Monday, April 29, 2013

Intel Visionary Conference

Last week, thanks to the fabulous Diana Laufenberg, I had the opportunity to attend Intel's Visionary Conference. Diana was there as one of four master teachers presenting to a host of district-wide tech folks, policy education people, and educational technology vendors. Diana, Darren Kuropatwa, David Jakes, and Sara Martin presented tech-infused lessons in each of the core subject areas.

Meredith and I (the other two flanking Diana in these photos) supported Diana. We were there to trouble-shoot, put things in context for participants throughout, answer questions, and give middle school and elementary school perspectives.

I appreciate that Intel hosts this conference and provides this opportunity for people who have been out of the classroom for a number of years (or who have never been classroom teachers) to get insight into power classroom technology use. They couldn't do better than the teachers they invited to present.

It seems to me that it is not exceptionally common for these two paths (policy people/vendors and teachers) to cross. Most conferences are aimed at one of the other. And, to be honest, this conference is not aimed at teachers. But the teacher voice is important and valued here. I wish that were true a lot more often.

My two regrets are that I had to leave before the bitter end (the problem with being local to a conference is that family life often cuts in) and that I didn't get to see any of the other sessions. Being with Diana was an amazing experience (and one I hope to write about soon) but I think being with David or Darren would have been too.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More on Bob Sornson

As I read CreatingClassrooms Where Teachers Love to Teach and Students Love to Learn weeks before finally managing to sit down and write about it, I found it interesting to see which pages I had marked. I had only marked three. There does seem to be a common theme however.
“The power of relationships to help manage behavior and improve learning in the classroom is sometimes overlooked in the attempt to boost testable academic achievement. But every good teacher acknowledges that kids learn better in an atmosphere of safety and respect, and that most children will try harder for a teacher they love.” (p. 16)
 “Solid relationships are far more powerful than the sum total of all other techniques.” (p. 26)
“How sad for the unsuccessful teacher who says, ‘My job is to teach the curriculum, not build relationships with kids.’” (p. 129)
As I am currently reading John Hattie’s book I do find myself wondering about the research behind Sornson’s statements. I believe them, I just wonder about the research. There is no bibliography of any sort, no list of resources, no further suggested reading. That leaves me hanging a bit.

Hattie’s research certainly supports the importance of relationships, although not quite to the degree Sornson is claiming.

I have long believed in the power of relationships but I don’t know that I would always have marked those three quotes. The current trend in education, and specifically in my district, is to move away from building relationships and towards a standard curriculum and delivery. That trend made those quotes more powerful to me than they would typically have been.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brief Break from Hattie

Thanks to some tweets from Laura Komos while she was at ASCD’s annual conference I was introduced to Bob Sornson. Laura was clearly quite impressed by him and her tweets made me want to read his work.

Although I finished the book a few weeks ago one idea is sticking with me. Sornson writes about nine skills in the book. The one that seems to me to be the most critical is “using empathy.” In many ways, I believe everything else can fall into place if a teacher is using empathy.

I am amazed at how often I find myself getting annoyed at a child because he or she is doing something again. In my mind that child is deliberately trying to drive me crazy. I think, “I know that child knows better. I know that child could stop that.”

I should know better. I need to stop that.

I have watched my oldest daughter hum or sing while she brushes her teeth, does her homework, rides her bike, makes dinner, eats breakfast, etc. The great majority of the time she has no idea she is humming or singing. She is not trying to drive me crazy.

Isn't that likely to be true about my students as well?

That little boy chewing on his sleeve. Isn't it likely he doesn't even realize he’s doing that? The little girl spinning down the hallway. Isn't it likely she isn't aware of what she’s doing?

That’s not to say I won’t stop the boy from chewing on his sleeve (I know his parents will appreciate my doing so) or the girl from spinning down the hallway (we do need to avoid the kindergartners walking our way). But a little bit of empathy from me means I can address these children with gentle reminders rather than stern admonitions. And which option is more likely to serve us well in the long term?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

John Hattie's Ideas

Videos are not my favorite way to take in ideas and content. I'd much rather read. That should give you some sense of how invested I am in learning about John Hattie's ideas if I've watched more than half an hour of him talking on videos.

This first one is the shortest, only about five minutes. It gives you a sense of who he is and where his focus is.

I'm interested in Hattie because his research seems to be a driving force for some decision makers in my district. Many of the decisions they are making based on Hattie's research are not ones I agree with. As a result, I decided I needed to do some learning to see if I'm missing something.

Hattie's book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning is not cheap. So, I started with these videos. Then I managed to borrow a copy of the book from a leader in my district.

I started with this video:

The first thing I noticed, after his fabulous accent, was that I was hopeful when he said things I agreed with and annoyed when he said things I did not agree with. Clearly as I go through all of his work I will have to work to remain open-minded.

My quick thoughts from the videos:

  1. He talks a lot about making sure students know what success looks like. That makes sense and sounds pretty good. But what if we set the bar too low? What if we show students what success looks like and they can already meet that? Are we limiting their growth by always defining success for them?
  2. He discusses teacher-student relationships as one of the big ones, as something that gives a big return on investment. That doesn't surprise me at all. Unfortunately, I feel like all the things we're doing as a result of his research (common pacing, common assessments, common planning) are removing us from those relationships. Everything is standardized so we don't know our students as well.
  3. Another idea he says is strong is spaced practice instead of mass practice. This means continuing to practice things over time rather than cramming it all in and then moving on to something completely new. This struck me because my team recently found that our students who did not do well counting money struggled not because of the money, but because they don't have the number sense to support them. We taught number sense in the first quarter and then moved on. It's a critical piece and needs to be part of things all year. That's certainly possible but it gets lost in our laser focus on whatever unit we are currently planning and assessing together.
I am reading his book now. It's not a quick read but I intend to continue writing about it and trying to understand why we are doing what we are doing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

From the Mouths of Higher Ups

In a recent meeting the following quotes were said:

"Our professional responsibility is a guaranteed curriculum."
"The schools that have been more successful..."
"You are responsible for every ______ grader in the building."
"What are you covering?"

Let's take these one by one.

"Our professional responsibility is a guaranteed curriculum." I'm not against a curriculum. But the message this statement sends is that the biggest thing I must do as a teacher is ensure that I am presenting the same information to every child. I think my job is much bigger than that. I also think the same thing for every student sets a pretty low bar.

"The schools that have been more successful..." This has been said again and again as justification for common assessments, common pacing, and all the team expectations. I find it disingenuous. The definition of success, in these statements, is test scores. Again, the bar is too low. And not meaningful - not for me, not for the kids, not for most parents.

"You are responsible for every ______ grader in the building." I get this one too. In fact, I kind of like this idea. But...right now there is a complete lack of any control for teachers. We don't control our schedule, who else works in our classroom, who is on our team, etc. We barely control what and how we are teaching. If you want me to be responsible for every child in my grade, allow me to do some of the things that I know will help those kids.

"What are you covering?" This one I don't get. I hate the term. I can cover all the content I want, that in no way means students will actually learn it. Ask me what I am teaching. Ask me what my students are learning? But don't ask me what I am covering.

I'm feeling a significant disconnect from those who are making decisions in my district.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Beautiful Classrooms

At Educon I attended a fabulous session, Where are the Beautiful Learning Spaces?, by Andrew Campbell and Jennifer Chan. Within minutes they had me thinking about what a school believes in and how (or whether) a school presents that. I was struck that much of what we do in our schools, at least in my district, goes against what we want. We want families and students to feel welcome in our buildings. But we lock all the doors, have signs up about trespassing, and lots of steps to pass to get beyond the front office. I understand why all those things are there, but I wonder what we lose as a result.

Anyway, we talked some about classrooms. I talked quite a bit with Christina Jenkins and we lamented how rarely we get to see other people's classrooms. There is so much to be learned just from a peek into another classroom, so many new ideas, things you've never considered.
From Stacy's 2nd grade classroom
Thanks to inspiration from Andrew and Jenn, we decided a tumblr would be a great way to try and make this happen. If you or someone you know has a classroom, or even just a part of a classroom, that you think is really welcoming or innovative or comfortable or special in any way, please share it! Christina (thank goodness for folks who know more than I do!) added a submit button at the top so that people can add their pictures on their own. Or you can email me if you prefer.
From my classroom
Please pass this on. I truly believe it could be an interesting resource for teachers, especially for new teachers, if it gets built up with plenty of examples.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Why Writing Groups Work and Matter

Last night I was lucky enough to hear a presentation by a highly skilled, very thoughtful educator. Even luckier, I've heard this presentation before. Like most presentations by highly skilled, very thoughtful educators, I learn something new each time.

This educator teaches in schools that work with various agencies in our district: mental health, alcohol and drug addiction, and our court system. The students with whom she works are in crisis, significant crisis. They are unable to attend their regular school, or even one of our alternative schools. However, they are still being educated, still being held to the same standards as their peers.

She works specifically, at this point in her career, with literacy. One of her greatest strengths is establishing writing workshop in these classrooms and building writing groups (peer groups that discuss each others' writing).

Not only is this work more challenging because these students are already coping with so much, but also because they rotate in and out of these schools. The goal is for them to return to their base school (or an alternative school, at least) so the population changes frequently.

This amazing educator has not let that stop her or even slow her down. One result is that the only state tests on which these schools have met the benchmark are the 8th and 11th grade writing tests. Clearly the writing workshop structure, the writing groups fostering conversation about their writing, and the high expectations have made a difference.

That said, student achievement is not the greatest driving force for using writing groups with these students. Kids who have hit a point that they are in these schools have many difficulties. Often those include communication and appropriate social skills (oh, the stories this educator can tell!).

Working in a writing group requires listening and talking. It really requires thoughtful listening and talking. Learning to do those things will be immensely useful in anyone's life. Immensely useful in personal and professional relationships. Even more useful than being able to write well.

I told you she was thoughtful.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Success Means High Test Scores

From cireremarc’s flickr stream:
Do so few people really question this?

It seems like everything that is said about education today defines success this way. In a recent team meeting we were hearing about the PLC process and what is expected (really, what is required and what we can tweak). We were told, multiple times, that 'it works'. I kept thinking, "Yes, if by works we mean it raises test scores."

Does that mean it's better for kids?
Does that mean it actually improves learning?
Does that mean it's a good use of time, for kids or teachers?
Does that mean it is the right thing to do?

Are we really defining success in a meaningful way?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Assuming Positive Intentions

Over the years I have worked with many superstars. Our school has had, and has right now, many absolutely amazing teachers. Not everyone is lucky enough to know these amazing teachers. One of them, however, has truly broken out into superstardom and has become quite well known.

Last night a bunch of us went to her first book signing of the tour. 

There you see Glennon Doyle Melton surrounded by people who taught with her at our school. Some of us are still here, others have moved on to other schools or to stay at home with children. It was like a reunion. The whole evening, waiting in line for 2 1/2 hours, seeing Glennon, being with these amazing, brilliant educators, was an awesome experience. I don't use that word lightly. It was awesome.

(By the way, the lady just to her right in the picture co-authored a book with her years ago. It's a fabulous book as well.)

Glennon did not get a chance to talk to the entire group for long, nor did she have much time to speak to us individually. There was quite a long line and she was signing books until midnight. 

No matter how brief her remarks, I was struck by one sentence. She talked about all she has learned in the last few years. These were all things she has written about before. But, for some reason, one stuck with me. She said that she has learned that everyone is trying their best. 

That bears repeating. Everyone is trying their best.

I've thought a lot about assuming positive intentions, but I am not good at it. I'm especially bad when it comes to other drivers. But it seems to be something I struggle to remember. 

Somehow, Glennon's wording makes so much sense to me. Everyone is trying their best. My little first graders are trying their best. Their parents are trying their best. My coworkers are trying their best. Those other drivers are trying their best. Everyone is trying their best. 

I will continue to try my best to remember that.

On a related note, I have an extra copy of Glennon's book. It's not signed, sadly. However, I have been trying to figure out since last night what to do with it. I thought about giving it to my mom, but I think I should get her the kindle version instead. I thought about sending it to my sister, but she may have already bought it. I decided, instead, to pass it on here. If you are interested (and didn't give up on this post far above), leave me a comment. I'll pick a random number and send that person this fabulous book. (I'll pick a number this Saturday, April 13th, so that I can get the necessary information and mail the book out on Monday!)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Making Assessing Worthwhile

Common assessments have become a big thing at my school in the past couple of years. A big thing with which I am still struggling.

Prior to this quarter, our common assessments in language arts have been our running records. I had no problem with this. We were all doing running records to help us plan effective guided reading groups so it didn't require any extra time or energy. It was an authentic, meaningful assessment.

This quarter we decided to focus on the high frequency words our students should know by the end of first grade. Every January we assess all 100 words - the writing of which typically takes more than an hour over the course of a week. I do 25 words each day and it takes us between 15 and 30 minutes to do that, depending on how focused we are, how many distractions we have, etc. We also do one-on-one assessments of each child reading the words. When we decided to focus on high frequency words I immediately argued against assessing all 100 again. (We decided to focus on the 20-30 words each class worked on during this quarter.)

The time factor was a significant reason for my wish to not assess all 100 words. But I spent a lot of time thinking about what we gain from these assessments and what they cost us. When I tell students a word and they write it down, I learn if they can spell it in that moment, in that isolated manner. That may or may not translate to their actual writing. Which is where I really care if they can spell it.

In the past I would not have assessed 20-30 words at the end of the 3rd quarter. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have been assessing them. During writing conferences I would be noting their facility with high frequency words. I would not have know who could spell each specific word at any given moment, but I'm not convinced I know that from our common assessment either.

In the past I would have known who has a strong grasp on the high frequency words and who does not. That would have allowed me to form guided writing groups around using our resources for these words as well as creating work stations to practice them. I believe that would have worked just fine.

Now, I'll spend a considerable amount of time assessing students rather than teaching them. I will likely still end up with guided writing groups and work stations, just as I would without this common assessment. I just wouldn't have hard numbers for us to compare as a team. Sigh.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Rick Riordan, My New Hero

My daughters have been listening to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. (It's our first foray into books on CD and it has been an unqualified success.) Their love of the books and fascination with the gods and goddesses pushed me to read the books. In the fourth book, The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy, Annabeth (a daughter of Athena), Tyson (a cyclops), and Grover (a satyr) come across the Sphinx. I was enjoying the books up to this point, but this made me absolutely adore Rick Riordan.

I don't believe reading this will spoil any part of any of the books. If you haven't read the series, I highly, highly recommend it. The relevant quotes from the scene follow (breaks are where I left out text to focus on just the critical pieces). Enjoy!

I slipped on a pile of wood scraps, but when I shined a light on them I realized they were pencils - hundreds of them, all broken in half.

Then I saw the monster. She stood on a glittery dais on the opposite side of the room. She had the body of a huge lion and the head of a woman. She would've been pretty, but her hair was tied back in a tight bun and she wore too much makeup, so she kind of reminded me of my third-grade choir teacher. She had a blue ribbon badge pinned to her chest that took me a moment to read: THIS MONSTER HAS BEEN RATED EXEMPLARY!

"Fabulous prizes!" the Sphinx said. "Pass the test, and you get to advance! Fail, and I get to eat you! Who will be our contestant?"

"Are you ready for your test?"
"Yes," she said. "Ask your riddle."
"Twenty riddles, actually!" the Sphinx said gleefully.
"What? But back in the old days -"
"Oh, we've raised our standards! To pass, you must show proficiency in all twenty. Isn't that great?"

A drumroll sounded from above. The Sphinx's eyes glittered with excitement. "What . . . is the capital of Bulgaria?"
Annabeth frowned. For a terrible moment, I thought she was stumped.
"Sofia," she said, "but -"
"Correct!" More canned applause. The Sphinx smiled so wide her fangs showed. "Please be sure to mark your answer clearly on your test sheet with a number 2 pencil."
"What?" Annabeth looked mystified. Then a test booklet appeared on the podium in front of her, along with a sharpened pencil.
"Make sure you bubble each answer clearly and stay inside the circle," the Sphinx said. "If you have to erase, erase completely or the machine will not be able to read your answers."

"Now," said the Sphinx, "next question -"
"Wait a second," Annabeth protested. "What about 'What walks on four legs in the morning'?"
"I beg your pardon?" the Sphinx said, clearly annoyed now.
"The riddle about man. He walks on four legs in the morning, like a baby, two legs in the afternoon, like an adult, and three legs in the evening, as an old man with a cane. That's the riddle you used to ask."
"Exactly why we changed the test!" the Sphinx exclaimed. "You already knew the answer. Now second question, what is the square root of sixteen?"
"Four," Annabeth said, "but -"
"Correct! Which U.S. president signed the Emancipation Proclamation?"
"Abraham Lincoln, but -"
"Correct! Riddle number four. How much -"
"Hold up!" Annabeth shouted.

"These aren't riddles," Annabeth said.
"What do you mean?" the Sphinx snapped. "Of course they are. The test material is specially designed -"
"It's just a bunch of dumb, random facts," Annabeth insisted. "Riddles are supposed to make you think."
"Think?" The Sphinx frowned. "How am I supposed to test whether you can think? That's ridiculous! Now, how much force is required-"
"Stop!" Annabeth insisted. "This is a stupid test."

"Why then, my dear," the monster said calmly. "If you won't pass, you fail. And since we can't allow any children to be held back, you'll be EATEN!"

I raised my sword, but before I could strike, Tyson ripped the monster's grading machine out of the floor and threw it at the Sphinx's head, ruining her hair bun. It landed in pieces all around her.
"My grading machine!" she cried. "I can't be exemplary without my test scores!"