I Told You So

01 April 2010

In August, I wrote a post about some impending plagiarism. My ideas were being kidnapped and there would be no ransom---just wholesale stealing with no credit offered or permission requested.

And, as unfortunately expected, things have turned up here (the "Physical Science and Inquiry" section). The materials are not the same format, but there is no mistaking what I published in August as being used. If there is any question of which came first, one only need right-click their page and view the Page Info (shown below):

They posted on December 15, 2009---nearly four months after I posted here. Rather sickening to think that one of the people who participated in the thievery is involved with conversations about national science standards. It will be quite ironic to see concepts of integrity show up in those, don't you think?

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Do the Right Thing

12 March 2010

I listened to lots of stories at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference. Some were shared by presenters. Some were shared by neighbor attendees. A few were things I picked up while eavesdropping at meals or walking behind people in the halls of the convention center. With 10,000 attendees, there are no opportunities for anyone to be lonely or private. (I was even treated to someone's deep meaningful cell phone conversation about the Common Core Standards while in the bathroom.) And really, that is the point of a conference---to be able to get together with others who have a similar interest and share ideas.

What I noticed most at this conference was the number of stories about teachers and administrators working their asses off to do the right thing---or, at least, the expected thing. While it is not a surprise to hear about the number of hours required to plan, prepare, instruct, assess, and/or remediate, what was a surprise was the lengths some people were going to. I am sure that the results can only be beneficial for kids, but I would not reach the same conclusion for the adults involved.

In fact, one of my big take-aways from the event was a collective sense of desperation about assessment, grading, and data. The educators present cared deeply for students and for doing the very best that they could for kids---but I had the impression that no one thought that they had the “right” answer or were doing things well. I find that hard to believe. I find it distressing that there is no “good enough” in these situations. I understand that no child should be left behind. I applaud the efforts that go into ensuring every student has the opportunity to learn. But what is missing from the whole equation is a way to honor progress. I talked with a teacher from Alaska whose Title I school has been in AYP for five years now. She mentioned the huge gains the school has made in that time…and yet in the eyes of the state and feds, it’s not good enough. It is apparently not even worth recognizing. I find that appalling.

Thomas Guskey and others have called for similar measures on report cards for individual students. That there is more that happens in a grading period than just the final mark---there is progress and growth along the way. A gifted student who is already above the standard should still be able to show progress. The same is true for a struggling student who may have made great gains, but is still not at standard by the end of the grading period. There are examples for every student in between---and yet almost no examples of reporting for students or schools for this factor. I hurt for them all.

I’m never sure what to do about things like this other than to just keep talking about them and hope that at some point, the people in the positions to do something will choose to do the right thing.

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Reporting Out

10 March 2010

As I sat in a session on progress monitoring at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference, I started to wonder about a few new things in terms of report cards. The presenters were describing ways in which they used three different forms of data about students. One was the traditional form of scores on papers. The others are traditional in the sense that they represent data that is readily available in the classroom, it’s just rarely used for reporting: observations of and conversations with students. In my various bits of work with teachers and grading, these forms of data collection and use are the ones that make teachers uncomfortable because they rely completely on professional judgment. However, as the presenters at the session were quick to point out, when we visit a doctor, observation and conversation is the most common form of data gathering to make conclusions about our health. Certainly lab tests and vital stats inform the opinions, but we don’t think twice about physicians being unprofessional because they rely on their eyes and ears to reach a summary. Such forms should be no less valid in the classroom. I agree with this and think the key for most teachers is in finding and using data collection tools (running records or charts, for example) that are simple and meaningful to use.

But this brought me to another thought about report cards: Are letter grades “dumbed down” versions of reporting? Teachers have a rich opportunity in the classroom to gather all different forms of data---which we then expect to be crunched into a single representation. I’m not sure that even a standards-based report card would solve this, because summary progress on each target is still reduced into a symbol for that item. Do we use a single letter or number for a class on a report card because we don’t think families need or would use more meaningful information? Is the symbol good enough to represent all of the learning and evidence?

The presenters did not have to wrestle with this in their school. On the report cards, they were expected to report on three aspects: what were the learning targets for the grading period, a description of student progress toward those targets, and the plan for upcoming improvement/extension for the student. Because of the qualitative data collected throughout the reporting period, the end of term descriptions were a snap to write. I am sure this idea sends a shiver down the back of many a secondary teacher---but remember that these presenters were elementary teachers having to track and write summaries for each of 30 students in every subject (reading, math, writing, science, social studies…). The number of boxes to fill in is very similar.

I have to wonder how other stakeholders (e.g. college admissions) would view this sort of reporting. If the Carnegie unit goes away at some point (and it should in a standards-based system), what will colleges do with “transcripts” that are full descriptions of student strengths and needs as opposed to a simple list? Can they handle the truth?

Doing away with grades is not a new idea. I can think of plenty of people I’ve chatted with over the last few years who have told me about schooling where grades aren’t used and things move along just fine. I do think that an emphasis on qualitative data and more descriptive communications at secondary would shake a lot of trees. Maybe it’s time we did.

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Anonymouse Update

09 March 2010

A quick note before disconnecting from the airport wifi nipple and boarding the plane for home.

Before I headed to San Antonio, I mused about the being at a conference anonymous(e)ly...and wondered what would happen afterward. I no longer have to wonder.

I had someone in line at a Starbucks (at least a mile from the conference center) turn to me yesterday and tell me how much she liked my presentation. And someone on the shuttle over to the airport this morning knew me by name (even pronounced it correctly) and then complimented me and talked grading all the way here. Very sweet and unexpected events. And another couple of examples for me about the oddly public nature of sharing---when people know me and I don't know them at all.

The odd thing to me in all of this is that I only get these sorts of shout-outs from my presentations about grading. I have presented on differentiation, standards, using GoogleApps, data visualization, and a host of things in between. Somehow, only when I talk about grading practices do I make new friends. Who knew?

Life is full of wonderful surprises. Here's hoping I learn from them all.


ASCD 2010: Parting Thoughts

Today is a travel day for me. In a few hours, I will be on a homeward bound plane. I am ready to be home and have a couple of days of "normal" before the next conference (now only 4 days away).

The ASCD annual conference was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend attending one if and when you can. There is an incredible amount of expertise available for access. I really appreciated that this conference is not specialized. I've been to plenty of science conventions...a couple of tech ones...gifted ed...and a few other boutique things. They were wonderful in their own ways---and I do believe that the science specific ones helped me the most early in my career. But now, it is much more valuable for me to see the big picture. I liked the smorgasbord of possibilities offered here.

As with any conference, the quality of the presentations was hit and miss. I had a couple of outstanding and engaging sessions to sit in on...a couple so-so...and two truly awful eye-bleach necessitating ones. There is always a roulette feel to picking a session. There were so many (seemingly) wonderful choices which you finally narrow down to one before hauling your cookies to the room and discovering if you're a winner or loser. Generally speaking, I would say that classroom teachers have the most difficulty with presenting to other adults. They are obviously very knowledgeable about a given topic and passionate about what they do. They are probably amazing in the classroom with kids. They have a lot to share---they just need some help in getting their message out in a way that connects with an adult audience.

One of the things that impressed me most about this conference is ASCD's commitment to social media and using that to help members connect with one another and have a voice. I did get to meet the two communications staff members who tweet for the organization. I was very impressed with their professionalism and their earnestness in listening to us. For example, it was nice to actually be involved with a conversation about the Common Core Standards (instead of being told what I should think about them...as I am at home). How refreshing to not be bullied into giving up critical thinking.

I have a couple of posts started that will pull out some of the larger take-aways for me. Thank you, ASCD, for allowing me to present and to learn. At the moment, I am physically tired, but my professional spirit is rejuvenated, refreshed, and ready to work even harder on behalf of students everywhere.


The Big Show

07 March 2010

About this time last year, I tossed my hat in the ASCD Conference ring. It was not the first time that I had applied to present, but this was the first time my presentation was accepted. And since finding out that last July that I had made the cut, I have looked forward to today. Whether or not it's true, I have always looked at ASCD as The Big Show. This is the premier conference in education. It's where the experts come out to play. While I do not consider myself an expert, I do believe that I have things to share and can do it in a meaningful way. I like working with teachers.

The shot above was from my vantage point about 10 minutes before the official start of my session. And just like NSTA last year, they had to close the doors and declare the room full prior to my scheduled start time. We had at least 200 people in a room that had been scheduled for 160 (and I had prepared only 150 copies of my handout). This was far and away the largest group I have ever presented to and it was such an adrenaline rush that two hours later, I still have some butterflies and shakes. They were an amazing crowd to be with: fantastic energy.

I took my new powerpoint out for a test drive. I liked its look and flow, but I also tried to squeeze in too much for the 90 minutes. I had to rush a bit at the end. I think the other part of that was simply the size of the crowd. Getting 200 people to start and stop their conversations takes time, especially when the discussion is so rich. I will have to rethink things a bit if I have another opportunity like this.

Overall, feedback was positive. I had several people talk to me after the presentation to thank me and tell me how much they liked the session. ASCD has limited (as in 10) evaluations for each session and I was provided with a copy of each as I left. I scored all 3's and 4's and all but one "Yes" in terms of interest in learning more and attending a PD Institute on the topic. In terms of written comments, the most common theme was that they thought I had great technology skills. I used PollEverywhere and showed them my Delicious site and grading wiki. This was also the first time I put my blog and twitter handle next to my real name. It's a transition point for me.

Someone wrote that this was "one of the best presentations I have attended so far---articulate, knowledgeable, even-handed, informative." No negative comments, but a wish for "more examples on standards-based report cards and information on whether they improve student achievement." Point well taken, I think. It is something else I need to work on. I had one person ask me if there were any more evaluations because this was one session that she really wanted to give ASCD feedback about (in a good way). It was a very sweet thought.

On a personal note, I was delighted to have some friends in the room. One was someone I used to work with when I was in the Assessment division. She was a great help with handouts today and helped me celebrate afterward. There was also a science coach I worked with last year (total surprise to see him at the conference). I also met Joe Wood, whose blog I have enjoyed for awhile and have gotten to know a bit through Twitter and Facebook.

I feel like I can relax now (once the adrenaline rush wears off). Tomorrow is the final day of the conference. I am looking forward to the chance to continue to learn with others before folding up my tent and heading home.

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05 March 2010

I consider myself to be a relatively private person. My personal life is quiet and uneventful for the most part. I am enjoying living alone (at least for now) and getting out to visit with friends when I can. I'm a rather nondescript little mouse.

My job, however, is a stark contrast to this. In that role, I have a very public existence. I was reminded of that earlier this week when I was approached at a conference by one person who referred to me as "the assessment guru" and by another who had to tell me about the various presentations she's seen me do and the impact it is having on her classroom. All good things---all very pleasant interactions---all made me grateful that these relative strangers made an effort to visit with me. However, for those two, there were probably several others who did not make the same choice. The thing is, when I look into a crowd, I never know who is looking back.

This weekend will be a little different. I am in San Antonio for the annual ASCD Conference. It is an event I have been anticipating since last July. A lot of the excitement has to do with seeing presenters I've only been able to admire from afar. For example, I have used quotes from Susan Brookhart's work in many presentations. And bright and early Saturday morning, I get to be the ultimate fangirl and sit in on her session. There will be other similar moments through Monday where I get to be anonymous.

The lone exception will be Sunday afternoon, when it will be my turn to get up and stare into the void once again. I wonder who will be peering back at me.



11 February 2010

In an interesting confluence of events, I have six different presentations to give at three different conferences in two different states between March 4 and 14. The good news is that all of these presentations are on topics I've delivered before. The bad news is that the information I have needs to be retooled to fit different audiences and/or timeframes (because there is no universal session length, apparently). For the most part, this is not a big deal. I have enough variety in my slide decks these days to pull samples and arrange them to fit the occasion.

But one of these events is not like the others. In less than a month, I'm off to dance at the biggest ball in education: the ASCD national conference. As I presented to a group of teachers last week, I thought to myself that my slides and materials need to be kicked up a notch. Part of this realization is driven by the shift I'm seeing from presenting to having conversations. A lot of that is due to the audience. People I see now have the basic ideas and mechanics behind standards-based grading practices and they are moving into problem-solving and deeper connections with the classroom environment. I can reorganize my presentation to be less about "how to" and more about richer questions. It's a very exciting place to be.

Beyond that is figuring out how to have these conversations in a room of 150+ people. I haven't presented to a room with more than 100. Working with a group of 75 teachers (as I did last week) was a challenge in its own right in terms of how to make the experience personal in such a large room. ASCD is a very different venue and I want to make sure I create the best learning environment that I can.

Right now, I have a bit of calm before the early March presentation storms. It's a good time to have some headspace for thinking about all of this retooling and the road ahead. If you live in the San Antonio area and/or are going to be at the ASCD conference, drop me a line and perhaps we can carve out some time for a visit (and margarita).


Hurts So Good

08 February 2010

There are not a lot of perks in my job. I have not had a full week off of work since August 2008. I earned more as a teacher, considering the length of contract. And I have a ton more nonsensical bureaucracy to navigate now. But there are a few perks I mentioned last fall. In addition, I do get to work from home one or two days a week. Best of all? I get all the time I need for planning. I used to love this part of teaching---the creative energy that comes with sitting down with your materials and putting the pieces together in meaningful ways.

It is just as big of a rush to plan staff development for adults as it is lessons for students. The difference is the timeframe. With adults, I typically have anywhere from 90 minutes to 16 hours of meeting time. Quite often, I only get to present the material once. This can be a maddening thing. When I started doing staff development several years ago, the original Boss Lady told me that there is usually a 3:1 ratio of time for these events: three hours of planning for every one hour of delivery. It is a luxury that could never be afforded for classroom work (although I would argue it is more important there). There are 15 hours of content I will be managing next week during my assessment group meeting---which means that more than a work week should be devoted to planning. A part of this planning is easy, because this group does need time to work. All I have to do for that is set the task and budget the time, then support the process during their efforts.

Some of this planning, however, is mind-bending. It would be embarrassing to admit that I needed five hours to put together just a single hour of content (presentation plan, slides, materials), if the results weren't so good. I keep thinking that things will be easier as I accumulate experience---that I will be able to just crank out staff development. I suppose I could if I didn't care about quality (or didn't have the time to devote), I could easily whip out some PD. Doing so would probably be more painful for participants to sit through than it is for me to have to be so very tedious with my planning. I can't let that happen when it hurts so good to put something magical together.


The Importance of Play

06 February 2010

My assessment group will be meeting again soon. There is a very ambitious plan developed for our time together and I know that this group of educators will be focused and work hard on the tasks at hand. Those who work hard also deserve to play hard---not just at the end of the day when Happy Hour cranks up, but during the work sessions themselves. The brain likes a little novelty...some opportunity to think about different ideas and be creative.

At the first meeting, I kept things fairly simple. I used Paul Rogers' Name That Movie posts to construct a series of slides. I inserted the slides at different break points during the work. Below is one example---the only movie no one in the room was able to guess. (Can you recognize it? If you need a hint, it represents a Hitchcock film.)

Not everyone is a movie buff, however, and there are a variety of ways to engage an audience without having to resort to the cutesy icebreakers that send educators screaming from a session. Pull a few questions from an old Trivial Pursuit deck you have lying around the house. Find a few good riddles. Print a list of brain teaser questions. Pick up or draw your own Droodles. Or, use my favourite: The Name the Baby Contest.
Jim and Jane Roe are the proud parents of a newborn son. What should they name the baby?
If you want to play, leave your best suggestion in the comments. This question is a lot of fun to leave in the staffroom (or to play over email) with teachers. You'll get some very creative answers.

The first key here is to know your audience. Select adult-friendly items (read: items that won't be perceived as insulting to intelligence or dignity) that reflect your group. You also want to look for items that will allow people to choose their level of engagement. Even those who lurk will still have something different to think about, if only for a few minutes. It only takes one to two minutes of change for the brain to be ready to focus again and you will stimulate some creative and critical thinking for the next task. This is very helpful when you have 90 minutes of writing rubric descriptors lying ahead of you.

My next challenge is to find a way to work in the graphics and post-it wall modeled in this TED talk by Tom Wujec:

I really like the idea of including visual elements that people create. Not only does it require them to represent information in different ways, but it allows them to manipulate the various pieces we are trying to put together. We can share ideas in a different way---take them out and play with them. It seems important to be able to provide this opportunity for learners of all ages, including what happens during professional development for educators.

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Data Visualization for the Classroom

26 December 2009

I recently got to take my Data Visualization presentation out for a spin. I've been thinking about it for close to year. I was foolish enough to put in presentation proposals for such a session long before I really even knew what I might talk about. And unlike every other type of proposal I've developed, this topic was accepted for every single conference I submitted it to. This was just the prod I needed to finally get my thoughts organized.

We talked a bit about how a good visualization is like telling a good story. It also needs to provide some sense of interactivity with its users. And, it must be a little bit sexy---have some "glanceability." We also spent some time thinking about how to use common tools (like Excel) to improve our visuals (and also the ways in which data could be distorted).

I think improvements in data visualization have enormous promise for schools. As the Harvard Business blog noted earlier this month, the access to increasingly superior visualizations will help us navigate the information ocean we all find ourselves in these days. In particular, there are three major benefits:
  1. Great visualizations are efficient — they let people look at vast quantities of data quickly.
  2. Visualizations can help an analyst or a group achieve more insight into the nature of a problem and discover new understanding.
  3. A great visualization can help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed actions.
I was interested in what the participants wanted from their data. This was a room of ~50 educators, all from different walks of the school spectrum. I know that they are inundated on a regular basis with all sorts of data. What do they want it to do? They had some interesting answers. One teacher remarked that he would really like to be able to overlay his gradebook with his seating chart. A superintendent wants to mash student achievement data with Google maps. In short, they need their disparate data sets to come together. I love these ideas.

I did show off my revised report card idea and had some nice feedback. One person asked me on the way out if I had shown it off to any parents yet. I haven't. He was quite excited to run out and get some feedback on it. I really hope he sends me a line about what the reaction is.

Randy Krum from Cool Infographics put together a basic worksheet in Excel (using conditional formatting) for me to illustrate the first idea about grades and a seating chart. I am hoping that we might continue to look for some tools and ways for educators to get what they need from the information that is constantly generated in their worlds.

All of this makes me wonder what other intelligent things we should be doing with school data. Bar charts and line graphs are not evil---and they have their place in the pantheon of visualizations. I am just left thinking about what else we could be doing to get more meaning from the information that we have.


Isn't That Special?

05 December 2009

I know it might not look like much, but this binder has a bit of magic in it. Its contents were developed about five years ago, just as my career was making a change and this blog kicked up. I was tasked with getting the secondary science program in the district more, well, program-like. As such, I needed some way to collect and organize the myriad pieces for this process. This bit of cardboard, tape, and file brads was just the thing.

This was my first time to lead this sort of project. If you're so inclined, you can peruse my archives to see how things started, what happened next, anticipating the end, and moving to the next stage. There are other miscellaneous posts that refer to this project, but in many ways, the posts are not the most important documentation or legacy. For a variety of reasons, the binder itself is.

One of the most frustrating things about developing and delivering professional development (PD) is that it is usually only done once. Now, I've sat in on enough bad PD to understand that sometimes, once is more than enough. From a planning standpoint, however, it's kind of a bummer. I typically spend anywhere from three to eight hours planning per hour of delivery. That's a huge investment for something that can only be used once---no matter how large the payoff in whatever product or outcome is created by the group.

But this binder lived on. Once the pieces for moving a group through a standards-based scope and sequence process were in place, others adapted and used it. The binder lived for awhile with the language arts group. It stayed with math and guided them. It even went to another school district for nearly a year while they hashed out the same science issues that we had. After every trip, it made its way home to my file box. From time to time, I pulled out a piece to refer to, but I could never quite bring myself to just disband the item or throw it away.

I even brought it with me to my new job. I'm not sure why I made that choice, when so many of my other tools and products are packed away in the basement. Perhaps I just needed that little bit of magic sitting on the shelf, whispering that I can do this job...and do it well. Or maybe it was a trophy of sorts. It might not mean anything to anyone but me, but it made me smile to see it there.

After more than a year of sitting on a shelf collecting dust, I am pleased to say that the binder is being called back into action for one more tour of duty. There is a new process I'm involved with, and as I started to put materials together, I realized that some of the pieces for the kickoff (e.g. roles/responsibilities, norms...) were sitting a few feet from my desk. It's like working with an old friend---it's comfortable. It's special.

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You Heard It Here First

23 August 2009

In my previous job (the one that ended in June...not the one that ends this month), I was asked to think about what professional development might look like for Washington's new science standards. I believe in high-quality staff development...and working with educators is one of the things I do best. It's no secret that I am not a fan of the new standards; however, that does not mean that teachers shouldn't have the best support possible in trying to implement the beast. I had already seen enough poor PD offered around these standards. I knew that I could do better.

As I continued to think about creating some materials, I realized that there were quite a few challenges inherent in the task. First of all, the materials had to be appropriate K-12: there had to be places for teachers at all grade levels to connect. Secondly, any "stuff" had to be cheap and readily available---no special equipment and very little time/effort in preparation for those delivering the PD. Finally, there had to be a direct connection to the classroom. I know this last part seems obvious; but you and I both know that there is plenty of staff development floating around which does not provide time or opportunity for adult learners to apply what is relevant to their classrooms.

I struggled to come up with the perfect thing. And then...I did. An Inquiry activity involving no more than paperclips and paper...integrated with a Ray Bradbury story that framed the discussion...and tools for engaging with the standards that were flexible for every grade level. I captured my thoughts---and frankly, I think the basic plan is one of the very best I have ever created. I am sad that I will never get to present it.

I only made one mistake in this whole process: I told two people about my idea. And with me out of the picture (job-wise), these two people have decided to wholesale steal my idea and pass it off as their own. They are not ready to publish their version...but they are very close. You can be very sure that my name will not be credited anywhere in their information.

So, my friends, I am sharing my professional development experience with you. Although the references to the standards within are for WA, I'm quite sure every state has something on Inquiry and Forces/Motion. Just sub in your codes for ours.
I admit that these things are still a bit raw. There is always room for improvement. But I still think the basic concept is golden. I don't mind sharing, but I abhor outright stealing. Maybe it is a fine line these days in this digital world, but I would like to think that integrity transcends the medium. You may think this post represents sour grapes about my job, but I see this as a way to document the impending plagiarism. (And trust me, there is no way I want to work for those people again.) Just remember, you heard it here first.

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Lumpers and Splitters

22 August 2009

In the biology realm, there are two schools of thought when it comes to classification of living things: lumping and splitting. The Lumpers, as the name suggests, like to group organisms into larger clumps based on commonalities...unlike the Splitters, who want to separate everything based on minutiae. The field of taxonomy (classification) is a constant tug-of-war between these schools of thought.

I was thinking about this analogy the other day after having a conversation with an elementary school principal. He was talking about having to go to a workshop on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in science...and then a couple of weeks later, attending a workshop on Professional Learning Communities in reading. Guess what? It was the same stuff. Why did he need to go to two workshops? And why should he encourage different PLCs for each subject area in his building (when there are only 3 or 4 teachers per grade level as it is)? This was a man in search of some good lumping for his teachers...and I can't say that I blame him.

I'm speaking to other professional development specialists, department of ed reps, administrators, instructional coaches, and everyone else who is outside of the classroom "supporting" those who are inside (yes, I am pointing the finger at myself, too): What are we doing to schools by being Splitters? By assuming that instruction for each subject is so highly specialized that we must provide support for it separately? I admit that content knowledge greatly differs---but good instruction is good instruction. Collaboration tools for teachers are collaboration tools for teachers. It's time to get over the idea that we have some special sauce to apply for a subject area. It's way past time to walk the talk and show schools how integrated we are with our work.

I said some goodbyes this week---farewells to those in science education who are going to continue down that path while I move in a more general direction. I wish them well. I admire and understand their passions and commitments to science ed. I know that they intend good things for kids. I think that I have just reached a point in my thinking where I am struggling to see the point in being a Splitter anymore. I don't see that I can do schools any good by being one of many competing voices for attention---instead, I can provide a more unifying message by modeling integration of these things. It's time to lump.


Why Didn't I Think of That?

09 May 2009

In my most recent years in the classroom, I became a fan of using a Think Aloud (sometimes called a Read Aloud) to illustrate different reading strategies. Science textbooks are not the easiest things to read and comprehend, so I liked modeling my own metacognition for kids when I could. I even did this for AP Biology students. They were good readers in that they had the mechanics down, but the college level science text would often kick their butts. They struggled to modify their strategies applied to reading novels for English class.

As much as I liked this strategy, it ran the risk of being overused---just as with any other classroom tool. I was kinda sad that there weren't more things like it. It seemed like there were many areas in which students could have used more support in me modeling my own thinking.

And then, Clay Burrell posted this incredible idea on How to Write Timed Essays That Aren't Crap. It is about how he noticed that students were struggling to let go of the almighty Five Paragraph Essay scaffold as well as create something meaningful from the prompt for a timed essay. What did he do? He made a screencast and basically did a Think Aloud for writing. He posted the screencast for students and it was their homework to watch and comment.

It's freaking genius. But beyond that is my personal "D'oh!" moment in which I keep wondering why I never thought about doing something like this. Sure, part of it is that the technological aspects weren't readily available when I needed them...but beyond that, just getting away from seeing Think Alouds as purely a reading strategy stymied me.

Now, I'm thinking about other applications, especially in the realm of PD. What ways can I support classroom teachers through modeling my own thinking about how I organize my gradebook or deal with grading or a host of other things?

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31 March 2009

I seem to recall that in the early days of my career, there was some level of government regulation that prohibited classroom teachers from teaching about contraceptives. If a student asked for specific information, we were allowed to provide it---but we couldn't initiate any conversations. Mind you, I was never designated to teach sex ed; but being a teacher in the life science content area meant that certain topics are inevitable and it was always good to be aware of where the lines were.

I was thinking about this last week after a conversation I had with an instructional coach. He had invited me to spend a day with his teachers (and others around the district) to talk about student feedback, data collection/use, grading practices, and interventions. We'd sorta plotted things out. It was shaping up to be a really great day of professional learning.

And then, word came from above him to say that there could be no conversation involving the g-word: Grading. He'd been slapped with the contraceptive rule.

I have mentioned before that one of my favourite quotes in the research literature about grading is that "Teachers guard their grading practices 'with the same passion with which one might guard an unedited diary or sacred ground'" (Kain, 1996). I can tell you that after getting out and about this year with various presentations, grading is still very much a taboo subject among teachers. Even knowing this, I am still a bit surprised at the hammer that came down. The coach was given no reason for the district's change of heart (although, based on other things I'm seeing/hearing in other schools, my hunch is that a nervous teacher complained to The Union).

So, we will put Grading in the back of our minds for a day and work on the other items with teachers. If they have questions about grading, we'll answer them. For the most part, however, we just have to assume that if we don't talk about things, teachers will stay professionally safe and sound.

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The Whole Enchilada

02 March 2009

I had a call from a school district today asking for the full meal deal: a presentation on grading practices, data collection and information visualization, differentiation, and Response to Intervention ideas. All of this should fit within a one-day session, with time for teachers to reflect, discuss, and plan.

This is a tall order---and really, shouldn't be attempted. Each piece is worthy of exploration. However, my job is apparently to lay out the buffet and whet the appetites. The district people will come along later with the Lotus leaves.

In my mind, I see how the pieces fit together. I know what the recipe is. The challenge is being able to translate this into a feast for the senses of others.

Here's hoping that we all don't end up with a serious case of indigestion.



31 January 2009

This was a smashmouth kind of week. Monday through Wednesday consisted of 14-hour workdays (including travel around the state), while Thursday and Friday were full of crises to solve. There have been times with this new job this year that I have been terribly bored. This week was not like that---and for that, I am grateful.

I got to spend one day this week with an amazing group of teachers. I don't think I've met another department (and a large one at that with 15 people) who have the level of trust and collaboration that this group had. These were teachers who truly felt comfortable talking about anything related to professional practice---everything from true confessions, to feelings of despair, to thinking about loud concerning what they do in the classroom and why. What a wonderful experience. The focus of the conversation was on their grading practices. They have been working to implement standards-based grading and were experiencing some growing pains (along with their students). The day's conversation ranged quite a bit, but my hope was that we were being responsive to their needs.

One of the most interesting pieces was in talking about the feedback provided to students. Teachers aren't seeing the kinds of responses that they would like. In other words, the teacher takes time to craft feedback and communicate it...and then the student either never looks at it or does nothing with the information. We talked about the idea of teaching students to use that information---had anyone spent time with the class on this? There is an assumption that kids would just automatically know what to do. I don't think they necessarily do. Many teachers do not give meaningful feedback. Notes to students consist of "Great job!" or "See me." or something else that is non-descriptive. If the students finally encounter something narrative and supportive, that's a whole new ball game. The conversation reminded me of the one about "studying." How many of us have lectured students about the need to study more without actually explaining how to do that?

The remainder of the week was a flurry of meetings, questions about grants, response to legislative action, and Herculean efforts to stop the domino effects set forth by new leadership. Firefighting opportunities arrived in all sorts of shapes and sizes and it will be interesting to see how well I can keep up with the demand.

Next week, I am sneaking off to do some staff development at two schools. I am only "sneaking" in the sense that doing staff development is frowned upon; however, I see the direct support to teachers and schools as the most important thing I can do. Their needs should be placed above anything else we do as an agency. The fires I keep having to stamp out are more about what adults outside of education want as opposed to what the students within our schools need. I may not be able to change that view, but I can quietly travel to where I'm needed and do the very best I can for educators. As long as I take care of business back at the office, no one is likely to complain.

For now, I'm going to take off my asbestos undergarments, lounge on my sofa, and enjoy the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Monday, with all it's smoldering issues, will be here soon enough.

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One Teacher at a Time

16 January 2009

How sweet is this? (identifying information removed)

Hi SG, my name is --- and I teach Jr. High English in the --- School District. I attended your seminar last week and I have to say, about once a year I hear something that changes my educational life, and your presentation [on grading] was just that. Life-changing. Honestly, I came back to school and explained what I had gathered to some other educators (and my principal) and everyone was stoked and on-board. We might even take a professional development day as a department to do some work with it.

There are days where all of my paper-pushing doesn't feel like it makes a difference. The fact is, it probably doesn't. That can be very frustrating. I'm all too aware of the needs classroom teachers have and the demands they are placed under. It seems like someone in my position could do more.

I've had several e-mails this week along the same lines. Here was another from my inbox this morning:

I wanted to let you know that your presentations are quite the buzz at our school right now. They have been mentioned in 3 school meetings. 4 of the teachers at our school went to the standards and differentiation presentations and LOVED them. They are talking about maybe a content area or two trying out standards based grading next year. Are there any resources that you recommend as guidance as teachers transition to this type of grading?

Thank you for everything.

Perhaps I can help one teacher at a time. Perhaps that equals 30 kids at a time. Maybe it means that regardless of what else I do with my life, my legacy will be that grading practices change in classrooms. These little e-mails are good for some self-affirmation the next time the more mundane aspects of the job have me down. Onward.

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We All Just Wanna Be Big Rock Stars

09 January 2009

When this was a bouncing baby blog, I wrote about attending our annual state education conference. And here it is, four years later, and I've been presenting my little heart out at this same conference. It has been a very different experience, to be sure.

My session on grading practices has been the most popular. Too popular, perhaps, as I had to turn away close to 100 people who were very upset that they couldn't get in. So, I have offered to do it a third time and been placed in a room that will seat 120. I don't expect to fill it this time around, but I am glad that I can provide one more opportunity for those who want it. I had someone tell me yesterday "I was just standing in the line at Starbucks and the woman in front of me was raving about your session!" At least she wasn't ranting. :)

The presentation I did on differentiated instruction was also popular. I turned away people there, too, but perhaps not quite as many. I don't think that any of these things are really so much a matter of me and/or my reputation as much as it is the topics themselves. I'm trying to feed hungry minds after listening to what they needed. Meanwhile, my "teacher voice" is out of practice and I may be dumb (in more ways than one) by the end of the day. I have been the energizer bunny of the presentation world for this conference---but have enjoyed it immensely.

Another highlight has been getting to meet the Hedgetoad. I'm so glad that she was able to make it here---especially with all the flooding, road closures, and other weather-related issues. We've both been blogging for awhile, but never been able to get together.

Once I wrap up here this morning, I'm off to a birthday lunch at my favourite restaurant and then heading home for some much needed R & R...and "normal" status. Conference fame is fleeting, and perhaps that's just as well.


Enough is Enough

22 December 2008

I was told yesterday afternoon that someone who made the trip from here to where I work needed 5.5 hours to get there. Considering the added overnight accumulation of snow...opportunity for ice to form...and lack of plowing since yesterday, I'm going to stay put today. Yes, again. If I thought it would do any good, I would shake my tiny fist at the sky and say "Uncle!"

One of my major projects today is to work on some staff development materials for a group I'm working with in early January. Part of the focus that afternoon is to shape some ideas around "How much evidence is enough to convict a student of learning?"

I'm not thinking that there is one answer to this question, but I am still interested in how we make that decision. Even if you're not into using best practices in grading, a teacher is still making a determination about how many quizzes to give...activities to use...tests...and so forth for a particular unit of learning. What sort of "rules" do you apply when planning to assure/fool yourself into thinking you will be able to collect sufficient evidence?

This leads into a follow-up question about "How many students at mastery are enough so that you can move on to the next unit of learning?" In a perfect world, the answer is "all of them." In the real world of the classroom, we have some sort of cutoff point in mind. Is 80% enough (as RtI would suggest) and then we remediate the rest? Is a lower percentage acceptable? I don't know that many secondary teachers have thought about this particular question. For whatever reason, we are conditioned to finishing a unit and then, Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!, even if most of the class can't meet the standards. We are more slaves to our ideas of pacing than student learning. So, in the era of No Child Left Behind---let's get real for a minute---how many is acceptable to leave behind (and hope to pick up later)?

Personally, I enjoy pondering these sorts of open questions; however, most teachers do not the luxury of time and headspace to do so. Therefore, many of the teachers I will see in early January will want some framework for the answers to these questions. I will have to think some more about any guidance I can provide, but perhaps you have some ideas of your own to share?

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It's About Time

12 December 2008

Dan Meyer recently posted about the various sessions he attended at a conference. In the last one, he reveals a comment about why this recent learning experience was better:

As educators, the stakes are too high and the time constraints too stringent to settle for anything less than our best efforts, even if hearing that we shouldn’t lecture from bulleted slides for an hour is painful.

Oddly enough, I had just been preaching this message to a group of staff developers. First of all, time is too precious to waste either on bad classroom lessons for kids or poor professional development for educators. As teacher leaders, we must know best practices for all of these areas and be able to walk our talk. There is no time to waste with hit-and-miss ideas about what you think will work. Know what works and do it.

In addition to Dan's observations, I found that I had starred a post from the Principal's Page about poor presentations at conventions: You Can't Just Hand a Microphone to Anybody.
It’s just that they presented the same information I have heard over and over for the last few years.

Our students are farther advanced in technology than adults. Educators should allow cell phones in schools because they are mini-computers. We should use Skype because it is free (we do and yes it is). Schools need to be proactive, not reactive to changes in technology.

I get it.

Enough already.

I need tips or strategies to implement technology and not the same old rehashed PowerPoint presentation with 187 slides (by the way… I can read, so you don’t have to pronounce every word on every single slide for me).

If I seem angry that is because I am (see: not sleeping in own bed and haven’t had a decent cookie in days not to mention the dodging of so many PowerPoint bullets).

I know we are falling behind with technology in schools, but now I am convinced we may be falling behind in presenters.

Just because someone is willing to talk into a microphone doesn’t mean we should allow them (see: President George Bush… let the emails from North Dakota Republicans commence…).

Not everyone talking into a microphone is an expert.
And there was an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday, too, about how presenters need to be more than just spewing rah-rah ideas. Schools have real problems. We need people up there who have real solutions. I don't care what Mick Jagger thinks. Time is not on our side.

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Peeking Around the Corner

23 November 2008

So, I did my presentation at the NSTA conference yesterday. Truth be told, I was a bit bummed about things leading up to this. I knew I had the last time slot on the last day of the convention. Even if it's been a few years since I've gone to one of these events, I remember getting "Conference Fatigue" all too well. By the last day, you're ready to just go home. Meanwhile, I also discovered that my presentation was scheduled way off-site from the conference. Anybody who wanted to sit in was going to have to schlep their way over from the comfort and convenience of the main convention. So, I made 25 handouts, but figured that 10 people sitting in would be a worthy turnout.

That isn't what happened, however.

Instead, I had well over 100 people crammed into the room---sitting in the aisles, up at the presentation table and standing in the doorway straining to listen. I'm not sure how many others turned away when they saw the throng...and I know the fire marshal wasn't poking around because the number of people was well over the posted room occupancy. Wowser.

The experience was very validating---not so much for me personally as for the topic itself. Grading has arrived. When I talked to a few of the attendees about their "hardcore" attitude of staying to the end, they said that this was an area of need for them and I was the only one on the schedule talking about it. Others who chose to stay after the presentation to talk to me mentioned that they were trying to do some of these things at their schools---but it was a lonesome experience. It is indeed hard to implement something like this on your own. I got asked about presenting at other schools. Would I come? Would I talk to more than just science teachers? Would I answer the phone/e-mail if there were questions? Of course. But how sad is that people are all out there struggling on their own little islands of grading.

I had a friend mention earlier in the week that leaders should always be up ahead, peeking around the corner. From my experiences yesterday, I got a good look around the corner at two things in particular. First of all, grading practices are about to reach the tipping point in secondary schools. I expect a lot of growing pains. Secondly, the role of data visualization in all of this is going to play a major role. Every time I pull out microcharts, dashboards, and other tools, people go nuts. I can see them spark---you can see the epiphanies happening all over the room. Makes me smile every time.

What I had to share---and what people needed---does not fit neatly within a one-hour session. An hour is barely enough time to scratch the surface...and, of course, the more resources and knowledge I accumulate, the more I want to share and support. If the economy was better, I would seriously think about hitting the road as a consultant. After all, I can see what's around the next corner.

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NSTA: Days 2 and 3

22 November 2008

Yesterday (Day 2) got off to a good start. I met @MissBaker of Extreme Biology, who had made the cross-country trip from Maryland to talk about blogging in her classroom. There was quite the variety of familiarity with blogging and grade levels taught in the audience, but she did a nice job of differentiating. It's always good to meet someone from the cyber world.

The rest of the day wasn't really worth writing home about. There was a presentation of one guy's work he does with pre-service teachers where I wanted to scream "Why are you wasting their precious time with that crap! Help them learn good instructional techniques!" I went to cheerlead a colleague, whose presentation seemed to be well-received. And at the end of the day, I sat in (for a very short time) on a session about facilitating conceptual change in science. Holy cow. This guy whipped out his transparencies and waxed rhapsodic about the post-Sputnik era. He even asked if any of us remembered some curriculum that came out just after Sputnik. Um, look around, dude---most of us in the room weren't even born yet. After he asked if anyone had heard of "the learning cycle," I bolted.

As for today, there are only morning sessions. Lucky me, though, I get to present during the last time slot of the last day. Will anyone be around to participate? I think not, but that's all right. Certainly a lot less stress that way...and I can head up the road for home soon after.

It's been a different sort of conference for me. It's not been packed with learning, but the goal was really just to connect and support different people. So, mission accomplished. It will be hard to back to the grind on Monday---away from a big comfy hotel bed and open schedule. But hey, there's always next year.


NSTA: Day One

20 November 2008

First of all, I'd just like to address the rumors. I would like to assure you that I did NOT throw my panties at the Mythbusters. Sure, I thought about it. Who hasn't? I also recognized the danger of squealing like a pre-teen at a boy band concert when they came out onstage, but my dignity remained intact throughout the presentation. My BFF assured me that this was a "wise choice."

As for the rest of the conference, well, hey, anything would pale in comparison to spending time listening to Jamie and Adam talk about their professional and personal experiences. It's a different sort of conference for me---the first I've ever been to where I know lots of people: both presenters and attendees. This makes things nice. I get to meander around and be the cheerleader for any number of people. It is also nice to be someplace where I don't really have any responsibilities. I can just learn and enjoy like anyone else.

My favourite t-shirt slogan I saw today? "Protons have mass? I didn't even know they were Catholic."

Tomorrow, it's back out to the Oregon Convention Center for another day of concentrated science geekdom...panties included.


So, Tell Me What You Want

11 November 2008

We've kicked Professional Development around quite a bit here and elsewhere in the Eduverse. "PD" is one of the most dreaded events in any school year---not only do most teachers hate sitting through it, they're not so hot about leading it, either. Ditto for admins. As for me, I've had my own horrendous experiences and I've had a few jewels along the way, too. For those sessions I've been asked to deliver, I would say that my range of experience runs along the same paths. I've gotten significantly better in the last three years, although I still have a lot to learn.

My own improvements have been coupled with higher expectations for others. If I can figure out how to avoid Death by Powerpoint, so can others. If I can find a way to incorporate best practices, other presenters can, too.

I put this out there because an upcoming project of mine means packaging a whole bunch of PD for teachers. So, here's what I need from you:
  • The name(s) of any PD providers who absolutely rocked your socks, and/or
  • A description of what it was about a particular PD session that made it so powerful for you.
If you knew that training was coming, whether you wanted it or not, what would you hope would be the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down?


Thinking about Visual Thinking

19 October 2008

I don't know that I really consider myself a visual thinker, but I do believe it's important in today's world to be able to use visual means to organize, track, and use all of the information that is available. I would love to dive into a conference like this to not only get new ideas for using the tools I know about---but to find new ways to use visualization.

I am absolutely drooling over the idea of going to this conference: VizThink North America '09. There's no way I can afford it---even with $100 off coupon code, registration is $895...and that's before travel, accommodations, etc. Still a gal's gotta dream.

Oh, Santa...do you know the way to San Jose?


Archetypes and Prototypes

21 September 2008

I am part "Dear Abby" with my new job. One of the programs I support involves various teacher leaders around the state---nearly all of them novices with this role. The satisfaction and fulfillment that has come from mentorship in the past has been renewed in guiding these newbie staff developers. That being said, this is the first time I've served in such a role with those who are working with adults, rather than students. This is a whole different animal.

There are certain archetypes of teachers out there. Not every teacher will fall under a label, and I am not going to catalog them all. But here are the three most common ones that my charges are asking about:
  • Coach First, Teacher Second: There is no doubt that athletic coaches have an incredible amount of commitment to their student athletes. A considerable amount of time is spent outside the school day---and in addition to the regular sports season---to guide and develop skills. A few coaches, however, make this their primary reason for being employed by the school and things that are classroom related take such a backseat that they make no allowances for collaborating with peers. Is there a solution? Yes and no. First of all, I remind the teachers I support that it is not their responsibility to set expectations: that task belongs to the administrator. Suggest the occasional half-day of release time to collaborate with others during the sports season and then move to other mutually agreed upon meeting times. I make it clear to my noobs that they do have a responsibility to put together some powerful professional development. If they can show the coach that the collaborative time is meaningful, they won't have to beg anymore.
  • Superstar Teacher: Superstar teacher is an administrator's dream. This teacher has a great system in the classroom. He's loved by kids and parents, gets results---and does it all by himself. There is no arrogance associated with his performance, just professional satisfaction. So, how do you get these kinds of teachers to share their knowledge with others? My first recommendation is bribery. These are teachers who are self-directed in their professional learning. They will want a subscription to a website, the latest ASCD book, or sub coverage to attend a workshop. Whatever you offer must be coupled with some honest flattery. Tell them you've noticed certain lessons they've designed or student projects they've guided. Would they mind sharing a couple of ideas with the new teacher in the department? Providing some advice?
  • Dead Wood: Dead Wood likes her classroom door closed. She's been teaching for 20 years, and poorly at that, and isn't much interested in whatever staff development you're offering. Job security is hers as her efforts aren't quite poor enough that any administrator will jump through the necessary hoops to get her out of the classroom. Perhaps you can at least bring her to the table with other teachers to talk about student learning? You might. Start small. Ask her for help, even if you don't need it. Pretend you're looking for a lesson a particular topic or ask for a copy of a lab you know she has. Just get your foot in the door and honor the positive things that she does have to offer. Don't push collaboration for a bit and focus on building her self-image of someone who is a resource. Later, after you have the trust and relationship built, invite her to join your group.
In all cases, it really is about taking the time to build a positive working relationship with one's peers. My advice may appear manipulative, but they are only suggestions for getting things kicked off. I always tell the staff developers that I trust their professional judgment. They know their teachers far better than I and will have to make the final determination. These staff developers are attempting to be prototypes---or role models---for their peers in terms of what implementation of best practices looks like. In order to be effective, though, they will need to learn how to address the archetypes in their buildings.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

15 September 2008

In my last post, I ranted a bit about the low standards I think most staff developers have. I don't know very many who can walk their talk---and that's rather pathetic, in my view. This post is geared more toward administrators and school boards and again, I hope that teachers will weigh in. What I want to think about now is "output." If a principal brings in someone to do some staff development, there must be some sort of reason. There is an initiative the principal wants to support or perhaps she hopes to reverse some sort of trend in student achievement. Teacher time is expensive. Think about the number of teachers you have at a staff meeting and what they're being paid per hour (including benefits). How much is this meeting costing the district, even before adding in materials, cookies, and (at times) a paid consultant? Are you getting your money's worth? Is it just another example of GIGO (see post header)? How do you know?

I don't think that saying we expect scores on state tests to go up is enough. Again, thinking about the differentiation idea from my previous post, shouldn't we expect our "assessment" of staff development to be broader than simply measuring student scores? Perhaps more importantly, there are very few valid and reliable ways to connect staff development to student achievement---there are just too many variables involved. In other words, just because student scores go up in Mrs. X's class doesn't mean it was because she participated in a PLC in the past year. To do so means assuming that there were no other changes to her practice, the sample of students was roughly the same (gender, ethnicity, SES...), and so forth. We have to step back. The goal of professional development is to change teacher behavior. Whatever we use to assess and evaluate that has to focus on teachers, not kids.

So, what might be some appropriate ways for teachers to show what they know? Teachers are among the most creative people I've ever met. I don't think they should be limited to writing lesson plans using the new "it" strategy in the school. Obviously, I love the idea of blogging, but there are other electronic media which could be just as useful. An admin wrote this post last May about an Instructional Council where admins would bring their favourite thing to share. Kind of a grown up show-and-tell PLC. I really like that idea. How many of us get excited about something we've discovered or tried, but don't have an outlet to share it with others? I'm still thinking about Clay Shirky's article on the idea of Cognitive Surplus. We have so many more tools with which to be creative these days---how do we harness that? How do we encourage new types of "output" for teachers? Or even old ones like presenting at conferences instead of just attending?

We don't expect students in our classrooms to just be passive vessels. We demand that they demonstrate their learning for us. We want to see multiple and different models. Why do we not have the same expectations for our teachers?


Differentiation Isn't Just for the Classroom

14 September 2008

I have been chewing the proverbial fat on two ideas as of late. I'm going to share one today and spit out the other tomorrow. (Sound appetizing so far?) Both deal with different aspects of professional development for teachers. While I'll be approaching these posts from the staff developer lens, I am hoping you teachers out there will chime in with your two cents---because really, these ideas are about you.

Every August, I read post after post about cringe-worthy staff development days as teachers go back to school. I defy you to find me any veteran of the classroom who doesn't have at least one example of excruciating staff development that they endured (myself included). But over the last five years, I've had a chance to also be on the other end of PowerPoint and design staff development. I do a pretty darned good job with it, too, based on the feedback I get from teachers---who are usually harsh, but fair, critics.

I base my design on a few key things. First of all, the needs of adults as learners are different from those of school-age students. I think this is where a lot of professional development (PD) people fall down. They don't respect the needs of their audience. In the quest to model certain strategies or techniques, they choose to treat teachers as if they were children. I'm sorry, but that dog don't hunt. While I encourage and engage in modeling good instruction, I don't need to talk down to teachers to do it. Secondly, the elements of high quality lesson design for the classroom can (and should) be applied for staff development. Again, this does not mean you have to view adults as kiddies, but it does mean that there should be a Big Idea driving the instruction and that there should be multiple "input" methods (not just sit-and-get with PowerPoint). In short, differentiation is key in giving people various ways to connect with the material. If the material is important enough to take up teacher time, then they deserve to have a rich learning experience. Do your homework, staff developers.

If we step out even further and consider a district as a single unit, shouldn't the overarching plan for staff development be differentiated? I got to thinking about this again after reading Mrs. Sommerville's comment on my recent PLCs: Jumping the Shark post. Her district has School Board mandated Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). And while I'm sure that they haven't directed exactly what each group will focus on during these times, I'm a little nervous about any district that has a "one size fits all" policy where teachers are concerned. PLCs can be fabulous things...but they won't be productive for every single teacher. How can we use one breath to express the need for teachers to do whatever it takes to reach every child in the classroom and in the next assume that teachers are all cookie-cutters? If the most influential factor in student achievement is the classroom teacher, shouldn't districts be doing what they can to reach every adult who works there?

I am chafing against this a bit in my new role...working with some people who, I believe, don't get "it." The "it" being effective professional development that is respective of adult learners and differentiated according to need. I think as leaders that we should expect more of ourselves than creating a basic presentation plan simply because that's the easiest thing to do. Hey, we might as well just push play on a pre-recorded PowerPoint and read the newspaper while attendees scribble down notes. That's a great example of learning for them to take back to schools, dontcha know? How do I shake them out of that mode of thinking? What do I do to get them to wake up?

So far, I've just mentioned planning and delivery here---in my next post, I want to talk about the missing aspect of most PD: output. For now, though, weigh in and let me know what you wish staff developers considered when preparing to spend time with you. What things have I forgotten or should change on my list?


Jumping the Shark: PLCs

07 September 2008

If you're new to the term "Jumping the Shark," it is defined by JumptheShark.com as "...a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it 'Jumping the Shark.' From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same." Why the weird term? For you youngsters out there, "The aforementioned expression refers to the telltale sign of the demise of Happy Days, our favorite example, when Fonzie actually 'jumped the shark.' The rest is history."

There are several ways a program can show that demonstrate that it has run its course, many of which happen after the public is fatigued of hearing/reading/talking about the show---overexposure making the producers think they need something "fresh."

I got to wondering about whether or not this happens in education after reading Polski3's post about PLCs. If you haven't heard of PLCs, the acronym (we do luvs us some acronyms in education) stands for Professional Learning Communities. According to SEDL, PLCs are groups of "teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit." (As an aside, anyone who can find a single place on the SEDL website where they explain what their acronym stands for should get a big shiny gold star. It's apparently a State secret or something.)

There's nothing wrong with the PLC concept---in fact, there's a whole lotta right with it. Teachers talking about student learning and instruction? Downright awesome. But it is perilously close to jumping the shark when mass implementation occurs without the necessary structures in place. It becomes another one of those things that schools say they do, but---to borrow another perilously poised on waterskis term---don't "implement with fidelity." (RtI, anyone?) We toss out the idea of PLCs to teachers without working through issues of time for meetings, protocols for discussions, and coaching on which changes to instruction will move more kids forward. We assume that every teacher already has the skills and desire to make PLCs work. Worse yet, we think that PLCs will be a one-size-fits-all mode of staff development that will best serve all teachers. We do this because there is some good research coming out about the effectiveness of PLCs. Admins and teacher leaders go to conferences and drink the kool-aid. Some teams of teachers will thrive, others will implode due to personality conflicts, lack of administrative support, or other reasons.

It doesn't take a long time to find the grizzled veterans in a school---the ones who don't buy into anything new presented to them because they either believe "This, too, shall pass." as have hundreds of other initiatives over the years or because "Everything old is new again.": they've seen and done it before, only with a differently named package. Either way, they can smell a shark a mile away. Are there ways to prevent this? Education doesn't have a very good track record of starting something and then leaving it in place long enough to really determine if its working. With PLCs, you're talking about a significant change in the way many schools do business. Are we going to take care with how we do this...or are we just going to let it go and wait until the next feeding frenzy?

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Hungry for Answers

31 July 2008

My standards-based grading and student motivation extravaganza was yesterday afternoon. So many people showed up that the event organizers had to close the session a good 15 minutes before it was even scheduled to start. While this is certainly no testament to me (I only knew 2 people out of the 60 or so who came), it does say something about interest in grading practices. People came in to save spaces at tables more than an hour before the workshop was set to kick off. I find that heartening in a lot of ways because not all of these people were "the choir" for me to preach to. Sure, there were teachers and administrators there who had given standards-based grading a whirl, but others were there to gawk. I'm sure I gave them an eyeful. LOL

I had a middle school PE teacher chat with me for awhile when all was said and done. She said that during the break, she'd seen her supe out in the hallway. The supe asked her how the workshop was going. The teacher replied, "My brain is really fighting with itself. One half completely agrees with everything she says and the other half thinks she's crazy." (Little does she know, eh?) I had a couple of other participants make similar comments. In other words, it is so clear to them that these practices are the right thing to do, but to let go of including behaviors in grading (e.g. not giving zeros for plagiarism and making kids do the work instead) feels just beyond reach. They see the path to walk but aren't sure they have the strength to make the journey.

I spent about 30 minutes talking about motivation---and in particular, achievement goal theory. We as educators often tell students that we value their learning more than their grades---but do we really mean it? I showed them the graphic below and we talked about the idea that while we ostensibly want a "mastery approach" to classroom learning, which of these other orientations did students demonstrate?

Beyond that, we talked about the mixed messages we may be sending through our feedback to students and the posters and bulletin boards on our walls. I had one teacher afterwards say what a chord I struck with that. She realized that she tells kids all the time that she wants them to focus on learning, but when she hands back tests, she makes a big deal about how one class outperformed another. She had never thought about how those two things are really in opposition. There were lots of head nods when I mentioned things like kids throwing away their work the moment you handed it back or the "point whoring" that comes along with kids fighting for every little inch they can get. People started to reflect on that and what messages they may have unintentionally been giving kids about what they (as teachers) value.

I was truly excited to see so many people there. However, the drawback was that I didn't get to have the kind of interactive session I really wanted. Sixty people crammed into a room is not conducive for a Four Corners activity or other movement. Think-Pair-Share gets redundant in a hurry. Poll Everywhere was very well received, but as I'd anticipated, not all adults are comfortable with text messaging (although all thought this would be awesome for the classroom---and parent nights). I quickly ran out of handouts (sponsors had told me to plan for no more than 50---and I thought that even that was darned ambitious), but was so glad that I had my wiki set up so that people knew where they could get everything later. People were darned hungry for information on grading. Who knew?

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Time to Rawk

29 July 2008

Tomorrow afternoon, it's finally time for me to give my 3-hour workshop on standards-based grading and student motivation. I've worked a large number of hours over the last six weeks to pull together what I think is a kick-ass professional learning experience. Yes, I'm biased...but I also know what typically gets offered at conferences like this. Usually a dry Powerpoint and very little interaction. ("Absolute power corrupts. Powerpoint corrupts absolutely.")

I constructed a wiki as a companion for the workshop. I did this for two reasons. One was simply to have a simple place for people to get all of the resources, such as a digital copy of the handout and slides (which I'm not handing out), a list of books and websites I reference, and so forth. I want people to be able to focus on the thinking and learning---not the "stuff." They can go back later and easily find the title of a book or a look at a site without having to write down the URL. Also, for any "artifacts" created during the session, I can take pictures with my digital camera and place them on the site. Again, I hope that this will allow people not to have to stress out trying to capture all of the information at once. The other main reason for the wiki is just to allow the participants to contribute to the learning beyond the scope of our time together. I'll bet several people tomorrow will have resources that they want to share. What a great way for them to connect. Their knowledge is valuable and I want them to be able to show that off.

Yes, I do have a PowerPoint presentation, but it is not a series of slides for me to read off of. Some have Poll Everywhere questions with prompts for people to text message their answers. One of my favourites is for a "Pop Quiz!" activity that plays the music from the shower scene in Psycho when it comes up. There are cartoons to provoke some laughter (and discussion) and some simple quotes from the research to guide things along.

There's time built in for participants to talk, to move around, to have quiet moments to think and reflect. I've tried really hard to respect their needs as learners and differentiate the session as much as possible. There is so much I want to say and share, however, I hope that I've designed things such that this session is really about the audience needs. Hard to do when I am so passionate about what I know and want to say.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a great session---that is, people show up and are willing to dive into some good learning. I'm ready to rawk!

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Size Isn't Everything

07 July 2008

I'm still poking along on my grading workshop that I'm facilitating in three weeks. My problem is that now that I'm down to the nitty gritty of what to actually say and do with the group, the whole project keeps growing. I keep remembering little anecdotes to share...pieces of articles that are good for provoking thought...and quotes from the research that make powerful statements. So what I originally think might be a 15-minute segment grows into something twice as long.

Meanwhile, this is supposed to be a workshop. To me, that means that the participants talk and do things---I should just be facilitating the learning. People aren't giving up their summer holiday and paying good money to see me on a soapbox. And yet there is so much I could share. I feel the tug of becoming a bad teacher---the kind who feels they have to show all of their learning while the captive audience yawns. I am trying very hard to resist that pull.

I "only" have three hours. I keep reminding myself that some things are just going to have to be left off the program. I need to pick my very best stuff---the things I feel I absolutely must say (presentation mode) and then include lots of opportunities for people to "play" with the ideas for themselves. I have to remember that the size of my knowledge base isn't everything that needs to be shared at that time. But if I build things just right, they'll come back for more.


A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Numbers

02 July 2008

Last year, I worked with a school that was in the midst of re-centering itself. It's all too easy in the midst of the Death by 1000 Mandates governing us to remember why it is that we choose to be in the classroom---much less think about the future and what we want our schools to be.

I asked the staff to consider three questions: What happens? What matters? What matters most?

They wrote their answers into three concentric rings like this:

The outer ring contained all sorts of ideas about the school day (what happens). The middle ring was meant to focus ideas a bit---our of all the things that happen in a given day, which of those matter? Finally, the center ring was to capture what mattered the most out of everything. People from all walks of school participated and, as you might imagine, a range of answers were generated.

With their permission, I organized the information for them. I chose to use tag clouds. I could have used a graph instead---we could have counted how many people mentioned "parents" or "data." But I don't think it would have had the same impact as the clouds. I used TagCrowd for generating the visuals because it allowed me to put in my own text (most cloud services use URL or other on-line data).

Here is What Happens:

Here is What Matters:

Here is What Matters Most:

You can click on any of the graphics to make them bigger (and more readable). If you're unfamiliar with this sort of graphic representation, all you need to know is that the bigger and bolder the font, the more times the idea was mentioned by the staff.

I have to say that "What happens?" is my favourite. It's this delightful snapshot of a school day---everything from the pledge of allegiance in the morning to kids tipping over chairs to the after school safety patrol groups. There is a certain sense of cacophony to visual. You get a real sense that life in the school is "noisy" and that you are pulled a hundred different directions. It's also interesting to me to see how not only does that noise get dialed back as you progress through the visuals, but the things which garnered the most attention for "What happens?" are not the same things that matter the most. This served as a great jumping off point for talking about why there was this disparity and what we could do about it.

I have to say that it was one of my most favourite staff development activities that I've ever done. I think the visual was powerful in allowing everyone on staff to have a voice in the process and to see it reflected in the work they did together. I am hoping to have an opportunity to use a similar process in the future. There are so many new ways to visualize data, from microcharts to infoporn (safe to click---it's just about where the calories are in grocery stores) to motion graphs. We need to find ways to bring these to the classroom and staff room. They make the stories of our schools come alive and are more than worth 1000 numbers in what they communicate.

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The Good Word

26 June 2008

At the end of July, I'm doing a three-hour workshop on standards-based grading for the state. It's my first opportunity to spread the good word. I'm not quite as evangelical as Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, however I'm not so sure that wouldn't be such a bad thing. My passion is at a fairly feverish level, but I think telling people that I'm gonna get medieval on their asses in terms of their bad grading practices might put them off. Besides, I'd look terrible in a 'fro. Therefore, a kinder, gentler approach is more appropriate, I realize, especially since the session is geared toward those who have seen the light and are just looking for some shepherding toward the promised land of grading goodness. Is that enough euphemisms for one paragraph? Shall we move on?

Anyhoo, I'm working on my presentation and things are really starting to shape up. I'm applying a UbD'ish approach to the agenda. The Big Idea is Standards-based grading practices can and should be implemented in all classrooms. There are three Essential Questions to guide the afternoon: What is the role of grading within classrooms?, What does standards-based grading "look like" in practice?, and How can we effect change in grading practices?

Beyond that, the agenda breaks down as follows:
  • A problem-based formative assessment to kick things off. I plan to use a scenario based on the truant kid to see what the various "solutions" offered are. This should give me some insight into the various philosophies and roles present. I'll share my solution, which has a nice connection to supporting motivation in the classroom.
  • From there, we're headed into examining the first Essential Question via a brief discussion of student motivation and grading in general. (Yes, based heavily on my EdD work.) I think the interesting point to ponder along the way will be "Would we have the WASL if grading practices were standards-based?"
  • The second Essential Question is where we'll spend the bulk of the time that we have. This is the "Nuts and Bolts" section. We'll start by looking at Communication Tools (equal vs. fair, grading policies, working with various stakeholders...) and then Grading and Feedback (using formative and summative information, 4-3-2-1 scales, wording and delivering feedback, getting students to reflect on improvements). It's off to the land of Record-keeping and Paper Pushing after that, including gradebooks and number crunching (more on this tomorrow). This section ends with Consequences. What do you do about student behaviors now that you aren't including them within the grades for learning? For each of these sections, I am planning various activities for the participants.
  • Finally, the last Essential Question will be addressed through a discussion of why the use of best practices in grading isn't more widespread and what we can do to change that.
  • The summative assessment will be based off the issue I had with a senior this year. This is probably the stickiest thing I've faced, especially since graduation was on the line.
Can all this be done in three hours? I think so. I tend to run my professional development at a snappy pace. My goal is for people to have several concrete pieces ready to adapt/use in their own classrooms by the end of the day. The majority of professional development I've seen regarding grading has been in presentation mode ("This is what I think and/or what I did."). Very little is participant focused ("What do you need and how can we get you there?") and I want to change that. At some point, theory needs to become practice. And we shouldn't expect everyone to invent their own wheels.

With that in mind, feel free to let me know if there are aspects to my workshop plan that you think should be added/changed/deleted. I'm really looking forward to delivering this workshop and hoping that this little flock will grow.

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