial statement. 
As an educator your success depends on your ability to engage students. If students aren’t hooked at the start of the lesson, chances are they won’t be engaged at the middle or end. Strive to start each class with an activity that will energize your students and inspire them to learn.

What are some of your favorite ways to hook and engage students?