Let's Change Education

Challenge. Discover. Lead. Change.

Page 3 of 37

The Pace We Keep: Project 180, Day 174

When I ran the 800 in high school, I ran with guts. I would get outta the gate quick and run till I couldn’t. Turns out guts don’t replace gas, for the piano would often jump on my back around the last bend.

When I raced mountain bikes in college, I would do the same. And though my tactics did yield some success, even wins; it still turned out that guts aren’t gas, and too often, my efforts would fall short, especially in races over 2 hours.

And so, though one would think I would have gained some wisdom from my former follies, I entered the teaching profession with the same go-for-it gusto 21 years ago. And, as one might guess, I have encountered the same, crawl-to -the-finish-line reality that I faced as a racer long ago.

And here I am again. The end in sight. The needle on E. And the promise–formed from my pain–that I will not do it again. I will pace myself next year. I will pace myself next year. I will pace myself next year. No I won’t.

I will jump outta the gate. I will bury the needle deep, thinking I can keep it in the red, believing I have finally gained the endurance to sustain the gutsy pace I like to set, but then, near the end, the engine will sputter, the legs will falter, and I will begin the “I-will-never-do-this-again” crawl to the line.

Of course, teaching isn’t exactly an individual sport. I was alone in my lane on the track. I was alone on my bike on the trail. But I have passengers now. I no longer cross the line alone. I have a 150 in tow. And while we all are generally moving in the same direction all year long, there are lots of side trips, lots a rest stops, lots a circle-backs to pick up the stragglers, and all sorts of other did-not-necessarily-account-for’s along the way. But we make it. We always do. And usually it’s a crawl.

And now after 21 years, though I’d like to boast that I will eventually find a way to pace myself. I can’t put much weight behind it. I am who I am. And I will no doubt live in the stuck-on-repeat history of my past, crawling to the end, eager to step to the line again, believing I can do it this time. On my mark. Set. GO!

Happy Friday, all.



But Will They Learn? Project 180, Day 173

Today, we change the world. Well, at least we will present our ideas for changing the world. That was the final this year in my LA 10 Honors classes: come up with plan for making a difference in our world.

And, of course, there will be no grade, which, then, takes us back to the central question that’s loomed large in room 211 this year: will there be any learning? Depends, I suppose. What is learning?

Is it cramming for hours the night before?

Is it a 2-hour comprehensive final?

Is it something that can be run through a Scantron machine?

Is it the accumulation of scores in a gradebook?

Is it the fear of failure?

Is it knowing something long enough for the test?


Is it the opportunity to create something?

Is it the collaboration among peers?

Is it the ownership of the outcome?

Is it the accountability of peer review?

Is it the power of autonomy?

Is it the freedom of choice?

Is it an experiential anchor to remember and build on?

More questions than answers. And though I am no expert on learning, I have been  a learner all my life. And as I recall those lifelong experiences, I am hard-pressed to point to any final test that contributed significantly to my enduring understanding. Learning, then, for me, has come from anchor experiences not my final tests. I know because the former are still with me, the connections remain; the latter faded away after the transaction was complete.

I am not giving my kids a grade. I, instead, gave them freedom. Wonder what they will remember years from now. Wonder if they will learn anything.

Happy Thursday, all.

Later, Losers! Project 180, Day 172

Though I will try to explain, not all will understand. But my kids would understand, and maybe, for this, that is all that matters. I call my kids losers. Every day. Every day, as they leave, I throw them a “Later, losers!” as we shuffle off to the next segment of our day. Many of them, return the sentiment. And I accept it warmly. Takes one to know one, and I am the lead loser in the room.

Okay. I know that some are raising a brow by now, “What kind of teacher calls his kids losers?” I get it. My job is to build them up, not beat them down. It runs counter to the idea of creating a nurturing, safe environment for our young learners. So, then, Mr. Syrie, what gives? It’s a test. One I have used for years. I call it the “loser test.”

Nothing I do is more important than build relationships–real relationships–with my kids. Everything follows from there. And in that building, comes a fond familiarity, the same fond familiarity that exists in most real relationships. When I call my lifelong friend Josh a jackass, he knows I mean, “I love you, man.” When I tell my two grade-level collaborators Jenna and Maddie that “I have better things to do than sit around and talk to you two all day,” they know I mean, “I cannot do what I do without you.” And so, when I dismiss my kids with a “Later, Losers,” they know I mean, “I value you, I will miss you.” Ask them.

Here’s my thinking around this unconventional approach. If I can call my kids losers without their thinking they’re losers, then I have established a real relationship with them. Of course, I do not begin the year by calling my kids losers. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. But in my concerted efforts to forge relationships with them, it doesn’t take me very long. And, too, there are some kids I would never call “loser” individually, for the depth is not there. And that’s the reality of it. Try as I might–and I try hard–there are some kids with whom I never achieve that fond familiarity. But there are many with whom I do, and I let them know, as I often as I can, how much I value our connection. And, thus, I pay them the highest of compliments. I call them losers.

Today, I will pay my last compliment to my seniors as they walk into the next stages of their lives. I had many of them as sophomores, so after two full years with them, the familiarity, the fondness flows deeply. They are losers to the “nth” degree. And so, with a heavy heart, a warm smile, and a handshake or a hug, I will do today what I have done for so long, I will call them losers–one last time.

Later, Losers.


Into the Deep: Project 180, Day 171


Next week, my grade-10 team and I are going to pitch our unified grading approach to administrators and counselors. We are not seeking their permission. We are seeking to raise their awareness. We anticipate that over the course of the year they may have to field questions from parents, so we want them to be informed when that happens. But we also want them to be cognizant of the fact that there are teachers in the building who are innovating their practice to better meet the learning needs of kids. And so, when the perennial problems present themselves (Why are so many kids failing?), they have the opportunity to consider, if not point to, alternative approaches to age-old issues.

In education we have an affinity for the status quo. We cling to it. Desperately. But I believe that we embrace its comfort, not its wisdom. Change is messy. Change is work. Change is scary. So we avoid it, we stick to smooth sidewalks and see-the-bottom pools with shallow ends. To that end, we rarely point to problems of practice when it comes to understanding and addressing issues like too many F’s. Year after year, time after time, this problem persists, and year after year, time after time, we cast up the same excuses, all of which point fingers everywhere and anywhere but where the problem likely exists: traditional, it-has-to-be-done-this-way-because-it-has-always-been-done-this-way grading practices, practices that frequently perpetuate failing.

This has to change, and it can, but it requires approaching learning differently; it requires the willingness to step off the pave, to wade into the deep. It requires courage. I am pleased and proud that I have found two young ladies who are willing to go on a walkabout with me next year, braving new horizons and vast frontiers. No sidewalks. No shallow pools.

Happy Tuesday, all.

The Voices We Hear: Project 180, Day 170

I hear voices. They haunt me. They inspire me. They weigh me down. They lift me up.  They hurt me. They help me. Their sound deafens. Their silence resonates. They get lost in the harmony. They emerge from the dissonance. They are there. Always there.

And at the end of things, their presence looms largest as they whisper screams in my ears, reminding me of the burden I carry on my shoulders, of the responsibility I bear for the young whom I serve. And so, it is at the end of things that I listen, but even when I listen, I do not always hear as the signal comes in stereo: left speaker doubt, right speaker certainty–or in my maddest moments, Dolby surround. And so I listen harder, but that does not always help either, for the messages mix, made no more clear through the filter of my reflection.  Of course, I could simply unplug the cord, silence the voices by avoiding feedback, but I will not, cannot. For when I reach that point, it is a sign that I will grow no more, and it will be time to retire, time to slip sadly into my cave. But for now, I am still ready to grow. I am still willing to bear the burden, to carry the ghosts of whispers dancing among my ears.

And now at the end of 180, I have new voices visiting me, muddling my mind, as I seek to process all that I have learned this year, as I seek to make better the learning experiences for all my kids moving forward. Last week I asked my kids for some feedback on their year with me.

Left Speaker:  “We haven’t learned anything useful or applicable this year.”

Right Speaker:I personally feel like I learned and grew quite a bit this year, definitely more than I thought I would. At the beginning I wasn’t sure if I’d really learn as much as possible with your project; however, I feel like I learned more in this class than any prior LA class. I had an incredible experience in your class this year.”

What do I do with that? Though the vast majority of the feedback I received came blasting out of the right speaker boosting my confidence, I cannot ignore the lingering  uncertainty boomed by the deep bass of the left. Funny how despite its brief moment in the choir, the strength of its reverberating solo seeps deeply into my consciousness, stuck on eternal replay, more pronounced with each repeat. But with each repeat, something stirred, a vague familiarity, a visitor not new, an old acquaintance. Doubt. Hello, old friend. I know you. I need you. I am sorry that I forget that at times. Thank you for always being there. Thank you for keeping me grounded. Thank you for making me grow. Could not do this without you.

I have to remember this. But, alas, I am doomed to repeat my past. I will assuredly let your discord again disrupt the harmony, but then I will remember that you are ultimately necessary for harmony, that you, too, serve a purpose. I hear you. Please keep talking. I am listening. I always will. We are bound.

Happy Monday, all. Cannot believe we are down to 10 days. Crazy.

More Creative Cartoons

More fun. Kids rock.

Creative Kids: Project 180, Day 169

Here are a few of the cartoons my kids presented yesterday. Again, the primary goal here was to have some creative fun. We will wrap up our week with the final few cartoons today and a round of Community Circle. Not a bad way to spend a Friday in June.

Happy Friday, all.

For Fun: Project 180, Day 168

Hard to believe it’s June. But, make no mistake, it’s definitely June. And though today marks the first official day of June, it has been “June” for a few weeks now. Oh, my fellow educators know what I am talking about. They know that “June” is more a feeling than a month in the education realm. It’s that “the-end-is-near” buzz that begins each year, building with each passing day until the bubble bursts and they are  finally free at last. It’s nothing new. I, too, remember the “swell” in June, the growing anticipation of freedom, swelling until I felt I would bust if it didn’t end soon. And so, unable to change what’s always been and will be, I have had to come up with ways to keep students engaged during the final few weeks of the year, and to that end, I have turned to projects and presentations.

Next week the kids will begin presenting their Change-the-World projects, but today they will share their creative creations, their original cartoons. Designed with fun in mind first, I asked the kids to work individually or in teams to create original cartoons to present to the class. Of course, there is more going on than just fun; what with story elements, characterization, dialogue, illustration, collaboration, imagination, ideation, and presentation the kids are working and learning, even if they are not aware of it, even if it only feels like fun. Excited to see what the kids have come up with today. I will try to share some tomorrow.

Happy June, all. Almost there. Kinda glad it’s cloudy today. I find that the-end-is-near bubbles don’t expand as much when the sun is absent.

Out Here on the Frontier: Project 180, Day 167

Yesterday, I offered a glimpse of our grading plan for next year, asking for feedback, and I was pleased to have fellow gradeless frontiersman and Washington State teacher Aaron Blackwelder pose a few questions about our work. Thank you, Aaron. I have attempted to address your questions below. I am not sure how well I did, and I probably wandered a bit, but it was a great opportunity to walk through our thinking. Sorry it’s so long.

As I working through this lengthy explanation, I was struck by how much thought we frontiersmen and frontierswomen put into our work in an attempt to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms. And I also thought about those critical of the movement, and I wondered how frequently those folks post their work and seek feedback. When is the last time a traditional grader made public his policies for scrutiny? Ever? But, I guess if he were to do so,  he’d have to join us out here on the frontier, where things are hard won. But that’s why we are here out on the frontier. We believe that nothing worthwhile is easy. We believe that there exists a better way. And we embrace the hard work necessary to build a better world for those we serve. We are frontiersmen.

Happy Wednesday, all. Big shout out to all my fellow frontier men and women. We can do this. We are doing this.

Q1: At what point do you determine if a student can simply make up/revise work to meet proficiency to earn credit or require him repeat the class? My colleagues and I are currently wrestling with this concept now.

Great question. We, too, grappled with how to address this issue in our approach. Here is our present thinking around using SBA results for students to demonstrate proficiency and earn credit when they have not done so within a grading period.

Our Must-Meet standards will closely align with the high frequency, emphasized targets found on the SBA. For instance, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1, “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,” is central to the SBA. It is also central to our classrooms. Focus Standard #4: “I can integrate cited text evidence into my writing to support my thinking.” With that in mind, when a student passes the SBA, we will have measure of confidence that he/she has satisfied our requirement for the Must-Meet standard. At present, SBA scores are still linked to graduation, so we feel this is a fair trade. Of course, if the SBA scores are delinked from graduation, we will have to rethink this.

Must-Meet “proficiency” must be demonstrated on Performance Opportunities, formal opportunities designed to demonstrate proficiency with the standards. While kids may always make-up/revise Practice as a means to make progress, this will not be considered for Must-Meet proficiency. Of course, this means that we will have to recreate some Performances so kids have continued opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.

Our district does not allow students to retake classes. If students fail a class, then they have an opportunity to retrieve credit in our after-school or summer-school credit-retrieval programs. However, the other grade 10 teachers and I do not necessarily have a lot of faith in this being a fair trade, which is another reason for why we settled with the SBA. Since kids will not have an opportunity to be with us again the following year, we were forced to find an acceptable alternative for them to earn credit once they have left us.

We anticipate very few students being in this boat. Must-Meet means high expectations. And this is as true for us as it is for our kids. So, just as we set must-meet expectations for them, we will also set high-support expectations for ourselves, which requires a concerted effort to provide the necessary supports and opportunities for the kids to achieve proficiency. Our goal for each term is that every kid demonstrates proficiency with the Must-Meet standards. For the few who do not, we, again, think passing the SBA is a fair trade.

 But, that said, and this is not something that we will necessarily advertise, we did discuss that there might be some situations where we can and will make some exceptions. For instance, if a kid has met 3 of the 4 Must-Meet standards and is really close with the fourth, then we imagine personalizing a plan for them to demonstrate proficiency either the next semester if they are still with us, or the next year as long as we are able to create the right conditions with the next year’s teacher. But this is where we felt like we were beginning to wade into the mud, which is why we settled with the SBA plan. We wondered here, too, if we would then let the kid self-select a grade or if he would just get a “Satisfactory.” And again, it started to feel muddy, so we settled with the latter. What’s more, we figured that the few who do actually find themselves in this boat will  be more worried about earning credit than selecting a grade.

Q2: Why differentiate between “Near Miss” and “Far Miss” if either is going to require a student to make up/redo/revise work? Do you have clear descriptors of the two levels?

Another good question. Couple of things going on here with our thinking. I’ll do my best.

We have found “Near Miss” and “Far Miss” to be student and parent friendly. But we have also found it to be teacher friendly, allowing our professional judgment to come into play with each individual performance, more fluidly addressing the things that don’t always fit neatly into rubric cells. Really, we only provide clear, descriptive criteria for the target. From there, with each attempt,  we want kids to know how close they are to the target if they don’t hit it. The articulation of this through feedback calls attention not only to the target but also to what needs to happen to help move them closer to the target. The distinction between “near’ and “far” relies on professional judgment, which is supported by the language in the target descriptors. Again, the goal here is to help kids see where they are in relation to the target.

Skyward, our online grading system, is our most consistent, continuous form of communication with parents. Because there will be no “grades” to report all semester, we want a consistent way to meaningfully communicate progress to parents. Regardless of whether the “redo” is required or optional, we want to communicate to kids and parents where the attempt landed.

For Practice, we want parents to know the level of completion. Our hope, here, is that parents and kids begin to see a connection between practice and performance. And while we would never penalize a kid for incomplete practice, we do hold that practice is generally consequential to one’s performance. Thus, by keeping record of completed practice, we believe we help provide a piece of history of sorts for kids to reflect on as they analyze their learning journeys over the term, hopefully making a connection between practice and performance.

For Performance, we want parents to know how kids are performing relative to the standards. Our hope, here, is that parents utilize performance scores as a catalyst for either making contact with us and/or encouraging their child to actively seek retake opportunities. We really need parents to be partners, so our hope is that we provide a simple but meaningful way to communicate progress.

We are striving for consistency. Admittedly, “near” and “far” fit Performance better than Practice.  Certainly, “near miss” and “far miss” more clearly connect with the idea of hitting a target, but as for Practice and completion, the connection is less clear. Still, we believe it works, and we ultimately settled for consistency over clarity. We are gambling that parents and kids will “get” that, for completion, a near miss indicates “mostly complete” and a far miss indicates “mostly incomplete.” It’s not perfect. But it’s what we’re going with for now. If it doesn’t work, we will change it.


Sneak Peek: Project 180, Day 166

Here is a preview of our grading policy that we will implement next year in all sophomore language arts courses, both regular and honors. Of course, the Focus Standards will vary some between regular and honors courses, but our grading approach will be uniform. And while we certainly do not claim to have arrived at “the” way to grade, we do feel as if we have come up with an approach that more accurately communicates student growth and proficiency. We are excited to learn and grow with our kids next year, and we feel that this is a great launching point to do so. We would love any feedback that you are willing to offer.

Biggest change from Project 180? I am no longer handing kids an “A” as they walk through the door next year. Why? Well, it was never my intention to continue down that path. My giving an “A” this year was what I felt to be a necessary, radical move to take grades off the table and swing the pendulum to the opposite end, calling attention to the myriad issues surrounding traditional grading practices. I wanted to discover if kids would work, if kids could learn without the threat of a grade hanging over their heads. And while my anecdotes and SBA results (96.5%) are not scientifically conclusive, they do point to the possibility that we can step away from tradition, that we can take risks and kids can still learn.

But next year will be different. Following a hunch and advice from Aaron Blackwelder, I decided to let kids self-select and defend grades at the end of a term. I wish now that this is what I had done this year, but we live and we learn. And I learned a lot this year. Another factor that influenced my decision to abandon the “gifted A” was that I wanted to provide a path for others to follow, and for most it was a leap too long, so I closed the gap, and others can now follow with more confidence. More to come on how this year has influenced the path ahead, but for now, I am pleased to announce that my grade-level team has joined the journey to turn grading upside down. Welcome aboard Jenna Tamura and Maddie Alderete.

Happy Tuesday, all. A special thank you to Aaron Blackwelder for his courage and wisdom.  And another special thank you to Jenna and Maddie for their hard work and dedication.

Cheney High School Grade 10 English Language Arts Grading Policies


The tenth-grade ELA teachers at CHS utilize a non-traditional grading approach. Our desire is not only to provide a system that more accurately communicates achievement and progress but also to provide a system that empowers students to take greater ownership and responsibility over their learning. The details of our approach are outlined below.

Focus Standards

Each semester there will be 10 – 12 Focus Standards adapted from the Common Core State Standards that will be at the center of our work for the grading period. 4 – 6 of the Focus Standards will be designated as “Must-Meet” standards.

Must-Meet Standards

Each semester there will be 4 – 6 Must-Meet Standards that students must meet to earn credit. If they do not demonstrate proficiency by the end of the grading period, they will be given an Unsatisfactory until they demonstrate proficiency with these standards.  Students will earn credit once they meet Washington State Proficiency Levels on the Smarter Balanced Assessment at which time their grades will be changed to Satisfactory, giving them credit for the course with no effect on their GPA.

Final Grades

Students who meet the designated Must-Meet Standards will select and defend a grade at the end of the term. Students will present their grade selections and evidence (see below) during an end-of-term conference with their teacher. The students will answer two central questions during the conference.

  1. What evidence do you have that you met the focus standards.
  2. What evidence do you have that you achieved growth with the focus standards?

Students who do not meet the designated Must-Meet Standards will be given an Unsatisfactory until they demonstrate proficiency (see above).


Our grading approach relies heavily upon evidence that students collect over the term to demonstrate proficiency and growth with the term’s focus standards. Students will maintain an “evidence portfolio” that houses all major assignments and assessments. These documents will be the necessary formal evidence for students to defend their selection of grades. However, this is not the only form of evidence that students may use to defend their selected grades.


Skyward will be used as a means to report progress. Progress will be presented in two ways:  Completion and Performance.

Completion will be used to report on practice. It will be presented with a 3-point scale.

3 = Complete. 2 = Near Miss. 1 = Far Miss. 0 = Missing

Performance will be used to report on proficiency. It will be presented with a 3-point scale.

3 = Proficient. 2 = Near Miss. 1 = Far Miss. 0 = Missing

Mid-term Grades

Mid-term grades are simply a formal progress report. As with final grades, students will select and defend a grade, but unlike the final grade, there will not be time for a conference. However, there will be a formal mid-term progress report, which students will complete and share at home. A parent signature will be required.

Key Terms

Proficiency – demonstrates success with standard

Growth – demonstrates continued progress with standard

Mastery – consistently demonstrates progress above standard

Practice – informal feedback opportunities designed to develop the skills necessary to achieve proficiency with the focus standards

Performance – formal feedback opportunities designed to demonstrate proficiency with the focus standards

Satisfactory grade – Under teacher discretion, a student may be given an “S” (Satisfactory) grade that awards credit for the class, but does not impact a student’s GPA in a positive or negative way.  If a student progresses through a class and displays effort and adequate understanding of content, but due to a variety of circumstances, would not be able to earn a passing grade, an “S” grade may be given.  (Cheney High School Grading Policy)

Unsatisfactory grade – Under teacher discretion, a student may be given a “U” (Unsatisfactory) grade that does not award credit for the class, but also does not impact a student’s GPA in a positive or negative way.  If a student does not progress through a class, display reasonable effort, and adequate understanding of content, a “U” grade may be given.  A “U” grade may be changed to a letter grade, including an “S” grade, when a teacher determines that a student has adequately completed the class.  (Cheney High School Grading Policy)

« Older posts Newer posts »
%d bloggers like this: