Tuesday, July 20, 2010
"This too shall pass." - Carla Bensie
"I've heard teachers say, 'If you can only reach one.' I didn't want that. I wanted to reach all of them." - Angelo Cicolella, at his retirement luncheon
"I want to be able to look back on my career and know that I got better every single year." - Brian Cerullo
"Jami, you have to remember that you are planting seeds. You may not always see the harvest, but that doesn't make what you are doing any less important." - Shirley Cuomo
But most of all, Dr. Lori Anne Ferrell and Dr. Donald Vance, who taught me that intellectual pursuits and academic scholarship can be tempered with humanity and a sense of humor. It is from them that I learned that knowledge is not only desirable but pretty freakin' cool!
Much thanks, my teachers!
Monday, July 19, 2010
So, in that vein, let me offer my ultra-defensive reaction to their posts. Just kidding. This will have the potential to be read as defensiveness, but it is really meant as my touchstone. Why am I stirring the waters in my own classroom? Why even bother? So, when I have those moments of, “Ugghhh, things were working okay before. Why did I do this?” I can reflect on this. Even more important, when I find myself getting caught up in the minutiae of the implementation details, I can keep from losing sight of the ultimate purpose for this whole adventure. [Sidenote: On a totally personal level, the adventure is part of the thrill. I like pushing myself in new directions and down new avenues in my teaching. This is gonna be fun. :) ]
OK, but I digress. What then are my reasons for attempting to shift my grading philosophy:
Reason #1 – Why do we learn?
Be it a little bit of overdosing on Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, and the like, but I truly believe human beings have a natural drive to learn, grow, and achieve. This runs counter to the experience in my classroom every day where I am supposed to prod and push students who play their appointed role as apathetic adolescent perfectly. How do I reconcile what I believe philosophically about our innate motives and the conflicting reality of what I see? Well, there is research out there that has shown that the use of extrinsic rewards can ultimately have an undermining affect on motivation toward the task itself. If you haven't seen the RSAnimate video, definitely worth the eleven minutes.
This is precisely the affect that I see of our current grading/points system. It is one of the reasons that I think the young children who enter Kindergarten so full of curiousity and eager to learn digress into the almost catatonic beings that often sit before me. The “best” we hope for our Honors students who have simply learned to play the point game well, yet they often still show little appetite for actual learning. Curiousity has been replaced by grade achievement.
Reason #2 – Fight the Man
I also had the fortune/misfortune of dealing with a school climate this year that created a lot of us vs. them mentality between faculty and staff. Obviously this wasn’t a good thing for our school, but it made me really look and think differently about my students. What was it in the administration’s approach that was elicited such a strong negative reaction from the staff? Was it really that different than what passes for our typical classroom behavior plans? They were essentially treating us just like we treat our students. It was a carrots-and-sticks attempt at behavior modification. And we were ticked. I mean, the reaction was profound and angry. [Disclaimer: If you one of my administrators are reading this, go easy on me. I’m trying to make a point here about what we can all learn from each other.] The point is, they were acting just like us. And we didn’t like it! Not one bit. There was a lot of “We aren’t being respected.” And “They don’t trust us to be professionals.” And then sometimes, it got even worse….with a “I’ll show them. I’m not going to do one iota beyond what is absolutely necessary and required.” Whoa! Intensely negative. And not at all unlike what I see from students often. So, what was it we were wanting from our bosses? Why weren’t we giving that to our students? If we were wanting a context where we were given the benefit of the doubt, trusted to be self-driven, encouraged as we pursued our own paths of growth, why weren’t we attempting to create the same kind of culture in our classrooms that we were demanding in our workplace? And I know that adults are allegedly more likely to be driven internally and that kids need to be taught to be intrinsically motivated or whatever. But yea, not really. That’s kinda bullshit. I didn’t have to promise my son an ice cream cone if he learned to ride his bike. There wasn’t candy waiting when he took his first steps. Achievement and the desire to master skills is innate to us (See Reason #1). We just have to make the “skill” something meaningful enough that they want to achieve it (whether our current curriculum does that is another blog entirely), and then stop pounding that curiousity out of them with all these crazy reward systems that undermine the beauty of learning.
Reason #3 – A Perfect Marriage
The last reason is a bit more personal and more suited to my actual job situation. I am blessed to work with partners who have extremely varied techniques, approaches, and philosophies to teaching. I love that. It forces me to work and grow in new directions all the time. I am a chameleon and I adapt to the individual classroom culture and then push it forward. This SBG thing isn’t something I would try with each of my partners. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t fit in their classroom philosophy or their approach to teaching. Am I hoping that success in the one class where I am attempting it will ultimately lead to a bit of a contagion? Well, yes, I kinda am…but that’s beside the point. I am attempting it in the particular class I am in because it is with a partner who would throw away grades completely if he could. He and I work hard at what we consider the more important aspects of teaching the particular students we have in that class (low performing Freshmen)
- help them to overcome their learned helplessness and be willing to attempt and risk failure
- motivate them to think math is something to be enjoyed and to empower them
- give them a sense of confidence in their own abilities to learn and master difficult stuff
These metagoals are something that we kinda hold as supreme over the content of the math itself. That’s why creating our skills list wasn’t much of a stress to me. I used what we already taught and didn’t worry too much about the details of it. That will work itself out. Some of the grading component, admittedly, has me stressed because I am trying to figure how to fit this approach into our district mandates and the current CYA culture in my school, but that’s another issue entirely. When they leave our class, we want them to have a different attitude about math, about the process of learning, and ultimately about themselves as learners. That trumps whether or not they can successfully factor a quadratic function…although, kinda hope they can do that too…y’know, for the ole’ teacher ego [insert thump chest here] SBG seems like it fits better in this perspective than in the classrooms I have created with my other partners that have a slightly different (although in many ways equally valid) focus and approach.
So, there is my declaration of commitment – my SBG manifesto. I think that the philosophical shift absolutely must precede the implementation or David and Shawn have reason to be leary. We should all ask ourselves why. Not just once, but periodically…every day…so that our focus becomes on the idea of changed classroom culture and a truly formative feedback experience, rather than getting too caught up in a system that starts to revert back to the status quo which is probably our default mode.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
But then when I try to flesh out the details of how I’m going to make it work in my class, I end up with a grading leviathan where there used to be a somewhat yucky little asp. [You should be picturing the snake at the climax of the second Harry Potter film here…]
- How do I fit the philosophy and objectives of a standards-based grading classroom into the structure and context mandated by my school and district?
- How do I effectively communicate with students and parents in a way that doesn’t become horrendously tedious and überfocused on the grading system itself?
So, my current system is this:
- We have a computerized gradebook that requires letter grades and automatically calculates the means of those grades on a 4.0 scale (A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, etc.)
- Our district has a mandated percentage scale that is in our student handbook (A=93-100%, B=85-92%, etc.).
- Our state uses language in both our state standards (which most parents aren’t exposed to) and our state mandated annual testing that distinguishes between various levels of understanding (Advanced, Above Mastery, Mastery, Partial Mastery, Novice) where the goal is for all students to achieve Mastery or above.
The obvious answer would be:
- Should I just relinquish the SBG 4-point scale entirely and use the language of our state as indicators to students instead since they’ve been exposed to it through state testing anyway?
- Do I want to tell students they’ve achieved “Mastery” and then report that as a C when report cards are issued?
- How do I give students the feedback of “Mastery” and then still elicit further effort and initiative on their part to reassess and grow in their understanding?
- What unforeseen problems does this alignment have lurking for me that I am simply not anticipating? [OK, now you should see me – tightrope – chasm – snake from Harry Potter – and blindfolded.]
Part of the reason for implementing SBG is shifting ownership of learning back to the students. I want them to be aware of the goals we are working toward and how they are progressing toward achieving them. I considered setting up some sort of list for each unit where the kids could know the target skills at the outset. I tried putting together a sample one for our first unit and it came out looking a bit like this (three separate tables on the sheet because of the nature of the artifacts):
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Our approach last year, however, was a bit haphazard. We hit all of our objectives but I’m not sure we effectively connected them. I woke a few weeks ago with some ideas on how to make it a more connected unit of study, but I am going to need some feedback on actual research questions that will work in the context. So, let me lay out our goals and the plan I’m considering and then I will throw my questions at ya.
The standards we cover in this unit are:
M.O.A1.2.19 – Students will gather data to create histograms, box plots, scatter plots and normal distribution curves and use them to draw and support conclusion
M.O.A1.2.17 – Students will perform a linear regression (with and without technology),
· compare and evaluate methods of fitting lines to data.
· identify the equation for the line of regression,
· examine the correlation coefficient to determine how well the line fits the data
· use the equation to predict specific values of a variable.
We basically introduce the concept of linear regression but revisit it when we cover linear functions in the winter months.
SBG Target Skills
So, given this set of objectives for the unit of study, these are the target skills I’ve broken down (including skills that touch on our state’s 21st Century Skill Objectives) that we intend to address:
21ST CENTURY SKILLS
1. Communicating about mathematics
2. Working in cooperative groups
UNIT ONE – STATISTICS
3. Gather data using appropriate sampling methods (CSO 19)
4. Create histograms (CSO 19)
5. Create box plots (CSO 19)
6. Create scatter plots (CSO 19)
7. Find line of best fit without technology (CSO 17)
8. Find line of best fit with technology (CSO 17)
9. Determine correlation coefficient (CSO 17)
10. Create normal curve distributions (CSO 19)
11. Draw conclusions from graphs (CSO 19)
Scope/Sequence for the Unit with Class Activities
My mindset here was that I wanted to work through the idea of collecting data first, and then allow the students to work in teams to do some data collection of their own. Then I wanted to introduce display method #1 (Histograms), practice creating them a bit, and then have the students use the data they collected to create Histograms. Then I wanted to repeat this process with the other data display methods mandated (and thus, assessed) in our state. I can imagine a certain amount of objection here to my “blindly” following my state standards. Let me defend my choice here by stating that while I believe there are certainly other equally (or more) significant methods of data display that I will be completely disregarding through this approach, I presume that others have followed the objectives in previous years exposing students to those other methods so I’m going to focus on successfully teaching what is designated for this course with the assumption that it fits well into the scope of previous and subsequent courses.
My idea here is that for each concept we teach, there will be a sort of repetitive cycle of: Learn New Concept, Practice New Concept, Work with your Team to Apply it to Your Group Project. Ultimately, I’d like them to each write individual reports on their group projects. Perhaps a graphic will explain my thinking better.
OK, so I am giving teams some flexibility to create their own topics, but I need to have some samples (in fact, enough for every group if necessary) to help with brainstorming. The problem comes in finding topics that fit the criteria I am going for:
· A topic that they could easily poll an accessible population (i.e. student body)
· A topic that would appeal to adolescents
· A topic that would involve numerical data that would work well with a histogram and a box plot
· A topic that could have a second variable (i.e.age) easily attached to look for correlation
I’m not sure what I’m hoping for…kind of a “I’ll know it when I see it” thing. I thought about “How many contacts do you have in your cell phone?” or something similar. Then we could look for a correlation in that one might assume seniors have more contacts than freshmen, but perhaps not. I don’t know. Help!
Monday, July 12, 2010
I teach on a block schedule, which means three 90-minute classes and a planning period. I also teach in collaborative classes which means I have a partner teacher in each of my courses. While my schedule is still not set in stone, it appears that I will be teaching with three different teachers for my three different periods this year. I have taught with all of them before and am keeping my fingers crossed that the schedule doesn't change. But teaching with different people means the trails I take differ dependent on the individual strengths, passions, interests of my partners. I kinda like that...it lets me explore more of the forest that way. But it does tend to get jumbled in my mind so for clarity's sake:
YearLong Algebra with Partner 1 - So, this is two consecutive courses aligned to cover the Algebra standards over a full year. I taught this class with this partner last year and we really focused on developing a curriculum with a strong scope and sequence that emphasized as many hands on activities and cooperative learning tasks as possible. I know the curriculum has some ways to go, but I was generally happy with it. I particularly think we did a good job on emphasizing multiple representations of functions. I am eager to see how that group of kids does in the ensuing years because I think that gained a lot of big picture knowledge in our class. But for this year, what are the next steps?
- SBG or SBA or whatever hashtag makes you happy. This is the big one because I think our focus will be consumed by it. I have created a skills list for both terms which aligns with both our state standards and the curriculum scope/sequence from last year. I have major unit assessments already created, most of which are disaggregated nicely into target skills. I have thrown the idea at my admins who have not yet put the veto down, so I plan to lay low for a while so as not to garner too much attention. I have written a parent letter which is ready to go. WooHoo! All aboard the train! But I am trying to work on some mini-reassessments to draw from quickly when needed. I'll get to those soon. I swear.
- Class website. I created a website at the end of last year but we really didn't introduce it to the kids formally. I am hoping that we can do that this year on the first or second day of class. The website will be a place to post videos related to our current topic, foster class discussions, link to resources that might be helpful to students, important calendar dates, etc. I am hoping since these kids are freshmen, I'll really be able to sell them on the idea. :)
- Writing. Uggh. I believe in this theoretically. Wholeheartedly. Passionately. I don't believe in artificial distinctions between the disciplines. But! It doesn't mean I'm eager to take on this beast. Our admin is pushing minimal once a week writing in every class, graded for mechanics as well as content. My students uniformly hate to write...learning disabilities and all that. So, figuring out how to balance all this will be a challenge.
- I'd like to do a bit more graph interpretation this year. We dipped our toes into some resources from Visualizing Algebra, which I really love...but we need to do a bit more. They seem to go into math mode too quickly and forget the real-life stuff we are talking about.
YearLong Algebra with Partner 2 - Same type of class as above but with a different partner. Makes it interesting. Completely different teaching style and philosophy from Partner 1 which means it is an entirely different prep for me. Which I don't mind. The focus here will be very different though.
- I am mostly just working on better collaboration. When I've taught this with this partner before, he was teaching the same class later in the day so I was really hands-off on the planning side of things because I didn't want to impact his other classes. I want to be more engaged with what we plan and execute this year.
- New textbook. My other partner and I rarely use the textbook in Algebra, but this class is more heavily textbook-laden. Getting comfortable with the new text and its supplementals will be part of what I focus on here.
- More vocabulary instruction. I think this is an area ripe for development in this class. And I think this is a partner who would be open to some vocabulary type activities. My background in literacy studies is getting a little rusty so I am thinking this might be the time to break out a lot of innovative vocabulary lessons...or try to anyway.
Two Geometry Courses/One per Term - This is only my second year working with this partner but I am so completely excited. We had a great first experience together and I am eager to build on it and become more involved now that I've gotten comfortable with his style and approach. I am always pretty tiptoeish the first time I work with a new partner...I don't want to shake things up too much. I wait til they like me and then I become obnoxious and annoying. ;) So, here is where I think we are wanting to focus this year:
- A bit more technology. Due to some computer lab troubles last year, we didn't end up using Sketchpad or Geogebra at all last year. I want to work on develop 4-5 tight lessons that we can embed into our scope/sequence.
- More hands-on. We have several really great hands-on stuff (OK, my partner has them...I was just along for the ride). Anyway, we did several origami lessons, and a few other activity-oriented things. Hoping to develop 2 more to include.
- DIFFERENTIATION!! This is a big focus for me in this class this year. The Algebra course I mentioned is full of lower-achieving students. Our Calc courses are full of higher achieving. In fact, when I think of it, the Geometry class is the most heterogenous class in our entire department. It definitely showed in last year's evals: 1/3 said we went too fast, 1/3 said we went too slow, and 1/3 were content with pacing. We really need to develop more ideas for ways to differentiate - remediate our lower students, challenge our higher.
OK, so there we go...lots to focus on, but lots to be excited about. Now, where do I begin preparing for all of this????
Sunday, July 11, 2010
As a result of my new found religious zeal, I find myself often in conflict with the direction I see my school and local educational community pursuing. Behavior modification strategies that rely constantly on carrots and sticks seems to be the norm, and the icing on this proverbially unhealthy cake are the constant rewards and prizes that my school gives students showing improvement on benchmark tests (Ipods, Nintendos, flat-screen TVs). There has been much in the popular media of late (i.e. this recent Time magazine article) about research into the effectiveness of this tactic. I try to keep an open-mind when I read this stuff, but really fear we are heading in the wrong direction with regard to long-term motivation.
I want to create a classroom environment that elicits what I believe to be the more powerful effect of intrinsic motivation. Allow students autonomy in pursuit of academic goals. Create an environment where they can achieve and feel a sense of mastery. Connect our learning activities to a larger purpose. This is where I believe education should be heading. This is why I believe in educational experiences that are grounded in some larger context: application, interdisciplinary, real-world, and whatever other edu-buzz word comes to mind. It’s also why I believe a certain level of differentiation is a must for students to be appropriately met at their zone of proximal development to help achieve. It is often difficult to create a classroom like this in an educational environment that is so artificially constructed, but that is my mission.
Which brings me to SBG…the buzz word which probably elicited you clicking on this blog in the first place, right? I drank the sbg kool-aid because I think it is the best means for me to bridge the gap between where we are now in education and where I believe we should be going. I do see this approach as creating a situation where students are empowered and given autonomy to pursue educational goals (although, admittedly, they don’t have autonomy over the learning targets at this point). I also believe it provides a profound opportunity for mastery achievement when skills are laid out so clearly and assessments are formative in nature. I’m excited to see how this practice aligns with my values and allows me to minimize a bit of the cognitive dissonance I feel each time I attempt to my job description with my personal philosophical zeal. BUT…here comes my new conflict…
When I was discussing implementation of SBG with my partner teacher and thinking about creating a bunch of mini-assessments to have already on hand as a resource for kids wanting to reassess, he expressed concern that we were shifting to an overemphasis on grades. He said, “Is our class only about grades? “Kids come in just to get the grade, cram to reassess, etc.” That conversation has been eating at me ever since. Philosophically, I am not even sure I believe in grades at all – being the epitome of a meaningless extrinsic reward. And yet, in an effort to abandon the traditional grading system that I abhor, am I inadvertently creating a system that overemphasizes grades. Sure, the grades are different…they look different…they are about mastery rather than points and all that…but is the effect going to be a class that has this new grading system as its central defining character. If so, won’t that undermine the very purpose I am aiming for.
So, this blog has no answers. Just a rambling attempt to put some words to this conflict: Does SBG result in an overemphasis on external feedback that will ultimately undermine intrinsic motivation? Or does it align perfectly with our innate needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Your thoughts…
Friday, July 9, 2010
We work in isolation. We receive very little feedback on our job performance and when we do, it is often based on brief snippets of observation. So, we wait for the end of course evaluations that we give once or twice a year. We hope for those unsolicited bits of praise from students – current and former. We look somewhat anxiously (albeit often disdainfully) for those standardized test results, knowing we are but one variable in a child’s academic success or failure. And we wonder… Am I good? Am I making a difference? All while wearing an air of pseudo-confidence with our colleagues in an effort to mask the fear. What if we aren’t good? What if we are one of the bad ones? Of course, I tend to be a bit insecure by nature so perhaps it’s just me…
I have been blessed to have companions on my journey. As a special education teacher, I was a bit dismayed when the movement toward full inclusion redefined the nature of my job. Where was my autonomy? Would I have the opportunity to creatively design my instruction? What would my classroom look like now that I didn’t even have a classroom of which to speak? It felt, at the time, like a demotion to a teacher’s aide. I could not have been more wrong. Instead, what I found was the opportunity to pursue my passion alongside others who shared my enthusiasm. And I found a measuring stick by which to evaluate myself. Occasionally my partners have set the bar low enough for me to feel validated. More frequently, they humble me with their gifts and skills. But most of the time, it’s an ebb and flow…a sharing…a growing…an iron sharpening iron. Ideas building off of idea. And the constant feeling of being just a little bit better than I was yesterday.
And then I discovered my virtual professional learning network….the world of Twitter and the blogs…a collegial community better than any I could have envisioned. When I walk into my classroom and close the door, I am no longer alone. I have a network of support that goes with me, to encourage, guide, prod, even comfort me when needed. I am enormously grateful for that. I am still humbled daily by the talent around me. I still worry from time to time that perhaps I’m not good enough. But I feel like I am walking through the trenches with a team who is there to pull me up when I stumble and shine the flashlight for me when the places seem dark.
And I realize that perhaps teaching isn’t such a solitary pursuit after all.