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Crazy but not Alone: Project 180, Day 126


Came across this image and article this morning. Found it a considerable comfort on a Monday. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that one is not the only crazy out there. And while some kids have certainly not fully embraced the non-graded 180 classroom, all kids have “done” without grades this year. Many kids have “done” an impressive amount, and I want to believe that they have done it because they found value in it.

Today my kids will continue “doing” as they work through the final stages of their speeches. Speeches. An experience most people–kids and adults–will avoid if possible. As with everything we have done this year, avoidance is possible–always possible; there is no grade. Only opportunity. The kids are choosing to “do.” They are not being “forced” to do. It really is a beautiful thing. I am lucky to be a part of it.

Happy Monday, all.

I Want to Believe: Project 180, Day 125

With 55 days to go, the 180 experiment continues. Don’t know where it will ultimately end up, but at the end, I will have learned a lot this year, and that alone, no matter what, will have made the experience worthwhile. Can’t progress without change . Can’t gain without loss . Can’t learn without mistakes. In the end, I hope I find the reward worth the risk.

Been a great week in 211. Feels like we are hitting a strong stride as we near the finish line in the weeks ahead. The kids are working hard, and I feel good about the progress we are making as things are coming together. Had a chance to sit down and write with the kids yesterday, and there were moments of sheer joy for me as we struggled together through our shared task. I want to believe that my willingness to roll up my sleeves and work with them means something to my kids. I want to believe that when Layla whispers across the desks to me, “Man, this is hard. Huh, Sy?” that she values my sitting with her, working with her, learning with her. I want to believe that when I whisper back, looking up from the scratches and scribbles on my paper, “Yeah, Lay, it’s hard, but I love it,” that she believes. I want to believe that they believe.

Happy Friday, all. Have a great weekend.

“Because” is not an Answer: Project 180, Day 124

Yesterday I handed back the kids’ sentence assessments. There were only six items on the assessment. For each completed item they had to indicate their confidence level. I then assessed each item, providing a performance score. After getting the assessments back, I asked the kids to find their average confidence and performance scores, which they had to write at the top of their papers. I do this because I want them to see the connection between confidence and performance, and sometimes what they discover is a “disconnection.” For some kids there was an equal match 3/3. For many, there was an imbalance between the two, on either side. That done, we then started talking about learning.

In the 180 classroom, it isn’t assessment of learning; it is assessment for learning. Small words, big differences. The latter does not present assessments as the end of learning; it presents assessments as the continuation of learning. For this, “the continuity of learning” has two phases: whole class and individual. For the whole-class phase, I use what I learned from my general observations while assessing students’ work. I look for error trends and misconceptions that are made by multiple kids. For this particular assessment, I found an opportunity to address “explanation.” When the kids completed each test item, they had to explain their answers. For example, they had to write a simple sentence. Then they had to “Explain why this is a simple sentence.” For our learning yesterday, we focused on the word explain. On the front board, I had written the following.

The ocean is blue.

Explain why this is a simple sentence. (Below I offered three forms of responses I had gotten from students).

  • IC

  • Has a subject and a predicate

  • Has a subject, predicate, and it is a complete thought

l asked the kids to analyze the explanations and identify the best answer. Of course, we landed on the third one, but it did not represent what I encountered the test. I mostly encountered the first two. Now, to be fair, the kids’ answers weren’t necessarily wrong, but they weren’t necessarily right either, and that’s why they required, as the prompt demanded, explanation. In the second offered explanation, while it is true that a sentence requires a subject and predicate, it does not prove that something is a complete sentence (independent clause) because the same is true for a dependent clause, which is not a complete sentence. I asked the kids to think about their own demands for explanations in their own lives. I asked them to think about when their parents tell them no and they ask why. And I then ask them, if the explanation is “because,” how readily they accept that as a good reason for why. I direct them to the first answer, telling them that it is a “because” answer. And just as it is insufficient in their lives, it is insufficient here. They catch on pretty quickly.

For the individual phase, I asked the kids to complete corrections for every item on which they scored below a 3. For each of these items, they had to provide two correct examples and a full explanation. For many, they realized they had made simple or lazy errors and the fix was quick. For others, it was not a quick fill of the gaps. It was a major reboot, a major refocus. Some of them were sent back to the drawing board more than once as I forced them to use the resources at hand until they got it right. Frustrating? Yes. But I monitored their frustration levels, stepping in when I needed to, helping them find their ways, reminding them that this was simply part of the learning, the necessary practice to advance and grow. In the end, I think that’s what it’s about, really. Life is just an endless practice session. We live. We learn.

Happy Thursday, all.

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.

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