Saturday, April 12, 2014

From Numbers to Meaningful Feedback

In the world of education there seems to always be a new crop of buzz words creeping into our professional conversations. One thing that I've observed is that we all may use the same words, but often we are speaking a different language. Just like my students and I discuss how we each build different perspectives/connections based on our schema (background experiences), the same is true of us as educators. We may change our vocabulary without altering our practice.

I recently completed a graduate program in Teacher Leadership. One of the best aspects of this program was my experience of viewing things from the perspective of a student again. As I traversed this world of academia, I discovered that although many of my professors used the word feedback, they had little understanding of its true meaning.  I would diligently complete my projects or papers, asking questions along the way for clarification of the expectations, submit the assignment, and then receive a score.  The most frustrating part of this process was not the heavy workload or the irrelevant projects that sucked away my time, but the utter lack of feedback. I would receive a number score with a comment along the lines of "good job." I was flummoxed. I couldn't help but ask: Good job with what? How do I grow? How do I improve? Could my writing improve? Was there a way to deepen my content knowledge? Did I make some grammatical or mechanics errors that I could or should avoid in the future?

As I wondered about the disconnect in what a professor said and what he/she did, I began turning that question on my own practice with my learners. Was I saying one thing and doing something completely different? The number score and "good job"type of comments had long been left behind as I began conferring with my students and letting them set their own academic and personal goals. I realized that often my students would come back to me and inquire about their feedback in these sessions. They needed something tangible upon which to return to remind them of specifically how they needed to grow or where they were headed as a learner. That's when I began leaving private comments on their blogs and their Google Drive work. If I ever failed to leave feedback, my students would come back and ask for it; this showed me that they valued having my input to guide their choices and help them to grow as learners. One student actually told me this year that she was so glad that I didn't just give them a number. In her words, "Numbers don't really mean anything."

How many times are we guilty of slapping a number or a checkmark on the top of a paper or project? What signal is that sending our learners? What does the focus become? It's telling our students that the grade on a assignment is just a hoop they have to jump through to progress to the next assignment. It completely eliminates a focus on their learning. Learning is fluid and ongoing. Although students may master a standard, there is always room for growth. Yes, I teach sixth graders ELA, but I have several students who are working on mastering seventh and eighth grade standards. Isn't that what we want for our students? To continue their learning journey, wherever it may take them throughout a lifetime? There is no end game when it comes to learning.

As I was contemplating all these thoughts, it occurred to me that I needed to know what my students truly thought about our classroom. They understood and craved meaningful feedback; it's an integral part of our learning environment. So, I asked my students to provide me with meaningful feedback on our class. I completely trusted them because they understand the power of feedback. It needs to be honest, specific, and provide prompting for future growth. Here is some of the feedback I received:
"One thing I especially like is this: Blogging. I like writing creatively online more than turning in a sheet of paper. It has helped my writing grow because I can get immediate responses and corrections." ~AB
"Another thing that I liked is the pretest. The purpose of our pretest is to show our teacher (aka Miss Ramsay) what we already know. If you were to make a lower grade then you would be in small group,but say you aced the pretest you could still ask to be in small group. That way you can always make sure you really know the material well and can use it in your writing." ~Richard 
"This is random but it would be fun if we had a part of the website or blog where we build up a book list for anyone who doesn’t have anything to read. Each student could add one book each week including the title, author, theme, and a short summary that shows the main point of the book. " ~Annabeth
"Genius Hour could possibly be one of my favorite things though. I loved the freedom in it and that I am getting to do a topic I am interested in and teaching it through art. I have the whole picture planned out in my head and I am really excited to put it on the paper. " ~Belle
"The thing that I really liked about this class is small group.If you were having trouble with the subject you were learning and the test was in two days but you couldn't catch on when the teacher was teaching to the whole class, then you could ask for some help and sometimes you can even get a one on one lesson with the teacher, which can really help a lot." ~Peter
Do my students understand meaningful feedback? Absolutely. As a teacher, if you want to know how to improve, ask your students. They have the answers. From their feedback do I have areas to change, ways to grow? Absolutely. I also get to see their perspective of my practice. I realize that it matters not how well intentioned my choices are if they do not support my specific students' learning. In all of their feedback, do you know what was missing? That's right, a number. And although my students did give some "good job" kind of comments, they always backed up their answers with meaningful examples and ways I could help support their learning. One thing's for certain, my sixth graders could sure teach those professors a thing or two about feedback...and I love it!

P.S. I received permission from students to share their feedback. All student names have been changed.

photo credit: Vince Alongi via photopin cc

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing to the World

Several months ago, the editors of Educational Leadership asked me to submit a piece on collaborative writing for their April edition. After months of writing, re-writing, and waiting, it's finally here, Writing to the World. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to give an audience a peek into our classroom to see the amazing things that are possible when you empower students with the ability to drive their own learning and share their voices with the world.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lead with the Learning

In the last month, I have met with legislators and policy makers in both D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama. I have spent much time in reflection on what we as educators can do to make a difference for our students (See Can One Person Make a Difference?) In all the (mostly) ups and (rather few) downs, I have emerged with one thought that was shared by State Superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice: Always lead with the learning. He shared this in the context of speaking with non-educators, policy makers, and legislators, but I believe that this phrase has much greater ramifications on the mission and vision of an educator.

As educators, all decisions that we make must always be focused on positively impacting student learning whether we are discussing instructional practice, professional development, or logistical planning within a school or district. Everything needs to be focused on student learning.

It is human nature to become creatures of habit. We find a lesson, strategy, or management technique that works and we tend to stick with it for years even when it proves unproductive. Many times we want to make a square peg into an ever-shrinking round whole. What we really need to do is pause and evaluate if that practice is not only effective, but also supports students in their academic and personal goals. Are we leading with the learning?

My intern (who has been doing a fantastic job) often asked me how to adjust her management techniques to support certain students. I asked her to explain her rationale behind the choices she had been making. Once she reflected on it, she realized that she was simply imitating something she had observed rather than thinking about how her choices would impact student learning. I recommended she speak with the students to see what they suggested. What she discovered was that students knew what would help hold them accountable for making good choices and getting the most learning out of each of the opportunities that she provided. She began leading with the learning.

In our PLG meetings, are we making choices about our practice based on what's easiest for us or best for student learning? Taking the time to plan hands-on, cross-curricular activities or experiential learning experiences off campus or supporting student-created and driven learning activities all take time, planning, and resources. But, are we making decisions based on the learning or some less important factors. We must always lead with the learning at the forefront of all decision making processes.

In my aforementioned post, I wondered if I was accurately teaching my students that one voice can make a difference. To the best of my abilities, I try to lead by example. Following Dr. Bice's advice, I try to always lead with the learning when speaking with our policy makers and legislators. This week, I was fortunate to see a how leading with the learning intrigued legislators we spoke with last year. Several of these legislators had spent time seeking out the National Board Certified Teachers in their districts. They spoke with these teachers and visited their classrooms. They were able to see how accomplished teachers lead with the learning and the positive impact it truly has on each individual student's learning. These legislators have embraced the powerful learning that is possible and they have been actively seeking new ways to support it within their districts.

Lead with the learning is a mantra that educators can embrace in all aspects of their professions; one that can greatly impact not only the students directly in one's classroom, but have far reaching ramifications. So next time we each have a choice to make, whether big or small, let's take a moment to ask ourselves, are we leading with learning? If not, maybe it's time to stop forcing that square peg to fit that round hole and step out of our comfort zones and try something new.

photo credit: paul bica via photopin cc

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Conflict: Maintaining Professionalism, Integrity, and Relationships

Conflict is all around us as educators. Conflict among students, their parents, and our colleagues. I've recently completed a Masters in Teacher Leadership where we spent much of our time in the program diving into strengthening communication skills and dealing with interpersonal conflict among our colleagues. The most active discussion among my classmates always arose around the topic of conflict: avoiding it, rectifying it, and restoring peace. My class had students from all over the world which showed me this is a topic not limited to one specific school, district, state, or country. It's universal for us because, as educators, we deal with people. So how can we deal with conflict when working with our colleagues? It is impossible to avoid if you do not know one another very well.

This year, I have been very fortunate to work with an extremely talented and confident team of experienced and passionate teachers. Each member has an area of speciality that they bring to the group as we move towards providing our students the best learning possible. However, in any group there is always the possibility that our viewpoints and perspective will not always align with one another's.

During the first semester, our team leader, Lindsay Kilgore (@lindsaykilgore on Twitter), suggested that we create a unified goal as a group of 6th grade teachers. Through this discussion, we were able to share our own vision for our students and the grade level, giving all of us an insight into each other's perceptions. Being a new member of the team this year, our creating of the goal gave me the opportunity to understand my team members and feel like an integral part of the team. All of us agreed that student learning needed to be our driving force. I believe that the process of writing this goal is what solidified us as a true team and laid a foundation for further discussions.

I admired how much research that Lindsay did on communication, conflict resolution, and professional goal setting. Another team member suggested that it would be helpful for us to take a personality test so that we could understand one another on a deeper level when working closely with one another. Lindsay sent us the article Personality Types: Using Personality Assessments to Identify Your Strengths (and Understand Your Co-Workers). In that article is a link to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator that we each took and sent the results to her to compile. During the time that we took the personality test, many of us were surprised at not only how accurate the explanation of our type actually was for ourselves, but also at how different some of our colleagues were in reality than we had perceived them. In spite of regular conversations, team meetings, and collaborative projects, it became apparent that there were some crucial personality characteristics that we each needed to take into consideration.

Lindsay compiled all of our information and distributed at our team meeting. She included tips for how
Photo bPeggy2012CREATIVELENZ
each personality type should interact with the other personality types. Through our discussion, it led us to the conclusion that not only understanding ourselves, but each other and how to communicate effectively would be of great benefit in knowing our students. We discussed how we could begin the school year with a personality test in order to truly gain insight into our learners and begin the year teaching them the way that they learn and communicate. (Lindsay used 16 Personalities: Get to Know Yourself and Relationship Between Personality Types and Truity and Personality and Relationships to compile and explain our results.)

Another conversation that we had as a team was discussing conflict: what sets us off, how we deal with conflict, and how we want to resolve the disagreement. It became very apparent that not understanding these elements could potentially cause a problem. For example, if one individual deals with conflict considerably different than another in the team, that could exponentially escalate the conflict. This kind of issue could hinder the true point of conflict, which is resolution. Knowing this about one another helps each of us to understand what to expect of each individual and proceed in the manner that fits their personality.

Out of the conflict dialogue grew a discussion on where we wanted to be as a team professionally...our professional goals as a team. This conversation showed that some team members wanted to focus all their efforts in their classroom while others wanted to pursue National Board Certification, writing for professional education organizations, building a model school for lab experiences, coaching fellow teachers, or presenting at conferences. This opens the door to ongoing conversation as we continue to teach together. Knowing an individual's goal helps you to understand actions you might have misunderstood (A lesson that easily applies to our students.).

Conflict is difficult. Conflict among great and passionate teachers can take a great place to teach and make it unbearable. Opening up the dialogue, being honest and kind can lay a strong foundation before conflict arises. It builds strong relationships based on trust and mutual respect. And, when you really think about it, the true beneficiaries of handling conflict with professionalism and integrity are our students...the ones that it's all really about.

PS- Next week, at our team meeting, we will be creating norms for our group. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Time for a Book Tasting

This year has been filled with so many wonderful things. One of which has been the large number of books that my students have shared with me. I have an ever-growing list of highly recommended books that no matter how much I read, I can never seem to put a sizable dent in. I love it! However, many times, my reader come to me looking for a recommendation based on what they've read. They typically find an author that they love and read everything that he/she has written (like me). This always brings to mind what Rick Riordan said in his keynote at IRA last year: as a teacher it is my responsibility to get the right book into the hands of the right reader.

With there being so many great books out there, that call to action seems almost daunting. How can I expose my students to a multitude of books from which to select all which could appeal to their specific needs and interests?  I was reminded of what a students said in a session at Teaching & Learning, she said that a recommendation would mean so much more coming from another student. And that is how our Book Tasting was born.

Three days before our first Book Tasting, I led a discussion on the
process they each go through in finding their next great read. My learners all admitted that they have varied tastes depending on what is going on in their lives at the time. That was the perfect portal for introducing the Book Tasting. Each student created a recipe for a book that they wanted to share that was also one that others may not have heard of before. They looked at recipes to determine what elements needed to be included in this style of writing in addition to what elements of the book that should be included to tempt the reader to read their scrumptious literary dish. The day before the book tasting, each student brought their recipe and a copy of their book to share. Because I teach multiple classes, I included all of the books from all of the students to give them a wider selection of books.

On Book Tasting Day, I set up the class like a diner including 50's Rock and Roll, tablecloths, flowers, a platter full of books, and a "Wait to Be Seated" sign at the door.  When I seated each party, they each were given a menu where they could add any of the dishes as an appetizer, main course, or dessert depending on their preferences. Then the learners dove into their platter of books, reading the recipe, a portion of the book, and discussing it with the other readers in their party. Some students really got drawn into reading books, unwilling to relinquish them for other learners at their table. After about ten minutes or so of previewing reading and discussing their platter, they would receive a whole new platter of books to savor and discuss with one another. In the course of the period, students tasted at least forty new books and almost all of them had written down more ideas for their independent reading than their menus could hold.

As I walked around the room and enjoyed listening and engaging in informal book chats with each of
my tables, I was thrilled at the level of excitement. Often a student would comment on one of the books on the platter and another reader at the table would share additional recommended reading based on their experiences. The students took their love of a certain book or author and shared it with their peers. The conversations were rich and demonstrated much about each one of my readers. They have learned how move beyond simple sharing the the plot to internalizing and connecting literature to other literature, lessons in other content area classes, and events in their loves. They discussed commonality in themes and analyzed an author's writing style. They even discussed how an author's writing had changed throughout their career and how the time period in which an author wrote directly impacted the style or content in a book.

At the end of class, they each left with a menu full of reading options...options they were excited about trying that came recommended from one of their peers. You know you've found something great when students all  complain that the class went by too fast and that they are afraid they may have missed a hidden treasure on one of the platters. Will we have another Book Tasting? Absolutely! I know those reading menus will be ready to be filled again soon.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Measuring Innovation?

I have just returned from Teaching & Learning 2014 in Washington, D.C. My head is full of new thoughts and ideas that will trickle their way out onto blogs in the next several days (or weeks). The idea of innovation is one that I have spent quite a bit of time contemplating over the last couple of years, in fact the session that I led was "Are you integrating or innovating with technology in the classroom?" One thing that I have learned is that there are so many nuances to innovation that we all have different definitions of what it is and how it looks in our classrooms.

However, in Bill Gates' plenary, while promoting innovative thinking, he made the statement that we needed to find a way to measure innovation. I sent this tweet:

and then this one 

Asking the question, "Is it possible?" bounced around in my head as I prepared to lead my presentation, an active discussion on innovation in the classroom with the support of technology. Based on my experience, innovation is a quality that can be nurtured much like creativity; by making it measurable means that we are going to take that quality and standardize it, which in essence extinguishes it. 

While these thoughts marinated, I attended Tony Wagner's Saturday morning plenary. His entire speech was so "tweetable" with revelations on innovation and how we, as educators, can foster it within our students. One thing that he said really resonated with me and my "bouncing question" was that innovators are critical thinkers. Critical thinkers are those that ask the right questions. Innovation is a team sport dedicated to removing the boundaries of content disciples in order to create, not simply consume content. 

As a teacher, we become a coach who empowers and enables students to ask deep, meaningful questions. We dedicate time for students to connect with one another, face-to-face and digitally, in order to ask one another questions, find solutions, share ideas, and push each other to new levels of thinking. We blur content areas lines because in life rarely is a problem dedicated strictly to academic discipline. Answers are found where content areas meet. We let them explore, discover, and create because it is not about finding one right answer. It's about empowering learners to take control of their learning, build meaning, and make a difference in the world.

So is it possible to measure innovation like we attempt to measure everything else in education? Absolutely not! It will take shape in each of our students in different ways. We will see it manifested over time with our coaching, encouraging,  and support. With respect to Bill Gates, what he is proposing is counterproductive to innovation itself. True innovation cannot (should not) be measured. It can be nurtured to flourish in each of our learners. So as we enter our classroom this week, let's put on the proverbial coach's whistle and get to coaching our students in their ability to ask questions. We have no idea what innovative idea is out there waiting to be discovered by one of our learners.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Can One Person Make a Difference?

This post is a bit of a departure than my typical posts. However, my reasoning is twofold. One, I needed to write to clarify my own thinking. Two, I am asking for some insights from all of you as I value your perspectives.

If you're an educator in Alabama, I'm sure you would agree that every time we turn around, there seems to be a new piece of legislation that seems like an attack on educators and our ability to teach our students. Everything from a lack of pay raise to escalated healthcare costs to repealing College and Career Ready Standards to making our state superintendent an elect official (sidebar: Dr. Bice, a champion for Alabama students, doesn't waver from doing what is best for each of our students). I have mostly refrained from publishing my personal views through social media selecting instead to write my legislators emails/letters, make phone calls, and schedule face-to-face meetings. In addition, I have spoken with many of my fellow educators to encourage them to take action as well.

Last week, I finally reached my "breaking point." Much of this legislation is being pushed through by my legislator. After doing some digging, I discovered that he is planning on running for a position in Congress. So, in the interest of building a name for himself, he is taking actions that directly impacts my students' ability to learn and my ability to teach.  I have personally met with many of the Alabama legislators and all of our federal legislators (in fact, I will be meeting with several of them again this week). Any guesses on which legislator I can't get in touch with? Yep, that's right. The one where I am his constituent. I've tried. For two years.

Like many educators, I do not like politics. It is not an arena where I want to be all. Like many of you, I became an educator so that I could teach my students. I LOVE that I have the privilege of learning alongside my students every day. Every day is different. Every day is exciting. I have a passion for empowering the voices of each of my students. I teach them that their voice can make a difference in the world. A little over two years ago, I realized that I had to speak up for my students. I could no longer sit back and expect others to take action. I had to lead them by example.

I know that the work that I do makes a difference in the lives of my students, their parents, and the community. I have been fortunate enough to be able to witness this year after year. However, I can't help but wonder if I am giving my students false hope or an unrealistic view of the world and the power that they have to make a difference. I want to instill in them a sense of community and a desire to serve others. I want them to know that they matter, their thoughts matter, and that they don't have to sit by and be a victim. They can speak up.

So as I wrap up these thoughts I wonder: Am I setting my students up for failure? Are these unrealistic expectations for my learners? What lesson can I take away from my experiences to pass on to my students?

Thank you in advance for your thoughts and ideas.