Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Once Upon a Time: Student-Run Book Groups

Upon returning to middle school last year, after some time in a self-contained fifth grade classroom, there was one challenge that I observed. In middle school, students are placed in honors (pre-AP) classes or in on-grade level classes. What I truly missed was the ability for students on different places in their learning journey to learn from one another. My on-level group was not being afforded the opportunity to participate in literary discussions where there was deep analysis coupled with life applications. They didn't have student models in the classroom who were extremely adept in writing, editing, and communicating ideas using a broad vocabulary. Conversely, the students in my honors classes were being denied the opportunity to break down and articulate their learning so that another person could learn from their expertise...this "why" is a vital part of the learning process. Yes, my students were connected via digital means such as their blog, but that one-on-one, synchronous conversation was lacking. Then a light bulb went off. The other full time 6th grade ELA teacher, Lindsay Kilgore, had a reverse schedule. When I had an honors class, she had an on-level class and vice versa. After a little celebration that scheduling worked in our favor, we began looking at our students' interest and needs.

We noticed that our students this year were really interested in fantasy books and narrative writing. Also our students really enjoyed our A Christmas Carol unit, their first foray into classic literature. Couple that with a local production company doing a performance of Alice in Wonderland, our fairy tale unit was born. Now, to be truthfully honest, I never thought I would be doing a fairy tale unit with my middle schoolers. This time last year, we were doing a huge mystery unit designed by my students. [Student Motivation: It's No Mystery and Saying Yes: Making Their Ideas Reality]. However, I've come to expect that no two years will be the same because no two groups of students are the same.

For this fairy tale unit, we decided that we wanted to provide students with plenty of voice and choice. Since we had a much more diverse population by joining our two classes, we knew we would need to provide some chapter books for them to select from with an option to make another choice on their own. I reached out to my PLN for suggestions on middle level reader fairy tale books (or books write fairy tale elements). After a lot of marathon reading, the books that we settled upon were Cinder by Marissa Meyers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, A Tale Dark and Grimm/Through a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz, Far Far Away by Tom McNeal, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. When reading, we looked for challenging and exciting text that would interest a wide range of students. We wanted to break the Disney stereotype of fairy tales and really provide our students with texts that brought in strong themes, multiple cultures, history, and strong protagonists. 

When we presented these to students, we themed this entire unit as travel packages, complete with their travel consultant "Faire E. Wiing." Students made choices and then Lindsay and I set about creating diverse, heterogeneous groups a.k.a. travel companions for their adventure. Before students met in their groups, each one of us took a reading survey to gain insight about our specific reading strengths, challenges, likes, and dislikes. Lindsay and I modeled with one another how to be transparent in a conversation with others. Then our students met together and shared with their groups their reading identity with their new book group. As Lindsay and I travelled around listening to their conversations, we realize how transparent they were being with one another. We realized that this was a crucial part of laying the foundation for the success of the next five weeks.

Once our students got to know one another, they were given the task of setting their group norms. They outlined exactly what they expected of one another on their adventure. What will our discussions look like? How will we treat one another? How will be address any challenges? This opened students up to transparently sharing their apprehensions about working with students with whom they were unfamiliar. They had crucial conversations and addressed all of these while putting it in writing as a reminder throughout the five week journey.

Then students received a calendar. Using their books, they set goals and identified when they would hold a weekly synchronous conversation. It was up to each group how much they read each time they met. The only requirements that we gave them were the date of completion for their reading and that they had to discuss their book at least once a week. With these foundations in place, the student groups set off with their plan and an exciting adventure in hand.

Students were given a little over three hours a week to work together. Lindsay and I would rotate through the groups to observe and listen to their discussion. However, what we quickly learned was that they had taken ownership over their reading groups. They wouldn't stop and expect us to take over the discussion. Our readers would ask us questions to draw us into their discussions. It was thrilling to see them work through challenges, grow as readers and communicators, and totally drive their learning. Students who struggled to get through a couple of pages in a book, tore through three-hundred page books and wanted to keep going. (We intentionally chose books that were a part of a series or from a author who had a lot of other books.)

In total, these book groups impacted about one-hundred sixty students. In five weeks, we only had to step in with two students. After an honest conversation with each of these individuals, we guided them into finding a way to address their concerns and rejoining the group as a productive member.

As a classroom teacher, it's exciting to see the success that students reach when they are empowered to make choices about their learning. The ultimate compliment that we received was when students asked when we could do this again. They built new friendships, grew as learners, and they were hungry for more. For me and Lindsay, that endorsement was our "happily ever after" and like the kids...we can't wait for our next adventure. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dear Conference Organizer

My name is Julie. I am a classroom teacher who teaches ELA to amazing sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In case you're wondering, yes, that's a pubic school with a very diverse population. I believe that growing professionally is a key component in sharpening my teaching practice and providing my students with the best possible learning opportunities. One of the strongest ways I have found to improve is by attending conferences both big and small. However, over the last couple of years, I have noticed a growing trend in major conferences which I (as a practicing classroom teacher) find disturbing.

The most powerful learning, and subsequent growth, I have had has come from two sources, my students and other classroom teachers. For years I have believed that there was a voice missing from these conferences...the voice of students. We are growing, learning, and connecting with one another at these professional learning events in order to become better for our students. Has anyone ever stopped and wondered why we aren't including students in the conversations at these events? I'm not talking about having a student group perform or do introductions of major speakers (which I do enjoy), but actually share their ideas, ask questions, and answer our questions. At these conferences, all of our professional learning should focused on them as we reshape our thinking and evolve our practice. Yet I believe that when we exclude them from the actual conversation, we are unintentionally forcing our beliefs on them instead of using their feedback, coupled with our knowledge of sound education practice as the perfect marriage to facilitate the best learning opportunities for them.

Over the years, I have heard many claim that students aren't savvy or educated enough to join these conversations. I strongly disagree with this premise. For over twelve years, my students have presented at conferences and (recently) at Edcamps. They have conducted webinars, Skyped, and created resources for faculties all over the world. They WANT to have a voice. They NEED to have a voice. Education isn't something that should be done to them. I hear many educators talking about how we as educators want a seat at the table. What I believe so many of us are missing is that the table actually belongs to our students....and we are relegating them to "kids table" away from the "adult' conversation. If we truly want to stay relevant in today's fast -paced world, we must learn along side our students and to acknowledge that their voice has value to our learning.

Another crucial component of my professional growth is learning from my colleagues. As a classroom teacher, I want to learn from other classroom teachers. I want to gain the benefit of their experience, both formally in sessions and informally through conversations. I know there is something to be said for providing conference participants inspiration from celebrities. Henry Winkler's story of his struggle with learning disabilities helped me to re-evaluate how I was providing support and encouragement to my struggling readers and writers. However, as a veteran teacher who is a lifelong learner, I find it a bit insulting to have a celebrity (who is not an educator) tell classroom teachers how we should be teaching our students. Conference Organizers, I don't know if you believe that those big names bring status to your organization or there is a reason that I am missing, but as an avid conference participant, I rarely leave those sessions (no matter how entertaining) with anything of value that I can take back to my students. [An example done right: AMLE did a fantastic job of having keynotes who were practicing educators who not only inspired and entertained but delivered fantastic practical applications we could take back to our schools.]

Also, in these conference communities you usually see session spotlights on consultants, non-profit groups, and one-time educational events that are not replicable in other places. There is a place for these at conferences, but not to the detriment of teachers. When it's hard to find sessions on your schedule led by classroom practitioners, your opinion of classroom teachers is broadcast load and clear. I can't help but wonder if this is part of the reason why teachers tend to put the word "just" in front of teacher when describing themselves. When classroom teachers aren't spotlighted, showcased, or promoted, it may inadvertently be sending the message that classroom teachers who (often on their own dime) travel far distances to share their students' stories. They have direct contact with students every single day. They know what works, what doesn't, and how to overcome obstacles. For those of us in the trenches with them, that is the true reason why we are taking precious time away from our own students and spending our own money to travel to your event.

I have to lead my students by example. I know that someone needs to speak up or nothing will ever change...and today is my day to speak up. I realize that I am opening myself up for debate and criticism, but I hope that it prompts some introspection and thought for the future. If anyone would like to discuss this further, I am open to new ideas, dialogues, and perspectives.

Yours truly,
A classroom teacher

P.S. I am not writing about one specific conference, but trends that I have seen emerging. As someone who has organized many professional learning events, I truly value the hard work it takes to plan and implement these huge events that provide teachers a place to meet, connect, and build relationships. Thanks for all that you do.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Who Makes the Grade?

What do you want for your students? I'd like to share an email with you. This appeared in my inbox.

Hello Mrs. Ramsay, I am very concerned about my grade on the argumentative essay. I am confused on how I got some things wrong. I have worked very hard on trying to make my essay as best as possible. Looking at my essay, I noticed you had changed my font. I had capitalized everything in my essay, but I think the computer had changed it. I am wondering if you could look back and reconsider with that in mind. One other thing I noticed was the fact you had commented about having a lot of evidence, but I did not share with the reader on how the tree was strong. I really don't understand that and I worked very hard and I put a lot of evidence like connections from OFTM and how it could connect with my life. I was looking at all my comments from previous times and Mrs. Cabb had said that she really liked how I gave examples and really explained how the tree was strong. Leesil had given the same comment. I had followed the suggestions you wanted me to add to make my piece better. Another thing is about the transition words. I did not think that an argument would need transition words because we are proving a point and giving examples and evidence, usually in an argument you are not saying FIRST, SECOND, THIRD, AND LAST. I thought that we needed to prove a point instead of making it like a book report using transition words. Last, I was worried about not having a concluding sentence because I was sick that week and had no time to add that last bit. Sorry to bother you about this, I really am confused and I am worried because I worked so hard and I really want a good grade in your class and to understand what I was missing.
Thank you for your help,
(Names were changed; the prompt was whether the Giving Tree was strong or weak which came about because of our participation in the Global Read Aloud and reading One for the Murphys.) 

The email above was sent from one of my sixth grade students. Yes, that's eleven year old sent that email to me...without any prompting.

We had just sent home progress reports. It felt like a mad dash to complete assessments and provide meaningful feedback to my students.  For all of their projects, we confer at least twice a week either face-to-face or through Google Drive. We have multiple conversations about their progress. I ask many questions and I listen...a lot.  Many of our conversations relate to what grades mean (a communication of their level of mastery). My learners understand that grades aren't final. There is always room to grow, but often they are hesitant in asking for an opportunity to show further growth.

As teachers, we want for our students to take on ownership of their learning. We want them to drive the decision about their learning. However, there were some teachers who found this email very disrespectful. "How dare a student question her grade?" My response, "Well, it is HER grade." I was elated. Nicole took the initiative to question her grade. She cited evidence from the feedback on her argumentative piece. She relied on past learning to justify the choices that she had made...not to mention that she made a pretty strong argument in this email.

Instead of responding to the email, she and I set up a time to have a conversation looking at her argumentative piece. Nicole drove this conversation. As she spoke, I had her show me in her writing where she felt like she would have scored higher on the measurable, student-created rubric. What she discovered was that there was in fact room for growth. She hadn't taken the specifics in the rubric into consideration before submitting her final draft. She knew she could improve. Through our conversation, she outlined her plan for showing further mastery....which she did....far exceeding mastery of those standards.

Fast forward three weeks. My learners were putting their final touches on their semester benchmark projects. Nicole requested time to address her peers in class.  In those few minutes, she shared her experiences with her argumentative piece and how important it was to look back at their rubric to ensure success. Through this exchange, Nicole not only became an advocate for herself, but also a leader for her peers.

Should students question their grades? Should they request an opportunity to grow and retake assessments? Absolutely! Nicole explained to her peers (and anyone else who asks) that she learned so much more from her "failure" than she would have if she had just accepted her score the first time. And, that is a recipe for lifelong success.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Power of Edcamp

In mid-October was the inaugural Edcamp Tuscaloosa. This edcamp was different for me because I joined Andrew Maxey and Laren Hammonds as a founder. I believe that this type of professional learning puts us, as educators, in touch with our most powerful another.

Although I could probably write an entire series of posts on why I believe that edcamps serve a vital role in today's educational landscape, I want to share with you the story that I saw unfold with one of our participants. In this post, we'll call her Miranda. Miranda is a veteran teacher who works incredibly hard with each of her students. Her students show tremendous growth in extremely short time periods because she is a master of individualized instruction. However, for all of her strengths and desire to grow professionally, she remains behind her classroom doors. She has so much to offer, but rarely connects with educators other than the few teachers on her same hallway. Miranda hears about professional learning events after-the-fact and wants the opportunity to ask questions, learn from others and grow in her practice. However, without support or encouragement from her administration (or from many of her peers) compounded by the intimidation she feels for embarking on something new on her own, Miranda remains somewhat isolated.

Enter Edcamp. Miranda hears about Edcamp Tuscaloosa and learns that it is an unconference. This format peaks her interest. She mentions it to some friends who are teachers in other schools and they all decided to try out this "new form of professional development." As time nears, she reads the emails being sent out from Edcamp Tuscaloosa, and she begins to reflect on her practice and what she truly wants to learn. She comes equipped with questions and a burning desire to find answers and get the most out of that experience.

Edcamp Tuscaloosa arrives and she approaches it with a gusto that was contagious. There was not one person in attendance that didn't know Miranda by the end of the day. She initiated conversations with every person that she met. When it came time to put a topic on the session board, Miranda was one of the first to add her topic of interest; she wanted both to share her ideas and learn from others who could offer her insights. She not only left with the validation that what she was doing with her students was valuable, but also with an assortment of new strategies and tools. Miranda created connections with other educators; they planned future collaborations. When Miranda left at the end of Edcamp Tuscaloosa, her last question was, "Can we do this again in the Spring?"

Miranda returned to school that following Monday a new teacher; one who was revitalized and highly motivated to improve not only her practice for the good of her students, but also impact the practice of the teachers in her building. Edcamp provided her the opportunity to do what she was hindered from doing previously. It removed the barriers and intimidation she had been struggling with previously. It gave her a voice and means to grow into an even better teacher. That's the power of an Edcamp. It empowers teachers and ultimately it positively impacts student learning.

There are Miranda's all around us. That's why edcamps are in demand. I can't wait for the next edcamp...and to find out how Miranda is doing. I'm confident it will be phenomenal.

Are formal conferences still relevant? Thoughts from AMLE

With the prevalence and accessibility of professional learning through Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, webinars, Edcamps and a myriad of other digital options, one can't help but wonder if there is a place for formal professional learning events and conferences. Is there a need to make a financial commitment and take time out of the classroom to attend (inter)national conferences? Can't you gain access to much of the content and access to professionals from the comfort of your home with little to no cost?

I've just returned from AMLE's Annual Conference (Association for Middle Level Education). As a middle school teacher, I love that there is an organization that is out there for the "middle child" who often is excluded from other professional learning events, in spite of having very unique needs. But, the questions are still lingering; is there a need for these professional learning events? I respond with a resounding "YES!"

Although I take advantage of informal learning opportunities regularly, those connections are somewhat two-dimensional. Yes, you can gain information and resources. You can even build a relationship with fellow educators from around the world. However, what you lack is the energy, enthusiasm, and passion that can only be delivered (and felt) when you are physically present. As a participant, you gain that third dimension that moves someone from a resource, to a colleague and a friend.

Where else but at a formal learning event, like AMLE, do you have access to not only learn from, but also have deep conversations with individuals like Rick Wormeli, Dave Burgess, Kim Campbell, Ruth Culham, and Katherine McKnight all in one place? Where else can build upon many of your PLN connections from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram? How do you find that new voice or new connection that can help you sharpen your own teaching practice if you do not have the dedicated time and space for teachers to meet and network that a conference provides? Where else are you able to lend your voice and expertise to those who may be searching for you?

AMLE provided all of this, plus so much more. Some of the best learning that I gleaned over the last few days were the informal conversation that blossomed at tables waiting for a session to begin, in the hallway between sessions,  standing in line waiting to get a meal, or at the end of an opening session. I was able to get answers to burning questions that I had. I solidified and built deeper relationships and collaborative partnerships with members of my PLN. I am leaving on fire with a passion to reach my learners in new and exciting ways. Without events like AMLE, that learning would never have happened. I can't wait to get back to my learners tomorrow, and I'm counting down the days until AMLE 2015.

Thank you, AMLE, for giving me the opportunity to grow and be with my middle level peeps. It was a blast!

(P.S. The last AMLE I attended was in 2012. I have seen some remarkable changes since then. If you haven't attended lately, I would highly recommend that you take another look and make plans to attend next year. If you have never attended, it is well worth your time and financial investment. I have attended many opening sessions over the years, and AMLE's was hands-down the best one I've ever experienced.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How Transparent Are You? Creating Student Advocates

As people, we do not like being told "no" or ordered to do something without understanding the "why" behind it. In fact, one sure fire to kill any initiative, program, or procedure is to mandate it. When we are told we are required to do something, no matter what it is, we push back, drag our feet, become apathetic, complain, or throw up as many obstacles as possible to prevent success of the mandated practice.

As teachers, we know this about ourselves, yet so often we do this to our students. We assign a project, centers, or activities. We explain/demonstrate/model all of the instructions and then send students on their way. Our students exhibit different levels of engagement and motivation. Often behavior problems arise. We've designed amazing things for our students' learning. Why aren't students actively engaged and thrilled to be learning? Because we left out the most important element, we didn't share the "why." They need to understand why we make the choices that we make our classrooms. They need to understand the complexity that is involved in all of the choices that we make for them. Learners must understand that although a particular activity may not be their favorite, there is a legitimate reason why they are dedicating time in that endeavor.

Last year, I had an intern for the second semester. Having her join our learning community helped me to see our practices with new eyes. After a week in our classroom, my intern was having a conversation with one of her professors. As they talked during our prep time, I was working on providing students with feedback on some of their writing. My ears perked up when she told her professor that she was in amazement at the terminology that the students had when talking about their learning. She explained that my learners use terms like schema, cognition, mastery, standard, learning style, in addition to explaining how the brain learns. The professor commented that she had never thought of sharing the "why" behind all of the choices made in the classroom with the students, but she could see how powerful it was for them.

This result only happens when we become transparent for our students; sometimes it can even be scary. Being transparent makes you re-think every choice you make because you are going to have to justify it with your students. They come to expect it...which they should. If we can't justify or defend the choices we are making with our students, we probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place. Our learners need to see us critically analyze challenges, draw from our knowledge, reach out to others to deepen our understanding, and apply what we know/what we've learned to solve problems. Our example is more powerful than just our words.

The fact is that our students will not be with us forever. We will not always be there to advocate for them. Learners need this knowledge because they need to become their own advocates for their learning. They need the tools to successfully communicate with educators and other adults how they learn best. They need to be equipped with the terminology and research to argue for the types of learning experiences that they need to get the most out of their education. Are we only equipping for success in our classrooms, or for a lifetime of learning? Like the old proverb, if we give a child a fish, he will eat for a day, but if we teach him how to fish. he will eat for a lifetime. It's time to hand our students that fishing line send them out well-equipped for a lifetime.

photo credit: Avatarmin via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All Rubrics Are Not Created Equal

Over the last several years, I have been contemplating the role of assessment in our classroom. In Let Them Assess, I shared where our journey began. I shared one of our first student-created rubrics. It's simple, but (at the time) effective. However, one thing that bothered me with the rubric was how subjective they would be. Yes, I would have my students score one another, justifying any score they would give their peers. However, my students became so adept at justifying (and debating) their choices, they could argue two sides of any one claim. That's when I realized that we needed to take the time to re-evaluate our rubrics. Were they truly and deeply measuring what my students were mastering? Or, were they so vague that they were open to the scorer's personal opinion? Were students being scored accurately in a way that showed mastery of standards? Or, were entities that are not standards being thrown into a grade?

With these questions mulling around,  I knew I needed to rethink how we made rubrics. I knew that I still wanted the students to have a voice in designing, creating, publishing and assessing their own writing. I began collecting rubrics from many other teachers in different grade levels, content areas, and geographic locations. I noticed that some teachers, like us, were including elements on the rubric that had nothing to do with mastery of standards. Previously, we always included a category that included the digital aspect of the project. By that, I mean things like balancing music and voice in an audio recording or including visuals to support the writing.  As I engaged with these other educators, I realized that these elements (plus things like neatness or putting a heading on your paper) fell under a different category. Although those elements played a role in the effectiveness of a published project, they did not prove mastery of a standard (see Your learners are masters of...?).  Therefore, my students and I began creating a list of project expectations that accompany the rubric. These are elements that every student expects not only of themself, but also all of their peers in their projects. These expectations specify what the norms are for each project. From this point forward, we no longer included non-standard items in rubrics.

Another realization that I had when analyzing rubrics was that so many rubrics (even graduate level) included non-specified terms such as partially, good, few, some, generally, effectively, or clearly. What determines if something is effective or ineffective? What determines whether a student reaches partial mastery? These vague terms are what opens rubrics up to subjective scoring. Each person has a different idea of what those terms mean. Rubrics should not be scored against an ideal that one scorer may have. These items must include measurable determiners. There should be no question in one's mind as to whether a learner has proven a mastery at  a level of 3 or 4 because the rubric eliminates that personal judgment.

When my students and I started creating rubrics that were clear, specific, and measurable, my  students struggled. They kept wanting to revert to past practices. "It's easier the way we were doing it before," they said. So I asked them why a rubric needed to be measurable.  After a lot of probing questions (and almost an entire class period), one student quietly shared that having everything measurable seemed more fair because "you didn't have to worry whether or not you had done enough; you knew."

Then another challenge presented itself. The standards were so broad, it was extremely challenging to create measurable determiners and all of the variations that there could be at each level of mastery. We realized that we needed to break down the standards into clear measurable parts. Below is a rubric where we have broken down one standard.

This standards had three different elements. Therefore, we broke it down into three measurable pieces. The students decides what determines what constitutes a 4, 3, 2, or 1. This may vary from project to project depending on the project complexity and length. We now do this with each standard that the students are working on to reach mastery. Does it take time? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Immensely! These rubrics take the guess work out of scoring projects. The students created the rubric. They broke down the standards. They decided what each level on the rubric means. They set expectations for each project. There are no surprises anymore. They students know what is expected, they know what mastery looks like, and they know how to communicate that to others.

My work on assessment is an ever changing one. What we are doing today may very well change next month or next year as my students and I explore different ways of communicating learning to others. However, one thing that I stand firm on is the importance of giving students ownership over every aspect of the learning process. This is their learning journey, not ours. It is our obligation to guide and turn the responsibility of learning over to our students. We will only be with them for a short time; they need the tools to communicate and guide their own growth beyond the few months that they are in our classrooms. We not preparing them for a test or the next grade level. We are preparing them for a lifetime of learning, growing, and sharing with others.