Thursday, November 1, 2012

Culture is the key

Hi Kathryn,

I attended a TST BOCES training on the new curriculum modules purchased by NYS to be aligned with the Common Core on Monday.  Not only was there a huge storm blowing off the east coast while I sat in the building, there was also a huge storm brewing in my mind.  I was attending a full day training on these "modules" available to us as 5th grade teachers.  Beth D was trying her hardest to captivate a room of 5th grade teachers, and to break down the 400 plus page document into a few highlighted sections.  A program called Experiential Learning (EL)created these modules and NYS bought them for millions of dollars to help teachers align their curriculum to the common core.

 Here is the ironic part about the whole thing.  The EL model is to go into schools, meet with the teachers and talk about what the kids need.  They then work with teachers, administrators, and parents to design a model for the school that will work for the students.  They design instruction and their day to empower students to be independent learners, thinkers, and participants in their learning.  EL provides coaching, and ongoing professional development for these schools.  Therefore, the curriculum modules were designed BY teachers in this really collaborative way.  HOWEVER, NY State has paid EL millions of dollars to "roll out" these modules and in some cases, teachers are being forced to teach them.  Doesn't that defeat the whole point of the process?  Just because you pay for something does not make it effective.

What I want to talk about is culture.  It really became clear to me that is the missing piece in all of this. What makes a successful school successful?  What makes schools have students who do amazing on these tests?  It's not a certain way of teaching or one implemented module, it's culture.  Schools that value teachers, and students and participate in a collaborative learning environment will have higher test scores.  Schools that create a positive educational culture and really encourage and teach to the person, not the test, will ultimately have higher test scores.  Any school that is successful, is due to a shift in culture and strong leadership and partnership between teachers, parents and administrators.

The fact that NY State thinks they can buy a program designed is this amazing way, and then force it on teachers with no regard for the culture of design is infuriating to me.  Luckily, I work in a district that does have a positive educational culture.  Our district values teachers opinions and voice.  We have collaboration and buy in.  We don't have to just adopt these modules at face value.  However, it is an issue that NY State continues to miss the point.  I was on board for the Common Core because I can see the value in it.  I was even on board with the SLO's because I could use it for my own data tracking.  I will probably get on board with some aspects of these modules and knowing what to keep and what to pitch.  I am not on board with the lack of creative problem solving and addressing real issues from the state.  I'm tired of being treated like an idiot. I'm tired of having politicians think that I can't think for myself. I'm tired of having everything dumbed down for teachers.  Put us in a room together and give us time and we will create wonderful modules for our own students.  Why are you paying a group to give us 400 pages of lessons?  

Thank god for the writing project.  It's a safe place where teachers are valued and we have time to sit and think, write and share ideas with each other.  I don't know what I would do if I didn't have the writing project.  I'm also very grateful for you!  Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why I Resent The Common Core

About half of my students come to me as "readers", those who carry books with them through their daily lives, visit libraries, and escape into reading before bed. Many of them come to me as former "readers", those who enjoyed books as littles, but lost the bug once reading for recreation became more challenging than TV watching, video game playing, or just living out an overpacked schedule. 5 weeks into the school year the majority of my students are playing the part of "reader", choosing books that motivate them, reading every night, and writing and talking about that reading in and out of the classroom. They have wide and varied reading tastes, but for the most part they have one thing in common. They are lovers of stories. Most of them read fantasy fiction as their preferred genre, and when asked why they think fantasy is so popular, many write wistfully about loving to escape into impossible worlds. It is impossible to not encourage this love fest my students are having with reading.

A few years ago, this would have been an amazing testament to my teaching superpower, but in the past few years my job description has changed. I have been told quite clearly that these beloved stories (or "narratives" to use the domain specific vocabulary) must only be 1/3 of the puzzle. I am told that I must find an authentic and true balance between stories and more academic reading pursuits, as if stories are non-academic. While I understand the motivation behind the CCSS, and feel myself being pulled by the challenge of finding great informational and argumentative texts to support my teaching in an authentic way, I can not let go of the fact that I teach an English class, the one place where students have traditionally been encouraged to focus on narratives. The rule follower in me feels guilt that I have yet to be able to balance these three types of reading. In my classroom the narrative is still king because my students still revere it, and the fact that I am supposed to discourage that makes me resentful.

Putting aside motivation, and the dearth of high quality informative or argumentative text available for adolescents, there is the simple factor of time to consider. I see my students for 40 minutes a day. That works out to 72 hours a year. In Readicide, Kelly Gallagher shares a frightening statistic that the average 15-24 year old does 7 minutes of recreational reading. If you do that math that works out to 114 hours a year that have the potential to be filled with ANY reading, let alone a healthy mix of reading. When put through that lens one can see that we are fighting a losing battle with reading, a battle that I am trying to fight with any weapon I have. For now, the weapon of choice is stories, and I am not going to feel guilt over that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Grading Philosophy

Hi Danielle!

I know you've heard me brag about how much I love my team of teachers that I collaborate with. Working with them challenges me in the best possible ways. We may not always agree on everything, but we're always willing to talk, read, write, and research to try to find the best outcomes for kids. Today we had a pretty intense debate over grading philosophies, in an attempt to standardize our practice across curriculum areas. You know that developing a grading philosophy that matches my teaching philosophy has been a priority of mine for the past year, so I wanted to share some of what we were debating.

This whole discussion started as a result of one speaker at our school district's summer institute who presented an argument for grading based on achievement only. He had some convincing graphs and charts, and many of us bought his argument wholeheartedly. We came back to the school year ready to completely upend our grading system, though some levelheaded colleagues urged us to take a step back and really examine what that would mean. Through some discussion, my team came to an agreement that we wanted to try to start with smaller changes, and look at the way we report grades. What we decided was that at the end of each marking period we will report a traditional percentage grade, just as we always have, but then break down that grade into three areas in the comments section of the report card. We all agreed to try a system that codes all graded assignments under one of the following three reporting categories:

  • Achievement- tests, quizzes, writing assignments, projects
  • Effort- homework, notebook and material organization
  • Participation- contributions to class and working on behaviors of successful students
I know that many might question the validity of having things like organization and participation contribute to a grade, especially with a national push towards measuring only achievement, but I have a few reasons why I strongly support developing a grade this way.

I teach a wide variety of students. Many are competently skilled and right on grade level. An achievement only grade would be fine for these students. But what about my other students, the smaller but extremely significant population of students who simply do not yet have the skills to succeed at grade level in my class? These students range from the newly immigrated ESOL student with enough skills to pass an entrance exam, but who does not actually speak, let alone read or write, in English to the classified inclusion student with a heavily modified curriculum, to the student who has difficult stuff going on outside of school that is a bigger priority in their life than studying for a test. An "achievement only" grade would hurt these students, and it would undermine the message that hard work is a major indicator of success.  

By explicitly including effort and participation in my grading plan, I am already starting to see a significant impact in my classroom. Students are motivated and making strides towards participation. Student distractions are minimal, and the reminder of weekly participation grades is enough to straighten out any stray distractions. More students are doing their nightly reading homework than ever before. The effect is simple to explain. Now that they are being held accountable for their effort and participation, they are working harder and participating more.

For me, one of the keys to successfully switching to a more holistic system of grading is having extremely clear expectations. My students were introduced to a weekly participation rubric in the first week of school. They complete weekly grading reports, where they log all of their assignments for the week on Friday and they receive their current average and a breakdown of all of their grades on Monday. They reflect on their learning at the end of every week, and set a new goal at the start of every new week. Does this take time? Yes. Does this create more work for me? Yes. It is worth it? Absolutely!

I want to communicate that student success is part of a whole package. It's not just about being smart and able to rock a test or write an amazing essay. Those things help, but for those students who struggle in those areas I want them to see that hard work and sustained effort to improve are also important. I want them to understand that when you take an active role in your own learning you learn more, and by default achieve more. I wish that kids could do that without the carrot of a grade, but the reality is that I work with middle schoolers who need carrots. In my opinion, a more well rounded grade earned through hard work, participation, and achievement is a better carrot than a jolly rancher, a shiny sticker, or a threat of lunch detention could ever be.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

SLO What?!

Hey Danielle,

I've been thinking a lot lately about Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and the upcoming workshop we're leading on them. I feel awesome about the work you and I have been doing on creating teaching goals that really reflect on the needs of our students and reaching meaningful outcomes. I feel more prepared to start a school year than I ever have before. That's awesome!

But I went to a meeting yesterday where the topic of SLOs came up. We got notes from a powerpoint that tried to outline the percentages that each goal is related to and what the expectations are. I was thoroughly confused by all of the info presented and then a piece of info came out that made me pretty uncomfortable:
Every middle school teacher in my entire district is going to have the same SLO!    
Each department will have it's own version of the SLO, but they will all focus on ELA, and essentially the goal will be the same. The ELA will be the benchmark pre-assessment, and we should just "roll with it" (even the math teachers who don't get to have a math related goal should follow suit!). The argument for this is that the admins hope it will be "easier" and "more efficient" to get through writing SLOs if we do this. I questioned whether efficiency through standardization was really best practice, but I don't think I got too far with the idea.  

So this leaves me with so many questions. Maybe you can share what you know from your district to help me wrap my head around this.
  1. What is the actual goal of a SLO? Is it about student learning or is it about checking boxes on an evaluation form? 
  2. Are other districts approaching SLOs this way? Do all of the 3rd grade teachers at your school have to have the same SLO? Do all of the math teachers at your high school have the same SLO? Is it the same as the SLO the science, English, art, or foreign language teachers have?
  3. Can content area teachers create a SLO related to their individual content? My principal is under the impression that any SLOs not focusing on ELA or math will be "rejected by the state".
  4. Can the state really reject an SLO? Who is sitting in Albany checking every SLO for every teacher in the state?
  5. How does our workshop goal of "developing an SLO that is meaningful to you" and "developing an assessment plan that works for your classroom" match up with a district wide mandated SLO? Did we miss the point?  
  6. Have I stepped into crazy town?
You always seem to "get it" when we're talking about state mandates. Can you help me understand?

Your confused friend,

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On Grading and Objectivity

I've been thinking about grading and assessment philosophy pretty much non-stop this summer. I think I've come upon a great plan to bring back to my classroom this fall that I will definitely share here once it's all together.

This morning I found this great post on grading objectively over at RAMS English. I'm definitely planning on printing out the reminders and keeping them in my gradebook as a constant reminder of the power of my purple pen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mile Marker #1

This year's research project has been unique in that I am not in the early stages of a new research path, but instead deeply into the journey I am on. I spent the entire spring semester researching writing to learn in a way that could make sense to the uninitiated, but what kept coming up was a point of my own struggle. I could not escape the nagging little voice that kept pointing out that in my own teaching my view of assessment was deeply misaligned with my instruction.

What the summer institute has afforded me is not a chance to dig in to research in the traditional sense, though I do want to spend some time in the NWP resources reading up on alternative assessments and portfolios as a way of developing some strategies, but instead has offered the time and place to work on the implementation of new strategies.

Perhaps the most important idea guiding this came from James, who challenged himself to find his nonnegotiables, the outside of the curriculum heart of what successful learning in his class looks like. I took an opportunity to do this for myself, and was able to identify specific student goals in the following four areas:

  • Reading: 
    • choosing, reading, and recording a large number of books, most self-chosen, though some books will be shared and assigned
    • talking about reading through book talks and book clubs
    • writing about reading through weekly responses that incorporate targeted skills, book reviews, and text analysis work
  • Writing:
    • writing a huge number of pieces (12-15 completed pieces by the end of the year) for a variety of purposes- making sure I support all three text types each quarter
    • freewriting as a daily practice
    • talking about our own writing through writers groups
    • focusing on thoughtful, meaningful revision practices.
  • Language Use
    • Expanding vocabulary by working with SAT level words even though it is only 7th grade
    • Working towards mastery on a series of tiered grammar concepts (like the one Kelly Gallagher presents in Teaching Adolescent Writers)
    • Applying vocabulary and grammar lessons to writing 
  • Class Participation
    • attending class consistently and being prepared for any meetings or events 
    • being willing to try new things and make an effort even when things are difficult (no shutting down, no checking out)
    • listening and speaking during class or small group discussions
    • being respectful and generous to everyone and everything in the room (classmates, teachers, teaching assistants, visitors, supplies, furniture, etc.) 
From here I feel confident that I can move on to the next steps of creating the templates needed for weekly recording of grades and reflection on learning, hammering out and creating/revising materials to meet my new grammar and vocabulary plans, and outlining an approach to work with students on creating a rubric that matches these four skill areas.

My research journey so far...

Research so far. I've asked a burning question and then I found a few more.  I have listed projects I'm interested in working on, and then I listed more.  I took time yesterday to really focus on what I want to accomplish and I categorized and organized those thoughts.  

All of this lead me to two projects I want to focus on for the next week and two days, regarding research that is.  I would like to focus on starting to form lesson plans, or answering the question of how to create a relationship based classroom at the beginning of the year.  I really want students to understand personal responsibility and encourage them to take charge of their own learning.  I know that they can do this in a writing to learn classroom.  I want to tease out the lessons and procedures that need to be in place for that to happen.  

My secondary focus is my resource room.  I want to create a writing to learn resource room, and I know these two notions are not mutually exclusive. I plan on using the writing to learn process and isearch process to help me answer these questions in my head.  I have a bunch of other things that will fall into place, but I really want to start there.  Gaining clarity is really exciting because I feel like I've been circling the airport for a few weeks and my plane has now landed.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What I learned from our discussion of Because Writing Matters

I learned a few things from our discussion of Because Writing Matters.  First of all, teach who you are. Second, writing to learn is essential, not that hard to implement and really important.  Showing is much better than telling.  I can show another teacher easily, but they don’t really “get it” if I “tell” them.  I’m inspired to write my curriculum guide, but I will show through teaching and strategies the HOW to implement writing to learn.  It’s really important to get other teachers on board. Also, don’t just close my door. Keep it open and start shouting from the rooftops to everyone, in a fun way of course!  Writing to learn is just or more important that learning to write.  The two go hand and hand, and gone are the days of writing as a product.  It’s a process, and when teachers can embrace that process, education will be a much different magical place.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"It's important to understand you cannot place a test score or grade on a human experience."

Hey Danielle,

That line from your last post really stuck out to me, it was my hotspot, and a sign of a struggle I've been having in my own teaching. I've been developing my middle school reading and writing workshop for a few years now, and while I think there are some ways that improvements can be made, I also feel that there is a solid foundation that I can believe in. There is an authenticity in the work we do in my class- we are real writers and readers doing to work of real writers and readers. Students who choose to engage in their own learning as active participants. They quickly learn to get over whether their work pleases me, and start to develop an understanding of what it means for their work to please them personally. Things are great in this respect. But then there's the issue of grading, which is only getting worse with the addition of high stakes assessments, common formative quarterly assessments, SLOs, and my impending ranking in comparison to my peers. 

My principal is supportive of innovation and trying to develop alternative ways of "doing school", but I have yet to be able to approach him about developing some kind of different way to "do grades".  I guess what troubles me so much is that in light of the relationship I am trying to develop with my students- one that puts my approval second to their own approval of their work, I don't feel comfortable being the "gatekeeper" of the grades. It seems to undermine the roles I want us to each take on.

So what's the answer? Do I let them tell me what their grades should be? Do I just opt for a default "pass/fail" (put in the effort get a 95, put in nothing get a 60?) What do grades really mean in a middle school? What is there purpose? What do they promote? What do they hinder?

I know there is a burning question in here, and that I need to do more research. I wonder who has been working with alternatives to assessment and trying to find an assessment system that honors a collaborative, authentic learning environment in the age of the Common Core. I'd love to leave SI this year with a proposal for alternative assessment to try next year.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Feelings... lots and lots of feelings

Hi Kathryn,

Here are some things I'm thinking about after our conversation today.  What is it that makes humans insecure?  Is it that they need validation?  What happens as a young child that creates that insecurity as an adult?  Is it that we are all just insecure?  What is the solution?  

I believe the basic need for all humans is to feel connected to one another.  Even deeper, humans need to be connected to their feelings.  Everything we do is either for pleasure or to avoid pain.  How we go about it us up to us.  We can choose to be in the moment, present and acknowledging how we feel.  Everything we want or do, accomplish or do not accomplish is linked to a feeling.  What is so scary about feelings?  They have been deemed and judged and value has been placed on them.  Feelings are what make us human.  Feelings are what separate us, and feelings are what drive us.  When we can express our feelings, we can feel free.  All human communication is based on feelings.  Are you giving a presentation on a topic to many people?  What feelings are you conveying?  You are expressing your feelings of confidence because you know a lot about a topic.  You are expressing your feeling of need, or you want to help others become knowledgeable about something you are passionate about.  

What happens when you ignore your feelings?  Where do I begin?  I think that for some reason, we are taught as teachers to shut down feelings in our classroom.  We need to get thorough material, we need to teach.  What is the real purpose of what we do?  Isn't it to education humans? Our job is to work with humans. I think we loose sight of that.  We have 20-25 humans in our class every day. 25 different personalities, experiences, people who have feelings and different ways of expressing and viewing the world.  As teachers, we have a choice.  We can encourage those feelings and individuals and teach them how to find their voices and their place in the world, or we can exert our power as a teacher and shut them down so it's easier for us.  Teachers that give space and freedom to their students give a greater gift- the gift of free thought.  We owe it to our students to allow them space to grow.  

I'm not talking about sitting on bean bags all day and holding fluffy pillows while we cry.  A classroom can be a literacy rich, while honoring the individual.  How do we do this?  We write.  Writing is such a simple act of universal acceptance.  When you write as a group a couple of things happen.  First of all, everyone needs to write. Teacher, student, humans, writing together.  When you write together, everyone is equal. Everyone is honored.  You are all working together to put your ideas down on paper.  It can be for a variety of purposes, but the task is the same.  You write to think and thinking provides feelings, or feelings provide thinking.  When you give humans space and time to think, it creates instant community and openness.  

Just because we have masters, does not make us the authorities.  I am not the expert in everything.  We can all learn from each other.  When you have a classroom based on understanding each other's needs and feelings, it's easy to learn and create together.  When teachers feel the need to control and teach AT kids, it's only because they are insecure and they are not honoring their own feelings.  It's important to understand you cannot place a test score or grade on a human experience.  If you are doing a great job connecting and following your passion as a teacher, as well as giving students permission to do the same, you all get an easy A.  

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reflections on my year...

Hi Kathryn,

It's taken me a bit to get back to you, but I'm ready to reflect on the end of my school year.  It was a pretty great year. I implemented a lot of what I learned in Seven Valleys Summer Institute.

Here goes!

I learned… that having kids write about topics that excite them is pretty amazing.  I saw my students actually write without pain.  By the end of the year, some of my students were writing all the time.  They even wrote me letters telling me how they loved to write.  We incorporated writer's workshop in three of my inclusion classes.  It was amazing.  When we asked the students what they liked or did not like about writer's workshop, they ALL said they wanted more time to write!  It was pretty cool.

I was stretched by….figuring out how to fit everything I want to do in my day.  I have a lot of restraints as a special education teacher.  I understand that I need to do certain things as a special education teacher.  I need to be better about assessment and understanding how to use data effectively to guide my instruction.  I am very good at understanding where my students are at any point, but I need to be better about "tracking" or "tweeking" data.  I also still struggle with how to be creative and do things that I love, without my "own" classroom.  I'm still working on navigating the co-teaching relationships.

I am excited about…really digging in this summer and trying to explore how to create a literacy rich inclusion classroom where all the students are highly engaged and producing authentic work in all content areas.  I also want to focus on relationship building in the classroom and find ways to honor students, their work and how to push them to achieve to their potentials.  I am also excited about including WAY more technology in my teaching and my classrooms.  

I’m beginning to realize…that I can be so much more and do so much more.  I'm beginning to realize that everything can be controlled by my attitude.  It just takes a shift of focus and where my focus will go.  I need to stop spreading myself so thin, and dedicate time to the things I'm passionate about.  I also realized a few things this year.  I really want to do more work with teachers, and I want to work "outside" the system.  I think when we work with teachers, and help teachers become the best them they can be, we can affect true education reform.  What a radical idea- putting teachers in a room, asking them to create and think and share with each other.  When we do that, amazing things happen.  Humans are drawn to each other to build relationships.  We need to be doing more of that in education, and start with supporting each other as teachers.  I hope to work on this idea over the summer, and come out with some cool ideas/products and systems.  

We shall see!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Starting Points

Hi Danielle,

I've been thinking and doing a lot of work on the Writing In The Middle Project, and envisioning what we want it to become, which got me thinking about the blog, and what that could be too. I was really inspired by what Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been doing over at the Bridging Differences blog just by writing back and forth to one another about educational ideas that excite, inspire, or challenge their thinking. I love the model, and think we could do that well too.

I saw this post today and really loved the simple reflective nature of the prompt. It's just four ideas to consider at the end of the year. This could fit into a classroom quite easily, but also be useful for us as teachers. So here's my end of the year reflection to Ruth Ayers' four starters:
  • I learned…
  • I was stretched by….
  • I am excited about…
  • I’m beginning to realize…
I learned that my classroom doesn't need me to be in control the way that I used to think that it did. A while ago I spent most of my teaching time anticipating all of the ways things could go wrong and actively working against that fear. This year, I tried hard to take more risks and surrender more control. Working with a co-teacher for the first time, leaving half way through the year for sabbatical, and leaping into risky projects like NaNoWriMo forced me to take these risks, and they paid off big time. My students were so successful and so happy with me, and they continued to grow and flourish after I left. The more freedom I gave them, the more they were able to surprise me with their accomplishments.

I was stretched by trying to reconcile my own views on grading and assessment with the trends of my district and the state. While I don't agree with a lot of the things going on in this area, I am starting to see how frequent small scale formative assessments can be really helpful in differentiating for all of my students and really can help each one of them move forward. Now if only we could find a way to help students move at their own pace in a system so obsessed with standardization.

I am excited about the work that I've done on the big things- writing novels in a month, the spring Shakespeare show, working in the organic veggie garden, my sabbatical project. Each of these has the element of being a huge all consuming project that takes over everything, but has a clear deadline and a concrete reward at the end. Students have thrived so much more by working on these big projects than they do on the little day to day lessons. I want to build more authentic projects into my teaching next year. 

I'm beginning to realize that I can define myself outside of the role of the classroom teacher. This semester of working with other teachers has provided many unanticipated challenges and frustrations, but has also been so rewarding, and the time for researching, writing, and thinking has been invaluable. I've started thinking about ways to move forward and beyond what I have been doing to help myself grow even more. Who knows what the future will hold for me, but I'm starting to see many different paths that I can choose from if I want to.

As your year winds down I'd love to hear some of the things that you want to reflect on. Keep up the energy, there are only a few weeks left until vacation and our Summer Institute.