A few loose thoughts from the past week

Firstly, I want to thank those who have encouraged me to write more and share more of the issues in education that I learn about as I work with students and teachers. It seems that as I’ve made more of an effort to write, I’ve found more opportunities. Here are three different thoughts I’ve put to writing this week that I’ll share here.

“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Last week the baseball player, Ernie Banks passed away. Here’s what I felt compelled to write the next day after being reminded about his legacy during a radio report:

If you aren’t familiar with this former baseball player, please find any brief obituary. Here’s what I’d like to celebrate about him: Win or lose Ernie loved his job and made an effort to share his optimism with those around him- fans, teammates, or reporters. I think this is a legacy I can aspire to. I’m going to make an effort, and I encourage each of you, to show up for work with Ernie’s level of enthusiasm and gratitude. I am very lucky that everyday I can be with compassionate and committed co-workers and endlessly fascinating students, and I will do what I can to let those around me on our campus that no matter how exciting or mundane the task at hand we are at the forefront of excitement and innovation in education.

The following Monday, Banks’ legacy was summed up this way: He was one of the all-time greatest ball players, among baseball’s inner circle of the best of the best. Yet, he will be remembered as a great person who did what he could to bring joy to those around him.

Want Relevance and Rigor? Immerse your school in current global affairs and global competency

I had an opportunity to apply for a scholarship to travel abroad for a week. The application gave me the opportunity to write about the importance of global competency and 21st century skills (which I hope to further define in future posts). In 400 words or less, here’s what I had to say about this.

Two of my roles in the school are instructional coach and classroom teacher and I use both roles to promote global competency and teach 21st century skills. In my AP Physics and AP Statistics classrooms I seek to have students investigate issues from around the globe. For example, in Physics we can study the use of rolling water containers to prevent women from needing to carry water for hours every day. In Statistics, we regularly use global data such as education levels or public health to learn about concepts like linear regression, finding summary statistics, and testing for statistical significance. In addition to understanding about the world, I want my students to be confident problem solvers who can direct their own inquiry, recognize the impact of multiple perspectives, communicate to a diverse audience, and be empowered that they can use their skills to take actions to improve their community. An important part of developing global competency is using technology and collaboration. For this I use Google Docs and Google Sheets to help students collaborate online with each other and learn how to share scientific data. I have introduced flipped classroom resources so that students understand that learning does not have to be confined to when they are in a school.

As an instructional leader I’ve made an effort to empower our school faculty to teach 21st century skills and promote global competency in their own classrooms. We have a school-wide focus on global citizenship and I make an effort to support teachers in making their lessons better in the following four ways: Include student choice, make the student task authentic to the work real professionals do, include a significant global issue, and require students to present or exhibit their work to a real-world audience.

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

Our campus faculty is reading the Rick Wormeli book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal in anticipation for his visit to San Antonio February 18th. The principal and I have worked together to help teachers process the book and in our next faculty meeting I will be facilitating our discussion of Chapter’s 5 and 6 about tiering assessments and designing good test questions. As a way of pre-thinking each faculty member is bringing three ideas they learned, two ideas they found interesting, and 1 question they still have. As a way of giving you a glimpse into how I am currently thinking about my classroom practice here’s my response to the three prompts:

3 Things I found out:

1. For tiering to be effective, it is best to stay focused on one concept or task for students to learn. When there are multiple learning objectives then it is harder to understand what level different students need to be working at and to make the objectives and purpose of tiering clear to students.

“To avoid a potential pitfall with tiering, be sure to stay focused on one concept or task” pg 57

2. Because feedback is so important to students and a key skill for differentiated instruction it is better to have shorter assessments more frequently instead of longer assessments over time. For one thing, longer, more complex assessments take more time to grade, thus making the feedback less immediate and useful to students. Additionally, shorter assessments make it easier to zero in on what students know and do not know. This in turn, makes the learning objectives clearer to students and makes it easier to know what to do next to reach the targeted level of mastery.

“In order to get an accurate rendering of students’ mastery and support the emphasis on formative assessment mentioned earlier, smart teachers give multiple, smaller, and focused tests over the course of the grading period…” pg 84

 3. For tests to be valid measures of understanding, students must have a clear idea of the format. For example if students are going to be asked to identify if a math problem is impossible to solve using only the given information, then students should have been exposed to this possibility leading up to the assessment and be familiar with how to recognize and respond to it. This aligns to the idea presented earlier in the book that to be clear about the objectives assessed, give students a blank copy of the test at the beginning of the unit and ask them to look it over to see what is coming next.

“We don’t call for an approach on a test question that wasn’t practiced by students extensively during our lessons” pg. 83

2 Interesting Things:

1. Frank Williams’s Taxonomy of Creativity immediately made me think of ways my classes may be boring to students, and ways that I could make it more engaging. I firmly believe that the best scientists are creative individuals and creativity is necessary for using the tools of math and science to their fullest potential. The go-tool method I use for increasing engagement is puzzling or challenging lab setups, but I would really enjoy having my students work their way through the taxonomy after a complex topic like conservation of energy has been introduced.

2. The discussion questions at the end of Chapter 5 were really interesting to me. I think I struggle with delivering the right amount of rigor to each student. The AP objectives are rigorous, but sometimes I feel that students are left behind as a topic is introduced and developed, and then half the class is stuck waiting, while I loop back to catch up those students who are struggling. While there’s intent to differentiate, often as I try to respond to the needs of some of my students, I pull the whole class into work that they aren’t ready for or already have learned.

1 Question I still have:

Is it best for students that I impose a uniform time limit (except for those with disabilities) under the justification that they need to be prepared for the time limits of the AP test, even though some students would be able to earn higher scores if I let them stay in class to finish the test? Will they cheat if I let them go to their next two classes and then come back at lunch or after school to finish a test?



An Opportunity

I spent the weekend at a meeting of educators from around the country in Tucson, Arizona. The meeting was organized by the School Reform Initiative, a national organization that “creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.” It is hard to explain to people who are used to conferences and workshops how the experience of educators at Winter Meeting is essentially different from those types of professional development. The essential structure of our two and a half days together is a group of 10 to 12 professionals who represent a diverse range of age, experience, ethnicity and roles in our education system. I happened to be in a group of 11 with educators from Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, New York, and Massachusetts.

In addition to the time spent in this group, I heard from two keynote speakers at the open and close of the meeting and spent Friday morning visiting City High School and learning about how they use Community Day to connect students to the city around them and encourage students to collaborate across grade levels outside of the usual classroom structure. What’s further remarkable about the Winter Meeting is that the scheduled time to meet is not nearly enough to contain the questions and conversation that my colleagues and I wanted to have. An apparently innocuous question to someone I’ve just met like, “how did you become a teacher?” lead to a pretty significant conversation about school culture and expectations for our students.

As our small group finished our last session together we each took turns sharing how our weekend has affected or changed us. My response:

I used to think that because I worked with fantastic colleagues who shared my vision of serving students through empathy, innovation, and collaboration I did not needed a wider network of support during the year. Now I think that connecting with individuals from other parts of the country has the potential to push my thinking in a way that will make me a more effective classroom teacher and instructional leader. I think there is an opportunity to use technology and social media to make this much more likely.

So my first action based off this closing thought is to write about my learning and my commitment to share it. My second action is to invite more people to visit this site and continue the conversation. My hope is that as I try to regularly highlight the questions and answers that my job raises for me there will be a positive ripple that moves out from me, to the students and teachers at my school, to educators around the country who can be renewed and excited by conversations about equity and excellence in education.

Websites about teaching and learning that are good and powerful have the following traits I aspire for Complementarity to develop. They give an honest description of what happens in the school or classroom and the emotions that those events evoke, and yet, do not violate anyone’s right to privacy. All of the writing is infused with a sense of joy about being paid to spend time with students and learning new things about the world together. Finally there is a space for a community to have conversations and for people to give and receive critical feedback. Feel free to share my writing and leave comments in any way that furthers the conversation about teaching and learning. I hope that this site can become a useful addition to the many conversations taking place online.

A Brief Post About Types of Teaching and Kinds of Teachers

I got a recap from a friend of some of what Dr. Schmoker presented this week and the recap included phrases like “he’s for traditional learning” and “he thinks constructivist learning is misguided.”  Through future posts I’ll be sharing my own vision for effective classrooms and schools and I’d like to think that this vision defies description by any shortcut labels (otherwise, why spend time blogging about it when I could just write on my About Page that I  believe in constructivist learning).  Furthermore, as I consider excellent lesson ideas and classroom philosophy, I’ll be referring to many of these styles of teaching.  So for the sake of my own clarity, here are some terms I may use regarding classrooms and what they mean to me:

Traditional classroom, traditional methods, traditional teaching

All of these terms mean to me that the teacher knows something that the students need.  The job of the teacher is transfer this information to the students, give them an opportunity to practice it (hopefully working higher and higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy), and assign grades based on how much they learned and how quickly they learned it and to what extent they can transfer their learning to new and creative situations.  This does not exclude the possibility that teachers are flipping classrooms, using rich technological methods for student to practice and demonstrate understanding, or using a variety of strategies to make learning engaging for students.

In my opinion this approach emphasizes learning content at the expense of creativity, inquiry, and self-directed learning.  Which if you are suburban school or a school serving mostly high income families with highly motivated students then this approach will likely lead to students who thrive.  And if you feel your job is to fill your students with facts so they stand out on AP tests, and can succeed in rigorous college courses, then chances are these methods will work well for you.  However, I believe that the disturbing drop out rate in urban high schools will never fully be fixed until urban middle school teachers let go of these methods.

Differentiated instruction (mostly a synthesis of what I’ve taken from the books by Carol Ann Tomlinson)

Students come into a unit of instruction with different levels of readiness, different interest in learning and using the content, and different ways that are most effectie for them to learn and demonstrate learning.  A classroom that effectively uses differentiated instruction is frequently assessing these three things about students and then differentiating either the content that students are developing in their work, or the process through which students learn, or the products that students create to demonstrate their understanding.  Differentiation and traditional teaching are not exclusive of each other.  It is reasonable and likely in today’s classrooms that a teacher can believe that they hold the content that students must learn, and that different students will acquire this knowledge through different content, process, or products based on their readiness, interest, and learning style.

Inquiry Learning/Constructivist learning

The key difference between what I’m labeling as inquiry learning and what I’m labeling as traditional learning is that in inquiry learning the subject matter content that students are working with is less important than the deeper understandings behind the content and the methods used to explore those deeper understandings.

For example, if I’m teaching an algebra class as an inquiry/constructivist teacher, then I would approach the content “students can solve systems of linear equations using a variety of methods” differently than a traditional classroom teacher would.  This classroom would focus much more on what it means to find a solution.  There would not be any example or problem given in class that did not have an authentic context around it and students would start by being given a guess and check strategy from the teacher.   From there students would work through examples of increasing complexity, finding shortcuts to guess and check methods, keeping track of solutions that seem to work, and situations where a strategy is no longer effective.  Then, students and teachers would work together to communicate the working strategies as a set of rules.  There may not be time to construct the methods of graphing, substitution, and elimination through inquiry and collaborative problem solving, so maybe students can’t use the elimination technique as well as students in the traditional classroom.  However, math class is suddenly about a lot more than learning techniques for solving equations.  It’s about exploring why equations are used in the first place and how to effectively understand and communicate mathematical processes.

Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning (PBL)

The technical distinction between these two terms aren’t too important to me, and I believe mostly based on the titles of books that help teachers effectively use these methods.  PBL classrooms or PBL units are designed to ensure that the instruction and assessment of students involves students working on creating a project or solving a problem and then presenting their solution to an outside audience.  In order to create a high quality product, students are required to explore the necessary content.    If modeled and explained poorly, project based learning is easy for traditional teachers to dismiss, but if implemented faithfully the best aspects of traditional learning, inquiry learning, and differentiated instruction are naturally included.

Standards Based Assessment/Standards Based Grading/Mastery Grading

I wrote above that a traditional classroom assigns grades based on the amount of the required content learned, and the time in which it was learned.  Standards Based Grading (SBG) is based on the idea that grades should be solely based on how much of what a student needs to learn, the student learned.  So students are given a list at the beginning of grading period of what objectives they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of.  The teacher teaches the objectives and when a student is able to demonstrate mastery (or when the teacher recognizes a need to assess), they complete an assessment task assigned by the teacher.  Students who aren’t successful on a given task can get more instruction and then try again.  Participation in class activities, and completion of homework do not contribute to the “grade” a student earns (although a teacher should be giving significant formative feedback about the quality of student work) but rather steps that are required to be completed before a student can attempt an assessment.

I believe I first learned about SBG from Rick Wormeli and his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal about effective assessment in a differentiated classroom.  I further refined my understanding of SBG from Dan Meyer who fully explained his methods in his blogs.  I’m proud that two colleagues of mine are converting to SBG this school year, and I’m a little ashamed that in my own AP Stats class, I decided not use SBG because I didn’t feel comfortable changing the grading policies that I felt were effective for this class in previous years.  Essentially, I may have allowed what I felt was good enough in my classroom to prevent me from a change that may have made my classroom great.

Wrapping up

Every year I have been teaching, I can generally point to a significant change in my practice that led to an improvement in student learning in my class.  The biggest philosophical question that drives me to consider a change in my practice is:

Are students using the time in my classroom well?

Because of this question, I’ve sought out lessons that increase the rigor of my class. I’ve sought to ensure that in every class every student has a chance to read, write, and talk about what they are thinking and learning.  I’ve paid attention to what kinds of activities engage students and increase intrinsic motivation for learning math and science.  And I’ve paid attention to the classroom culture and establishing norms that allow everyone (including me) to do his or her best work.  In my vision for a well run classroom, the needs of the teacher, student, and content will require changes in how instruction takes place and a teacher should feel like they have the licence and ability to shift instructional strategies based on their professional judgement.  This is what I consider the Art and Science of Teaching, and I hope this blog can facilitate a conversation among professionals about how they serve their students well.

Your comments are always welcome