Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Presenting with Students

Photo by Billy Krakower as we took our morning brain break at #TCT15
This past Friday, as teachers from all over the world started packing their suitcases for the annual International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference held in our own City of Brotherly Love, a group of excited and passionate teachers were getting up early, having scheduled their trips to arrive a few days in advance of ISTE in order to participate in the inaugural Tomorrow's Classrooms Today conference organized by the amazing team of Evolving EducatorsBilly Krakower, Scott Rocco, and Brad Currie. The opening keynote by Cybraryman, Jerry Blumengarten (who really does have a web page for everything), and a crowdsourced lunchtime keynote by my friend Rich Kiker helped to frame an afternoon of learning that was filled with sessions on gamification, flipped-learning, project-based learning and assessment, blogging, and innovations of all sorts.

Christy Brennan's sketchnotes of Jerry Blumengarten's keynote
And perhaps my favorite part, presenting with my colleague and friend Christy Brennan and three of my students!  I was fortunate to present with Christy and a few of my students at this past January's EduCon in Philly, and it went so well that we though, let's do it again!  One of my former students, Jenna, who presented with us at EduCon, joined us again on Friday for our session on Mentoring Passion. Two other students, Kristin and Emily, who had just finished 10th grade English with me also joined to talk about what they each had learned when Kristin surveyed the student body to design an new elective course and Emily interviewed and worked with learning space designers to propose (and have accepted by our school!) a new design for our upstairs library space. And because we had a small group of teachers in our session on Friday, there was time to talk more collaboratively about passion-based learning, fostering mentorship opportunities, and for my students to share their experiences of what worked and what didn't as they pursued their inquiry. The teachers that joined us for Friday's session were able to ask my students about their process undertaking our #HavPassion research.

There are so many, many positives that come out of asking students to present at conferences. Perhaps the most obvious reason to encourage student participation in education conferences and workshops is that as a group of teachers sitting in a room talking about educational philosophies and practices we're not getting a full picture of what is happening in the classroom if students aren't also seated at the table.  For all our talk of student-driven learning and student-ownership, there are very few students presenting their work outside of the classroom. If our goal is to innovate, to change what is happening in education in order to help support more critical and creative thinking, students need to be involved in our conversations about what that looks like. My students showed up on a Friday during their summer vacation to present to a bunch of teachers. Hang on. Let me repeat that.

My students showed up on a Friday during their summer vacation to present to a bunch of teachers.

The students were not getting any points for showing up. There wasn't a grade involved. They were not getting extra credit. So why did they want to present? Because what they undertook in our classroom, authentic research that included contacting and conducting interviews and primary research, that involved finding mentor texts and becoming a mentor, that involved a lot of blogging, and time, and effort, was something they want others to hear about. They are passionate and proud of their work. So passionate that they took time out of their summer vacation, arranged their own transportation, and volunteered to talk in front of strangers about what they had learned. When was the last time a student got that invested in a multiple-choice test?

So here's a little more about what they presented. Below you will find our slide deck on Mentoring Passion. Be sure to check out the speaker's notes as Christy and I loaded them up with links and information.  Beneath that you will find the recording of our presentation shared live via Google Hangouts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

No more CheckBrics

During my first year of teaching high school, a colleague shared with me her practice of completing every one of the assignments she gave to her social studies students before she actually assigned it to her class. By completing the assignment herself, not only could she better anticipate where students might need extra support, but she also had a better grasp on what exactly she was asking her students to know, understand, and do. This was perhaps the best advice I got my first year, that and to make sure that I ate lunch with colleagues instead of working through lunch each day. For the past thirteen years of teaching high school, I have made every effort to keep this practice. In doing so, I come into a unit or a lesson with a better understanding of what I am asking of my students and why. This same framework, suggested by Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, has greatly influenced how I think about the work that is done by students in my classroom. Busy-work has no place in my classroom.

Instead, much of the “work” of my tenth grade English classes falls into two categories - practice and performance. Students begin a unit with the summative rubrics already in hand. We need to know what we are working toward. The work of the unit is to figure out why these goals are important. We practice strategies and skills in order to work toward that summative performance. But here’s where we run into some problems. A performance assessment, especially when it is used as a summative assessment tool, is only as good as its assessment criteria. Bad rubric = worthless assessment tool and useless feedback.

What type of feedback does a student get from this?
As Peter Afflerbach points out in Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, “...performance assessments provide illustrative and educative details that complement the general statements made up such single, summative assessment markers” (97). However, this is only true when those performance assessments are carefully crafted to provide relevant feedback on the skills that students are working toward. Too often I have been guilty of taking the easy way out. Instead of creating a true rubric which outlines what an exemplary versus a below basic performance of a task looks like, I have created a checkbric, a list of things the must be included in the summative task.

A checkbric is not an assessment tool. It does not provide students with a model or anchor of what the successful completion of the assignment looks like. It does not focus on skills, but rather focuses on discrete facts or items. A checkbric does not help a student self-assess their work in any sort of reflective way. Instead, a checkbric functions as a to-do list.

So, I am banning checkbrics from my classroom.

Well-developed rubrics are the backbone of performance assessments. Afflerbach writes, “Over time, our use of rubrics and work samples in the classroom contributes to students developing specific schemata for what good work looks like, strategies for progress, and a schema for the ongoing self-assessment of their progress toward performance goals” (103). It is for this reason that I firmly believe that students should have such well-developed performance rubrics at the onset of the unit. In order to understand what we are working toward, students must have a clear understanding of the end goals.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Portfolios and Self-Assessment

Portfolio based assessments are not new. I remember researching authentic and holistic portfolio-based assessments for my final undergraduate inquiry project. Authentic and holistic. This was in the mid-nineties, when many educators were talking about holistic assessments. We discussed the whole child, whole language, holistic learning. With the backlash increasing against the proliferation of data-driven, high-stakes, multiple-choice tests, the assessment pendulum seems to be making a swing back toward more holistic, portfolio-based assessments.
As Peter Afflerbach points out in Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, there are many valuable reasons for using portfolio assessments in the classroom: “The public forum provided by the portfolio process requires students to anticipate different audiences, communicate effectively with their classmates, and clearly reason about their learning based on the evidence provided in the portfolio” (83). Afflerbach sums up nicely why I use online portfolios with my tenth grade and creative writing students. My students begin our course with the construction of their online portfolio on day one, creating an opening web page that explains a self-selected metaphor for their writing process. We talk not about both the written rhetorical choices that a writer makes as well as the digital rhetorical choices that impact the viewer/reader. Throughout the semester, students post a variety of their work: multi-media research projects on their independent reading selections, benchmark literary analysis essays with reflections on their growth over time, embeded research blogs, and the text of our personal essays accompanied by video recordings of that text turned into a speech. Their final portfolio is part documentation, part a showcase of their work over time. Students self-assess their work, posting their reflections on what they have discovered and changed.

I have seen first-hand how incorporating writing portfolios can encourage more self-reflection on the part of my students. Especially given that our portfolios are online, students are constantly reflecting and reassessing how they present themselves digitally. And having created online portfolios with my students over the past few years, I now have a collection of models and mentors for my students to access as they are building their own. Afflerbach points to self-assessing as being one of the strongest reasons from employing portfolios in the classroom: “When students experience the control that accompanies self-assessment, they grow in self-esteem and agency” (90). I whole-heartedly agree. In fact, for the past two years, as a result of my students spending more time on self-assessment throughout our course, I have opened the opportunity for my classes to create their own rubric for their final online portfolio assessment.

In the last few weeks of our course, my students and I spend time reflecting on our learning experiences. What have we learned about reading? What have we learned about writing? What are the skills we have spent time developing? I ask students to think about how they know they have grown in their skills and abilities. What does evidence of learning look like? On a note card, students individually write down the skills on which they feel their final online portfolio should be assessed. Then, they meet in pairs and small groups to compare criteria. Finally, the class comes together to build our collaborative rubric for their final portfolios, and using a shared Google document, we spend about a week reflecting, revising, and rewriting the assessment criteria. Students not only collaborate to write the assessment criteria, what they are assessed on, they also decide how those points are assigned. I tell them that the final portfolio assessment must be worth 200 points, but they have to agree on how those points are assigned. As the teacher will I be assessing their portfolio for those 200 points? Will students take some of the ownership of that assessment process? Will students self-assess their entire portfolio?
Students in my Creative Writing and tenth grade English classes have been creating their final portfolio grading rubrics for the past two years. And each class is different. This past semester, my Creative Writing students wanted me to assess 50 percent of their final portfolios. I used the class-designed rubric to assign 100 points, and they used the same rubric to assess for the other 100 points. My honors English students didn’t want to split the grade. Instead, they wanted to be 100 percent responsible for assessing their final portfolio, but with the caveat that they completed their assessment through either a peer or teacher conference. My honors students wanted to talk through each of the criteria and how it applied to their portfolio as a whole.

Although each class ends up with a slightly different set of criteria, for the most part, their final rubrics end up looking quite similar. I attribute this to the consistency with which we engage in self-reflection and assessment throughout the semester. At the onset of each unit, students have the criteria and rubrics which will be used for their summative assessments. They know what they are working toward. Following each unit, as students are posting their work to their online portfolio, students are once again assessing how well they met the criteria outlined on the rubric. So by the time we get to the close of the class, students have been using the same sets of criteria throughout our course. Afflerbach states that student success with portfolio assessment can be measured when “...students are expected to grow in their ability to use the assessment strategies that are modeled and taught by their teachers” (88). I would argue that an even more powerful measure of that success comes when students are empowered to create those assessment strategies.

Here's how I manage my student portfolios.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Getting Testy about Testing

The most recent round of backlash to high-stakes, state-mandated testing comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying even the smallest bit of attention to changes in educational policies over the last decade. From the onset of No Child Left Behind to state-mandated tests as a result of the recently implemented Race to the Top initiative and Common Core State Standards, our culture has been more focused on what tests have to say about what is happening in our schools. We expect more transparency. Testing has been seen as the easy window into the classroom. Not only do I see this in my own tenth grade classroom, but in the classroom of my own children.

My son started kindergarten this year. Early this past May, we attended Kindergarten Round-up, a morning set aside to meet teachers and administrators, to meet future classmates, and tour the school. At least that is what I thought it was going to be. Instead, my son and I were separated. He was taken into a separate room with four stations, asked to sound out words, arrange letters, make stories from building with bricks, and spoke with the school psychologist. In the span of circulating through four stations in 30 minutes, his reading and reasoning skills were assessed so that he could be “leveled.” Meanwhile, the other parents and I sat with a group of teachers and the school’s principal, listening to how important the kindergarten assessment would be when students took the test the following May. We were continually reassured that the elementary school routinely performed well on the state tests, which children would take every year from kindergarten through eighth grade. A state standardized test for kindergartners. The focus of this initial meeting was not on helping young learners build relationships, understand connections, or foster a love of reading and learning; instead, the overwhelming message was about the importance of testing. My six year old son was sent home with weekly homework packets filled with practice sheets in preparation for the routine DIBELS tests, popcorn words lists to memorize, and handwriting practice sheets. After the first month of school, recess was taken out of the schedule as parents were told that the time was needed to better prepare students for the tests students would be taking. Instead, recess time was replaced with time in a computer lab. My six year old son spent a portion of his time at school in front of a screen in order to prepare him to take a test.

The backlash against the proliferation of high-stakes testing should not be a surprise to anyone.

As Peter Afflerbach points out in his text Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, high-stakes multiple-choices tests are not a recent addition to our educational landscape. Testing and sorting of students is a century-old practice. What has changed is the increased use of such tests in early grades despite the fact that experts in the field of reading instruction, including professional groups like the International Reading Association and the National Council of English Teachers, have all questioned the validity, reliability, and appropriateness of using such high-stakes tests to measure student ability (148). Additionally, as Afflerbach states,
High stakes assessments are used to focus responsibility for students’ failure and success on schools, which has the effect of placing the entire burden for students’ education and well-being on parents and teachers rather than the social systems that contributes to the poverty that influences students’ reading development in the first place. (150-1)
It is much more difficult to address the systemic issues that contribute to a student’s success or failure. Test results are easy to get and easy to interpret.

In the case of my own classroom, my tenth grade students recently took the Pennsylvania Keystone Literature test, a test which students must pass in order to graduate. This is a recent change, with my current group of tenth graders being the first class of students who face this new graduation requirement (fortunately, this now seems to be on the way out). As a result, our curriculum and even course offerings have changed. I have a state reading assessments workbook I was asked to use with my students which consists of short non-fiction passages and multiple-choice questions to work through. Instead of having students read full texts, we are moving more and more to passage-based reading. As research is not something assessed by state-standardized tests, teachers have dropped the more intensive project-based learning opportunities in favor of short reading assessments with multiple-choice questions aligned to our state standards and replicating those questions that students will see on the Keystone literature exam.

During the actual testing itself, the state told us that not only did we need to cover or remove any content specific posters/decor in our rooms but that we also need to remove any motivational posters. Over the last year, the state conducted a study and found that students testing in classrooms with motivational posters performing statistically better than those in rooms without. So to level the field, we needed to make our classrooms as bare as possible.

Reread that.

We have gotten to a point in our testing craze that teachers are being told to remove decorations and motivational posters from their walls to accommodate high-stakes testing.

As Afflerbach states, the negative consequences of such high-stakes assessments far outweigh the positives. Students broke down and cried during our six days of state assessments. Students began school with two hours of state tests and then went through their regular classes. A full day of classes following a grueling two hours of high stakes tests upon which their graduation is dependent. And a number of students will find out this summer that their efforts were for naught. They will be labeled “Below Basic” and rescheduled into a “Keystone Reading Class,” which students all know as the code of a remedial English class. “Labels from test results are accompanied with myriad related consequences, such as lowered expectations, differential treatment in the reading classroom, and decreased perseverance for those labeled as low-achieving readers” (160). So rather than providing support for our struggling readers, such tests do much more harm than good.

And this should come as no surprise when educational policies are made by those outside of education.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bringing our Time to a Close

These are the days that are difficult to write about. These ending days. As the school year comes to a close, as seniors don their graduation gowns and teachers begin to pack up their rooms, I am reminded that this year is a closing of a different sort. I am moving on with my graduating seniors.

Monday night was graduation.  I gathered with my group of 19 advisory seniors, students who I have seen nearly every school day since their first day as freshman, shared with them congratulations and tears, and watched them walk across the stage, reach out for their diploma. My 19 rowdy and resilient advisory students.

Just a few days before we shared our final homeroom together, celebrating with water ice and gifts. With the help and generosity of some fantastic writers, I was able to give my seniors a personalized and signed copy of a book as a graduation gift. Daniel Pink, Charles Duhigg, Brene Brown, K.M. Walton, and Tiffany Schmidt helped me pull off quite a surprise by signing copies of their books for my students. And I also was able to give them something back. The first day of their freshman year, I had my students write a letter to themselves, telling them that I would give it back to them when they graduated. A few of them had forgotten about the letter. Reading that letter helped bring to a close their high school experience by remembering where it all began.

On Monday night as I sat with them listening to the evening's graduation speakers, I was reminded of where my experiences as a teacher began. It began with them. Their first day of kindergarten, September 3, 2002, was also my first day as a teacher. It seems fitting that I am moving on along with them. This will be my last graduation with this district as I prepare for my summer move back to my home state of Michigan. My last graduation, last speeches, last final exams.  These past few days have been quickly bringing my first teaching position to a close.  And just like it was for my graduating seniors, it is an emotional time.  We are both taking time to look behind us, look at how far we've come, as well as to look ahead, both anxious and excited.

My classroom has become a metaphor for change. Earlier this year, my classroom won an award for the makeover I undertook this past summer in order to make my classroom a more brain-friendly, collaborative learning environment. Now, it is bare. As I pack my classroom library into rubber bins, take down the international flags, student work, and posters, students comment on how it no longer feels like "home." They've walked into our classroom each day this week with exaggerated pouts, "Ms. Ward, this isn't our room."  I couldn't agree more. Students no longer see themselves reflected on the four walls of our room. I no longer see myself reflected here. It reminds me how hard these closings can be. But at the same time, these empty walls are also full of possibility. They will welcome a new class and a new teacher next fall, all full of their own hope and potential. And I hope to find a new home, new students and teachers to work with. As the saying goes, when one door closes...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Where I'm From

I need to remember this for the beginning of the year.

We began by brainstorming lists of what someone would see upon entering the door to our house, what a stranger would see lying on the floor, piled in the corner. For today’s writing exercise, we answered a series of questions, and each response became a different line in our poems. By combining elements from each list and beginning them with the statement, “I am from…,” we began to write about who we are and also about what we bring with us into our writing.

We based our writing on George Ella Lyon's poem "Where I'm From."

image from Paines Plough
"Where I’m From"
        by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
     from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
     and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
     with a cottonball lamb
     and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
     to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Now, you give it a try:

I am from (specific ordinary item)________________________________________________
from (product name)________________and (another product name)_______________
I am from the (home description)_________________________________________________
Adjective that describes the above home description_____________, ______________
It (tasted, sounded, looked , felt –choose one)__________________________________
I am from the (plant, flower, or natural item)_______________________________________,
the (plant, flower, or natural item)____________________________________________
(Description of natural item)__________________________________________________
I’m from the (family tradition)___________________and (family trait)__________________
from (name of family member)___________and (name of family member)___________
and (another name)______________________
I’m from the (description of family tendency)_______________________________________
and (Another family tendency)________________________________________________
From (something you were told as a child)__________________________________________
and (another thing you were told as a child)_____________________________________
I’m from (representation of religious or spiritual beliefs or lack of it)___________________,
(further description of spiritual beliefs)________________________________________
I’m from (place of birth and family ancestry)_______________________________________,
(Two food items that represent your ancestry)________________and ______________.
I am from (general statement with DETAILS about who you are or where you are from)______________

Students are encouraged to deviate from this form, to make it their own.  Here's my take on our "Where I'm From" poem:

I am from 16 count crayola boxes,
     more than 8
     but longing for 64.
I am from mint green double-wide,
     Formica counters, linoleum floors, wood-burning stove
     filling our home with campfire smoke each October through April.

I am from sweet-peas and dandelions,
     spilling onto the lawn from neighboring woods,
     boundaries between the wild areas unclear.
I am from the cherry pickers,
     telling stories while spitting pits,
     from guttural consonants,
     and European vagabonds
     with a hint of Ojibwa on
     the tip of my nose.

I am from "I shall not want,"
     from green pastures and still waters
     lead by grandmother's hand
     to church, but also to value
     fiercely its separate place.
I am from Tigers and Vernors.

We sit at the flaking red picnic table,
     crammed together on the bench,
     swapping stories, swatting flies.

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