Rethinking Learning

A small 100 page book arrived in the mail right before the start of this school year. I had no idea it would completely transform my classroom.

The book, sent to me as an ASCD member, is titled Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott. I had been interested in standards-based proficiency prior to receiving this book because of our district adopted Units of Study (UoS). The UoS are teacher created pre-tests, post tests, and performance tasks that assess student progress on the standards. Standards-based assessments led me to build standards-based lessons and standards-based reporting seemed like the next step.

After reading the book I committed to setting up a standards-based grade book. This brought on some challenges. First, I have to use a traditional grade book that is web-based. I tried setting it up the grading scale so that I could enter scores of 1, 2, 3, 4. It did not work the way I had hoped. The grade book translated the score into a letter grade and the grades were not reflecting what students were learning. Tweaking it caused confusion and students were questioning why their grades were changing when no new assignment had been entered.

My fix for this was to make a percentage conversion scale to communicate proficiency levels to students. Exemplary (4) is 100, Proficient (3) is 90, Progressing (2) is 70 and Beginning (1) is 60. Because there was too big of a gap between proficient and progressing, I added Close to Proficient (2.5) as 80.  This is working so far. Students are accustomed to percentages. I know that this fix means I am not implementing pure SBG, but trying to be standards-based in a traditional grades system has required me to make some compromises.

My initial goal for transitioning to a standards based grading focus was to give students, parents, and other educators information in the grade book that would actually communicate what students are learning in my class. Entering scores as “Argument Essay,” “Unit 1 Test,” or “Unit 1 Packet” portrays no actual information about what a student needs for enrichment or remediation. Also, I realized that grading with a rubric that had standards-based categories and then averaging points from each section to form one grade was destroying valuable information.

Students initially struggled with the SBG concept. I only report on assessments in the grade book. Students asked constantly how many points assignments were worth, how they could get extra credit, and how they could get an “A”. It has taken most of the year to get them to change their mindset. My new goal became transforming my class from a group of students to a group of learners. Students are points addicts that are not all that concerned about learning. Learners are motivated to add to their skills or knowledge for the purpose of self-improvement, exploration, or to satisfy curiosity.

My instruction had to change to reach this new goal. I had to have engaging activities that had a standards-based learning goal. These activities had to be authentic and had to have high impact on student learning and to develop understanding. These activities had to lead into the UoS post-tests and performance tasks. Students had to be motivated to complete assignments for learning, not for points.

Surprisingly, this was not that difficult. I discovered that my attitude toward student learning had more to do with motivating them than assigning arbitrary points to activities ever did. Once students realized that to get a grade in my class they had to perform, it changed the way they thought about learning. When students asked me “How do I get an A?” I replied by telling them they had to prove to me that they understood the standards. This put the pressure on the student to learn and demonstrate the learning. I now have students coming to me and asking “When can I reassess on theme?” This. is. incredible. Students know specifically what they know and don’t know. They know how to work on what they don’t know, and they come to me when they are ready to prove that they learned it. I don’t know any better example I could give to teachers and parents who think that accepting late work doesn’t teach life skills. My students have learned more life skills and “soft skills” from this journey than any grading policy that teachers typically implement in the name of preparing students for college and life.

One last example comes from what happened in my class yesterday. My seventh grade class has had the most difficulty with learning how to take responsibility for learning. We are giving the CAASPP test this week and next. I had to decide whether to continue with the test or give the performance task lesson, since we were on late start schedule. I decided that it should be the kids’ decision, since the outcome affects them, not me. As soon as I finished explaining the two options and paused, they immediately turned to each other and started discussing the pros and cons of each option. This was not what I expected. I thought I was just going to have them vote. I watched amazed for two minutes while they talked. It was obvious to me at that moment that they have become learners who know how to collaborate and believe that the best decision is met after consulting with a team.

On a side note, teachers who had given the performance task lesson earlier in the week told me how difficult it was to teach because students just didn’t care about it and there was no assignment attached to it to keep them accountable. I did not have that experience. The learners were interacting and involved with the lesson until the end of the period when the bell rang. There was no written assignment, there were no points, just an opportunity to learn.







Twitter Inspired Classroom Redesign

Ten days ago my district’s Twitter chat, #JUSDshares, was on the topic of classroom redesign. True to my message, I started moving furniture around the very next morning. Instead of Teaching in Beta, I was redecorating in Beta.

Thanks to teachers like Erin Klein, I found research and examples of student-centered classroom environments. When posts that mentioned her work showed up in my twitter feed, I was hooked on the idea of having my classroom resemble Starbucks. Who doesn’t want kids to want to be in their classroom? I started thinking about what I could do to have kids running to my room instead of taking and extra lap around the hallways.

Flexible seating is a big component of my redesign. Students are able to choose their seats and move to different areas during different activities. The stools in the back have become a new meeting place for pairs and small groups.

I am looking forward to buying bean bags for students. I have noticed them congregating on the floor during independent work time for consultation.I also open every class period with ten minutes of silent reading, and they are really looking forward to having a cozy place to settle in.

This is still in the early phases. I know I will continue to find new ways to utilize these spaces and discover new benefits of this redesign. I will also update with classroom management tips and tricks to help overcome any hesitation of changing the classroom environment.

Iteration and Reflection on Advance Organizer

This is my second post documenting an experience I had utilizing a new teaching strategy, and a continuation of my last post.

After using the Advance Organizer strategy to introduce key concepts in a new Unit of Study, I felt the lesson was incomplete. After seeing Dr. Nyberg model it, I was inspired to try again. The second time around, I created disciplinary groups for the students to choose. The groups were psychologists, sociocultural anthropologists, military strategists, trauma specialists, immigration specialists, and nuclear physicists. Students were given some discipline-specific vocabulary to use and links to articles and videos. Since students already met a universal truth and made connections, they started reading the research and discussing right away. Each group had two questions with embedded Depth and Complexity prompts and content imperatives. In the last ten minutes of class, each group reported what they learned and a new question they have developed that will lead to further research.

Insights: I was able to complete this activity in two 53 minute class periods. My students were excited about getting to choose their disciplinary groups and this buy-in brought a high degree of motivation. Some students were committed to using the discipline-specific vocabulary, and some shied away from it. Next time I might try talking chips to keep students accountable on an individual basis. This activity ended with students creating questions for further research. This has led into the research project well. Students have experienced guided research and have direction and purpose for independent research. A key disadvantage of using this strategy is the lengthy set up time. I teach 7th and 8th grade ELA. It took four hours to prepare the two different activities. Some ideas I have to overcome that barrier are to share with other teachers, or use a T.A. to find sources that I can vet. Teachers who like this assignment might want to form an educational co-op where we can create and share. Using student T.A.’s to find sources will certainly cut down on prep time as well.

What do you think of this strategy? Is it worth the time and effort? What ways can you think of to cut down on the prep time?


Front-loading Through Inquiry

This is my first post documenting an experience I had utilizing a new teaching strategy. I decided to organize it by explaining where I learned it, what it is, my application of the strategy, and insights after implementing it.

Name of strategy: Advance Organizer

Where I learned it: My district is offering a 5 session course for GATE Certification. The presenter is Dr. Julia Nyberg, who studied under Dr. Sandra Kaplan at USC. I initially thought I would be learning about how to use the Depth and Complexity icons that Dr. Kaplan developed. I am getting so much more. There is an emphasis on inquiry-based instruction in order to provide students with opportunities for exploration. I have been to three of the five sessions so far. Each session is about a month apart, so I have had time to experiment with what I have learned.

What it is: Advance Organizer is an inquiry based approach to introducing a concept. Dr. Nyberg modeled this strategy with the teachers in sessions one and two, and with students in session three. I took notes on the steps in the lesson.

Step 1: The teacher introduces a universal truth or generalization on the board (change is inevitable, systems are influenced by other systems, power is the ability to influence)

Step 2: The teacher gives a real-world example of the generalization and then allows students to discuss with a neighbor to come up with an example.

Step 3: The teacher calls on students to give examples and writes them on the board

Step 4: The teacher gives students sources to read in groups. Students have to make connections between the universal truth and what they read.

Step 5: The teacher calls on each group to report what they learned and adds the new ideas to the board.

Application: I have to admit, I did not feel comfortable with this strategy. I didn’t get excited to go back to my classroom to try it right away. After session two, I decided to try Advance Organizer in my classroom. Dr. Nyberg said that teachers are typically hesitant to try this strategy after learning it. That is why she decided to model it with students during the third session. It’s also why I decided to document this experience.

I used Advance Organizer to introduce our third unit of study, which is a research project. I teach 7th and 8th grade ELA, but for this post I’ll use my 8th grade Honors class as an example. My classroom just went 1:1 with Chromebooks a couple of months ago. I used Haiku to make this activity digital, but you could also do this activity using paper.

The generalization I introduced was “Power is the ability to influence”. I posted a Google doc to Haiku with this generalization. As students shared ideas to the class, I typed them in blue. The document was editable, so I eventually had a student continue typing for me. My students made connections to the principal, Steve Jobs, and even El Chapo.

Next, I assigned the reading. I selected articles on World War Two to lead in to the research project. I varied the Lexile levels and text complexity to provide entry points for my English Learners and struggling readers. The articles were posted to Haiku and they had to read and discuss in groups. I encouraged them to jigsaw the reading and share and discuss their findings. This step took about 10-15 minutes.

After reading and discussing in groups, I had each group share how they connected the generalization to the articles. I added their ideas to the Google doc in red this time.

Insights: I was able to complete this activity in one 53 minute class period. I thought it was useful for building background information to start a unit. I like the inquiry-based approach. There was high student engagement and motivation, even though they were working with complex texts. Students stayed on task, even during the discussion period. The lesson went well, however it felt incomplete, kind of like having only one bookend. This feeling is influencing my planning for this current unit of study. I have been wondering how I can use Advance Organizer to lead into another activity. After seeing Dr. Nyberg model the lesson with students in session three, I developed an idea. I’ll save it for my next post.



Teaching in Beta

I first heard about teaching in beta on Jennifer Gonzalez’ blog,  Cult of Pedagogy. I instantly connected to the idea. I get very excited when I learn a new teaching strategy and want to try it out right away. Last week I applied something the same day I learned it. That’s what teaching in beta is–trying it out before you have it perfected. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I realized that I could not just keep learning new things, I had to try them. Sometimes trying new strategies is exhilarating. Everything goes better than expected. Sometimes it is disheartening and it can be hard to overcome the critical self-talk that seeps in at the end of a challenging day. That’s why I’m writing this blog. I think my experiences with teaching in beta can be beneficial to other teachers. I will document my trial lessons with transparency, and hopefully we can share the highs and lows of teaching in beta.