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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"I Have Nothing to Say"

Have you ever thought, "I have nothing to say in the world of education?" I often hear educators make claims that they have nothing to share with their colleagues, locally or globally. They point to their perceived weaknesses, shrug their shoulders and move on. They turn down opportunities to fulfill leadership responsibilities, let opportunities to share their experience formally or informally pass by, or they remain quiet in online discussions lurking and learning rather than joining and participating.

In the interest of transparency, I must admit that I have had moments where I felt like I had nothing left to share with others. In my mind, I made very similar excuses. I've sat in front of a blank screen wondering what I could impart that would have any impact or relevance to others. I've had requests to do all day workshops and I was at a loss as to what I could present that would enrich the lives of the students of the educators that would spend a day with me. What if I have nothing to say?

We all have moments of self-doubt. I have come to the conclusion that is absolutely okay. What is not okay is giving in to those doubts, remaining silent, denying other educators of your unique perspective and experience. So I thought I would address some of the most common excuses we may give ourselves that prevents us from sharing and connecting with others.

1- "Others know more than me." While that may be true, they are not YOU. As we all recognize that our students are unique, so are each of us. Although there may be a world-renowned author/speaker/educator out there who has a massive following, that has no bearing on what you have to share. You have different perspectives and experiences. He/she is not in your classroom every day with your students. Chances are they haven't read many of the same articles, Twitter chats, research, or books that you have. And even if they have, you are looking at it with a different lens; one that frames into within the context of what you do each and every day.

This is the same as saying, "I don't know enough." Would any of us accept this excuse from one of our students? I hope not. My students become adept at adding "yet" to the end of statements like this. It sets the lack of proficiency as a goal to strive to learn more, reach higher, and grow personally. One thing that I learned quickly was that not every teacher is teaching at the same level. Like our students, teachers are each at different places on their learning continuum.  I've been in sessions at conferences where one group of teachers walked out completely overwhelmed and confused, while others claimed that they were bored because there wasn't anything new shared. This was in the same presentation. No matter where you are in your journey, whether you are talking about differentiation, questioning techniques, reading strategies, writing practices, assessment, or digital literacy, there are individuals who need to benefit from your expertise. They may have been overwhelmed or underwhelmed with someone else because they weren't being fed what they needed. Continue to learn so that you can fulfill that need in others.

2- "I could never be as good as ______." Here's something to think about: Education is NOT a competition. We are all striving to provide our students with the best education possible. It's okay if you are presenting at a conference and the room across from yours is packed while you only have a handful of people. That does not mean that what you are sharing isn't worthwhile. Our responsibility is to share our experiences with others in a hope that  they can not only benefit in their own practice, but also their students can reap the reward.

Personally, I've had educators compare me to others who are more of a "rock star." Without a doubt I came up lacking. How did I handle it? After much reflecting, I realized that I am full-time teacher who shares my experiences with others. What I'm sharing is what really works with's not some theory by someone who has only read/heard about it from another party. I know it's relevant and meaningful because my students are the evidence. When I speak, I share their stories. For me, that speak volumes that a disconnected researcher can never touch. Our intention should never be to become a "rock star." Our intention should be to give back to the educational community that has given us so much over the years. As educators it is our obligation to share what we know...whatever that may be.

3- "No one will listen." Would we permit our students to enter something with a defeatists attitude? Then why do we allow it to get in our way of sharing with others? If we blog, tweet, post, or pin things that are value to us, I guarantee that there is someone out there looking for what you are sharing. If one person benefits, isn't it worthwhile? Sometimes it about having the right frame of mind when we share. If we are looking for the number of reads, likes, or retweets, we might be disappointed. However, is that why we write or share? I know that I write to reflect on my own experiences: what goes well, what doesn't, and how to improve. That transparency is what connects others to you. I share because I know that others have done so before me and I want to pay it forward.

We need to remember that someone out there is counting on each of us. They are searching for answers, support, and encouragement that only you may be able to provide. Speak up. Share your voice. Inspire others. It can make all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Our Heart to Heart Talk...It's About Time

As mentioned in 6 Lessons Confirmed (& Learned) from My Students, my students wrote letters to the rising 6th graders. The letters, though full of sound advice, humor, and their unique voices, included recommendations that seemed dissonant to the classroom learning environment that we had created. My learners recommended things like "complete your homework on time, don't talk during class, and study for tests to get good grades." 

The day after I wrote that post, we sat in a large circle (in each of my classes) and I explained to them my desire to be the best teacher possible for all of my students. I continued by asking them to give me honest feedback to the questions that I still had. I talked a lot about perceptions and how many times we can think we are doing one thing when in reality we are doing something different. Students chimed in with their understanding of those types of experiences. 

I knew that they all understood the power of honest feedback because we had been engaged in that type of learning environment for the entire year. I also knew that I needed to be open to listening and accepting whatever they shared with me. To be honest, I was a bit nervous because my students' insights are the ones that I value most. We have spent a year learning together. They know sound educational practice. They regularly cut through "fluff" to get to the heart of a matter. They know how to analyze and question. Now, I'm asking them to turn all of that to answer a few of my questions about our learning environment and my teaching practice.

As we talked they were brutally honest, but kind. I learned that much of what they had written as advice was not about our specific class, but about the overall grade level. They shared what they loved about our class: having freedom and a voice in their learning, small group instruction to support/challenge each student where he/she needed, assessments they always felt prepared for and never surprised by content, the ability to share their thoughts and ideas with others. 

Then they shared what they didn't love: "Mrs. Ramsay, since we spiral within our standards and gradually get harder as we work towards mastery, why do we have to move so quickly? They are just going to come around again, aren't they?" That is not only truth, but it's supported by educational research and brain research. (Yes, I believe in sharing the strategy, rationale, and research as to the "why" of what we do in the class each day.) Personally, I had felt like we were moving slower this year than in previous years. Of course, this had been their only year with me. They had nothing with which to compare the pace of our lessons. Looking through their eyes reminded me that we did need let them have time to marinate on ideas, delve deeper into topics, and spend time just reading and writing for the enjoyment of it.

Another student voiced his desire to spend more time in small group. As I was trying to figure out what he meant as a majority of the students' time is spent in small group, he clarified that he wanted to have more small group time with me. He went on to explain how the time we spent working together face-to-face on his reading and writing was what helped him become a stronger student.  Honestly, this one cut right to my heart. This student was in the one class that I only had for 50 minutes (on a good day) instead of the almost two hours I had with my other groups of students. I always felt rushed to "get in" as much as I could within that time period while still individualizing the instruction for all 30 of them (my largest class). One practice that I had was for me to move to each group to work with them wherever they were instead of conducting small group lessons at our table; I would do this two to three times a week while doing small group/one-on-one conferring the other days. It seemed faster...Faster? Did I really think that? Since when is "faster" a sound educational practice? Never!

It's funny that I went into this conversation with one set of questions and left with something so much more valuable. I learned that my students have the ability to provide deep, meaningful feedback. They were honest without being unkind. They justified their answers with evidence, support, and their experiences. Most importantly, I saw how amazing they would be as advocates for themselves and their peers. These kids totally blew me away with how they conducted themselves throughout this conversation. They are awesome....and I'm going to miss them.

And me...what did I learn? I learned that we all need a reminder from time to time about sound educational practice. I had taught them about how the brain works in regards to learning. I had modeled and explained why we used certain practices and strategies. Yet, somewhere along the year, I had felt that end of the year push to cover everything and I lost sight of the most important thing of all...the time my students needed to learn. Time that we all needed. Time that I'm dedicated to providing each student in the years to come.

photo credit: Î’ethan via photopin cc

Monday, June 16, 2014

Is Professionalism Becoming a Thing of the Past?

I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to connect with other educators from around the world. These connections are what have shaped me as an educator. I love professional events where I get to have a face-to-face reunion with those who have become friends and meet new individuals to begin new learning ventures. It's inspiring and energizing to be able to turn a digital connection into a deeper one that has a long-lasting impact on us as professionals and colleagues in education.

However, I have been alarmed over what seems to be a rising trend. I have spent weeks, months even, contemplating what I have observed and experienced. What I am about to share is not hearsay, but first hand experience. My point in sharing these scenarios and reflections is to cause all of us (myself included) to think. Isn't that what we want for our students? To become reflective thinkers? To weigh our choices against the impending consequences? Shouldn't we do the same for ourselves? 

As David H. Maister said in his book True Professionalism,
Professional is not a label you give yourself – it’s a description you hope others will apply to you. 

Where are you?  

For most educators today, attending professional development events is a luxury. Professional development funds are being cut...or in many cases are nonexistent. Yet, many of those who do attend are simply not in attendance. They are out sightseeing or sleeping off last night's adventure. When you are at a conference and the second day's general session has a fourth of the number of participants in attendance, there is a problem...especially when the social media feed for the conference is packed with their late night exploits. I  know of two school systems who no longer permit their teachers to attend conferences held near the beach or in Las Vegas. To me this speaks to the fact that this is becoming a real problem: using educational funds for a personal vacation. It's irresponsible. That's just took away the keys from their wayward child. Would that have had to transpire if the individuals were conducting themselves professionally? Absolutely not.

Because of the actions of a few, many more are losing out on the potential to grow professionally. I've often heard teachers returning to schools extolling how wonderful the conference was while being totally unable to share anything that they have learned with anyone else. That cheats all of us of potential learning. I realize that all learning is not done formally. There needs to be time to separate from a learning event and reflect. There need to be times where we re-connect or build new collaborations, for ourselves and for our students. But the focus is always on the learning, growing, and connecting that we can do to sharpen our teaching practice. We need to be present to make that happen. Show up. Be there. Participate. Learn. Be present every day. That's why you're there. 

Who's listening?

I was recently at a major national conference and sitting on the fourth row (Sweet seat, huh?). On the row behind me were four individuals who worked for the professional organization whose event this was. As some prestigious awards were being announced, the individuals behind me were giving an extremely unkind commentary on the attire that each of the recipients were wearing (the recipients were all dressed professionally, by the way). At an organization where we are there to grow as professionals, these individuals were completely negating all the hard work and dedication that the recipients put forth every day with their learners.  [This was not an isolated incident].
Is this what we've come down to? We teach our students to look for the inward qualities of others. Honor their thoughts, ideas, hard work, differences, and struggles. Shouldn't we do the same? Being a middle school teacher, we work on this all year long. My eleven and twelve year old students would never behave this way in a classroom...hopefully nowhere else either. So why are so many negative, insulting, and unkind to one another? We are professionals. We will not all agree on a specific strategy, method, or tool. That is absolutely okay. Our words shape other people's perception of us as individuals and educators. Aren't we already fighting against enough as educators without adding the stigma that we're petty, backbiting, gossips? As my mother always said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

What's being watched?

In addition to having people, educators and non-educators, listening to us, they are also watching our actions. At a recent conference, during the four days that I was there, I took two cab rides. In both of those short rides, cab drivers shared their experiences with educators who were also attending the same conference. One's tale was of two teachers who identified themselves as conference participants in the midst of a barrage of foul language and over intoxication. The other's tale was of a group of educators who got in an argument with the driver over what amounted to a dollar difference in their fare. The police were called. 

Yes, I know that we are adults. But, all of the people in that area knew there was a large teacher conference in town. They immediately drew conclusions about all of us based on their little interaction with other educators. I know this may seem cliche', but we are representing ourselves, our schools, our districts, and our profession. When we take our students out on field trips, we expect them to be positive ambassadors for our schools. We want them to understand this so much that we have a glorious speech prepared and many times the principal repeats this as well before departure. It's important to communicate expectations. Shouldn't we expect the same of ourselves? You never know who will be at the next table or in the seat across from you on a plane. You may be the one who changes their opinion of educators based on the integrity with which you conduct yourself in informal settings. 

Who's looking?

I'll admit that this one is a pet peeve of mine. I've mentioned it in two other posts, but I think it bears repeating. Although we should never judge a book by its cover, as humans that happens. I'm also learning that a first impression matters. This first time I thought about the message that I was sending by what I chose to wear was the first time I read The First Days of School by Harry Wong. Let's face it, we are in a (very important) service industry. To be successful educator, we need to have credibility with our students. We need to sell them on learning. They need to know that what we are doing (educating and inspiring them) is valuable and serious business. I am not proposing that we need to wear a suit every day, but our students need to know that we are educated professionals who are there to guide them in their learning journey. They need to trust that. Appearance conveys that to them...and their parents, board members, and community leaders. Trust me, you never know when a camera crew/reporter is going to drop by the school unannounced to do a few shots for a story.

Likewise, your appearance at professional events does the same. Before we open our mouths to meet someone new or share an idea, others will make an assumption on the quality of what we have to offer based on the choices that we make in our appearance. Remember this is a professional conference. You are there to learn and connect. Your appearance should not get in the way of that goal. Your students and colleagues are counting on you to get the most out of these opportunities. Yes, you need comfortable walking shoes and attire that fits the climate. However, who is going to take you seriously when you are dressed like you are working in your yard, heading to a backyard barbecue,  or making a late night run to the grocery store? This goes back to the idea of taking pride in yourself and our profession. We have the most important career of from which all other careers are possible. We need to dress in a way that reflects that.

Will professionalism become a thing of the past? We have the most honorable profession. It is one that has the potential to greatly change the world in which we live. It needs to be led by confident, bold, well-educated professionals who will clear a path for the best learning opportunities for our students. Their future depends upon the choices we make make today. Let's make them count.

photo credit: A Guy Taking Pictures via photopin cc

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

6 Lessons Confirmed (& Learned) From My Students

This last week, my students have composed letters to their successors. This isn't a new activity for many of us. Although this learning activity was not designed to provide feedback on our class, it was full of their experiences and perceptions which provided me honest insights into our classroom. As I read through their letters jammed packed with conventional (and unconventional) advice, highlights from this school year, carefully worded hints for thriving in 6th grade and best wishes on an amazing year full of learning adventures, I was thrilled at their expert ability in sharing their unique voice. In their voices, I found some hidden lessons (some old, some new) waiting for me that I thought I would share. Some of it was expected....and some of it was not.

1- Cross-curricular learning topped many of their lists. As a grade level, we have planned and implemented six full-day, hands-on/simulation days, in addition to a month-long unit that led up to our Space Camp trip. My learners' writing exuded enthusiasm for the connections that they discovered which bridged the gap between content areas. This brought to mind hearing Tony Wagner say that innovation comes where content areas intersect. Innovation is a team sport dedicated to removing the boundaries of content disciples in order to create, not simply consume content. My students confirmed these ideas for me and led me to resolve to create further cross-curricular units of study in the near future.

2- Learning is active, not passive. In a great majority of their letters they described their favorite learning activities, from our Book Tasting to the Case of the Missing Teacher. They enumerated all the fun (yes, I used that "f" word) they had in their Lit Centers where they actively created, read, wrote, published, explored, discussed, and discovered new things not only about content but also about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. Their letters were overflowing with action verbs outlined what they had done during this school year. 

3- Technology is a powerful tool, if used correctly. Many of the students shared some of the specific tools they used to write, publish or connect with their peers in class and worldwide. However, the one constant was what they gained from using these tools, not the actual tool. Yes, they mentioned Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Smore, Tackk, Weebly, and Google Drive (plus a host of other tools). Yet, what they valued most was the learning and connecting that transpired due to these tools. They learned how to explore new ideas, question themselves, and develop as learners. One student stated, "We have devices in class every day, but that doesn't mean we're always on it. But, they are always there when we need them to help us grow and learn."

4- Choice reigns supreme. In almost every letter to their successors, students mentioned that they had the freedom of choice...from their reading selection to their genre of writing, from their method of publishing to the goals that they set for themselves. Many of my learners shared their excitement for our Innovation Day and our class' Genius Hour. What did these have in common? The ability to pursue personal interests in a way that was meaningful for them. They had the ability to solve problems, learn new content, and create something new to share with others. As I mentioned in The Power of One Word, Choice,  choice makes a world of difference to students who have had "school" done to them instead of having the control to help themselves move along their own learning continuum. This was especially evident in the letters composed by my students who are struggling students...students who (I hope) can now see the power of learning in transforming their lives.

5- Everyone's voice matters. When I conferred with my students, one observation I immediately discovered was how different each letter was. It was in the unique style and personality of each student. Several students mentioned in their letters how important blogging had been to them. Through their letters they described their journey as hesitant writers who struggled with sharing their ideas due to lack of confidence or unwillingness to put words to a screen (pen to paper). They explained that because of regular practice, encouragement, and conversations with peers, near and far, through their blogging, they realized that they had something important to say. This motivated them to join more conversations in class and through digital mediums. One student said, "I learned that I really do have the power to make a difference."

6- Habits are hard to break. Here was the surprising part of the letters. Although they mentioned the previous items, what surprised me was how often traditional advice along the lines of "complete your homework on time, don't talk during class, and study for tests to get good grades" appeared in their letters. I do not assign homework. Our classes are filled with talking with less than 10% of the time of me being in the front of the class. Most of our assessments are project based/performance assessments as students are scored according to standards mastery. So why did they include that advice for their successors? I've spent days contemplating this and I couldn't really come up with a good answer. Their advice seemed so contrary to what we've done for the last 170 something days we have been together. 

Perplexed, I finally asked my students to explain. And honestly, they didn't have a great answer other than that's what they felt like needed to be included. Several students even pointed to previous experience with previous teachers who had encouraged these types of letters with that type of advice. Habits. That's what they have heard for the last six years of school. Many hear the same advice from their families. When it comes down to it, it was a knee-jerk reaction. Is any of this advice necessarily bad? No. Does it fit within the structure of our classroom? No. Do my students truly believe that this year was a break from the "reality of school"and that they will return to that traditional method next year?  I hope not. My first instinct was to ask them to remove it, but ultimately I decided not to. It is their letter. Their voice. Their message. I would be taking away their voice. Their freedom. That is not something I will do.

What will I do? We will do what we've always done. We'll have an open discussion about it. We'll explore what learning really is and who they want to be as individuals. Because ultimately, like in our classroom, it really is all about them, their needs, goals, wishes, and dreams. We're just along for the ride.

photo credit: Justin in SD via photopin cc

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Power of One Word, Choice

As this year's IRA conference is coming to a close, there is one word that has emerged as a central theme across general sessions, social media feeds, presentations, and informal gatherings...the power of choice. This message was one that organically became the talking point at the heart of all other messages. If you want students to become readers, writers, and ultimately lifelong learners, choice is the key ingredient. Choice, the ingredient that is missing from prescriptive programs, most pacing guides, directives and mandates coming from the "higher ups." Too often we are pressured to focus solely on numbers while slowly losing our focus on what really matters...our students.

I have written many times about the impact that choice has upon student learning (see below), but after joining the conversations this week, I have come to the conclusion that it goes much deeper than their learning. I think that giving students a voice is empowering them with the ability to take ownership and control over their lives. We are giving them a sense of self-efficacy in both their academic and personal lives. We are showing them that what they say matters; their needs are our priority; they have value in this world.

Does this impact their lives in the classroom? Without a doubt! We have all seen students read books that were "higher than their reading level" because they WANTED to read it. We've seen students become prolific writers because they had a choice in the topic, genre, and means of publishing for an authentic audience. In our classroom, it is very common for students to choose to write or read over other "more popular activities" because they want to...and these are students that enter a classroom at the beginning of the year claiming to hate reading and/or writing.

As teachers, we understand the importance of a strong education to set students on a successful lifelong adventure. But I couldn't help but wonder, if we take away their choice in controlling their own future, are we truly preparing them for life outside our classroom walls? Are they gaining the life skills of decision making, problem solving, conflict resolution, time management, choices-consequences relationship, collaboration, and communication when we are continuing to make those choices for them? Are they being given the opportunity to fail, learn from their mistakes, and grow as individuals? Yes, there is no doubt of the power of an education, but isn't it our job to prepare the whole child, not just the one that appears on a page as a test number?

So as the learning at the IRA conference draws to a close, I am more committed than ever to provide my students with a choice in all aspects of life in our classroom. Our support should only be in place until the edifice is in place...after all, this is their life, not ours.

A few of the pieces I've written on choice and student voice:

photo credit: The Rocketeer via photopin cc