Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Time to Let Go

This week, I read Chris Lehmann's blog post, Plan to Letting Go. It really drove me to reflect on the importance of giving our students not just the ability to learn, but the ability to learn and apply their knowledge independently.

I told my students at the beginning of the year that the right answer is not enough. Becoming databases filled with random information on various topics is not developing deep, critical thinkers. Learners need to be able to explain their reasoning, justify their answers, and use their knowledge to apply it to real problems. Students will not gain this ability if they sit all day listening to a teacher disseminate information.

As teachers, we naturally are helpers. When we see a student struggling or making mistakes, we immediately want to jump in and help by giving them the right answer. By doing that, what kind of learning are we fostering? We must guide them towards mastering the ability to think and reason, while instilling in them the confidence to tackle new challenges. It can be challenging and tedious work, especially when you are working with an inclusion class with a large population of English Language Learners. Perseverance is key to success. Then, when it seems that all of the guiding, questioning, and modeling is not making an impact, all of a sudden everything comes together.

A day like that happened in our classroom a couple of weeks before Winter Break. Since our class is student-driven, my students design not only their own learning projects, but also their own rubrics for the projects. At the end of the school year, I have had several students mention in passing that they wish they had a scrapbook of all of the projects that they had created. That spurred the idea of challenging them by giving them the opportunity to create digital portfolios to provide evidence of their learning in all content areas.

I created a class account on Weebly, which provides each student with webspace, and led them through a discussion of how they could use it to prove their learning (I'll share specifics about the portfolio in a later post). The discussion sparked so many ideas from my students; they had so many questions. As they began to work, I expected to have a demand on my attention to give encouragement, redirect attention back to the portfolio, troubleshoot technology issues, and ask guiding questions about the choices they were making to show their first semester learning. However, once they began work, I looked around and not a single student was demanding my attention. They were focused on learning how manipulate Weebly to make it do what they visualized in their heads. When they had a challenge, they turned to one another. One student even "Googled" a tech question to find out how to load something to his Weebly.

The conversations they had with one another were amazing; deep and thoughtful answers were given along with encouragement. They graciously showed one another their work and taught them how to do the same, if they were interested. My learners began to challenge one another to explain how the samples and projects they selected showed how they had met their personal learning goals. Then as the day came to a close, and I told them it was time to sign out and shut down the netbooks, there was an outcry of frustration. They did not want to stop...what were they doing...that's right, creating a form of formative assessment to prove their learning. Who ever hears of students begging to participate in assessment?

As they reluctantly packed up to go catch their buses, I was struck with the reminder that none of this would have happened had I not taken the time to build this framework for their learning and LET GO so they could thrive.

Please take a few minutes and think about your students. Are you giving them the guidance that they need to become motivated, independent learners and thinkers? I know it might be scary to think of letting go and letting them grow. However if you do let go, amazing things will happen.

photo credit: pinelife via photopin cc

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Let them Assess

Assessment. That is a word that can send cold shivers down the backs of teachers and students alike. In our society, that word has been linked to a "gotcha" mentality where standardized testing scores have become punitive towards districts, schools, teachers...sometimes affecting entire communities. I have spent a lot of time contemplating, researching, and discussing this topic and I realized that I needed to reframe my ideas and ultimately my teaching practice in the area of assessment.

Like many of you, I am in a district where standardized tests scores pull much weight and drive many of the decisions made at the district level. Often as classroom teachers, we may feel disempowered. Is this where we throw up our hands in defeat? And the most important question: Is this what is best for our students? I think that any one who works with students know that the answer is a resounding "NO."

The question that I often hear is, "So what do we do about it?" I thought I would take a few minutes to share where I began in my journey of rethinking assessment. As I have continued to grow (and still do each day), my practice has adapted. In the interest of not overwhelming anyone, I'll share more of my journey in future posts, but I wanted to share where I began.

Those of you that follow me or have read my book, Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?, know that several years ago, I made the shift from a teacher-led classroom to a student-directed one. In this amazing journey, my students led the way with many ideas. The idea to let the students take control of their assessment came from one of my fifth graders.

Now like many of you, I have used rubrics my entire teaching career. I'm sure we've all had the frustration of going over a rubric in detail at the front end of a project; then we observe our students trudging ahead with little (or no) regard to how they will be assessed at the end. The shift was that I wanted to make should address students' lack of connection with the purpose of a rubric as well as their idea to take control of their own assessment. I would not be presenting them with the rubric; they would be creating it for each learning project.

When you stop and think about it, if we are giving them control over selecting what they learn within a topic (or standard), how they are going to learn it, and in what manner they are going to create something that proves that learning, shouldn't they also have control over how they are assessed on that learning?

In order for us to make this shift, I relied on my students' previous knowledge. Since third grade, they had been trained to write towards our state writing test using a rubric. They understood what the specific difference was in earning a 4, 3, 2, or 1 in each category on a rubric because they had already been doing that for at least two years. When we began a new project or learning activity, I would guide my students in designing the criteria. Then I led them into determining the specifics assigned to the 4, 3, 2, or 1.

Yes, when you look at it, their copy is much simpler than most rubrics, but this is their rubric, not mine. The "master" list of the specifics would stay on our interactive whiteboard for reference, as needed, although most students took down notes (by choice) as a reminder of how to earn each score. As is our regular practice, my learners would meet together with one another for peer reviews and ideas, as well as, conferring with me throughout the project.

Once we reached the end of a project, they would assess one another's work based on their rubric as would I. My initial trepidation was that they would assign high scores to one another afraid to be honest. On the contrary, I discovered that my students held extremely high expectations for one another. When you think upon it, it makes sense. They design the projects and set the expectations. They talk about it with one another and me a LOT throughout the process. They know exactly what is expected to prove their learning.

This put an integral part of the learning process firmly into my learners' hands. Assessment plays a vital role in determining what our students know, what they need to know, and how much they have grown in each area. It informs and guides our instruction so that we can help each of our students meet their fullest potential. Having this knowledge is important not just for us, but for our students as well. If we want for them to take ownership of their learning, they need to be informed and see the goals that they have set in front of themselves.

This is only the beginning for me an my students and we sharpen our assessment practices. Stay tuned as I continue to grow and reflect upon how we can empower our students with relevant and authentic assessment practices.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Staying Focused in our Whirly-gig Lives

As we enter a new year, many of us take time to reflect upon over our previous year and set goals for the new year.  The year 2012 has been an exciting one full of rewarding experiences, professional and personal. I've met some amazing people, had thought-provoking conversations, visited some intriguing places, and experienced many things for the first time.

However, (as I suspect of many of us) in spite of all of the positive things in my previous year, I find that towards the end of this year I have lost some of the clarity of focus on what my true mission is as an educator. It's easy to do as we race towards the end of a semester with all of the holiday festivities. Throw in speaking engagements, professional development, family commitments, grad school, illness, deadlines, professional obligations to organizations and it's enough to make your head spin. So how do we deal with it? How do we stay focused when so many things begin to blur our vision? What do we do when our lives become a massive checklist and we race from one have-to to the next?

These are questions that I ponder regularly. I have done some extensive reading on the subject of trying to take control of the crazy whirly-gig life so many of us live today. I thought I would share a few thoughts and practices that I have found helpful...even though I am still working toward mastering them each day.

  1. Create a mission statement. I know it sounds like an assignment from a well-meaning professor, but if you do not have a clear understanding about why you are doing what you are doing, whether in your teaching practice or your personal life, how will you be able to stay focused? You must know what it is on which you will spend your time. Without that mission, you will easily become distracted by anything else that pops up. My husband and I call that the "Monkey, monkey underpants" syndrome (see this post for an explanation). It is very easy to become distracted when online and follow down many random paths. Exploration is great, but not when it begins to creep in and push you off course. I actually have mine where I can see it regularly to remind myself of where I am headed...and yes, sometimes, I find I need to update it as I change and grow as an educator. My professional mission statement has two parts, one is my life as an educator in the classroom the other is my mission as a professional educator in the field of education.
  2. Prioritize. When you are around and interact with passionate people, it is very easy to jump on their bandwagon, whether it's a great new teaching strategy, new tech tool, or new hobby. All of those things definitely have merit, but in spite of all of our best time management strategies, we only have a finite amount of time. We need to set our priorities and only invest in activities that will promote and support our priorities. Eight years ago, I determined to lose 40+ pounds. I found the key to my success in weight loss and maintaining it for the last eight years, is that I had my priorities and goals set before I was presented with an obstacle. By setting your priorities up at the front end, you are setting yourself up for success. You have made a plan, you know what is important and what is not. Isn't that what great educators do for their students? We set them up for success. We should do it for ourselves as well.
  3. Limit your commitments. I'll admit, this one is a challenge for me. When we began teaching, most of us determined that we would do whatever it took to spark excitement and learning in our students and positively impact the future. We get into our classrooms, continue to grow as professionals, find success, and then the requests begin to come our way. Would you be interested in joining this committee? Would you share this great lesson with our faculty? Would you be willing to be a guest speaker at our conference? Would you write a piece for our blog? At first, we feel flattered. Even though we didn't go into education for our own glorification, it feels great when all of your hard work is getting recognized. That is why it is so important to have your mission statements and priorities set in advance because as flattering as it is to be invited, it is important that we weigh each opportunity to see if it really fits within our vision. Does it support where you want to be, professionally and personally, or is it something that blurs your vision and pulls you off course? It is tough to say "no" to an opportunity, but without keeping your focus, you will not be able to maintain the standard of excellence that brought you to the point of getting those opportunities in the first place.

I know that when my life seems overwhelmingly out-of-control with so many demands on my time, I am not my best. In spite of my best efforts, I cannot be the best teacher that my students need. My focus is too splintered. When this happens to us, we begin to lose sight of what specific students need. Our focus on truly knowing each of our students and connecting with them as individuals fades. The relationships that we have built between home-community-school begin to break down. Ultimately, our effectiveness and relevance as the leader of learning in our classrooms and our schools deteriorates. None of us want that to happen.

I realize that none of this is ground-breaking information, but it has been around forever for a works. I think what so often happens in our crazy lives is that we begin to lose a grasp on what's important a just gradually begin to drift off course. We're off-center and in the midst of all the crazy confusion, we wonder how we got where we are. It does take a commitment to be diligent and maintain focus. But, the result is a much more committed, focused person that is there for the important people in their lives: family, friends, and students. As educators, we all want to give those important people our best, and isn't that why we became make a positive difference in the future of others?

photo credit: bennlat via photopin cc