Monday, December 04, 2006

VASCD - Ruby Payne

I was disappointed in Payne as a speaker because I felt that she was hard to follow. She had a lot of good information and ideas to share, but at the end of two jam-packed days, I had trouble staying with her. However, I did get some good nuggets of information to think about from her.
One thing that I latched onto from her talk was a phrase that she often uses with teachers, parents, and students when communication is breaking down. She says, "Help me understand..." whatever the issue is at hand. So even if a parent or teacher seems completely off their rocker, she will say, "help me understand" and give them the opportunity to voice their thoughts and feel respected without agreeing with them or giving in. It puts the responsibility on both parties involved and builds a sense of partnership.
Another thing she talked about was interesting to me both as a teacher and as a parent. She said that parents often want to negotiate with their children when the children don't have the necessary skills. Her theory is that children must understand parameters, choice, and consequences in order to participate in real negotiation. Many parents have taught their children one or two of those three concepts, but the children are lacking in one area. It also takes children time to develop real understandings of these three concepts.

VASCD - No Common Planning? No Problem!

Pam Roland from UVA is working on ways to support teachers who are trying to collaborate and finding many challenges. She has some interesting ideas, but is starting from far behind where we are now. Sessions like this and discussions with teachers from other schools and other school districts always serve to remind me of how very lucky I am to teach where I do. The things that frustrate me always seem so petty when I talk to others. It is much too easy to forget how very wonderful our school is and how hard we have worked to make it this way.
The one thing that struck me from Roland's presentation was the roles/tasks fro regular ed teachers and the specialists who work in their rooms. Her expectations for coteaching are not the same as ours at our school, but she makes some good points. One thing she says is that the regular ed teacher needs to make a space for the specialist. As we set up our rooms and consider all the things we need to have and organize for, it is important to remember that if we want specialists to feel comfortable working in our rooms, they need a space to call their own. Being a homeless teacher can not be conducive to coteaching.

VASCD - Crystal Kuykendall

Kuykendall is a mix of teacher, advocate, inspirational speaker, and revivalist minister. She is an absolute joy to listen to. Her own personal stories about her life and her children are powerful and beautifully told. She reminded us in so many ways that it is the students who matter and that we can make a difference for any and all of them.
Her handouts were very basic and straightforward. One of the things she lists are factors which influence teacher expectations: prior student achievement, prior student behavior, prior student placement, socioeconomic status, language ability, physical attraction, gender, and race/ethnicity. It is almost painful for me to seriously consider how these factors contribute to my feelings about students, but when I am honest I know it is true. The factors around students' prior selves are so easy to be influenced by and to set up high or low expectations. It is so hard to start fresh with students, but it can make such a difference for them. The other factors are all out of their control, and yet play such a large role in their young lives. I am frequently reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the country, economic status, family, etc. into which I was born. All of those factors contributed to my being who I am today and they were all just luck. Many of our students are not as lucky.
Kuykendall also writes and talks about climate variables in a classroom. She believes that physical proximity, courtesy, praise, affirmation, acceptance of feelings, and appreciation of differences build respect between students and teachers. If we as teachers stop to think about what we want from coworkers, peers, administrators, and family members it should be obvious to us what our students need. However, it is so easy for us to get caught up in the focus on instruction and teaching and forget that we are teaching children with all the related issues, emotions, and needs.

VASCD - Thomas Guskey

Guskey's presentation was titled "Improving Student Learning with Standards and Assessments". He was funny and enlightening - a strong combination for the end of the day at a conference. His thinking about grading was very helpful to me and gave me a lot to continue to think about. As assessment is one of my "big idea" issues!

The packet of information he gave us is extensive and I have only begun to truly dig into it. It includes a grading and reporting questionaire that I found to be fascinating. It asks questions about the reasons we use report cards and assign grades, any changes one would make in standard grading systems, what teachers use to determine students' grades, and positive and negative aspects of grading and report cards. Simply as a personal reflection it is an interesting exercise to undertake.

He also included a table of student grades for seven students with a bit of background information about them. This table shows five grades per student and then three different final grades. One final grade is simply the average, on is the median, and one is the average without the lowest grade. Looking at the table and the background information it is thought-provoking to consider what grade each student deserves.

One of his suggestions is that teachers always consider two questions as they plan: What do I want students to learn? and What evidence would I accept to verify their learning? This seems to tie very neatly into the ideas of the DuFours.

VASCD - Promoting Creative Concept Connections through Effective Visuals

Two professors from UMW and a first-year art teacher from Stafford County explored using visuals with students. They focused on what makes visuals effective and how they can be used effectively in the classroom.

The art teacher discussed elements and principles of design (emphasis, balance, movement, pattern, and unity) in art and in other visuals. She illustrated each element with a piece of artwork and then compared it to a visual by Edward Tufte ( It's too complicated to even begin to explain briefly, but it gave me a new lens through which to look at the visuals I use with my students.

One of the professors spent some time sharing ways to use visuals in literacy. I did not find that she had anything truly groundbreaking to share, but I was impressed with the way she worded things for students and scaffolded. She used pictures (by Mary Cassat and Jerry Pinkney, among others) to look for the main idea and to help students begin to look for evidence to back up their thinking.

VASCD - Building Student Expertise in Inquiry - Science

A science coordinator from Virginia Beach City Public Schools gave a session about inquiry in science. It was an interesting session for a variety of reasons. She included student samples for us to look over and analyze - always a plus. In addition, I do not feel overly competent in science compared to other subject areas. Having always had the science kits from the county, I have not had to think as hard in science and do not feel like I have as deep an understanding about best practice and how students learn.

The main focus of the session was on the "Fowler Assessment". This is an assessment to determine how much students understand about scientific inquiry. It asks students to design an experiment around a specific question. The teacher then looks for understanding of a range of inquiry issues: safety, prediction (hypothesis), steps, materials, observation, data collection, conclusion, variables, and repeat tests. From this teachers can begin to plan around their students' needs.

The presenter recommended starting with structured inquiry in the younger grades (they begin in 2nd). I realized that structured inquiry is all that I really do with my students. She talked about a continuum similar to what we frequently see in language arts - I Do/You Watch, I Do/You Help, You Do/I Help, You Do/I Watch. I don't think I've ever gotten to You Do/I Watch with my students.

The one other piece I found very interesting was an extension on the idea of thinking like a scientist. Her school system looks specifically at the type of scientist for a unit of study (such as a meteorologist). They look into what that type of scientist does, the tools they use, the education necessary, how they work with other experts, what changes may happen in the field, and would it be a good career for me. This seems like a concrete way for some students to make sense of science.

VASCD - DuFour's Presentation

Rick and Becky DuFour got the day started on Thursday. Having heard them speak before, there was not a whole lot of new information in their presentation.

They did share one of my favorite quotes about assessment however. I don't have the exact quote, but the idea is that summative assessment is an autopsy and formative assessment is a physical. Assessment is one of my "big idea" issues at the moment and this thought plays into the heart of my struggle. The system of schooling in our country is very focused on summative assessment (grades, standardized tests, etc), while many teachers recognize the importance and value of formative assessment. Assessing students is only useful if we are going to do something with that information. Most summative assessment is an end, not a means.

The one thing the DuFours talk about frequently that strikes me everytime is the idea of planning to support those students who are not immediately successful. I find this to be one of the most challenging tasks I face as a teacher. After lessons, units, assessments, etc. what do I do to help those students who didn't yet get it? In some ways, it feels as if I need to be planning for my own failure as a teacher - which is a little painful. However, I recognize the developmental differences in children and know that they will not all get everything at the same time. Planning for that is vitally important and an exhausting proposition, all at the same time.