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 resource...one 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

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 students...it'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 right...dad 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 all...one 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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

How to Avoid Inflicting Atomic Wedgies on Our Students


Dav Pilkey, known for his wildly popular Captain Underpants series, just completed his keynote for day two of the IRA Conference. Over the years,  my students (especially my struggling readers, Ex Ed and ELL) have loved his books. However, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I find inspiration from the author of these wildly funny books? What could he say that that would help me sharpen my teaching practice?

I received a major reminder about the lasting influence that a teacher can have upon a learner for the rest of their lives. Now, those of you that know me, know that I am a teacher because of one teacher; a teacher whose thoughtless words and negative attitude led me to the realization that no student should ever have to sit in a classroom and feel the way that I was feeling. This is a sensitive area for me...one where I am vigilant in monitoring in my own practice. So, when Dav Pilkey was explaining how his teacher tore up his "silly" comic in elementary school and told him that he should "grow up" and that he could never make a living writing silly books (boy, was she wrong), I began to look inward. Have I inadvertently said or done something that negatively impacted a student and the course of their lives? I sincerely hope that is not the case. This is an area we all need to be consistently conscientious. 

I thought I would share some of the lessons (and reminders) that I gained from hearing about Dav Pilkey's journey in hopes that it would spur some of your thinking as it did mine.
  1. Reading is reading. Pilkey shared that for an individual to be considered an expert, he/she mus
    t put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. That applies to reading. They need to read. Read often; read what interests them...regardless of our perceived value of the text, print or digital. Reading is reading is reading. We want them to become master readers.
  2. Our evaluation of literature doesn't matter. We aren't the ones reading it, they are. They must have a choice. If they want to read comic books, guides to video games, or Mad Magazines, that's okay. They are still reading... learning, thinking, and becoming a stronger reader. They are becoming lifelong readers. Pilkey loved to read, Mad Magazine, Dynamite Magazine, joke books, and comics.  However, the adults in his life took away those books from him because those adults did not deem them as valuable. We can’t do this to our students. That will zap a love of reading faster than Captain Underpants can inflict an atomic wedgie.
  3. Don't judge a book by it's cover. Just because a book has a cartoon superhero clad in underwear does not mean that it will not challenge our students as readers. When was the last time you read a comic, graphic novel, or a Captain Underpants book?The vocabulary is challenging for students. The plots are complex with multilayered, deep, and complicated characters. To comprehend these texts students have to employ a host of higher order reading and reasoning strategies....because they WANT to. Why would we, as teachers, ever want to take that away from our students? 
  4. Don't judge a book by it's cover. When we see a student drawn to books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bone, the Middle School series, or Captain Underpants series, as their teacher, we need to take clues as to how we can support their learning in a way that is meaningful to them. They have reached for those texts for a reason. Dav Pilkey shared his struggle functioning in school because of learning disabilities partnered with ADHD. Teachers often got frustrated with him and devalued his reading and his writing instead of seeing the enormous amount of inspiration and creativity they could have harnessed to help him become successful in their classroom. Dav Pilkey reminded us of the importance of using creativity to inspire others inspire of challenges. “People with challenges can change the world."
  5. Involve students in designing expectations. Pilkey explained that his criteria for books were things like short chapters (gives students a sense of accomplishment), lots of illustrations (supports understanding of text), and fun characters (mad scientists, superheroes, robots, and monsters) which didn't align with the teachers' expectations. When he began creating books for kids like him, he took the two lists and combined them. By including our students in creating a list of expectations, we are valuing their voice while also empowering them with ownership over their learning.
I can think of no better way to wrap up my reflections than to share his final words. Pilkey ended his presentations with this thought: A reading revolution is happening. We just need to get out of the way!

Isn't that the truth?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

#IRA14: Frivolous or Founded? Opening Our View in the Classroom

Today at the IRA conference, I had an epiphany. As teachers, so many times we write off things as having very little value in the workings of our classrooms: doodling, sketching, humor, video games. Yet, these are things that are part of who our students are as people. They doodle, sketch, crack jokes (even those involving bathroom humor), read comic books, and spend an enormous amount of time playing video games.Often as teachers, we make the mistake of seeing all of these elements as competition to our instruction when in reality they need to be invited into classrooms.

Jeff Kinney, the author of the wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, did just that. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and creating comics. Then, after a Washington Post article touted his new comic as the "next great thing" only to receive an onslaught of rejection letters, he left his world of drawing and writing comics to immerse himself in video games, including working with FunBrain. He knew he needed to snap out of his video game streak, so he began to write in a journal. When I saw a page from his journal, I sent this tweet:


I think that sometimes our vision for our classroom is too narrow. Those journals are what eventually led to his Wimpy Kid books. They gave him time to formulate ideas, play with plot lines, and explore characters. Because he took that time, many of our students have found books that they can relate to. Like Greg, they find humor in everyday events...eventually.

When our students come to class and they want to read comic books, we need to remember that we never know who the next Jeff Kinney will be. Sometimes a student who is intimidated by a book, will open a comic and become so engaged and enamored with the possibilities, they become voracious readers. These learners are reading, exploring new worlds, igniting imaginations, and for most kids, formulating new stories based on these characters.

Our learners' experiences playing multi-user games are teaching them how to communicate, strategize, collaborate, and formulate solutions to challenges. These games are complex and sophisticated. They take an an enormous amount of stamina...and yes, in many of these games, there is a vast amount of reading and writing embedded into them (something that had escaped my attention until last summer).

So as I end my IRA day, I am beginning to think about the small things that my students do that could easily be harnessed to support their learning. As teachers it is our responsibility to meet our students wherever they are as learners and move them forward.  Who knows, the next Jeff Kinney could be sitting in our classroom right now? We need to be the one to encourage that in our students because the next generation of students will need inspiration too.

#IRA14: In the Beginning There was...a Flood?

Yesterday, IRA kicked off it's 59th Annual Conference. This year it's in New Orleans. With that came the rain. Cell phones had their emergency warnings sound for the flood. Stories poured out about many of the restaurants and shops flooding. People were getting caught in different parts of town trying to wait out the deluge. However, nothing could dampen the spirit of the thousands of educators who flooded New Orleans. As I began to reflect on this occurrence (and dry out), several ideas came to me. There truly was a flood happening...one that had nothing to do with what brings to mind animals entering an ark two-by-two. I thought I'd share my observations and I'd welcome you to add yours to this list as well.


  1. Flood of optimism- In spite of seriously torrential downpour, no one complained. No one let the rain dampen their excitement for learning with and from fellow educators. Everyone took this as a minor inconvenience and kept with their plans to have informal conversations at one of the many locations around New Orleans. This speaks volumes about the type of educators that I am fortunate to be among for the next three days. Teachers who look at something like a flood as a mere gnat buzzing around their faces while they continue to connect and learn.
  2. Flood of learning- I was unable to join the pre-conference this year. Yet, I was still able to learn all day yesterday...through the social media feeds. There was a constant moving stream of learning begin shared through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (#IRA14). This speaks to the vision of the educators here. They are not here just to learn for themselves, but to pass it along to others. The streams were flooded with so many epiphanies, resources, recommendations and learning that I found myself becoming completely engulfed in the events taking place yesterday. I couldn't wait to join the conversations and sharing today.
  3. Flood of passion- I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in conferences and learning events all over this country....which I totally enjoy. But this year, there is something a little bit different about this year's conference. It brings to mind the time several years ago when my mother, sister and I met at the beach...we were overwhelmed with excitement, laughter, and the opportunity to make new memories. Through our precarious drive, I had ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues through text, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Through all of these communications, what became very apparent is our shared passion for positively impacting student learning.
So as the conference is about to "kick off," join the conversation, either face-to-face or digitally. Jump in, wade in, or do your favorite belly flop. The water is great here at IRA14 and we're all in the for the ride of our lives.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

IRA14: New Orleans, Here We Come!

Now is the time that thousands of educators are packing their bags and descending on New Orleans, host of the International Reading Association's 59th Annual Conference. In April's Plugged In column, Confessions of an Avid Conference Participant, I shared some my tips for preparing for an large professional learning event. I love professional learning and connecting with fellow educators. For me, it's often like a family reunion, getting to re-connect with educators that I haven't seen, other than on social media, for the last year. Without a doubt, meeting with friends and making new ones, fans the fires of my passion for providing students with the best possible learning opportunities possible.

With so many formal and informal learning opportunities at IRA, I thought I would share where you can find me while you are in New Orleans so that we can connect.  I hope to get to see you there and hear about the wonderful things that you are doing at your school.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Global Read Aloud: One Book to Connect the World (1:00-2:00; Room 348-349) Do you want to give your students an exciting, authentic reason to read and discuss a great book? Through different web tools and apps, the Global Read Aloud provides students an authentic reason to read, discuss, write, and publish with thousands of other students from around the world. By connecting with a strong network of fellow educators, you bring the world into your classroom promoting literacy and supporting digital standards. Learn about the Global Read Aloud project, methods of becoming connected with other classes, and strategies for making this project work in your classroom or school.

Book Signing (2:15-3:00, Stenhouse Publishers, Booth #2423) I will be there to sign copies of Can You Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3-8. This is also an opportunity where we can chat, connect, and begin collaborations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014 

Twitter-a-ture: Creating Content and Connections (11:20-11:40, Digital Classroom, Booth #1010) Twitter is more than a byte-sized social network-it's a powerful writing and publishing tool. Learn how you can use Twitter with your students to create book reports, short stories, and six-word memoirs, among other projects.

Mid-level Educators Tweetup (1:00-1:45, Tweet Suite, Booth #1056) Do you work with learners in Grades 3-8? This tweetup is for you! Come meet other mid-level educators for this informal gathering in IRA's new Tweet Suite. Not on Twitter? No problem! Expand your personal learning network (PLN) the old-fashioned way with face-to-face contact.

Of course, you can always find me on Twitter and Instagram. I'll be posting my learning and using the #IRA14 hashtag throughout the conference. I look forward to seeing you soon!

~Julie

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