Let's Change Education

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Month: March 2017 (page 1 of 3)

Recharge: Project 180, Day 130

Good morning, all. Really looking forward to the opportunity to rest and recharge next week. Can’t believe that we will be down to 50 days when we return. See you, then.

Scratching My Head: Project 180, Day 129

“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn explains. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading.

“That’s why the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports – qualitative accounts of student performance – or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.”


Already facing a tough decision, my coming across articles like the one above will not make it any easier. At present, I am leaning towards swinging the pendulum back to the center, employing a modified standards-based approach next year instead of going gradeless again. But then I read articles like this, especially with comments like the one above, and I pause. I wonder. Am I on to something here? If I do not see it through and continue along the present course, will I miss an opportunity to truly turn it upside down, to provide a better learning experience for my kids? I don’t know. Questions lead to questions. Answers are elusive. Certainty hides. And I am consumed.

The next 51 days will reveal much. I will have some data to help me my in current quandary. I will have the SBA results. I will have formal feedback from the kids in the form of surveys and reflections. But I will also have my own reflections. And, I will also have my guts, my instincts, which I cannot discount for they helped lead me here in the first place. Admittedly,  it has not been a place that all are willing to see or accept, for, in many ways, it runs counter to convention, it smacks of crazy. And I cannot suggest that it is neither conventional nor crazy. It is. But it is not exclusive. Others feel, practice, and share their crazy unconventionality, too. And I cannot ignore that. Can’t. But for all the comfort it brings, it also brings trepidation as I work through the uncertainty of the path ahead. But I’ll find my way. The journey continues. Always does.

Happy Thursday, all.

When Opportunity Knocks: Project 180, Day 128

Had some visitors yesterday. With EWU on spring break this week, some of my students from my education class last quarter asked if they could come in and observe. Of course, I enthusiastically consented. We set a date, and I told them that I would see them then. On Sunday, looking ahead to Tuesday, the day of their visit, I discovered an opportunity. All three visitors, Lauren, Ashley, and Matt, are English majors, so I decided to present a plan to make the observers participants.

Tuesdays are writing days. At present, kids are working through their speeches, and we are to the point in the process where kids need feedback. So, the plan was to conference with kids. My three Eastern kids would see me doing some of my most important work. And that was good. But then I thought, “good” could be better. I will have three additional sets of eyes and ears in the room–English major eyes and ears, so why not put them to work? Why not let them conference with kids? And “why not” turned to will. They will conference with the kids. They did conference with the kids.

We divided the kids among us, and set to engaging them in conversations about their speeches. But before the call for action, I set the stage.

Learning Target: I can engage in a meaningful conversation about my writing.

Indicators of an “engaged conversation.”

  • Time goes by quickly
  • Lots of talking
  • Laughter and animation
  • Clarifying questions–from both sides
  • Focus on SOAPSTone
  • Organic elements

I, then,  addressed the elephant in the room, asking the kids what the biggest challenge to our having engaged conversations would be, and they quickly pointed to the fact that they didn’t know my college students. So, we acknowledged that that might get in the way a bit. I also told them that we would debrief at the end, reflecting on and evaluating the experience.

And then we got under way. For a solid 40 minutes there was a productive buzz in the room, the noise of engagement. It was music. At the end, this was affirmed as both high school and college kids offered their critiques of the experience, pointing to the “indicators” as evidence. Importantly, we were all a little surprised at how “easy” the conversations were, how real the conversations were. Many remarked that the conversations did not feel contrived or artificial; they felt natural, comfortable. Turned out to be a great experience for all. My high school kids all got feedback. My college kids all got an invaluable experience. And I got some much needed help. Makes me wish I had extra eyes and ears all the time.

Happy Wednesday, all.

Sorry, No Test Prep Today: Project 180, Day 127

Jay McTighe: Beware of the Test Prep Trap

Another week. Another decision. To prep or not to prep? With now only nine days of class until the test, I can’t put it off much longer. Time will run out. One would think, then, that such urgency would compel me to get to the test practice (interim assessments). One would think. But it doesn’t. I am going to watch another week go by. No test prep today. Don’t have time. We are in the middle of learning, and I just can’t set it aside. And my gut tells me that’s okay. But I have also found other voices out there that tell me the same.

This morning  I came across an article by education giant Jay McTighe, whose perspective seems to lend credence to my instincts (see link and embedded table). But even with his gut-affirming words, I find myself still shadowed in doubt about such a decision. Always under the microscope as one who teaches at the “testing” grade level, the magnification has intensified this year with Project 180. Will the kids pass the test? And while I agree that we should not  “rely on once-a-year test score reports as the primary metric to determine how well students are learning or what improvements are needed,” it will be a measure that draws attention to my approach. Even more, it is a high-stakes event for my kids, and I want them to do their best–for themselves. All the kids will pass the test eventually; there are many “safeguards” in place to ensure this, but I want them to be done in one. I don’t want them to experience this stress event more than once. And it is such concern that gives rise to my doubt. But its presence does not diminish or jeopardize my core principles about learning, so I stall, resisting the urge to set aside the important for the immediate. No test prep this week.

Looking ahead, and only because Jay gives his “okay,” I will “give students opportunities to become familiar with the test formats (selected- and brief-constructed response; timed writing).” The week after break I will present the format to the kids, so they know before they go. I think I owe them that much.  Still, if I am honest, I feel like I am selling out a bit, compromising my principles, but sometimes we gotta do what we gotta do.



• Teach to the standards that are being tested.

• Ignore those elements of the standards that are not assessed (e.g., listening, speaking, research, extended writing, genuine problem solving).

• Give students opportunities to become familiar with the test formats (selected- and brief-constructed response; timed writing).

• Use the standardized test formats exclusively. Students need to experience a variety of assessment types, including performance tasks, extended writing, open-ended problem solving, and discussion/debate.

• Engage students in deep and meaningful learning by using engaging instructional strategies, primary sources and authentic tasks.

• Engage in excessive “test prep” by only practicing de-contextualized items that mimic the test format.

• Teach for understanding and transfer by engaging students in “higher order” thinking.

• Dwell on drill and practice (rote learning) focused on factual recall.

• Regularly use formative assessments to give students specific feedback on the important performances called for by the standards.

Use assessments solely for the purpose of giving grades. (Grades are not feedback, and are unlikely to improve performance.)

• Regularly review student work on authentic tasks in Professional Learning Communities and plan instructional and curricular improvements based on more genuine and informative performance data.

• Rely on a once-a-year test score reports as the primary metric to determine how well students are learning or what improvements are needed.

Happy Tuesday, all. For any who care, this morning with the first view of the blog, we will pass the 28,000 views mark since I began the blog. Thank you for your support.

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.

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