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Fail: Project 180, Day 123

Failed yesterday. Meant to present the interim assessments for the SBA, but it didn’t happen. Pressed for time, the kids would have lost a valuable opportunity to make progress on their speeches. We only get the Chrome Books two days a week, and had I introduced the interim assessments, it would have disrupted the flow of learning. So I didn’t. Simple as that. Right decision? Not sure. But my gut spoke, and I listened. Not exactly a data-driven decision, but I will always consider the kids inside my room over the noise outside my room. And that is what I did. Instead of placing kids in front a computer test, I placed them in front of me, where we completed our conferences face to face, together critiquing and celebrating their efforts. Felt like the right thing to do, so I did it.

Of course, my trusting my gut puts me at odds with those who would suggest that my not putting my kids in front of the practice tests is malpractice, a shirking of my “professional responsibility,”  but it squares me up with my kids, those for whom I have a personal responsibility. And so, I failed. Another week down, and no interim assessment. Maybe next week. Maybe not. See what my gut says. I just hope I can trust it. Wouldn’t be the first time it pushed me to fail.

Happy Wednesday, all.

Voices: Project 180, Day 122

I read a lot of writing. I respond to a lot of writing. I present standards for writing.  I employ rubrics for writing. I encourage process in writing. I require products in writing. I teach writing. I judge writing. My days and my years are filled with writing. Of all that I teach, I think it’s the most important thing that I can teach my kids, the most important, the most relevant far-reaching skill that I can help them develop. But, consequently, of all that I teach, it is by far the hardest thing I teach. In part it’s simply the time factor that makes it difficult. Teaching writing takes a lot of time. As such, we don’t write a lot of pieces, but we spend a lot of time on the few pieces we do write–sometimes weeks, sometimes months. Not churning out the essays in 211. But I am supporting young writers in their development, and that is an endeavor that takes a lot of time, and so it is difficult. But there is a bigger part to the “difficult” for me and my students: It’s personal.

When we create, we connect. For writers, I imagine it is no different from artists who can’t help but forge a connection to their work. Any work seen is work judged. True in life. True in school. Humans see. Humans judge. Can’t help it. But in school, the judgment part of it becomes so pronounced that it disrupts the creative process. So worried about how their writing will be judged–how they will be judged, kids take few risks, existing within the margins of what the teacher wants, struggling to find their own voices. In truth, it seems for the most part, though our words might suggest otherwise, that we don’t want them to find their voices, that we want them to be parrots, that we want them to be echoes. And that is unfortunate. For when I think of good writing, it is rarely the within-the-margin, echoic writing that rises to the top.  To be sure, writing that reaches the rim is writing that says something. It is not an echo. It is not a parrot squawking on its perch. It is a fingerprint of she who has written. It is a voice. It is her. That is good writing.

So how do we do it? Opportunity. In earnest, I believe all teachers want their kids to find their voices, and that is great. It is what we should want. That is the talk. But I find that same earnestness lacking in our design of writing opportunities. Somewhat out of the necessity of compliance, we place kids in too many “school-writing” situations, situations that they will rarely, if ever, use outside the schoolhouse walls. It is not bad per se. It serves a purpose,  but it is limited; it is restrictive. There are few risks to be taken; there is little inspiration to be found. It becomes a transaction. And in transaction there is little commitment. Choice demands commitment. So we have to give kids opportunities to choose. Indeed, choice invites voice.

Currently in 211, choice exists in the form of the kids’ injustice speeches. And it is not only in topic. It is also in speaker, audience, purpose, and tone. The kids have complete control over the situation. And this is no accident. I gave them the helm, so they could steer. When they have the helm, they choose their direction. And my role? Well, I did not abandon ship. I just gave up my captaincy. But I am still there on the deck, a faithful first mate, ready to help them through the storms of their own creations, the pursuits of their own voices, their searches for themselves. And for those who have committed to their new roles, the sun is a promise on their horizons. Glad I am there to see it.

Happy Tuesday, all.


Just Another Monday: Project 180, Day 121

Morning, all. Not finding much inspiration this morning. Kids will start delving into the bodies of their speeches this week, and I still have some conferences to wrap up. And though I am not completely settled with the idea, I will also give the kids some practice opportunities with the SBA interim assessments. Kind of a danged-if-I-do-or-don’t situation. In the end, I will err on the side of giving the kids some exposure to what’s coming in April. It is–despite my wishing otherwise–their reality. Can’t believe we are down to 59 days left in the year. Never enough time.

Happy Monday, all. Sorry for the short post. So glad it’s spring. Have a great day.

They Come As They Are

Teaching is not a choice. It’s a responsibility. We don’t pick our kids, and for the most part, they don’t pick us. They come to us as they are. They come ready. They come ahead. And they come behind. They come happy. They come angry. And they come sad. They come motivated. They come apathetic.  And they come defeated. They come from whole homes. They come from partial homes. And they come from broken homes. They come from wealth. They come from poverty. They come sated. They come hungry. They come from success. They come from failure. They come connected. They come alone. They come as they are.

We don’t get to choose who’s on the team. But we do get to choose how we treat those who end up on our roster. In that there is choice. In that lies our responsibility. We have to meet them. All of them.

And while there perhaps exists some inspiration in the novelty of our grave responsibility, there also exists some guilt in the weight of our great burden. Can’t meet all of them. Haven’t met all of them. After a score of years, my ‘success’ is riddled with holes of failure, cracks through which I have let kids slide. And for that there is no reconciliation. I have failed kids. I could not be all for each. And I carry that. I wear that around my shoulders.

But I tarry not in self-admonition or pity, I carry it as a reminder of my being’s weakness, that I may find the strength each day to meet my kids. Hard to accept that I can’t succeed, but harder to deny that I can’t fail.

And so I try. Every day. Every day a battle between can’t succeed and can’t fail. Most days I am lucky. Can’t succeed fails, and can’t fail succeeds. And, thus, I continue. One day at a time. One kid at a time.  All I can do.

Don’t Take That Tone With Me: Project 180, Day 120

Tone. Not what you say, but how you say it. Yes, words have power, but approach determines response. Tone, attitude, matters. To some degree, my kids know this intuitively. True. I point it out to them. I ask them to think about their interactions with their parents. “How many of you know by now what tone to take when you want something from your parents?” Not a hand unraised in the room. “How many of you know what tone will lead to a quick dead end?” Same results. Indeed, words have power–can have power, if people will listen. Tone plays a critical role in communication.

Presently, the kids are working through their injustice speeches, where tone is a key consideration. Tone considers audience. Tone considers purpose. And though my kids indeed have some natural and experiential understanding of tone’s power, there remains much to learn. So, to help them practice tone, I came up with an activity to help them convey a desired tone. Seeking to make it engaging and relevant, I turned to tweets and hashtags. One, this form of communication saturates the kids’ days. Two, it presents a challenge as both are compact forms of writing.

I gave them three topics: @lunch, @hallways, and @homework. For each, they had to write a tweet and a hashtag. They “published” on printer paper, writing the desired tone on the back. Then, in various ways, readers had to guess the intended tone. Writing presents a unique challenge when conveying tone, for words are the only vehicle, unlike speaking where we have the benefit of intonation and gestures. To point this out, I ask the kids if they have ever mistaken someone’s tone in a text, or if someone had ever mistaken their tone. Again, all hands up. Thus, this points to how relevant tone is to kids’ lives in the real world. This is more than a school lesson; it is a life lesson as well.

In the end, it was a fun activity. The kids came up with many clever, funny tweets and hashtags. We laughed and laughed. Of course, the real test will be how well they apply this to their speeches. But, too, the test may come in more important aspects of their lives. Maybe they will be more thoughtful with their tone when texting their boyfriends or girlfriends. Maybe they will be more careful with their tone when communicating with their parents. I am thinking about using this same lesson at home with my thirteen year old. He has discovered and is experimenting with all sorts of  new tones, many of which are not getting the results he desires. Ah, the teenage years. #wenevertookthattonewithourparents #selectiveamnesia #adultsalwaysconveytherighttone 

Happy Friday, all. Have a great weekend.

In Our Hands: Project 180, Day 119

A mistake’s meaning rests in the hands of the teacher. It becomes an embodiment of the culture he creates. As such, it can either destroy or it can build. I choose to hold the latter in front of my kids. I choose to present challenges that offer mistake-making opportunities, opportunities to prove what we know and own what we don’t. I believe ownership is the key. We can’t improve what we don’t acknowledge. But it is hard to get kids to acknowledge, much less embrace, what they have been conditioned to fear and hide. Indeed, it is a difficult situation. But, it is not an impossible situation. Kids can learn to find value in their mistakes, to discover the potential in their missteps. But we have to teach them.

Yesterday, I presented a mistake-making opportunity. A test. An assessment. A chance to perform. A chance to fail. Tests look and feel different in the 180 classroom. With no grade attached, the pressure is off, but the “let’s-be-real” meter is in full effect. The kids have a chance to show me what they can do. They also have a chance to own what they cannot. And from there, together, we have an opportunity to do something about it. Below is just a small sample of what the opportunity looked like yesterday. I’d like to point out a few key components of the approach.

Sentence Performance Task

___Assessment taken with resources

___Assessment taken without resources

Write a Compound Sentence. Circle simple subject(s). Underline simple predicate(s).

Explain why it’s a compound sentence:

Confidence(student)  3  2  1          Performance(teacher)  3  2  1

First, the kids were given an opportunity to access resources if necessary, but if they accessed them, then they had to own it by checking the “assessment taken with resources” box. The thinking behind this is my wanting the kids to be aware of their ability to perform independently. It’s okay to access resources–we do it in the “real world” all the time, but the goal is independence. And we cannot reach independence if we are not first aware of dependence. Of course, I encouraged the kids to try it independently, and many did,  but a good number used resources. Did some check the “did not use” box disingenuously? Perhaps, but I would suggest that few did. Why would they? As I reminded them, this is not a vehicle for a grade. It is a vehicle for feedback. No short-term gratification to be achieved here. No “stolen” grade to mask a lack proficiency. Just an opportunity to own their learning. Cheaters never win.

Next, the kids not only had to show me the what, but they also had to show me the why. Yes, it is important for them to produce the desired sentence, but it is equally important for them to explain why. This is a necessary measure of understanding. I want them to do. But, ultimately, I want them to understand. If one can explain, then one understands.

Finally, the kids had to indicate their confidence level by marking 3 (confident), 2 (somewhat confident), or 1 (not confident). Then, my assessment would indicate how they performed: 3 (hit the target), 2 (near miss), or 1 (far miss). How’d they do? Well, I am only through one period, but I am pleased to announce that there were lots of mistakes, lots of learning opportunities.Oh, there was a lot of success, too, and even a few “perfects” without resources, but by and large, I learned that we still have some learning to do. Could not be happier about that. Let the learning continue.

Happy Thursday, all.

Over a Barrel: Project 180, Day 118

In a little over a month, my 88 sophomores will sit down to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA).  It is the most current manifestation of the “state test” that kids will have to pass in order to graduate. It began with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL),  and then it changed to the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE). Interestingly, each–including the current test–has been touted as a valid, reliable measure of student achievement–until it wasn’t. And so, this leads me to believe that we haven’t yet “arrived” in regards to finding “the measure” of student achievement.

With the SBA’s predecessors I went all in. Oh, not because I thought that these tests were the promised panacea they claimed to be, but because they were part of my kids’ realities. And as such, my attitude, as with most things that I do, set the stage for how the kids would approach the test. I even created “cheer teams” in the form of WASL Wonders and HSPE Heroes to motivate and inspire the kids to do their best. But as time got on, my energy and enthusiasm for such things began to wane. And now, even if I wanted, I don’t think I could muster the strength, for I am no longer buying what’s being sold. I am no longer all in. Heck, I’ve not even a toe in the ring if I am honest. I am done. But it’s not that simple. And before I get too crazy with my anti-test, tough-guy talk, I have to check myself. There’s still the kids. And those in power know this. And as long as that’s a factor, they have me over a barrel. I will do what I have to do to help my kids pass, even if it means selling out.

Recently, our attention was directed to what are called “interim assessments,” practice assessments put out by the same company who makes the tests, practice assessments that teach to the test, practice assessments that take precious class time. Practice assessments that if I do not put my kids in front of, then I am guilty of not putting them in front of the practice, which may or may not help them pass. And thus the barrel; it is especially the barrel when such things are presented as, “It’s your professional responsibility to give these practice tests. Well, when it’s put that way, then I guess I have to do it, else I am not a professional. I am neglecting my kids. I am hurting their chances on the test. Of course, we are not being required to give them, but we are being reminded of our professional responsibility. Barrel.

And so, a dilemma. It vexes me that I have to put so much time and energy into something that will likely “expire” once the new, more valid and more reliable measure presents itself. It vexes me that even yesterday, my conferences with kids ended up steering us to how they will perform on the upcoming test. It vexes me that I have to sell what I would not buy. It vexes me that I will have to be disingenuous with my kids, as I put on my rah-rah hat and pick up my pom-poms, checking my attitude at the door, putting on a happy face for something in which I find little value. But I will. For my students. But not for my own child. My seventh-grade son Finn will not be taking the SBA this spring. We are opting him out. Opting out because we can. Not sure what we will do in  high school, when it “counts,” but for now, we will choose not to participate in this mad era of standardized testing.

Happy Wednesday, all.

Air in Their Sails: Project 180, Day 117

This caught my eye this morning. Made me think of my quest to cultivate a culture of possibility. As I am wont to say, often the only difference between possible and impossible is a teacher’s decision.  And more often than not, those decisions involve our perceptions. Of course there are things out of are control, and there always will be. We cannot change a kid’s home situation. But we cannot let what we cannot control outside our room control what goes on inside our room. We have a choice. In everything a choice. We can feed apathy. Or we can feed hope. The latter presents possibility. The former, made manifest in the list above, presents excuses that shred the sails before they ever catch wind, stranding us in a sea of impossible, listing without purpose, existing without hope.

As captains of our ships, we chart the course. We hoist the sails. Let’s just make sure that when we do, they can catch the wind, hold the force that our kids can be. Can be. If we let them be. Think possible. And it will be.

Happy Tuesday, all. May your sails catch a favorable wind.

Culture of Comfort: Project 180, Day 116

Yep. This is what I want for my kids. And while I cannot claim that my classroom is ideal for every kid who walks through the door, I can claim that I make a concerted effort to make it so. Of course, that is no small task, for each kid is different, and meeting his or her needs is a unique challenge. As such, it is perhaps an impossible mission, but if one stays the course, making an honest effort towards his goal, then even his failure is his success because he tried.

At present, I am trying to move the needle with public speaking. I am trying to provide opportunities for kids to face their fears and become less uncomfortable. Of course, I began this back on day one. It started the moment they walked through my door 116 days ago. It started with my first interaction with them. It started with their first interactions with each other. From day one, we began creating the culture in which we would live for the coming months. And it is now within that culture–a mix of intention and chance–that we find ourselves finding the courage to face that which we fear. Of course, I want to believe that the comfort the kids find in our culture has made this task a little less daunting. I want to believe that if asked, my kids would say that feel comfortable in my room. Comfortable to be themselves. Comfortable to struggle. Comfortable to accept a challenge. Comfortable to ask for help. Comfortable to be uncomfortable. If this is even mostly true, then I am comfortable. But because it will never be fully true, I will never be fully comfortable,  and, thus, I will continue to chase what I desire.  A room for all. A place for each.

Happy Monday, all.


Help! I am Surrounded by Glossophobes: Project 180, Day 114

Yesterday, we began facing our fears. Apparently, nearly 75% of the world’s population suffers from the fear of public speaking, but the kids’ and I didn’t need statistics to back up what we already knew to be true. Kids, people, rarely embrace the opportunity to stand and deliver to their peers. In fact, they generally hate it.  And yesterday, the kids reminded me of that.

Of course, I didn’t need much of a reminder, for even though it has now been nearly thirty years ago, I remember all too clearly–and painfully–the “F” I took on a speech in 11th grade because I was too afraid–really, just unprepared–to stand in front of the class. Mrs. Amsden was terribly disappointed in me. Heck, I was–still am–disappointed in myself. But the fear was real. So, I do not dismiss it out of hand when my kids share their fear and reluctance to speak publicly. But, I do not let them get out of it either. It’s important. And it’s one of those things that one cannot simply get better at without doing. So we do it, but we do it differently.

Last year, upon posing the question, “Why are people so afraid to speak?” I had a huge Aha! moment when Danica broke it down for me.

“Here’s the deal, Sy. You guys give us one or two major presentations/speeches per year; you make it worth a gazillion points; you give us a rubric that requires a Ted-Talk level of performance; and you don’t give us any real support. You just expect perfection. And then you wonder why we generally suck, and why we generally hate it.”

Ouch. Knife in. Couple a twists. That one hurt. But it hurt because it was true. And at that moment, I vowed to never again “score” a kids public-speaking performance. Oh, I would certainly give feedback, but I would not penalize them with a grade for facing their fears, for trying to grow. More importantly, I vowed to give them lots of opportunities to practice with feedback, so they were less-anxious during the real performance. Consequently, as some will remember from last spring, I had the pleasure of witnessing many great speech performances, many of which I shared with you. And so, this year, I am taking a very similar approach, hoping my kids grow in this important area by diminishing their own anxiety with speaking publicly.

And so, yesterday, the kids had their first of many to-come opportunities of standing and delivering in front of the class. They had to prepare 5 statements that revealed some of their beliefs, values, convictions, and/or ideals. Killing two birds, I had them produce a simple sentence, a compound sentence, a complex sentence, a figure of speech, and a threepeat. They had to publish each statement in marker on printer paper. Then they had to select one of two options for presenting: share without speaking, or share with speaking. In addition, as they took the stage, they had to share their anxiety level by indicating  a number with their fingers. 1 = low/no anxiety. 2 = moderate anxiety. 3 = high anxiety.  And we got to work. We got about halfway through the roster, and today we will wrap it up. No Ted Talks. But the kids got up and they delivered. Baby steps. Fear is not overcome at once. It takes time, and it takes some trust. I have some trust building to do in this particular arena. Thankfully, last year, Danica helped show me the way.

Happy Friday, all. Have a great weekend.


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