Using grades to rank and compare, to reward and punish, to motivate or otherwise control student behavior is so engrained in our practice that it’s difficult to imagine teaching any other way. Returning student work with no grade on the top is unthinkable, but that’s exactly what Mark Barnes suggests in his book, Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning.
Barnes begins by explaining why grades are actually harmful and impede learning, and he cites the research to back this up. Grades are arbitrary and generally meaningless; they unfairly label kids, and they usually stop the learning rather than furthering it. Instead, he suggests using descriptive feedback to assess assignments or projects and giving students multiple opportunities to improve their work. He has developed a model he calls SE2R for Summarize, Explain, Redirect, and Resubmit. When assessing an assignment, he first writes a one or two sentence summary of what the student has done. He then explains what the student has mastered based on guidelines for the assignment. Next, he redirects the student to lessons and resources to be reviewed to improve the work and further understanding of concepts and skills. Finally he encourages the student to resolve issues with the assignment and resubmit it. Work is collected in a portfolio and when it’s time to put a grade on a report card, Barnes has a conversation with each student about their learning and the student determines the final grade. This sounds simple but there’s a lot to think about if you’re considering this, and the book is full of examples and tips for making this change in assessment practices work.
So, what would it take to make this work? Can we stop giving grades and instead focus on giving feedback? What reaction would the teachers in your school have to this kind of change? Would students respond well to it? Would parents accept a report card with no grades? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Assessment 3.0, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you want to learn more about how teachers are changing their assessment practices, check out the Facebook group, Teachers Throwing Out Grades.
School is out and it’s time to get serious about reading. Most teachers do some professional reading during the school year, but we seldom have an opportunity to read a book with a colleague and then discuss it. We’re all just too busy to coordinate a book club and keep it going. Summer (for teachers) is different. We have more time to read and reflect, but we don’t see each other every day, and face-to-face discussion just doesn’t happen. So, I’m ready to try something new. Consider this your invitation to join me in a summer virtual book club. Here’s how it works:
I’ll read a book that interests me and write a post on this blog with my impressions and thoughts about it. I’ll let you know the title several days in advance so you can get the book and read it too, if you want.
You read the post and respond to it in the comments. If you’ve read the book, we can argue about what it all means. (This is always fun!)
If you haven’t read the book, you can ask questions of those who have read the book so you can decide if you want to read it.
Or, you can just lurk on this blog, reading as much or as little as you want. Maybe you’ll want to join the conversation later.
If you’re very brave, you can write a post about a book you’ve read and I’ll publish it here. (Contact me if you want to be a contributor.)
At the end of the summer we’ll stop and I’ll put this blog on hold because, honestly, I don’t have time for this during the school year. We can start it up again in June 2016.
Interested? To get started, just type in your email address and click on the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Then you will receive a message every time there’s a new post. Clicking on a link in the message will bring you here where you can read about the books and comment if you want. Simple, right? The first book I’ll read is Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes. Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve already read it, but I’ll read it again and post about it this weekend. You can buy it from the publisher, Corwin Press or get it from Amazon. (There’s a Kindle version too.) The ideas in this book are revolutionary and should lead to a great discussion because everyone has an opinion about grades and grading practices. So, let me know what you think and watch for a new post in a few days. By the way, I read fiction too, but more about that later… Happy summer reading!
Each year, the ninth graders in my high school are asked to write a belief essay, inspired by the This I Believe organization. I’ve worked with students to publish their essays, both in text and in voice recordings, on a school website. As I read and listened to their essays, I was impressed with how these 14 and 15-year-olds could identify and articulate their core beliefs. They inspired me to think a bit about what I truly believe about education. I’ve been in education for four decades and I have often been asked to write something about my “philosophy of education,” but those little essays were usually something I put together in hopes of landing a job. I said what I was expected to say. I think it’s time for an honest inventory of what I truly believe about education as an institution and teaching as a profession. I have strong opinions about most education issues and my thinking often changes based on new ideas or new evidence. But in the last week or so I’ve tried to identify my most basic beliefs, the convictions that I’ve built my career on, and these are the five that surfaced:
Schools must be public. I find the recent movement toward privatizing schools very disturbing. I once worked in a Job Corps center that was run by a corporation, so I know what happens when you try to run a school like a business and all decisions are made to benefit the company rather than the students. Vouchers and charter schools are just steps toward privatization. I understand the allure of charter schools for some parents and teachers. We’ve all wanted to run our own schools, free of the restrictions and mandates that are placed on public schools. But if charter schools are better without those restrictions and mandates, why don’t we just remove them from the public schools?
Teaching is messy. No matter what the consultants, pundits, reformers, or your next door neighbor may say, there’s no one right way to do it. What works today may not work tomorrow. What works with one student may not work with another. To be effective, we have to make our best guesses about what may work, provide learning opportunities, assess, and revise. As Dylan Wiliam says, “Our daily experience as teachers is a failure, which makes it the best job in the world.” Nothing I have experienced or read has convinced me that there’s a direct causal relationship between teaching and learning. We as teachers can influence and guide learning, but we cannot control it. I believe learning is complex and cannot be measured quantitatively. This is not to say that I don’t believe in assessment. On the contrary, I devote a lot of time to trying to figure out what students know and can do, and I’m constantly surprised (positively and negatively). Testing can sometimes help us make decisions about what to try next, but test scores should never be used to compare schools, evaluate teachers, or close doors for students.
Teachers must be curriculum designers. Perhaps the worst idea to come out of the education reform movement is the scripted lesson. Delivering a lesson by following a recipe is not teaching. I’ve attended many national conferences in the past decade or so, and nothing depresses me more than to walk through the exhibits and see so many vendors selling packaged curricula and lessons guaranteed to solve all our pedagogical problems and get our kids to meet the standards. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever purchase materials or use someone else’s lesson, but it’s the teacher who should be making the decision about when that’s appropriate, and the teacher should be free to adapt this material to meet the needs of her students. I’ve heard many administrators (and teachers) use the “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” argument for using canned lessons, but I don’t buy it. When a teacher designs a lesson or unit, he’s invested in it, and his students sense that and are more likely to be engaged. I’ve also heard administrators argue that teachers don’t know how to design curriculum and that job should be left to the experts. If that’s the case, those teachers should learn how to do it and become the experts. As professional educators we must be scholars and lifelong learners who stay on top of new ideas and technologies, and who are better able to make content and pedagogical decisions than a consultant or a vendor.
Some students will never meet some standards. I’m not against the standards movement in education. I believe standards are helpful for goal setting, curriculum design, and assessment. But standards are just someone’s best guess at what students should know and be able to do. To say that all students must meet all standards is to deny the diversity our students demonstrate every day. I believe the mandate for proficiency-based diplomas is an opportunity for us to closely examine how we assess student learning and to determine what a high school diploma truly represents. A diploma should mean that the student is ready for the next stage in life, whether that’s college or the workplace. I believe that a checklist of standards met or not met cannot tell us this. The diploma awarders should take into consideration everything that is known about that student and then make a judgement. That’s really the best we can do.
To stay in the game, you have to play by the rules (most of the time). This may sound hypocritical, but I often do things that appear to be counter to my beliefs. I follow school policies and procedures that I don’t agree with. I have taught content that I believe to be unnecessary and a waste of time. I voice my opinion when I think it will make a difference, and keep my mouth shut when I know it won’t. I make compromises when necessary. Generally, I follow the rules because I want to continue to teach, and I want to do it in public schools. There may come a day when I decide that schools and the teaching profession have become something that I can no longer, in good conscience, be a part of. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. I believe I can still do some good.
When I began this blog, almost two years ago, my goal was to post at least once a week. That didn’t last long. I was also starting a new job at the time and I overestimated my stamina. The job and the other commitments I have to various education organizations and to my family kept posting to this blog at the bottom of my to-do list. When I started this blog, I thought I would use it to reflect on my work, ponder new ideas, and occasionally share a resource or two. It’s time to get back to that.
Although I haven’t kept this blog up, I have been blogging. This year I began co-teaching a semester-long Digital Literacy class for high school freshmen. In this class we use blogs and blogging as a foundation for teaching reading, writing, and other forms of digital communication. I started a blog as a model for my students the first semester, and I’ve carried it over to the second semester‘s class. I’ve been writing, but for a different audience.
I’ve often said that the most effective teachers are also the most reflective teachers. I have not been modeling that well. I believe I have been reflecting on my work, and I’ve shared those reflections verbally with trusted colleagues, but I haven’t been committing it to writing. For me, writing actually aids my thinking, and I know I should do it more often.
I want to get back to writing for the audience this blog was intended for – teachers and other technology integrators. While my idea of posting once a week may have been overly ambitious, I think I can manage some regular posting.
I’m not ready to give up yet. It’s time to start again.
When I worked for MLTI, I often lead workshops for teachers I had never met before and might not ever see again. Sometimes teachers were attending the workshop not out of choice but because an administrator required it. I soon learned that I couldn’t just jump into the content in these sessions; I had to take the time at the beginning to establish credibility and trust. I had to convince them that I knew what I was talking about and that I would treat them with respect and not make them look foolish. I also learned that I had to do this within the first five or ten minutes or I would lose them.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t very skilled at this at first, but over time I developed some techniques that seemed to work. Usually this involved telling a quick story or asking a simple question designed to engage the group and help them feel comfortable working with me. Sometimes I resorted to admitting what I didn’t know or mistakes I’ve made in the past. Once, when I was asked to present at a conference for visual and performing arts teachers, I decided to develop something that would appeal to art teachers but also draw on my experience as a literacy teacher. The title of the session was Promoting Literacy with Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels, and I’ve presented it several times in many variations since. But that first time, as I stood before an audience of art teachers and introduced myself, I realized I had to do something to convince them that I, an old middle school English teacher, might have something of value to share with them. It suddenly occurred to me that they were all artists, and I had the gall to talk tothem about a highly visual medium! I remember just blurting out, “How many of you read comics when you were a kid?” Every hand went up. I then admitted that I did notread comic books as a kid and even now, when I read comic strips in the newspapers, my eyes go right to the text. I went on to explain that although I didn’t read them, I had learned a lot about comics from my son and from research, and I was there to share what I had learned. As I looked at the faces in the room, I could see that they were with me. After that day, I used that opening question every time I did that session, and it always worked.
I’m in a different situation now, as a technology integrator for an elementary and a high school. Establishing credibility and trust is much more complex when teaching teachers with whom I will have an ongoing relationship, and it takes longer. In my workshops and presentations, I always tried to do it within the first few minutes, but I’ve been in my new job for a little over a month and I’m still working at it. As eager as I am to get into classrooms, to plan projects, and to team-teach, I know it will not happen immediately. Getting teachers to trust me and to feel I have something to offer will take time. Each weekend, I try to take some time to reflect on what I’ve accomplished during the week, and today I realized that every parking lot, hallway, or lunchroom conversation I had this week was important. When I exchanged stories with individuals about past teaching jobs, when I listened to their concerns about kids who were distracted by games on their iPads, even when I responded to a distress call about a jammed printer, I was building relationships.
I recently attended a workshop for teachers where they learned how to flip their classrooms. I don’t like the term “flipped classroom” (a topic for a future post) but I do like the idea that teachers can create content in other media than print, and they can capture demonstrations and lectures for future reference. At the end of the workshop, one teacher said something that I’ve been pondering ever since. She said, “I won’t remember how to do this, but I’ll remember why, and when I’m ready to do it, I’ll ask for help.”
Too often we spend our precious technology professional development time walking teachers through a step-by-step tutorial for using a particular tool rather than talking about why to use it, and I’ll admit that I sometimes fall into that trap. Software “training” (another term I dislike) is effective only when the trainees are in a position to start using that software right away and for a particular purpose. In a business, when the company switches to a new accounting program, they send everyone who has to use it to a training session. The employees then return to the office and begin using that software immediately as a major part of their work. This does not happen in education. Teachers may attend a summer workshop where they learn how to use a piece of hardware or software, but it may be weeks or months before they can use that tool to teach a particular skill or concept. And too often they learn about the software in isolation, with no discussion or thought given to how it supports their curriculum or why they need to use it at all.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t demonstrate and give teachers time to explore hardware and software tools during our PD time, but it’s foolish to think that technology integrators or professional development providers can teach teachers all the technical skills they need in this ever-changing world. Software, hardware and web tools change too frequently and there are too many of them. I think the best we can do is inspire teachers to think about their curriculum and their practice, decide which tools will work for them, and then find a way to learn on their own.
I often return to the TPCK (or TPACK) framework developed by Mishra and Koehler to explain these ideas. This framework illustrates the types of knowledge teachers need to successfully integrate technology into their practice. While teachers need Technological Knowledge (TK), it’s only at the center of the model, where all three knowledge types intersect, that effective teaching and learning take place. Rather than helping teachers gain only TK (and assuming they will find the intersections on their own), I prefer to spend as much time as possible helping them see the possibilities for those intersections.
My husband once described a software training workshop for teachers that he attended. He said that teachers sat passively, followed the steps that they were shown, and created exactly the same product as the one being demonstrated. He said he learned a few tips and tricks about the software, but left with no idea how he would use it in his music classes. He didn’t learn anything that he couldn’t have learned from the help menu or through a simple Google search.
If we don’t spend our PD time in software training, how will teachers gain the technology knowledge they need? I’ve begun encouraging teachers to take responsibility for their own training. I suggest that when they realize they don’t know how to do something, they try one of these remedies:
Check the help menu of the application you are using.
Ask a colleague.
Ask a student.
Gaining Technological Knowledge (TK) is something teachers should start doing on their own, as they need it, not when a training session happens to be scheduled. This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to demonstrate tools and answer how-to questions, but I hope to base more of my work on those intersections with Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) and Content Knowledge (CK). The workshop I mentioned above had the right mix of TPACK. I hope to hear more teachers saying, “I may not remember how to do this, but I’ll remember why.”
This past week I attended the Middle Level Education Institute (MLEI) at Bowdoin College.This institute has a long history as a place where Maine’s middle level educators can meet to learn from consultants and each other as they work on team and individual projects. I’ve been involved with MLEI for several years as a consultant, but I decided to attend this year as a participant. This allowed me to work on my own project (this blog) and to observe the facilitators and other participants through my professional development lens. I left with the impression that everyone felt this was a highly effective PD experience and I’ve been pondering why ever since. What did they do right?
They took the time to build a learning community. So often, I feel pressured when I’m leading a workshop to jump right into the content and I never really get to know the people in the room. Even when I worked with a cohort at another 3-day institute, I didn’t take the time to do this well and I regret it. The four facilitators did this intentionally, starting well before the institute began. They created a wiki and asked each participant to create a personal page, so I felt I knew something about everyone before I even met them. During the institute there were opportunities for whole group discussion as well as partner and table talk, and there were activities that caused us to regroup often and talk with other people. There was a back channel for comments and questions that we were prompted to use for specific purposes but that was also available throughout the three days for sharing. We ate lunch together every day which led to informal discussions. I think the size of the group (around 35 or so) made this community building easier, but I believe it’s possible with larger groups too.
They modeled good practice.Chris Toy introduced his Mr. T model that’s an acronym for model, reflect, and transfer and throughout the three days that’s exactly what happened. The facilitators did not simply describe their practice, they modeled it. When Mark Springer and Nancy Doda introduced how students can have a voice in curriculum decisions, they let us experience it as we negotiated our curriculum for the institute. Jill Spencer didn’t merely describe active strategies for engaging students but modeled them too.
They provided ample opportunities for reflection. Throughout the three days we were introduced to a variety of tools and strategies for reflection and the facilitators built many reflection pauses into the schedule. Again, this was part of Chris’ Mr. T model and I appreciated the time to think about what I had just experience and to ask myself, “What does this mean for my practice?”
Perhaps the most significant outcome of this institute for me, as a professional development provider, was a reminder of the power of team teaching. Some of the most satisfying experiences I have had as a teacher of teachers have been when I worked with a partner or a team of facilitators. There’s something about teaching collaboratively with people who trust each other and share a passion for their content. Everyone in the room senses that trust and passion and wants to be a part of it. That’s how I felt at this year’s MLEI.
I’ll admit it – I’m a baby boomer. I’ve been in education for a long time and I’m nearing the end of my teaching career. I’m a member of the generation of teachers who are assumed to be resistant to using technology and fearful of changing their practice this late in the game. So how did I get where I am today? How did I learn all this technology stuff well enough to teach other teachers about it?
I’ll also admit that, until recently, I never took any technology classes. I finally decided to get a degree in Technology in Education just to prove that I know what I know. I have a secret and here it is: I learned more from my classmates in my formal university classes than from the instructors or the completion of required course work.
When I began teaching there were no computers in classrooms, no photocopiers in the teachers’ room, no VCRs anywhere. We had a spirit duplicator and wrote our originals on ditto masters that were awkward and difficult to edit and produced those purple-on-white worksheets with the distinctive odor. I was never very good with machines and I usually tried to get someone else to make my copies for me. In the mid ’80s a few personal computers were creeping into schools, but I was happy to get the school secretary’s cast-off typewriter for my classroom. I first touched a computer in 1988 when I was given an Apple IIe and kids taught me how to use it.
Since then I’ve taught with computers in GT and 8th grade ELA classes, worked with computers in an elementary school library, managed computer labs in a junior high school, and become a technology integrator for a middle school and eventually for the whole state – all of that with no formal training. I learned it all by reading, watching, listening, trying, failing, and asking. I bought and read books and manuals, searched the internet for answers to my questions, and kept certain tech-savvy friends on speed dial.
I didn’t know it then, but I was forming what now has a trendy buzzword to name it. I was creating a PLN- a personal (or professional, if you prefer) learning network. While in the beginning my PLN consisted mostly of print resources and my rolodex, over the years, as I’ve become more connected through the internet, I’ve expanded my network to include experts from all over the world. If I have a question now, I’m likely to ask my colleagues here in Maine, but I’m also likely to Google it, search Delicious, post it in a forum, tweet it, and post it on Facebook.
Without this extended network, I could not possibly learn what I need to learn in this rapidly changing world. While workshops and training sessions can make me aware of possibilities and get me started with new technologies, to stay current and relevant, I rely on my PLN. And although my retirement may be only a few years away, I don’t think I’ll stop learning any time soon.
I’m often asked about my credentials and my technical training and when I admit I’m just an old teacher, people inevitably ask, “How do you learn all this stuff?”
The only answer I can come up with is, “I just ask.”
For the past nine years I’ve been an integration mentor for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). I traveled across the state meeting with middle school and high school teachers and leading workshops for them. I also created resources and provided some online learning opportunities to help teachers refine their practice using technology to meet the ever changing needs of their students.
In those nine years I learned a great deal about leadership, facilitation, communication, collaboration, workshop design, resource creation, and all other aspects of professional development. In short, I learned how to teach teachers. I use the word “teach” in its broadest sense because I believe teaching goes far beyond mere instruction. I could use words like “coach” or “facilitate” because that is often what I do, but I also model, assess, advise, commiserate, build relationships and, yes, sometimes I instruct.
While I draw on all my teaching experience when I’m working with them, I’ve come to realize that there’s a different dynamic to teaching teachers. It’s not exactly like teaching young children or adolescents and it’s different from traditional adult education. When I’m working with teachers, they are my students, but they are still my peers.
I recently left my position with MLTI but I will continue to provide some professional development in my new job as a K-12 technology integrator. I’ve started this blog as a place for me to reflect on my work, to ponder new ideas, and occasionally to suggest tools and resources for teachers. I hope you will join the conversation and share your thoughts and ideas with me and my readers.