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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Your learners are masters of...?

About six years ago, I embarked on a journey. A path towards empowering my students in their own learning journey. This ongoing trek has been filled with pitfalls and obstacles along the way. Through this arduous, yet rewarding adventure, I fell upon the idea of standards-based grading. I built my foundation upon the work of Rick Wormeli and Ken O'Connor. However, what I discovered was that although I changed my philosophy on grading, there was not a set road map that guided me step-by-step in applying it within my classroom with my specific students. I thought I would take a few minutes to share some of what I have learned along the way and how my students and I are making this work for us in our ever evolving quest to improve their ability to grow.

One eureka moment for me was when I realized that grades should reflect what a student not only understands but is also able to do with their knowledge. It should reflect a mastery of the standards and not simply be a game of collecting points for tasks that are unrelated to learning (extra credit for attending the school basketball game or points for having parents attend open house). Yes, those items are worthwhile, but they skew the accuracy of the grades that our students are earning. Grades are to communicate the level of mastery that each learner has reached on each standard; they are not compensation for effort put forth or where a child put his name on a project.

I had to ask myself, "Where does one begin to make this shift in practice?" I determined that I needed to begin where the learning starts, with a target. Those targets are the standards, whether you are in a system that has adopted the Common Core or a State Course of Study. That means that all assessments must measure those standards and only those standards. If students are writing a paper, that means that their grade communicates their level of mastery of those standards and not whether or not they used a particular formatting tool, font, or degree of neatness. Each standard has equal weight when it comes to grading.

When discussing standards, I discovered it was important to solely focus on that list generated by the state. When I hear teachers frustrated with standards, more often than not, it's not actually coming from that list of what students need to be able to do. Instead the frustration is coming either from being required to follow a program or curriculum that a district has purchased, or it is coming from a an unrealistic pacing guide or common assessments. Standards are not curriculum. They are simply a destination for where every child needs to be. The means of getting there comes from the teacher.

It took me several years to begin to see how this would work logistically within our classroom. When it came to assessments, how could I record them to reflect mastery of multiple standards for one assessment? I shifted listing grades as assignments (such as Test on A Wrinkle in Time) to listing the grades for each standard (such as determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details...). Previously, I may have included multiple standards on an assessment, but it was all recorded in one score, failing to communicate to the learner the specific areas where she/he may need to continue to work on mastery. In standards based grading, on an assessment, I may include the standards on (1) theme, as well as (2) citing textual evidence, (3) explaining how an author develops a point of view, and (4) demonstrating command of the conventions of Standard English grammar and usage when writing all on one assessment. (These all come from the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards for 6th Grade ELA). However, instead of one grade, that one assessment generates four separate grades based on a student's level of mastery in each of the standards assessed.

Those of you familiar with our classroom know that my students engage in project-based learning throughout the school year. For us, moving to standards-based grading drastically changed the content of our student-created rubrics. Previously, the large categories included items like digital publishing, editing for errors, and content; students received one grade for an entire project. Now, the areas of the rubric where learners are evaluated become the different standards that one project assesses. Then my students work together to create the measurable identifier for what determines a 4 on a standard and what determines a 3, 2, or 1. As mentioned previously, they receive multiple grades on one project because they are being assessed on multiple standards on that one project.

Yes, it may seem like a matter of semantics, but this shift to focusing on standards has given my students the ability to focus on the specific areas where they need to grow and the areas where they have surpassed grade level standards. By focusing on mastering standards, students are challenged wherever they are in their learning journey. Not only do I know, but every student knows where they are on the learning continuum and where they need to be. It's a win-win situation that makes learners more than just collectors of points, but masters of their own learning.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Testing vs. Assessment: What Picture Do You Take of Your Learners?

This week I had the opportunity to join a roundtable discussion hosted by the U.S. Department of Education. The topic of this discussion: testing. Over the last several years, like most of you, I have had plenty of time to think about, research, and ponder the topic of high-stakes testing and the far-reaching ramifications it has upon the education of our students. However, it seems that although research, both "clinical" and real-world, proves that there are no redeeming qualities of standardized testing, yet we are still having this discussion in 2014.

The sticking point seems to be that there needs to be an accountability measure for every public school nationwide. As I reflected on where the disconnect is, I have concluded there needs to be a distinction between testing and assessment. Let's use the analogy of a photographer taking photographs. Standardized testing is like taking a snapshot of students using an old Polaroid camera and film from the 1960s. This invention gave everyone the ability to step behind a camera; no special training or photographer's eye to develop needed. When you take that Polaroid snapshot, the images were typically fuzzy and unclear. If there was any movement, the images blurred. Some individuals may even disappear into the shadows and background. And sometimes, the photo didn't develop at all. Those old Polaroid photos give us a hint of what the past might have looked like, but it is far from being an accurate account a majority of the time.

That is the same with testing. These tests are simply a snapshot of a child's learning on one day. They fail to take into consideration things such as environmental factors, learning style, exceptionality, or English language proficiency. Students are only given the opportunity to share their learning in one specific way. Another aspect that is not taken into consideration, is the fault of the test makers. No form of assessment is completely accurate (See Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry by Todd Farley). Most know that to get accurate results, one must first gather data from the same group of students with at least three different measurement tools. With testing, all we are getting is this blurry Polaroid taken by one who doesn't have that trained eye to capture our students accurately. Instead of getting an accurate glimpse of the past, we are only seeing some parts of a few of our students.

On the other hand, let's look at assessment, the highest megapixel camera. With this camera, you
have the ability to add a myriad of lenses based on whether you are shooting high definition close ups or grand, panoramic views. You can adjust shutter speeds depending on the activity or the lighting where you are shooting. Often, there is the option to shoot video. The photographer has the tools and the trained eye to capture the tiniest detail, the ability to get a crystal clear picture of every subject, whether it's a child's soccer game, a beautiful sunset at the beach, or a minuscule butterfly. There is no doubt about the subject.

As a teacher, we are charged with helping each student reach his/her maximum potential. We hone our craft and collect tools and strategies for every eventuality. Every learner is different. We know that what one student needs today may change tomorrow. What worked for one learner may not work for another. We need to have that bag of lenses to identify where that student is on the learning continuum. With these photos, we can empower our students in identifying where they are in a standard and where he/she needs to be. Then together, teacher and student, find the means to reach each of those goals. These photos are taken often. Reflection ensues. Paths are re-evaluated and adjusted as necessary. This data is useful to the students. It's immediate. It's relevant. It matters not just to the teachers, but also to the students. As with our wonderful photo and camera, many shots need to be taken along the way until we get the perfect photo for the subject that is being considered.

If we truly want to have accountability, how about reassessing the method that we are using. Test scores do not provide students (or teachers) with timely photos of their learning or provide them with the specific details that they need to continue to grow. Test scores do not give teachers the tools that they need to meet the needs of their learners. Test scores are not about promoting learning, but forcing students into boxes. Assessment is where true power lies in promoting learning. As teachers, we have the ability to empower our students with their learning. By using a combination of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment, our students can take control over their growth in a meaningful and purposeful way. It's time we each take time to re-evaluate our practice to determine if we are doing what is best for our students. Are we promoting learning? Or, are we striving to get more test questions correct? The onus lies on us as the educators to make choices that is for the best of our learners. Will you put all of your effort into an inconsequential number that sticks with them for about three seconds? Or, will you provide them with learning that will stick with them for a lifetime? Are we using the old tools that give us a fuzzy and unclear picture or are we invested in the best possible practices to get the clearest, sharpest, most amazing picture of our beautiful subjects?

photo credit: nostalgifabriken via photopin cc photo credit: Billy Wilson Photography via photopin cc