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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.

Missing Muse: Project 180, Day 113

Morning, all. Experiencing a rare moment this morning. Not finding much to write about. Oh, there’s plenty going on in class. Even have some good Twitterverse graphics to share, but not finding my flow today. Doesn’t happen very often.

Been thinking a lot about next year, and as I do, I am weighing carefully whether or not I will go gradeless. At present, the scale is balanced. There are reasons why I should. There are reasons why I shouldn’t. That said, I will continue to contemplate and ruminate as the journey continues, but as of right now, there is no certain path.  Of course, some important factors still remain in regards to how effective the project has been, and they will play a significant role in my final decision. One will be the results of the state testing. Another will be the final, end-of-the-journey feedback from the kids. And while neither will fully reveal nor decide the matter, both will weigh heavily in my decision.

Speaking of the devil. State testing is right around the corner. There are some interesting things going on in the state right now, House Bill 1046, which “delinks” testing from the (ACA and ICA) graduation requirement has passed the House chamber and is now in the Senate. And though I am still educating myself on what the implications of this may be, I am pleased that there has been some official progress with how we approach and/or connect standardized testing and its data with graduation requirements.  Every year, I find it harder and harder to not more strongly resist and speak out against the madness that is standardized testing.  For now the saga continues, and I will do my part to prepare my kids for their current reality. But it rankles.

All right, that’s all I got. Alas, my trusty muse eluded me this morning. Happy Thursday, all.

Slow and Steady: Project 180, Day 108

Moved a little farther down the road yesterday. Looks we have settled into a pace of 5 conferences per hour. No, not setting any speed records, but we are moving ahead–slow and steady.

Above are some images of my sitting down with some of my kiddos yesterday. Here are the steps that I follow for each conference.

  1. I provide a general overview of what the  conference will entail.
  2. We each pull up the letter on our Chromebooks. Love Google Docs.
  3. I provide each kid with a form. On one side is the SBA rubric. On the other side are two columns: “Things to Think About” and “Things to Celebrate.”
  4. We then read through the letter together. As we go, I offer feedback, and the kids write down my suggestions in the “think-about” column.
  5. Next, we flip the form, and with a highlighter in hand, I mark where I believe they fall on the rubric, providing a brief rationale, which draws largely from our conversation in step 4. I also provide a tentative, unofficial indication of how I think they will perform on the SBA based on what I see in front of me.
  6. Finally, we flip the form one last time, and together we find things to add to the “celebrate” column. I make the kids go first and then I add what I believe is worthy of celebration, too. This final step is very intentional. I always want our interaction to end on a positive.
  7. I thank the kiddo. Place the form in his/her portfolio and get ready for the next.
  8. Repeat steps 1 – 7.

Each conference takes roughly 10 minutes. And though the process is the same, the content of each varies by kid. And that is what I love the most. I have to meet each where he is. Differentiation at its purest perhaps. Love, love, love it. And I am beginning to believe that the kids are finding value in it, too. Well, at least, they seem not to hate it.

Brief pause today. We have half days for conferences, and so this 1st, 2nd, and 3rd periods’ Friday,  and since it’s, then, the first Friday of the month, it’s Community Circle time. Yes, that will delay our conferences, but the letters will be there when we get back to it on Monday. Today, the members of the community, not the work of the community, will take center stage. Another intentional decision. Another important decision. Can’t teach them if I don’t know them.

Happy Thursday, all.

Enough Already!

See ya, tomorrow, all. Ugh.

 

A Thousand Words: Project 180, Day 86

Here are some of the projects that the kids produced. I was so impressed with the creativity and variety of their projects. There was also a movie and puppet show, which I unfortunately could not share. I have two more classes who will share their projects today. I am beyond excited to share in more moments with my kiddos. I am so proud of what they accomplished despite the snow-day setbacks. I am also proud of their commitment to something for which there was no grade. It seems choice can indeed foster commitment.

On a separate note, with nearly half of the parent letters returned, all have chosen 180. No school tomorrow for the kids. I’ll be back with you on Monday.

Happy Thursday, all.

Guilty: Project 180, Day 79

Some day it’ll happen. And they’ll find me. Broken. Bent beyond recognition. A fatality by flexibility. I’ll have bent too far.

One lives. One does. One thinks. One wonders. One worries. I am one. And so, I worry. I worry about my flaws. I worry about my flaws as a father, a husband, a friend, a son, a person, and far too often I worry about my flaws as a teacher. And while my list beneath that particular hat is long, presently I ponder one practice, one habit I cannot break, cannot escape. Flexibility. Am I too easy? Am I a pushover? Am I too forgiving? Am I making a difference? Am I ruining lives?

I don’t think that it’s that I really believe those things, but I find them in my head, and so, I have to accept that on some level they are real, for they are present. And, as they are present, they make me especially vulnerable to doubt. And, then when the doubt creeps in from the outside, well…one worries.

Gifted A’s aside, I forever find myself being overly flexible, manifesting itself in my giving more time, more chances, more options, more of anything at my disposal. And though by now I have come to generally accept that after 20 years that’s just who I am as a teacher, it does not mean that I am free from the worry that I bend too much. Still, when I worry further and reach deeper into the core recesses of my belief set, I find that perhaps when one endeavors to create a realm of possibility for his students, flexibility becomes a necessary by-product. If I am going to sell “possible,” then I have to produce possible. I have to be flexible. So I am.

To that point, the two-day in-class final became, for many, a four-day in-class final, and for some that still has not been enough. So, what does Captain Flexibility do? He lets those not done, take it home. Bye-bye in-class final. Hello take-home final. Am I crazy? Maybe. But if the kids are motivated to finish, to do their best, and I stand in the way, am I still peddling possibility? I have to give them more time. After all, in the 180 classroom, it’s not about the grade. There is no reason to cheat. It’s about learning. And if learning requires time, a commodity I possess, then I will freely distribute it. We know that kids have to be motivated. It’s 60% of the 180 Formula.  My 60% is my being dedicated. To my students. My students need time. I have the flexibility to give them more time. I will give it. It’s who I am.

I also can and will give options. Had two more boys “own” that they had not read Night, wanting to know if they, too, could then possibly use one of the movies for their essay. Of course they can. No, I am not happy that they failed to read the book, but if there is an option to salvage the situation and provide a learning opportunity, then I will grant it. They–though unable to find it for the book, have found some motivation to do, to learn. And when learning is still possible, I will be flexible.

In the end, when they do find me broken from bending too far, I may well do some time in teacher purgatory, guilty of my sins, but I’ll take my chances. No choice, really. It’s who I am.

Happy Thursday, all.

 

In a Strange Land: Project 180, Day 61

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I have to remember. I have to remember that this change is as big for them as it is for me. I have to remember that they, too, are going through the process of change. I have to remember.

But I forget. I forget when I am faced with resistance without. I forget when I am confronted by the chaos within. I forget.

And so, I vow to work harder to not forget to remember. It’s not only about me. It’s not only about me. It’s not only about me…

Of late, I have found myself frustrated by some kids’ lack of commitment to their learning. And though I try to put on a brave face and not take it personally, I do. I do. And while that is awfully human of me, it is also awfully selfish of me. And then, just like that, it becomes about me again. And it’s not. It’s about us. All of us.

Tuesday, I wrote about the essence of the shared commitment, introducing the triad: dedicated teachers, motivated students, and involved parents. We are all on this journey together, a journey not easy, a journey still in descent as we claw our way through the unfamiliar territory, the “foreign element” that is 180.

We are all of us strangers in a strange land. And as such, we need each other more than ever if we are to make our transformational ascent to a new status quo. For me, it’s about experimenting and discovering the right formula for 180. For kids, it’s about finding comfort and confidence behind the wheel of their own learning. For parents, it’s about shrugging off the school-perpetuated myth that they no longer need to be involved in their children’s education. It may very well be that we need you now more than ever. We have to dispel the notion that parents need to fade away as their kids progress through the system. Just as teachers need to be dedicated and students need to be motivated Pre-K – 12, parents need to be involved for the whole trip, too–a shared commitment from start to finish. 60 + 60 + 60 = 180.

Happy Thursday, all. A little less chicken-wingy this morning. Ready to feel the wind beneath my cape again.

Not Enough: Project 180, Day 59

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Though I have not fully processed all that I learned from the recent midterm conferences, I have reached a humbling conclusion. My dedication is not enough. Despite my commitment to lead and support my kids along their journey, in the end, if that’s all it is, then it is simply not enough. If kids aren’t motivated and if parents aren’t involved, then all that I do is not enough. Oh, it alone might nudge kids along from time to time, but a push here and a pull there won’t get kids to the top of this year’s summit. A sad, simple fact. But I deign to dwell in apathy because in the struggle, I found success. But I did not do it alone.

Recently, as I shared, I had a tough conference–maybe the toughest of my career. And while it certainly threw me for a loop that has not quite come to rest, yesterday the swirl slowed, and I saw the unfortunate situation in a new light. Unexpectedly, I had a newly motivated student on my hands, one who was diving into the work with a diligence yet seen. On top of that, this student turned in an exemplary essay that I will seek to use as a model in the future.

Of course, I don’t really know what the new motivation means. I certainly don’t see it as affirmation or acceptance of my approach, but the motivation is undoubtedly there. And that is all that matters. Teachers have to be dedicated. Students have to be motivated. Parents have to be involved. And that is what happened. No, I did not enjoy my at-odds moments with this particular parent, and it will bother me for some time, but in the end, if it has motivated her child, then that is what really matters. I want to believe that even if the divide between our perspectives is miles wide, ultimately we want the same thing: success for the child.

Another conference. A different situation. Another success. Two days before conferences, Sally (name changed) came to me after the bell. She came to apologize. Caught off guard, I continued to listen as she shared with me that she had taken to heart my recent comments about the necessity of practice for growth, that if they weren’t doing, they weren’t growing. She had spoken to her parents about it, and they instructed her to come and talk to me. She had also been instructed to let me know that they would be at conferences. Touched by both her courage and honesty, I let her know how much I appreciated her coming to me and that I looked forward to meeting with her parents.

“We are here to be cheerleaders. We aren’t here to punish Sally. We are here to encourage and help.” I have had this on replay in my head ever since. Sally’s dad, looking to Sally to mom to me, shared this during the conference, and it lifted my spirit. Of course, that spirit would soon be crushed. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sally up to the point of the conference, had done little to no work.  But with her new cheer squad in tow, she made a public pronouncement that evening, rededicating herself to her learning. And for the few days before Thanksgiving break, she, too, was a newly motivated student.

But yesterday, I feared it only a mirage as she came to me and told me that she could not print her essay. This, folks, is not a new one for English teachers. To be sure, it’s the equivalent of “my dog ate my homework” of old. Seeking to assure her that it would be fine to get it to me the next day, I tried to hide my doubt and disappointment, but she, rejecting any potentially patronizing reassurance, insisted that it was in her Google Docs. I told her that she could email it to me then. And before I could walk back to my desk, it was in my inbox. Abashed by my doubt and disappointment, I praised her for getting it in. No mirage. Made my day. I emailed her parents last night with “Sally Rocks!” in the subject line.

Another success. But only because of a shared commitment. I cannot do it alone. Sally cannot do it alone. Parents cannot do it alone. We all play equal parts. And that is humbling. But it is also liberating. I can only control my part of the triad. I cannot control a student’s motivation. I cannot control a parent’s involvement. But I can control my dedication. And so, I will. It’s all I can do–even if it’s not enough.

Happy Tuesday, all. Sorry about the no-post yesterday. Won’t burden you with the details. Just glad to be back at it.

Hello, South Carolina

Morning, all. Not necessarily a 180 post, but I wanted to share an email that I received last night from a student at the University of South Carolina. I also included my response.


Hello, Mr. Syrie,
My name is Gabby and I’m a student at the University of South Carolina. I’m writing a Researched Argument Essay sourcing your blog post “Is Our Grading System Fair?” which was also published on Edutopia. One requirement is that I acquire some sort of primary research, and I’d like to interview you about your article, and your current feelings on the No Zero Policy.
If you could take a few minutes to answer some of my questions, I would appreciate it greatly!
– What are some affects on past students have you seen as a result of a harsher grading system that gives grades of zero?
– Do you see decreased levels of nervousness/anxiety since you implemented the No Zero Policy?
– Overall, do you believe that a standard grading system including grades of 0 can lead to certain problems that lead to the development of mental health issues for students?
I know those are pretty long and specific, but again I appreciate it very much.
Thanks! I enjoyed your article and hope to use this primary research in my paper.
Here is my response.
Hi, Gabby. I am honored that you have taken an interest in my article. I am happy that you have found some value in it. Thank you for the great questions. I will do my best to answer them. Of course, what I offer is only anecdotal, but as one who has spent 20+ years in the classroom, I believe my experience lends some credibility to my beliefs. With that in mind, I will offer what I have.
What are some affects on past students have you seen as a result of a harsher grading system that gives grades of zero?

In the past, before I abandoned zeros, I utilized a system where missing assignments and the resulting zeros adversely–sometimes devastatingly–affected a student’s chances for success in my classroom. Here are two examples. The situations are real. The names are fictional.

  • Rachel may have been the best writer I ever had in my class. And though she earned A’s on all her essays, she did not complete her notebook. The missing parts earned zeros, keeping her from an A in the class. Granted she did not fail, but the system failed her. She demonstrated to me, time after time, her proficiency as a writer, consistently exceeding grade-level standards, but her decision to not do something that she found to be of little help with her development was punished by the system. Thereby, grades were no longer about communicating achievement, they were punishment. She knew it. She was a smart kid. She, as one might expect, found little logic to the approach, and became increasingly frustrated and annoyed, adversely impacting her view of education’s purpose.
  • Tim got off to a slow start, handing in few assignments. Consequently, the zeros piled up in the grade book, and by midterm, he found himself in a sizable hole. Such a hole, that he did not perceive that he had any hope in passing the class, so he shut down. He did nothing the rest of the quarter.
Do you see decreased levels of nervousness/anxiety since you implemented the No Zero Policy?
Absolutely. First, students no longer stress as much over a missing assignment. Most of our kids have not only busy academic schedules but also busy extracurricular schedules, not to mention home/life schedules, too. As such, there are times when other aspects of their lives impact their ability to get all of our work done. With the added assurance, that it will not dip below the 50% mark, kids are less anxious when it happens. Second, with the “zero hole” in check, there is always hope for the Tim’s of the world. Tim, in the no-zero system, is ever only 10 percent away from passing. The light at the end of the tunnel is always in sight. Kids who see/find hope in an experience are less-likely to shut down. Hopeless situations are unhealthy for any of us, but they seem especially unhealthy for kids, which leads us to your next question.
Overall, do you believe that a standard grading system including grades of 0 can lead to certain problems that lead to the development of mental health issues for students?
I think that, in terms of mental health, hope and possibility are key ingredients to the teenage psyche. In the absence of hope and possibility, anxious/nervous kids become disengaged/resentful kids. And when kids reach this point, they are no longer in a state that allows for optimal learning–or maybe any learning by that point. Traditional grading practices, which often employ punitive measures such as the zero, create hopeless, impossible situations that frequently lead to harsh consequences for kids, adversely affecting students’ perceptions of self-efficacy. No-zeros is not a free ride. Kids are not “stealing” A’s. They still have to work to achieve. They still face a challenge–a fair challenge. And that is key, the challenge is fair and reasonable, not impossible. Self-efficacy happens when kids feel they can produce an effect. When that is compromised, as it too often is with traditional grading, it can be devastating to the mental health of our students, getting in the way of the real purpose of education: learning. 
I hope this helps, Gabby. Again, I am certainly no psychologist, but I have spent a lot of time with kids, and while my evidence may lack scientific authority, I believe it does carry some weight anecdotally. Please let me know if I can be of further help. Good luck with your paper. Take care.
Monte Syrie

When Our Past Catches Up With Us: Project 180, Special Post

Hi, all. Got this in a message today. Totally caught me off guard and rocked my world. Mrs. Thompson was my inspiration to become an English teacher. I was so moved by her granddaughter’s thoughtful message. Touched and humbled. Wanted to share.

Hi Monte,

We’ve never met but you were a student if my grandmother’s at Cheney High School, Mrs. T (Milli Thompson). As you may have heard, she passed away a little over a month ago. Our family had her memorial this weekend and among the things of hers that I inherited was her graduation hood. In the box with her hood was a card that you wrote to her at the time of her retirement. She’s kept it over these 25+ years and I know she so, so valued the impact she had on her students, and you must have been one of them. I’ll send you a picture of the sweet message you wrote for her.  But I just wanted to reach out and tell you that it means a lot to our family to know that she touched so many students. I see that you’re at Cheney High now. It makes me happy knowing her legacy might live on in people like you.

Tori Rae

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